WHY DON’T WE TEACH LOUIS ARMSTRONG?
by Todd Stoll
Why don’t we teach Louis Armstrong?
Nearly 20 years ago, after attending a lecture commemorating the centennial of the birth of Louis Armstrong, I asked a very well-regarded trumpet player and a renowned scholar, why don’t we teach Louis Armstrong? “Well..” he stammered, “it’s just too hard”. “No one knows how to teach it, there’s too many variables”, the scholar chimed in…my thought, “huh, that’s odd, we teach Bird, and Coltrane, and Thad Jones, aren’t those are pretty hard? I wonder what variables he may be referring to…?”
Fast-forward two decades, I had a group of six young jazz majors visit me in NYC. They were all eager, ambitious, talented, and about to graduate with jazz degrees from a large university. Two with graduate degrees, the others as undergrads, and I invited them to a rehearsal at Jazz at Lincoln Center. The music was Jelly Roll Morton. The young people were mesmerized at the music, the rehearsal; the easy way the musicians worked through challenges, personalized their parts, made corrections, all the hip, and familiar camaraderie that an experienced ensemble exudes in a setting of extreme concentration while maintaining a level of social relaxation.
After the rehearsal was over, and pictures were taken, I took the students to a nearby diner to discuss the proceedings. So, gentlemen, what did you think? The replies were overwhelmingly positive; from the energy of the group to the soloists, and tightly swinging ensemble. What was your favorite tune, I asked innocently…and then it happened; total and abject silence. These young “thundercats” didn’t know the title of one single tune. I backed up a bit and had them describe the selections, what they had heard, the textures, the breaks, ensembles, the general overall “sound” of each piece. At the end of the meal, as I walked back to the subway, I was dumbfounded at this HUGE gap in their understanding of a music they were MAJORING in, and then it hit me, not one of them had ever played a piece of this music; “why don’t we teach Louis Armstrong?”
Perhaps this article should be entitled, “why don’t we teach earlier styles of jazz” rather than the aforementioned Mr. Armstrong. I have found, from young musicians to tenured jazz faculty, that very few in our community really know earlier styles of this music. Now, I totally understand that artists and educators have “specialties”. In classical music, you have pianists who specialize in the works of Romantic composers, or artists that specialize in Baroque trumpet; however, those pianists definitely know Bach, and those trumpeters of course know Herbert L. Clarke! And, I am not referring to jazz history classes, I myself had the benefit of several great jazz history teachers, and all of them covered, to varying degrees, Jelly Roll, King Oliver, and Louis Armstrong. And trust me, play through about 5-6 of Pop’s solos from the Hot 5’s and Hot 7’s…it IS hard!
So, what gives? I have a few ideas, most of these have to do with the varying social constructs, cultural biases, pedagogy and beginnings of academic jazz education, etc. However, I would like to focus on the positive outcomes of the “why teach Louis Armstrong”, and of early jazz in general.
Let’s start with the music itself-I’m talking about the period from 1922 to roughly 1929-small ensemble, New Orleans style, polyphonic music. A good list with which to begin would be; Jelly Roll Morton-especially the Red Hot Peppers, Joe King Oliver and his Creole Jazz Band, the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, and Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Hot Sevens. There are many others, but this would be a good start. My references here are very general, and meant to be a starting point for more in-depth study.
(Authors note: I do not use the term “Dixieland” or “Dixie”. The terms racist history is offensive and there are better ways to reference this music- “trad jazz”, “early jazz”, “New Orleans jazz” all work.)
Nearly all of this music have very interesting forms; multiple strains (choruses) and many of the fundamentals of our music-riffs, breaks, solos, and shout choruses. They also have sophisticated textures and arrangements; one need only listen to Jelly Roll’s “Black Bottom Stomp” to understand this concept-and the relation much of this music has to the march forms of Sousa and others.
Improvisation in this music can be varied-simultaneous group improvisation, gives students an opportunity to not be quite so “on the spot” when beginning to learn the language of jazz. And, fooling around with a melody-aka “ragging” is what most of us do naturally, making a melodic statement personal. Basic harmony is fairly simple, while soloists can take their own ideas in more advanced directions, again, a student can focus on playing something simple-or based on the melody without feeling unhip. There are lots of blues in this repertoire. Instrumentally-one can substitute, double, or change the orchestrations with little adverse effect. So many of these tunes have been recorded by various groups, you can find an example that works for your instrumentation-and-even if you don’t, you can make it work!
Rhythmically this music is very flexible, alternating between 2 beat and 4 beat as well as the ubiquitous “Spanish tinge”-tango, habanera, and other rhythmic variations. The drums-when one listens to the original recordings- can be problematic-the technology of the day prevented the artists from playing in as authentic manner as they could in a club or at a dance. That said, there are many options, find a more contemporary recording of a specific piece and check out the flexible grooves and sounds of a Big Sid Catlett, Cozy Cole, Freddie Kohlman, or Herlin Riley.
Historically and culturally-well-this music is a goldmine. Think about the characters you can teach-Jelly Roll, Louis, all the members of the Hot Fives and Sevens-virtually a who’s who of new Orleans jazz, Lil Hardin-one of our music’s first female composers, not to mention the members of the NORK-a group of young, white musicians that not only produced one of the earliest integrated recordings (with Jelly Roll no less!) but whom were also a major influence on a young Bix Beiderbecke. Also, think about our students studying the history of our music; whether enrolled in an actual class or on their own-the value of actually playing the literature on which you are doing an academic exercise is incredibly valuable and exciting.
The foundations of modern jazz are to be found here! I am happy to help any of our JEN members locate resources for this music or charts and transcriptions, just email us at the JEN office and I’ll get back to you! This music is a living, breathing thing and still has contemporary relevance for our young people-just turn them loose and see what happens!
Todd Stoll has spent nearly thirty years as an educator, performer and leading advocate for jazz. He currently serves as Vice President of Education for Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City where he oversees programs that reach more than 200,000 people each year. His leadership at JALC has revived the institutions commitment to the underserved while embracing 21st century technology as a means for greater access to the music. Since his tenure began in 2011, the education department at JALC produced nearly 20,000 individual events both in its home at Fredrick P. Rose Hall, throughout the US, and abroad.