I celebrated Louis Armstrong’s birthday on July 4th as I do every year, even though that is not when he was born. Why? Because that’s when he celebrated it and that’s good enough for me. Louis was an American of unmatched imagination and spirit. I treasure his work for so many reasons: international ambassador, consummate entertainer and the keeper of the flame of goodwill for all mankind, I honor all of these accomplishments. But there is something else: I am a Trumpet player and Louis set the bar high.
Louis defined so much of what we know to be American jazz because he was the product of a culture and time that came together in New Orleans in exactly the right proportions to distill an early proof of the American experience into a uniquely American sound. Like our country, Louis’ jazz is a gumbo of tradition from Europe, hymns from the Southern church, the rhythms of field hands and railroad men, brass bands and folk music. He famously said: “All music is folk music; I ain’t never heard no horse sing a song”. Quintessential Louis! But when we really dig, past his humor and humanity, down to the essence of the musician and get an up close look, Louis Armstrong the trumpeter is something to behold.
He found his voice at an early age; I don’t mean the beautiful, gravelly smooth croon we all know and love, I mean: his voice on his instrument, the Cornet and then Trumpet.
The Cornet was the choice of early jazz for a simple reason: it was the standard in concert and brass bands of the day and was readily available. To make a sound on a brass instrument, you vibrate your lips at a specific pitch; the resulting note resonates with the same resonant frequency on the horn and is then amplified by the air set in motion and the vibration of the instrument itself. The resonant frequencies change with each valve combination and the Cornet is an especially tight little horn, responding quickly to valve changes, articulations, pitch and expression. It was the choice of early 20th century musical virtuosi like Bohumir Kryl and Herbert L. Clarke, rock stars of the day, (groupies and all), but in the hands of Louis Armstrong, it became the means to a whole new invention.
Instrumental technique is like bandwidth – the more you have the more content can flow through and his technique was brilliant, unparalleled, unprecedented, allowing range and facility thought to be impossible. New notes in the upper register appeared magically and his physical endurance was endless – he could play seemingly forever. When he switched from the Cornet to the brighter sounding Trumpet he left behind none of his technical fireworks. To the contrary, his virtuosic gems suddenly found their place in a shimmering new setting. But no matter what horn he played, he always sounded like Louis. His technique was simply a means to an end.
In music school we are all taught to imitate – our teachers, idols and those who came before us. This serves a purpose because we can learn quickly by emulating greatness but sometimes I wonder if we spend too much time trying to be the players we are not and not enough time finding our own voices to become the musicians we are. Life is like that too. Only you can be you.
Louis was Louis not because he was trying to be all of those things – he simply was being Louis and the musical expression of that person became the stuff of legend. Each of us has a unique sound on the horn, in print or on a stage. That is our most important gift and the one thing that is uniquely ours. That is the genius of Louis Armstrong. He was simply and honestly, Louis Armstrong.
So find your voice. If it takes you places on the horn you’ve never been, the technique will follow to make it happen. The same is true in life – listen to your instincts and the means to get there will follow; fear not. Find your voice.
Be your own American Original.
©2015 Minerd Music Works LLC