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.