The Unbelievable Power Of Pops

It’s hard to argue with genius, not just because of its power but often because it has been granted that status postmortem. It’s harder to even question a (by all accounts) kindhearted and often humble genius like Louis Armstrong. Yet Armstrong’s description of his first experience in a recording studio is either too modest, or this blogger is that obtuse:

The Gennett [record company] people found that they had to put me twenty feet back of the other players [in King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band] because my high-register notes were so strong they would not record clearly any closer.

The story of Armstrong’s cornet literally placing him far apart from his contemporaries from the very start of his recorded legacy is easy to believe and still awe-inspiring close to a century later. It symbolizes just another part of his vast toolkit: resplendent tone, melodic flow, technical facility, rhythmic inventiveness, improvisatory imagination, an array of vocal inflections and a sound that could blow off a roof to boot.

Don’t forget gifted second cornetist. Records and ear-witnesses demonstrate Armstrong’s ability to fashion just the right harmony, counterpoint and decoration under and around Oliver’s lead without usurping it. It’s what he was there to do with Oliver, what he had been doing night after night at Chicago’s Lincoln (originally Royal) Gardens. Armstrong was powerful in a number of ways, even when he wasn’t the center of attention.

Which is why the idea of his being unable to tone it down at a record session always left me incredulous. Even if the twenty-three year old Armstrong was simply that nervous before a big recording horn for the first time, he had already played in a variety of settings in his native New Orleans. In addition to parade bands and jazz ensembles, he must have supplied more sedate music for dancers, atmosphere for social events and accompaniment for more than a few singers. It’s also hard to imagine Armstrong standing twenty feet back from the band at their regular gig, or that club patrons would have forgiven his sticking to one loud dynamic.

Armstrong may have (famously) not known what “pp” meant on paper but he must have been familiar with, and capable of, playing softly. In this case, the real power of this genius seems to sabotages its own claims.

Thoughts? Contrary arguments? Brickbats?  A patient smile?  It always seemed to work for the man himself…

louis armstrong

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5 thoughts on “The Unbelievable Power Of Pops

  1. AH, a chance to expostulate on Pops… I haven’t listened enough to Pops’ home-grown tapes of his own playing to know if he played in a range of dynamics while practicing. One can assume he could, but the fact is, playing in the situations that Armstrong played required that he pound plenty (his pp). Yes, he sometimes sang softly, but I’m hard pressed to think of any recording where he played softly. It would have meant his projecting a completely different kind of tone.

    • Andrew J. Sammut says:

      Armstrong does play softly on the entrance to his solo on “Knockin’ A Jug” but regardless I understand your point about the recordings. It’s Armstrong’s playing outside of the studio that makes me wonder about his dynamic range. Witnesses have explained how the Oliver band had to play a variety of tunes at the Gardens, not just the jazz numbers they recorded but softer dance music (including waltzes, I believe). Oliver told Armstrong he should be able to hear the “shuffling” of the dancers’ feet, so I can’t help but think our hero must have had experience with softer dynamics.

      Thanks for indulging my speculation!

  2. rob chalfen says:

    Pops being unable to resist ornamenting a tale, I’d guess – I don’t think there was 20 feet more to stand back from the horn TO in that studio

  3. Putting something in 3/4 time doesn’t, in and of itself, mean it’s played more softly, but I never heard the foot shuffling anecdote which, if true, is important information.

    • Andrew J. Sammut says:

      Armstrong talks about the “shuffling feet” in reference to being impressed by the Ory band’s dynamic range, and I gather as an indicator of the flexibility of the New Orleans professional musician. I can’t point to a specific quote now but I also remember reading that the Oliver band was capable of playing a much wider repertoire than what’s heard on record, including much quieter pieces, even the 3/4 stuff that did happen to be (incidentally) softer.

      It’s not that I’m trying to “disprove” Armstrong (god, imagine such a waste of time?), but this story was always a mystery for me.

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