Louis Armstrong: Music, Trumpet & Vocal Style

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  • 0:05 Louis Armstrong - Early Years
  • 0:58 Trumpet and Vocal Styles
  • 3:26 Musical Impact and Legacy
  • 5:51 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Louis Armstrong is arguably one of the most famous jazz musicians in American history. Come check out his musical style and legacy, then test yourself with a brief quiz.

Louis Armstrong - Early Years

For those in the world of jazz, Louis Armstrong is a superstar. I mean, I'm getting star-struck just writing about him. He's that good. Chances are, even if you're not a major jazz enthusiast, you've probably heard of Louis Armstrong, the pioneering 20th century jazz singer and trumpeter whose fame expanded nearly 50 years from his rise to prominence in the roaring 20s until his death in 1971.

Born to poverty in New Orleans, Armstrong first learned to play on the streets before being formally trained in a juvenile delinquency home and eventually working his way into the top brass bands and riverboats of the city. Often called Satchmo for his satchel-like mouth, he went on to become one of the most famous musicians in American history and an artist that redefined the very idea of jazz. Yeah, he was that good.

Trumpet and Vocal Styles

Although a talented performer in many regards, Louis Armstrong was first and foremost a master of the trumpet and cornet. This is what first earned him fame in the early stages of his career in the 1920s. Louis was described as being an amazingly talented horn player, with an incredible range that he could access with ease, thanks to his constant practicing and self-critiques. Before Louis Armstrong hit the scene, the trumpet and cornet were certainly aspects of jazz music, but they were played in a very conventional way, and people expected the horn to create a specific sort of sound. Then came Louis. Suddenly people heard trumpets growling and purring, screaming and cooing and hitting notes at every end of the scale. As Louis practiced and performed, he became even more confident in his abilities and by the 1930s, he could coax the trumpet into doing basically anything he wanted.

Now, Louis rose to fame as a horn player and throughout the rest of his life was praised for his virtuosic skills. But that's not the extent of his fame. As he developed his music, his vocal performance became an important part of his style, and he became a noted singer. To this day, Louis's gruff, throaty voice is one of the most memorable aspects of his music. Everybody take a second to do your best Louis impersonation - you know you want to!

Anyway, Louis Armstrong was famous for this voice, but also for what he did with it. Just as he played with the range of the trumpet, he stretched the range of his own voice, sometimes dropping or changing pitches out of key to experiment with the possibilities of jazz. And as a jazz singer he was also well versed in scat, improvisational singing with syllables instead of actual words. He became talented enough at this that he would sometimes break into scat during recordings because he felt like it (other times because he simply forgot the words he was supposed to be singing). When you're one of the jazz greats, you're allowed to do things like that.

Musical Impact and Legacy

Louis Armstrong challenged the conventions of the jazz trumpet and of jazz vocal performance. This is what Louis did. He challenged things. In fact, he challenged the very style of jazz music itself, way back in the 1920s and 30s. You see, for a while, jazz was performed by ensembles in which all members would improvise at the same time. This is still done today, but back then it was really the only way that people played jazz.

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