It’s hard to talk about the history of jazz without noting the original superstar of the music, Louis Armstrong.
In this article we’re going to be looking back at 10 of the greatest albums from the jazz trumpet legend, Satchmo himself.
Louis Armstrong might be best known to the general public as the grinning, gravelly-voiced singer of “What a Wonderful World” and “Hello Dolly”, two popular hits from the 1960s.
But as well as being a great entertainer, “Satchmo”, or “Pops”, as he was sometimes known, was first and foremost a jazz musician and virtuoso trumpeter, whose jaw-dropping improvisational, technical and rhythmic prowess made him the first major jazz soloist when he emerged in the 1920s.
His recording career lasted for over 45 years and produced an extensive and varied range of albums.
It includes fiery early dates with Fletcher Henderson and Armstrong’s own Hot Five and Hot Seven, early innovations in scat singing, classic collaborations with Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson, and those later popular vocal hits.
This article will take a look at ten great albums that tell the story of Armstrong’s incredible life and career.
Louis Armstrong with Fletcher Henderson
Armstrong was born in 1901 in New Orleans.
Raised in severe poverty by a single mother, he got into trouble with the law for firing a gun into the air, and was sentenced to time in a home for juvenile delinquents, before a Jewish family, the Karnoffskys, took him in and got him his first cornet.
There are a whole host of amazing stories from this time in his autobiography Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans.
“Every time I close my eyes blowing that trumpet of mine—I look right in the heart of good old New Orleans … It has given me something to live for.”
He gradually became more serious about music and began to work professionally, playing on riverboats and with marching bands.
As his reputation grew he was invited to move to Chicago to join Joe “King” Oliver’s band, with Oliver acting as something of a mentor figure to the younger man.
Armstrong’s recordings with King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band can be heard on the compilation Louis Armstrong and King Oliver.
Then, in 1924, Louis moved from Chicago to New York City for a stint in Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra, one of the most influential early big bands.
This album sees the trumpeter shining out front on a selection of solo features with the Henderson outfit.
The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings
After making his first recordings with Oliver and the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, Louis formed a band and began to make recordings under his name, following encouragement from his wife Lil Hardin, having now moved back to Chicago.
His Hot Five featured Lil Hardin on piano, Kid Ory on trombone, Johnny Dodds on clarinet and Johnny St. Cyr on the banjo.
With the band later expanded to become the Hot Seven, these groups made classic recordings including “Cornet Chop Suey”, “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue” (a composition which is credited to Hardin) and “Potato Head Blues”.
Armstrong’s trumpet solos on these numbers are absolutely breathtaking, combining incredible rhythmic punch with a fabulous sense of melody, and delivered with a huge, operatic sound.
“When it came to taking improvised solos, Armstrong was light years ahead of his contemporaries in every way: command of his instrument, harmonic knowledge, a swinging rhythmic feel, and simply put, the ability ‘to tell a story.” – Ricky Riccardi of the Louis Armstrong House Museum
There are also some vocal numbers here, and a moment of historical significance occurs on the track “Heebie Jeebies”.
According to legend, Louis dropped his lyric sheet during the recording so, without wanting to disrupt the take, he improvised a vocal part using nonsense syllables.
Thus, the technique known as scat singing was born.
Check out this recording on our round up of best jazz trumpet albums in history.
The Decca Singles 1935-1946
After Armstrong made his final recording with the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens groups in 1929, he moved to New York again, also spending time on the road in Europe.
He began to record more prominently as vocalist, often fronting a big band that was billed as Louis Armstrong and his Orchestra and reflecting the trend for large ensembles that could accompany dancers during the swing era.
The selection of material on this album demonstrates the beginning of his shift from razor sharp jazz soloist to gregarious, all-round entertainer, with repertoire including Latin-influenced numbers, novelty songs and new arrangements of classic ‘20s material like “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue”.
But, naturally, we also hear some beautiful trumpet playing and singing, with Louis revealing himself to be an innovative interpreter of songs, often straying far from the written melody.
Satchmo at Symphony Hall
By the mid-1940s the big band era was winding down as public tastes changed and many of the most famous swing outfits disbanded due to economic constraints.
Louis had managed to keep his orchestra on the road, but in 1947 he was asked to play some concerts with a small group, including one at Boston’s Symphony Hall that was recorded for posterity.
With the sextet billed as Louis Armstrong and His All Stars, the trumpeter is joined by Jack Teagarden and Big Sid Catlett, two of the greatest names in early jazz, on trombone and drums respectively.
The excellent Barney Bigard completes the frontline on clarinet, while two youngsters, Arvell Shaw and Dick Cary join Catlett in the rhythm section on this rip roaring live date.
The 1940s saw a revival of interest in traditional 1920s-style Dixieland Jazz, and this new format – which was a kind of throwback to the Hot Five era – went down a storm.
As a result, he soon disbanded his orchestra and made the All Stars his new touring band, although the exact personnel would vary over the years.
Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy
W.C. Handy was the self-proclaimed “father of the blues”, who composed a number of traditional jazz standards, with “St. Louis Blues” perhaps most famous amongst these.
In 1954 Louis made a studio album with Handy compositions as the central theme.
This edition of Louis Armstrong and His All Stars continued to feature Barney Bigard and Arvell Shaw from the Symphony Hall concert, while the band also now included Billy Kyle (piano), Trummy Young (trombone) plus Barrett Deems (drums), plus guest vocalist Velma Middleton.
With the bandleader’s trumpet on top form, this is regarded as one of his best albums of the 1950s. It has been reissued to include some rehearsal takes and an interview with producer George Avakian.
Ella and Louis
In 1956 Armstrong teamed up with Ella Fitzgerald, the “First Lady of Song” and one of the greatest jazz singers ever.
As vocalists the pair are almost opposites: Armstrong’s voice is deep and earthy, while Fitzgerald’s is clean and light, almost girlish.
But they complement each other perfectly, their sunny personalities shining brightly, and this is a gloriously accessible classic.
It’s the perfect jazz gateway drug for newcomers to the genre, but these are artists with enough timeless quality that it also bears repeated listens for seasoned jazz fans.
This was Armstrong’s first production for Norman Granz’s Verve Records.
Following the success of this first effort, he and Fitzgerald would soon record Ella and Louis Again and Porgy and Bess, a selection of songs from George Gershwin’s opera.
Louis Armstrong meets Oscar Peterson
Jazz piano star Oscar Peterson had led the rhythm section on Ella and Louis; now he was given his own headline collaboration with Louis on another Verve Records production a year later.
Again, this could be seen as a slight stylistic mismatch.
24 years younger than Armstrong, Oscar Peterson was an instrumental virtuoso whose Art Tatum-influenced style could be approximately be characterised as falling somewhere between swing and bebop (a development in jazz that Louis was famously dismissive of).
But both men share a love of the American Songbook, blues and joyous swing, and this is an extremely enjoyable programme of prime songs by the likes of Gershwin, Harold Arlen and Cole Porter.
The arrangements are generally short and slick, so neither player gets too much opportunity to stretch out but, as you’d expect, everyone sounds great and Louis’s trumpet solos are a masterclass in improvisation using the melody of the song.
Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington: Recording Together for the First Time
Pianist and bandleader Duke Ellington is arguably one of Armstrong’s biggest rivals when it comes to discussions regarding the most important and influential jazz musicians of all time, so producer Bob Thiele pulled off quite the coup when he managed to get the two men in a studio together in 1961.
Ellington joins Armstong’s All Stars on a repertoire that is mostly made up of brilliant songs by the pianist, such as “Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me”, “Mood Indigo ” and “Cotton Tail.
The result is a wonderfully swinging, blues-soaked masterclass in small group jazz.
These sessions produced two albums, which have since been repackaged as one record entitled The Great Summit.
An essential meeting between two of American music’s absolute giants.
Armstrong dabbled in acting at various points in his career.
He played himself opposite Billie Holiday in the 1947 film New Orleans, while his most memorable role came in 1956 when he appeared throughout High Society alongside Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly and Frank Society.
In 1964 he had a cameo in the musical film Hello Dolly, and it was the jaunty title song from this that gave him one of his biggest vocal hits, knocking the Beatles off the U.S. Billboard Top 100 and, at 62, making him the oldest man to ever top the charts.
This came as a surprise to his record label, who rushed out an album of the same name to capitalise on the single’s success.
The plan worked and it became his biggest selling LP, winning him a new legion of younger fans.
“I Still Get Jealous” also became a hit single, while the lovely ballad “A Kiss To Build a Dream On” is another highlight.
What a Wonderful World
While jazz fans obsess over Armstrong’s early trumpet work, members of the wider public are much more likely to associate him with a song from his later years.
“What a Wonderful World”, from the album of the same name, was released in 1967 and confirmed his transition from jazz trumpeter to pop singer, although in truth both of these elements had always been present in his work.
The single initially made little impact in the US, as producer Larry Newton wanted another bright swinger in the mould of “Hello Dolly”, so did not promote it properly.
However, the down-tempo pop ballad was a huge hit in the United Kingdom, as its lilting melody and uplifting lyrics gradually entered the greater cultural consciousness and it appeared in a number of films and television programmes.
Armstrong died of a heart attack in 1971, aged 69.
Thankfully, in addition to the plethora of brilliant recorded music that he left behind, he was also a prodigious and obsessive writer and diarist, who left behind two autobiographies that provide fascinating insights into his life.
The house in which he and his fourth wife Lucille lived for almost 28 years in Queens, New York, has also been turned into the Louis Armstrong House Museum.
Thanks for stopping by on this brief trip through the life & music of the great Louis Armstrong!