But without a doubt, the most fulfilling Armstrong-related part of 2015--and I think, my entire Armstrong-fueled career--came during a spell of 15 weeks from August 31 through December 14. In that time, I taught "Music of Louis Armstrong" to graduate students at the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College. To say this was a dream come true is an understatement but even I wasn't quite prepared for how much the course would move me, inspire me and even teach me.
First, how did I get there? The great jazz critic David Adler has been teaching Jazz History at Queens College for a number of years and has always been nice enough to recruit me when he arrived at Armstrong's point in the semester. My boss, Michael Cogswell, and I had floated the idea of an entire course devoted to Armstrong in the past, but never got any traction out of it. However, when David was asked to teach a "special topics" semester of Jazz History, he demurred, saying the only special topics course that should be taught should be one on Louis Armstrong and the only person to teach it would be me. I'm still touched beyond belief at David's generosity as without him going to bat for me, I wouldn't be typing this right now.
I always loved addressing the students during my guest lectures but also always came away with a slightly nauseous feeling in the pit of my stomach at how little they knew about Armstrong. These were graduate students, most of them getting degrees in Jazz Performance and every semester, I'd ask, "How many of you have really checked out Louis Armstrong?" and every semester, I'd get blank stares and somewhat embarrassed glances at the floor. How did this happen? I had my theories but was determined not to let my students go down that path. No, they would be Satch-urated to the fullest extent.
Having never taught this course before, I came up with a gameplan in August that seemed reasonable: there would be weekly reading and listening assignments; each student would have to visit the Armstrong House, the Armstrong Archives and attend a live "traditional" jazz show; they'd have to transcribe a Louis solo and a comparable solo by another artist on the same tune to analyze the differences in style; there'd be a final paper of some sort based upon research done at the Archives; and most of all, they'd have to show up, as my nearly three-hour weekly sermons would feature audio and video they wouldn't have access to anywhere else.
Again, it seemed reasonable to me but as the semester progressed, some of the students made it clear that he two hours of listening I had assigned was "too much" (in addition to listening, I asked for comments--opinions--on each track). I didn't back down, feeling that whatever they were going to get out of this course, they had to listen and comment on two hours of Louis each week AT MINIMUM. That wasn't going to change (what did they listen to? Stay tuned for the answers in a future blog post). They also read Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans, my own What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong's Later Years and selected writings by Max Jones, John Chilton, Terry Teachout, Gunther Schuller and Humphrey Lyttelton.
The "mutiny" was short-lived as the students slowly began to come around to Pops. I don't think they ever had anything against him. But in the early weeks, I played a lot of inferior-sounding recordings and threw everything at them: Sousa, B.A. Rolfe, John McCormack, Billy Murray, Enrico Caruso. the ODJB, Johnny Dunn, Paul Whiteman, Guy Lombardo, King Oliver, Fletcher Henderson, Lillie Delk Christian and more. The combination of the poor quality and the corny recordings, I think, was starting to drive them crazy.
Which was the point. Because then Louis started making his mark with the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens and everyone sat up. They applauded spontaneously at the end of "Beau Koo Jack." The transcription assignments began and people started talking about the difficulty of transcribing Armstrong's rhythm and pointing out when Armstrong played "bebop phrases" (which, I'd always point out, was reversed: the boppers were playing "Armstrong phrases").
From then on, it was really smooth sailing. Bria Skonberg came in to talk about being inspired by Armstrong in 2015 and the burgeoning "hot jazz" scene that's happening around the world. The class viewed Satchmo the Great and Armstrong's complete 1965 East Berlin concert. After my wife gave birth and I spent precious little time at the Archives, I scrapped plans for them to write a research paper, instead giving them a presentation as a group at the Archives, unleashing my favorite rare video clips and treasures from Louis's private tape collection and letting them all take photos holding one of Armstrong's trumpets.
With each passing week, their homework comments grew deeper and more powerful. Why hadn't they checked out Louis before? Why isn't Louis taught first instead of bebop? In my last class, I spent almost the entire three hours going over Louis's triumphant but ultimately sad final four years. It was pretty emotional; more than one student told me they cried. After wrapping it all up, we took this photo, which I'll always cherish. Not only is the entire class there but also some folks not even enrolled: Caroline Fernandez and Adriana Filstrup from the Armstrong House are there, as well as my pal David Smith and yes, on the left, David Adler sat in on the last class, too. Oh, and one student is on Caroline's iPhone, Skyping from Mexico because she didn't want to miss the final class.
By the time I walked out of the class for the last time, I had already assigned the students their final paper--but just barely! With about a week to go, I was starting to sweat. I canceled any research paper ideas and even made the idea of transcribing another artist's solo optional as extra credit. (They struggled enough with Louis's transcriptions, though that became a highlight of the semester for me. Only 1 of the 17 students played trumpet so hearing Louis's lines on piano, saxophone, guitar, upright bass, even vibes was a thrill!) I promised there'd be a final paper of some sort but it would be opinion-based. I just had no idea about what exactly to ask!
Finally, it dawned on me. On the first day of class, I shared with them Downbeat's "Roses for Satchmo," the beautiful set of tributes to Louis compiled by Dan Morgenstern, Harriet Choice and Jack Bradley for Louis's 70th birthday in 1970. For part one, I asked them to contribute a similar "rose for Satchmo," explaining what Louis now meant to them. I then asked which Louis recordings they would play for someone to get them interested in Louis (answers mostly fell into two camps: Hot Fives and Sevens or 1950s records such as Plays W.C. Handy and Ella and Louis). Then I had them read a favorite Humphrey Lyttelton piece from 1956 where Lyttelton defended Armstrong against the typical critical accusations being hurled at him (too much clowning, set solos, commercial records), making it into a larger issue of was Louis even a jazz musician at all. After the reading, they had a series of what I called "mystical" questions to answer, such as "How could studying Louis Armstrong's life and music in 2015 help today's musicians?" and "What lessons did Pops embody that might not be taught in today's Jazz education programs?"
I didn't put a word count on it or make any specific parameters. I figured they had each come into a class on Louis Armstrong admitting on the first day that they hadn't really checked him out. 15 weeks, two books and about 30 hours of listening later, what stood out? Did anything hit them the way it hit me 20 years ago?
Now, before I go any further, I did not set out to make their responses public. But damn it, reading them made me so emotional, I want other Armstrong fans around the world to have the opportunity to read their feelings, too. I have edited each response to only include "the meat" of their answers so some of the answers jump around or address a specific question not represented here. Still, their feelings come through. I should also mention that over half the class came from places around the world--Israel, Germany, Mexico, China, Korea, Russia, etc.--so their English skills were varied; I only did minimal cleaning up of grammar but the "worldwide" perspectives on Ambassador Satch are quite beautiful. So here they are, my favorite student responses after studying Louis Armstrong this past semester. Remember, only 1 or 2 of these students admitted to having checked out Armstrong before this course (besides the usual "West End Blues"/"Potato Head Blues" Jazz History "canon" stuff). I hope this is only the first of many such courses (on many different campuses around the world!). Enjoy!
I really can't imagine how the jazz would have looked like without having Louis Armstrong in it. I feel he taught us so much about sound, feeling, rhythm, swing, listening, responding, honesty, "New Orleans style" and more…And still teach. He definitely changed me as a musician and still does. Listening and watching him taught me a lot about different kind of "attitudes" towards music, such as playing with a group, playing a duo, and more combos. He is giving me so much inspiration, teaching me that "Less is more", especially having all of the different types of music which are happening today – it so easy to forget.
I can tell about myself, that Louis Armstrong taught me to be honest with myself regarding the type of music my heart is willing to follow, and no matter what "Style of music" I like and believe in, I should continue following it, play it, regardless the variety of Jazz styles which are happening today. It so easy to get loss. Listening to Louis play, sing, hearing his true, honest music, remind me I should always do it, no matter what kind of music I'm playing or have to play. For some ears, "Louis music" might be sounded "too easy", "too simple", well not to my ears. After listening to his music during this course (and I still have to listen), I reveled so many layers of Louis: his musically, technically, creativity and more…HE IS AN AMAZING MUSICIAN. With everything which happening in today's music world, particular jazz, many classes in school try to teach you how to handle all of those types of music, and bring this "Modernization" in to your music. I don't think it's wrong, not at all, but I'm sure and believe that first we must to know and learn the roots of the music, the roots of Jazz, such as the music of Louis Armstrong. Why? Because you can find everything inside of it: from rhythm, groove, style, culture, swing, roots of jazz and swing, joy, improvisation, development, technique, virtuosity, scatting, to emotions, joy, popularity, love and much more. Thank you dear Satchmo, the great Louis Armstrong. Thank you dear Ricky.
I think the biggest thing that I got out of this class is that it has given me a greater respect for Louis Armstrong. While I always knew that Louis was a great trumpet player, I didn’t realize that he was such an influence on both instrumental and vocal soloists in the jazz genre. He was one of the founders of jazz music, created his own style of playing trumpet to include full-toned high notes that most players could only dream of, and he had a style of improvising that others wanted to emulate. He was also known as the greatest jazz soloist, which is saying a lot!
Most importantly, Louis taught us that we should use our gifts to spread love throughout the world.
Ambassador Satch’s legacy will continue to live on, because his lessons in music and in life will continue to teach our future musical generations how to be great like he was.
Personally, this class has substantially changed the way I see my career going in the future and it is for the better! Louis Armstrong is a prime example of what artists should aspire to be and I look forward to seeing how this course affects many more in the best way!
Musicians and scholars do not pay attention to Louis Armstrong as much as they should because the curriculum itself does not stress his importance not only in Jazz but in American history. Today you look at the standard college jazz program and the classes range from Music theory to private lessons, but nothing on Louis Armstrong. There is no doubt that the majority of today’s jazz musicians have had formal musical training to an extent. If they are not exposed to Armstrong during these college years let alone childhood, there is almost no hope for them to be exposed to him later on. The result is an endless cycle of ignorance within music education.
Louis Armstrong can teach a great deal to today’s musicians about being a good artistic communicator. Not only was he a genius musician in all aspects of virtuosity, taste and showmanship, he knew how to deliver. He can play the most complex thing and make anyone understand what he was doing. By the studying the way he engages with his musicians on stage and people in the audience, one can learn how to get people to appreciate your art. Even by the way he looks at the audience, they already feel like they understand him and that is what makes him successful. In today’s jazz programs, there is not enough emphasis on being a good communicator to your audience. That is what makes a musician survive. Without anyone to listen, there is no music. Just by listening to the way Armstrong addresses his audience, one can learn how to engage them therefore like the individual as a person rather than just the music itself.
Louis Armstrong is one of the most important musicians that ever lived. His music really captures the joy of life. Louis taught the world to swing and he made jazz more individualistic with the sheer force of his talent. The man was excellent his entire life and his longevity is really something to be admired. It didn’t matter what material he was recording or what band he was playing with, he always transcended any limitations of circumstance. Louis’s music was a music of the people. It was inclusive and despite what you might have heard, it was brilliant throughout his entire career.
I could go on, but the main point is that very few people have taken the time to learn about Armstrong on their own, and as a result most people’s opinions on his and his career are the result of preconceived notions that have developed from other people’s impressions of him. The scholars romanticize the bebop rebellion and the listeners and musicians of today are heavily influenced by the narratives that the scholars present.
There are a lot of lessons that we can take from Louis Armstrong. His artistic integrity was second to none. Despite criticisms of his later more “commercial” periods, Louis never stopped trying to better himself as a musician and singer. His trumpet playing increased in quality over the years as he became more mature and continued to develop his technical skills. He also refused to let the critics dictate what he should do. He trusted and stayed true to himself throughout his career. That’s an important lesson to learn. No matter what you do, there will always be some who don’t like it. You have to soldier on, be true to yourself, and try to better yourself as a musician. Louis trusted in his own judgment and he trusted that he knew his audience.
Louis was a kind and generous man. He truly appreciated his friends, family and fans. He was sympathetic to people who had fallen on hard times. He was endlessly loyal to the people who had made a positive difference in his life. Until the day he died he gave credit to Joe Oliver and Joe Glaser, and his loyalty to them never wavered. He was inclusive, and that’s why he always sought a broad audience. His perceived “commercialism” wasn’t some cynical ploy to make money. In his heart of hearts, Louis just wanted to invite everyone in the world to the party. He wanted everyone to feel welcome.
Louis Armstrong represents so much of what is right with humanity. In a world of violence, ignorance, racism, and greed, it’s easy to become a cynic but the boy from New Orleans hints at the other side of the coin. He reminds us about love, generosity, bravery, talent and beauty. So sit back and listen to one of his records and remember that hope isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity. Thank you, Louis Armstrong. The world owes you one.
Louis Armstrong in the jazz world, or even in the world of music, is as great as Shakespeare is to literature, or as Picasso is to art. He was a master, and an ambassador of music. After diving into his life and music, it changed the way I perceive jazz and most American music. Then I started to realize how almost everything that I have played in my life, almost everything I've heard from other people comes down to a single point. That point is Louis Satchmo Armstrong. I began to hear the seeds he planted all over the music of his time and beyond. We owe it all to you Satchmo!
Armstrong is an inspiration for everyone. He managed to keep up with the new music sounds for over 50 years. His passion for music is just beyond amazing. Armstrong played concerts/recording sessions almost every day of his career. Louis understood the importance of music and how music can touch and bring together people from different cultures (East and West Germany for example). The audience was most important to Armstrong, he didn’t care about critics and other musicians, he just wanted to make people happy. Off stage, he lived a very humble life. He used his money to help family and friends rather than spend it all on materialistic objects. In short, Louis Armstrong changed the life of so many people by his music, his statements to the press, and his actions in life.
Unfortunately Jazz becomes more and more a high art. Many musicians see music as a competition. They want to play faster and put more notes into their improvisation as any of their peers. If you go to any Jam session in New York, you always get this impression. The same holds true for compositions. Nowadays musicians write difficult harmony with odd meters. Armstrong, with his concept of playing music for the audience and treating everyone the same and on the same level doesn’t offer what a lot of new scholars and music students are looking for.
In my opinion, more people should focus on Armstrong first in order to learn how to play as soulful as he did. All the notes in the world don’t do you any good if you can’t back it up by a strong rhythm and a beautiful melody.
Besides being an incredible musician, Armstrong was even a better human being. He shared everything he had with his family and friends. If more celebrities acted like him, we would live in a better world. Armstrong didn’t need to drive expensive cars, live in a big mansion, and wear the most expensive wardrobe. He lived a modest life and financially assisted anyone that needed help. Imagine more rich people would spend their money towards medical research, development in third world countries, and education. All these aspects would already be more advanced.
Before this class I didn’t know so much about Louis. Now I can say that he is a great human being and just unbelievable musician. I feel like he’s the guy who invented jazz music and we should be thankful for that. I respect Louis because he devoted his life to music and became an example to follow. He is a king of Jazz for me.
Has he changed me as a musician? Yes, he did! I don’t know if it reflects on my technique or musicality but in a way he changed my mind a bit. I started to think differently in some situations, which is really cool experience. It means that I’m growing as a human being.
As it written there Louis broke up all (nowadays) rules of jazz playing. He was playing all the same stuff night after night etc. Also I think because of his latest career after 1930 when he started to entertain more onstage and press named him “Clown” or “Commercial guy” or something else. And after all that people started to think the same way about Louis and what he’s doing. You definitely need to study his life before making some statements. So I don’t think it’s right that they don’t pay attention to this genius.
First lesson is play for your audience. You should love your audience and make them feel good because as far as I know we’re playing music for somebody else, not only for yourself or other musicians. Second lesson is love what you’re doing. That’s important thing. If you don’t love your music or what you’re doing then nobody is going to love it. Then it’s for nothing. Third lesson is -don’t pay attention to what other people think about you. Just do what do and that’s it. Don’t listen to critics.
That’s it pretty much.
To me, Louis is a kind of like a spiritual mentor. He’s an inspiration, a sound and a mentality to model. Louis speaks his mind, he tells it like it is, and he’s got no time for bs. He plays with soul and passion, and he sings in a way that connects with everyone on a personal level. But possibly the best part about it is that to Louis, he just wanted to play his horn, pure and simple. The idea of maintaining simplicity in both playing and mentality is one of my big takeaways from “my time” with Louis. That, and a new found desire for liberal application of shakes and lip trills in my playing. I’ll miss this.
Studying Louis in today’s world is refreshing. Not only is it a great reminder that “there’s nothing we can play on the horn that Louis hasn’t played”, it’s helped me personally to keep my priorities in check and life stress in perspective. To Louis, the biggest thing was playing his horn and his music, that’s it. Simple, easy. Today's musicians could learn a lot from this mentality. Forego unnecessary stress and perpetual distractions, and just play.
What does Louis Armstrong mean to me? This is an easy question to think about but very hard to answer. Louis Armstrong means a lot of things to me. First of all, he is the father of jazz and overall the father of music; he influenced the music we hear today greatly and he made jazz what it is today as well. Second, Louis is the best example of what an artist should be. Louis devoted his life to music, made a living as a musician, had a family, loved his fans, made money, traveled the world, became an ambassador, made the top 1 in the world, played with as many musicians he could have played, and yet, the most important thing about his career is that he did all this only because he wanted to and he enjoyed it with all his heart. In few words, Louis means honesty, soul and true music.
Nowadays I tell my friends and people I know about what I have been doing with the Louis Armstrong course. I tell them, I did not imagine the importance of this artist for the history of music and specially the history of Jazz. I first recommend them to listen to his early recordings, just to understand where he was coming from. Also, I would recommend to pay attention to the later years on which we learned there is so much happening in terms of music, politics, arts etc.
First of all, somebody who is studying Jazz at an Institution and is not exposed to the roots of Jazz, cannot possibly know the importance of it. Even though it is the musician’s responsibility to research and know about this, nowadays, Young musicians study at Universities that do not talk about anything before bebop. This is a big mistake because if we understand the development of the art form called Jazz, we know that the blues and what happened after that, is important and necessary to understand, analyze and play. Today’s musicians are either too concentrated to bebop (which is very challenging) or modern jazz and are not related to the music before that on which Louis Armstrong is one of the main characters of it. I also think that the influence of the critics about Louis and the fact that people categorize him as a commercial musician, make jazz musicians to be away from it due to the fact that no jazz musician wants to be considered pop or commercial. This is not only a huge mistake but a tragedy because they are neglecting the opportunity to learn and understand what Louis did and how much music he made and left behind in our history.
Louis Armstrong did everything a musician could have done in a long period of time and in a successful way so studying his career, a musician can understand the music business of an artist and the art form of it. In terms of technicalities, Louis did so much for this music that we could learn rom him until we die. His rhythm, his phrasing, his sound and swing are component we should embrace and learn; he made the most complicated things sound easy and that ain’t easy at all. Finally, the main fact that I think, every musician and artist should learn from Louis Armstrong is that everything he did came from the honest and pure heart he had. He was devoted to music and his audience appreciates it. If there is something I learned form him (out of many things) is that he was not playing no bullshit whatsoever; he was true, he was real, he let music happen and I believed him.
Louis passes the true spirit of this music to me. The reason I describe with the word “true” is because after living in New York for over year, I could strongly feel the intense and competitive vibe when some musicians play this music, like the sessions at Smalls and Zinc bar. People want to show out what they have, to prove they can play, but most of the time that’s just a bunch of notes without love. It was Louis leads me back to the true spirit of this music: with love, joyful and story-telling. He makes me reconsider the meaning of improvise. He teaches me to be brave to play less, leave more space, and shape the melody.
Nowadays the jazz program in many other conservatories all intend to teach students intricate theories and harmony stuff (no offense, this is also an important part). But neglect the importance of feel this music. This is what Pops taught us: enjoy this music and keep smiling.
I barely saw musicians smiling while play in sessions nowadays. Because they are too busy to play a bunch of notes, show out themselves and the egos. This is another thing Pops taught me, no egos.
If you wanna play swing, play like Louis Armstrong! No more than him!
First of all, today’s jazz education does not have good musicianship class. Louis always thought about what audiences want; however, school does teach only skills and never teaches good musicianship like Louis did.
Second, Jazz program does not include New Orleans style’s ensemble class. This class teaches only theme melodies and students learn chord progression and improvise using by their ears like Louis did. Also, this course should be required class before students start ensemble classes.
Finally, students must analyze at least 20 patterns of Louis’s rhythms. After that they have to write and do presentation! Everybody can play Jazz!!!!
Louis Armstrong has become a symbol of musical integrity in an otherwise commercially run and disheartening music industry. His authentic musical offerings, which he cultivated over time lasted over 50 years- a feat that cannot be underestimated for its enduring effect on popular music in America and around the world. I think the fact that he was able to be productive for so long despite the criticisms and judgmental B.S. which surrounded him is a true testament to his unending commitment to his horn and to conveying the finest music possible to the public without fail.
People can learn all types of valuable lessons from Armstrong’s life and commitment to his craft. The way he played and the seriousness he had when dealing with his Trumpet is almost unfathomable. That type of focus is something that I think lacks in today’s world. His focus and morals are something everyone can learn from. To study his life and tunes is also a great peek into the whole evolution of jazz as a style of playing. His talent was as unique as anything the world has ever and will ever see.
Louis Armstrong is the root of jazz. The real jazz started and preached by Louis. Jazz music or American music industry involved person you must know the name of Louis Armstrong and his music which is the bible of black soul. He was the real ambassador of American music, jazz, love, courage, faith and forgiveness. He put all the materials into his music. He had lived with people and for people. He made us laughing, crying and feeling the glorious by his own voice and activities. He was also a mediator between white and black by his music. His music changed my view of music and attitude definitely!
Louis had desire to play and make music for people until he passed away. He put philosophy inside of his music. The love, forgiveness, piece, soul and glory. He was a mediator connecting people. In musically Louis focused the sound, melody and rhythm. His solo was simple comparing to bop players to contemporaries. Some of my teachers also emphasis having the sense of melody and groove like Louis but they did not play like that. Louis showed me how he approached music and how to sound the own voice. Also his attitude has to be respected and taught to the student. He never ignored playing different style or genre of music but he swung for every music and he made people swinging!
These kind of things are not being taught in today’s jazz education program I think. Of course some of them do this I guess but not every one. Thank you so much Ricky and Pops!
I sometimes feel the Jazz nowadays tend to be too "intellectual" and lack meaning into it. Louis' music was deeply rooted in where he came from and how he grew up, and always from his heart. That was the most meaningful lesson for today's musicians.
Once again I would like to say what a pleasure it was to take this course, not only have I learn more about Louis Armstrong and jazz music in general, I feel like I have improved as a person and as a musician.
When I think of Louis Armstrong, I think of the word pioneer. He was a pioneer for jazz, having single-handedly taught the entire world how to swing. He was a pioneer for race relations being one of the first musicians to play for integrated audiences. He was a pioneer for showmanship, showing a score of musicians how to entertain an audience. As far as my own musicianship, he has showed me how to put the melody first in the music. The melody would be what draws you and the audience together.
The thing that I took away from in this course was that Louis Armstrong was of the people. He didn't just sit in a practice room and work out his ideas and present them in front of people without actually talking to them. I think most certainly that many musicians who are school educated don't get out enough in public and learn how to play for people and talk to them about what they like as an audience. In other words, you have to know what people like in order to entertain them and I think Louis Armstrong did that very well. The other key thing about Louis was that he was about the melody in his music. Many times musicians are just constantly trying to evolve their ideas and they get so far away from the melody that the audience is lost. Honestly those are the two biggest takeaways that I have had in this music.
I was really happy that I could learn about Louis Armstrong such as his life, music, think and I’ve been to his house during this class.
I would like to say, he was really pioneer in jazz music. I also had prejudice that old jazz standard music is boring and sounds, solo skills also old. Actually I still have little beat boring about early 1920s big band music. But the more I heard Louis Armstrong's music, the more interested I become. His simple melody solo, his trumpet is very soft also strong. I really like his singing style. Everything is good.
Louis Armstrong was a true genius of his time. Not only did he help invent and popularize jazz music but he became a household icon to most. Not only with his killer smile and enthusiasm, but with his amazing talent and humble personality. Without Louis music would not be the same today.
Studying Louis in 2015 could really help in my opinion. If you would get a good grasp on how Louis played you would have a good base of swing, melodic improvisation, and style. Most people try to jump in over their head in jazz and don't understand some of its complexity and checking out Louis could help fix that. I also think if he was to give a lesson or tip to today’s young musicians it would be to always have fun with your music and just because a few people don't like what you play doesn’t mean everyone else thinks that.
Thanks again for the awesome semester!!