Other Places: Armstrong’s Tone

Using as his point of departure a review of Ricky Riccardi’s recent book about Louis Armstrong’s final decades, Steve Provizer concentrates on Armstrong’s debt to grand opera. In his Brilliant Corners blog, Provizer writes about the great man’s trumpet tone as perhaps his defining characteristic.

Hundreds of gifted and proficient trumpet players have come and gone through jazz history, but no one has ever had that tone. Not even close. Yes, others have had an identifiable sound, but their tone basically falls within the parameters of a given historical era. Give me the name of an early jazz player, a swing era player, a bop player, a free player, a neo-mainstream player and I can name you other trumpeters from that era who had a sound that was very similar.

Even though he always talked about his debt to his mentor Joe Oliver, Armstrong seems not to have been subject to that need for identification. His tone rides over jazz history as freely as his solos rode over orchestras and rhythm sections. I believe that Armstrong’s singular tone sent a unique message to the listener: “I am making myself completely vulnerable to you. While part of me is acting (and Armstrong’s acting talent was unassailable, if underutilized), part of me will die if you don’t love what I am giving to you.”

Armstrong’s genius also included melodic invention and revolutionary uses of rhythm that made jazz a soloist’s art and changed the music forever. Given those facts, one could argue that singling out tone as his central quality is out of balance in evaluating his overall contribution. Nonetheless, Provizer’s argument is persuasive enough that it deserves serious consideration. To read his essay, including the case that Armstrong’s latterday performances were “operatic in intention,” go here.

If you need to be reminded of that glorious tone—or of the origin of jazz singing—listen to this 1959 performance in Stuttgart, Germany.

The All-Stars with Pops were Trummy Young,trombone;
 Peanuts Hucko, clarinet;
 Billy Kyle, piano; Mort Herbert, bass; and Danny Barcelona, drums.

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  1. says

    There is also a great similarity in attitude, and stage appearance of Pops and many stars of the opera: Love for good food, the company of nice folks (Armstrong’s backstage room was always crowded), and …

    … the inevitable white handkerchief which for example Pavarotti used, too (he had his own of course!).

    Pops’ phrasing, and his tone, and authority in the 1950’s are indeed not to top, except by Maria Callas, Kathleen Ferrier & Mario Lanza who possessed the most unique operatic voices in the 1950’s.

    Come on, folks, the time machine problem has not been solved yet!

  2. says

    Agree with every word, Doug and Steve. No one–and there’s been some that have come close–has ever equalled Louis’s tone. Even in his last years, when the chops were hurting and his range was decreasing, the tone was still there; you could still tell it was him, even on the recordings that survive from 1971 (which I’ll be sharing in my next blog). I now work as Archivist at the Louis Armstrong House Museum and that’s where all of Louis’s private tapes and records are kept. I cannot tell you how many opera records he owned and listened to on his tapes. Naturally, a big chunk of Louis’s concept was rooted in opera but I also love the quotes he sometimes played from specific operas. He always played a lick on “Muskrat Ramble” in the 1950s that sounded so familiar, but I couldn’t place it. One of my readers finally nailed it as being from Sigmund Romberg’s “The Student Prince.” I went to check Louis’s collection and sure enough, he had “The Student Prince” on vinyl and on his tapes! Here’s a blog I did about that, where you can hear the lick:

    Anyway, thanks to you both and thanks for reminding your readers that Louis was great–and had that tone–from the beginning to the end.

    Yours in Pops,


    • says


      What do you think about my idea of Pops’ vulnerability via a vis the love of the audience? (I ask knowing that it’s seldom that anyone whose book I review agrees with anything I say).

      Also, Ricky, Brew and Doug, mind if I post these responses on my blog?

        • says

          Fine with me, too, Steve. And please, fire away with any other questions and comments you have. Regarding the vulnerability aspect, yes, I think Armstrong’s connection with audiences and the obvious effort he put into his performances could make him seem somewhat vulnerable. But I don’t think I would connect vulnerability with that tone. That tone is one of the most identifiable sounds in jazz and it’s what set Louis apart from other trumpet players. He himself claimed to be a “freak about tonation” and even when discussing King Oliver, he wasn’t afraid to knock Oliver’s tone. In fact, in a 1956 Voice of America interview, Louis complained that the 1923 Oliver recordings were hard to listen to because Oliver’s tone wasn’t strong and Oliver should have let Louis play more lead and more solos. Armstrong astutely brought up Erskine Hawkins’s hit records that featured solos by Dud Bascomb, but had Hawkins’s name on the record and brought Erskine the fame and money.

          So Louis knew what he had. He worked tirelessly on that tone and was very proud of it. He used to like to talk about a time he sat in with the Count Basie Orchestra in Miami in 1958. Basie called “Royal Garden Blues” and in addition to soloing, Louis played in the trumpet section. According to Louis, Basie couldn’t get over it, saying he had never heard a tone like that in a trumpet section before. Louis would tell the story proudly and then would say that all of the trumpet players in Basie’s band were fine musicians but they were too lazy to work on their playing to get a tone and sound like Louis had.

          I share these two stories because they illustrate something that not everyone associates with gentle, smiling Louis: the man had an ego. And that is not a bad thing. I’ve listened to thousands of hours of Armstrong’s interview and I can tell you that he knew 100% how special his sound was and he worked very hard to get it and wasn’t bashful to let anyone know about it. He was confident in his music, he was confident that audiences would love it and he was confident in his ability to put on the best show in jazz.

          So when you weigh in those feelings of ego and confidence, that’s where I think the vulnerability aspect loses a little steam. Audiences might view Louis as vulnerable (and surely, his playing could be completely vulnerable at times, in addition to the soaring operatic statements; look up an unissued “Lonesome Road” on my blog from 1956 to hear both sides in one performance), but that tone was shaped by hard work and determination and was carried out by a genius with absolute, supreme confidence in what he was doing.

          That’s just my feeling about the vulnerability angle but every other word your wrote about Louis’s tone and operatic tendencies is spot on. Thanks for writing it and thanks for mentioning the book (though man, a “work-man like effort”? I devoted every day of half my life to that thing! haha, just kidding, any publicity is good publicity….).

          Yours in Pops,