"Satchmo" and the Spirit of Jazz

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He was born poor, died rich, and never hurt anyone along the way.
— Duke Ellington

Louis Armstrong (August 4, 1901 – July 6, 1971), nicknamed Satchmo or Pops, was an American jazz trumpeter, singer, and an influential figure in jazz music.

Coming to prominence in the 1920s as an "inventive" trumpet and cornet player, Armstrong was a foundational influence in jazz, shifting the focus of the music from collective improvisation to solo performance. With his instantly recognizable gravelly voice, Armstrong was also an influential singer, demonstrating great dexterity as an improviser, bending the lyrics and melody of a song for expressive purposes. He was also skilled at scat singing (vocalizing using sounds and syllables instead of actual lyrics).

What is Jazz?

It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.
— Irving Mills & Duke Ellington

Jazz was born in the United States and is really the best music to represent America because:

It is partly planned and partly spontaneous; that is, as the musicians perform a pre-determined tune, they have the opportunity to create their own interpretations within that tune in response to the other musicians' performances and whatever else may occur "in the moment" -- this is called improvisation and is the defining element of jazz.
In everything from regular conversation, to basketball, to everyday life, Americans are constantly improvising.

Improvisation is the key element of jazz.

There is no better example of democracy than a jazz ensemble: individual freedom but with responsibility to the group. In other words, individual musicians have the freedom to express themselves on their instrument as long as they maintain their responsibility to the other musicians by adhering to the overall framework and structure of the tune. 

Where Did It Come From?

Jazz was born in New Orleans about 100 years ago (early 20th century), but its roots can be found in the musical traditions of both Africa and Europe. In fact, some people say that jazz is a union of African and European music.

  1. From African music, jazz got its:
    1. rhythm and "feel"
    2. "blues" quality
    3. tradition of playing an instrument in your own expressive way, making it an "extension" of your own human voice
  2. From European music, jazz got its:
    1. harmony -- that is, the chords that accompany the tunes (the chords played on the piano); jazz harmony is similar to classical music's harmony
    2. instruments -- most of the instruments used in jazz originated in Europe (saxophone, trumpet, piano, etc.)
  3. Musical improvisation came from both traditions.