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22 April 2010 Louis "Satchmo" Armstong and "What a wonderful World"

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22 April 2010

Louis “Satchmo” Armstong and “What A Wonderful World”

Louis Armstrong, also known as “Satchmo” and “Satch”, was arguably the greatest entertainer and trumpet player during the Harlem renaissance era. He was one of the most successful and influential Jazz performers in its history. To write this paper, I went through two books: “Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life” written by Lawrence Bergreen and “Louis Armstrong” by Sanford Brown. Both are great biographies that write in strong, descriptive detail the life of Armstrong, from his upbringing in poverty to his emergence as an American icon in jazz and music itself. I would certainly suggest both biographies for anyone that is interested in going beyond the music and finding a connection with Armstrong on a more personal level. The following paper will detail the life of Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong followed by a critique of one of the most popular songs of all-time, “What A Wonderful World.”
The Life of Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong

Luis “Satchmo” Armstrong was born on August 4, 1901, in the Storyville District of New Orleans which was most run down and poorest section of city. Armstrong was raised by his grandparents upon his parents’ separation. At the tender age of 11, he made what is known as the biggest mistake that turned into the best thing that ever happened to him. The ‘mistake’ occurred at a New Year’s celebration in downtown New Orleans where Armstrong fired a pistol into the air in celebration of the new year. He was arrested and was sent to Colored Waifs’ Home for Boys, a reform school. It was at the reform school where he was introduced to Peter Davis, the brass band leader. Davis brought Armstrong under his wing and taught him how to study music, from vocals to percussion and lastly the cornet (Brown 17) where soon after that, Armstrong became the leader of the band.

After a couple of years, Armstrong was released from Colored Waifs’ Home on June 16, 1914. Once released, Armstrong did manual labor which included selling papers, unloading boats, and hauling coal as he tried to establish himself as a legitimate musician. He attended many clubs like the Come Clean Dance Hall, Funky Butt Hall, and Mahogany Hall, to listen to bands. During this time, he met cornetist Joe “King” Oliver” of the Kid Ory band. Joe Oliver became a central figure in Armstrong’s life as he became his mentor, teacher, and father-figure. He also helped find Armstrong stand-in slots at orchestras, giving him an opportunity to display his musical talents.

Upon Oliver leaving New Orleans for Chicago in 1919, Armstrong took his place in Kid Ory’s band upon Oliver’s recommendation. The following years led to Armstrong playing in the Fate Marable band in the spring of 1919 and playing with the band until the fall of 1921. In 1922, he moved to Chicago after receiving a telegram from Oliver, asking him to join his Creole Jazz band. The band made its first recording with Armstrong in the spring of 1923. Soon thereafter, he married Lillian Harden, the pianist of the band. With the pursuance of his wife, Armstrong left the band in 1924 and joined Fletcher Henderson’s band in New York City. While playing in New York, Armstrong’s name emerged as one of the most popular musicians. He became an innovator in terms of his use of syncopation such as in the song “Shanghai Shuffle.” He also collaborated with many blues singers that included Clara Smith and Trixie Smith, and most notably Bessie Smith where in which their collaboration of “St. Louis Blues” became very popular and successful.

In 1925, Armstrong moved back to Chicago and joined his wife’s band, the Dreamland Syncopators. Upon moving back to Chicago, he also switched his instrument from the cornet to the trumpet. During the same year, he formed and recorded his first Hot Five records which are now considered to be jazz classics and the ‘peak’ of Armstrong’s creativeness. The Hot Five band included the likes of Johnny Dodds on clarinet, Kid Ory on trombone, John St. Cyr on banjo, Lillian Harden Armstrong on piano, and Louis Armstrong on cornet. The most famous recordings by the band included “Mandy Make Up Your Mind,” “Muskrat Ramble,” and “Money Blues.” Masterpieces such as “Cornet Chop Suey”, “Potato Head Blues”, and “West End Blues”, recorded later, brought about the transition in jazz into a soloist’s art form.

By 1930, Armstrong moved to Los Angeles where he created the band, Louis Armstrong and his Sebastian New Cotton Club orchestra. However, only a year later in 1931, he went back to Chicago to put together a band for the purposes of touring. Throughout the early and mid-1930s, he toured many countries, including many European countries, playing in England, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Holland. Once he returned from touring in 1935, Armstrong and his manager, Joe Glaser, assembled the band, Louis Armstrong and his Orchestra which quickly became one of the most popular bands of the Swing era. By 1947, big bands were on the tail end of their popularity. Armstrong was presented with a small band by promoted Ernie Anderson at the town hall in New York which he agreed to lead. The ‘All Stars’ that Armstrong led included Jack Teagarden on trombone, Earl Hines on piano, Arvell Shaw on bass, and Velma Middletown on vocals with Armstrong. Recordings made with the All Stars, such as ‘Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy’, ‘Satch Plays Fats’, ‘Louis Armstrong And The All Stars At Symphony Hall’, and ‘Louis Armstrong And the All Stars at the Crescendo’, are all jazz classics.

After leading his band of All Stars to emerging popularity and jazz classics, Armstrong became America’s musical ambassador in 1955. As musical ambassador, he traveled across the world representing the United States and came out with an album titled Ambassador Satch. His popularity as this time was at an all-time high as he was respected and welcomed to perform anywhere in the world. “Hello Dolly”, Armstrong’s most well known song was recorded in 1964 and it reached number one on the Billboard charts on April 8th. On July 6th, 1971, Louis Armstrong died of a lung infection and heart complications. His dying wish was that his trumpet would be buried with him and his wish was granted.
Critique of “What A Wonderful World”

The song that will be critiqued, “What A Wonderful World,” was written by Bob Thiele and George David Weiss. It was released as a single in 1968. The purpose of the song was to bring out the racial and political issues that were occurring daily in the United States at the time. Such events that were occurring during this period of time in the United States included the Vietnam War and the assassinations of Reverend Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy. The song intended to bring a cure to such black-eyed problems which included racial inequality and the division of the United States as a whole because of the war in Vietnam. The song and its lyrics also served a purpose to bring optimism and hope to its audience regarding the future. This is most notable when he alludes to:

“I hear babies crying, I watch them grow;

They'll learn much more than I'll never know…”

A total of two minutes and sixteen seconds in length, “What A Wonderful World” was written in 4/4 time at an estimated seventy-four beats per minute meaning that it was a rather slow song. The single purposely has a slow tempo in order to put emphasis on the notion that in order for people to understand and recognize all the ‘wonderful’ things that surround us, one must slow down the pace of their lives and take themselves out of their daily routine and notice all the beauty and good around them. In the song, Louis Armstrong does no play his trumpet but is being backed by a 16-piece string orchestra. The orchestra is also accompanied, at times, by a small flute and piccolo solos along with a background of french horns. Armstrong sings the lyrics of the song in a very grave and raspy voice which helped make this song one of his most remembered recordings.

The main purpose of the lyrics within “What A Wonderful World” was to communicate the message of how wonderful the world can be if it was free of violence, racial inequality, and divide. The purpose of the song was to touch every listener’s soul. Armstrong’s singing, where, as noted above, he sings the lyrics in a very grave and raspy voice, brings believability to the lyrics that many can latch onto during times of conflict and anxiety. The song expresses all the wonderful things in the world, hence the title of the song, but also reminds us how hard it is to achieve to most glorious things in life. Armstrong wanted his audience to leave with not only hope but with a purpose that if more of us loved one another, we can solve many social issues leading to a much better world. This is most evident when he sings:

“I see trees of green, red roses too;

I see them bloom for me and for you;

And I think to myself what a wonderful world ...”

Jazz enthusiasts bring to light the amount of love that Armstrong put into this song. Some have said that if this was the only song that Armstrong can listen to or sing, he would be more than happy to do either for the rest of his life. This song was also a great example of who Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong was in terms of vocals style: at times throughout the song he’s right on the beat, at other times, he is just before the beat, and sometimes he is just behind the beat.

To many, Louis Armstrong revolutionized both the instrumental and the vocal style of jazz. He was the first to improvise which created a path for the future of jazz in an ‘imaginative, emotionally-charged improvisation.’ His influence and prolonged career in jazz music continues to have an impact in the jazz world today. He had a very unique and distinguished vocal style along with a distinctive style of playing the trumpet. Armstrong turned his voice into an instrument that had the ability to improvise as any other instrument in the orchestra. Also, because of Armstrong, the trumpet overtook the clarinet as the main instrument of jazz. His influence was beyond only jazz as he is regarded as a central figure and influence in popular music in general. To some, he was the most important American musician of the 20th century and to others, he was the greatest musician that has ever lived.

Work Cited

Bergreen, Lawrence. “Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life.” New York: Broadway, 1997

Brown, Sandford. “Louis Armstrong.” New York: Watts, 1993

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