Jazz in American Culture

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Although King Oliver’s West End Blues was not a particularly memorable composition at the time of its original release on June 11, 1928, Louis Armstrong’s incorporation of his own stylistic techniques later turned the piece into an integral component in the evolution of the jazz movement. Louis Armstrong would not truly make his mark in jazz until 1928; Until then, he served as a student and an eager apprentice to King Oliver, who saw the potential for Armstrong to become one of the greatest trumpeters of all time. Armstrong left New Orleans to join King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band in Chicago on the cornet in 1922, and after three years, he left to New York City where he began to gain traction as a figure in the jazz community. In 1928, Armstrong finally outshined his mentor and left King Oliver in his shadow with Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five’s release of West End Blues.

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From the first notes of his recording of West End Blues, Louis Armstrong grasps audiences with a bold entrance that makes his intent as a soloist very clear. Armstrong showcases his dexterity on the trumpet with a fifteen second cadenza, which would prove to be one of the most influential solos in jazz history. The concept of solo improvisation was not a part of the mainstream jazz movement yet, and so critics ruled this recording as a major move toward solo innovation becoming a key factor in jazz. Until Armstrong’s era, collective improvisation had dictated the majority of the jazz scene, such as the classic piece Dippermouth Blues (1923), performed by none other than King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, including Armstrong on Cornet. Musicologist and jazz expert Barry Kernfeld explained that in Armstrong’s cadenza, Armstrong’s depth of expression and technical prowess result in a performance that is widely considered to be a watershed of jazz history (Kernfeld 71). Already stunning audiences with his introductory solo, Armstrong concludes the piece by delivering an exuberant solo that further establishes him as the pilgrim and master of solo improvisation. Also contrasting the piece’s otherwise somber tone, this final entrance by Armstrong creates a passionate climax that makes the song all the more gripping. Armstrong employs many rhythmic techniques in these solos by bending and swinging eighth notes, sixteenth notes, and triplets. By combining these complex rhythms with a variety of arpeggios, ascending notes, and descending notes, Armstrong gives the section a profound intensity and attitude that showcases his roots in New Orleans jazz.

On top of Louis armstrong’s nimble yet fluid solo improvisations that both introduce and conclude West End Blues, another characteristic that grabbed the attention of jazz musicians and critics was the inclusion of a vocal section characterized by scatting. Armstrong employs a call-and-response technique while accompanying Jimmy Strong on the clarinet, responding to Strong’s delicate sound with relaxed vocals of unintelligible syllables rather than words. This gibberish emphasized the emotion in the piece without the need for any lyrics. Early jazz singer Billie Holiday wrote about her experience listening to West End Blues in her autobiography; Sometimes the record would make me so sad, I’d cry up a storm. Other times, the same damn record would make me so happy […] It was the first time I ever heard anybody sing without using words, (Burnett). She later described by saying It sounded like he was making love to me Holiday’s experience was representative of the recording’s impact on audiences as a whole; people had not heard anything like this before. Although scatting had been seen in jazz before, even by Armstrong himself in his 1926 recording of Heebie-Jeebies, it was not truly popularized until the public heard Armstrong’s addition of his own deep, emotional flair in this unique vocal performance in West End Blues. Armstrong exemplified how adding scat can provide another dimension to an instrumental, which would open the doors for scat to become a commonly recurring technique in jazz.

In addition to Louis Armstrong’s innovative techniques he adopted in West End Blues, critics accredit the success of the recording to Armstrong’s versatility as a musician. After exploring jazz scenes in New Orleans, New York, and Chicago, he had performed and been exposed to many varying styles of jazz, allowing him to perfect a plethora of different techniques and rhythmic nuances. This is what gave Louis Armstrong his fluency across a broad spectrum of jazz, and the ability to shift effortlessly from one style to another in a manner that allowed each to compliment the other, which is clearly represented in his recording of West End Blues. This fluency over an array of skills that no other jazz musicians at the time possessed allowed Armstrong to to diversify his music to give it a uniqueness that nobody could emulate. Armstrong’s playing established a new standard for rhythmic and melodic complexity, for technical mastery and, most important, for sheer beauty and emotional content. (History) Armstrong’s unparalleled expertise on the trumpet, coupled with his vast knowledge of music, allows him to transition from a brassy texture to a smooth serenade of vibrato that gives West End Blues this beauty and emotional content. Nobody could replicate this signature tone that Armstrong so delicately utilizes. This created a respected envy toward him and his recording of West End Blues by other jazz musicians, which in turn would encourage jazz to fluster in America during what was known as the Golden Age of Jazz during the 1920s and 30s.

Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five’s recording of West End Blues was widely accepted by society and jazz critics across America as a masterpiece. With the introduction and popularization of an abundance of stylistic techniques, including complex improvisation solos, melodic call-and-response scatting, and soft trumpet tones that almost mimic vocals, West End Blues changed the way jazz was performed. American composer and conduction Gunther Schuller wrote “But it was ‘West End Blues, that made it clear jazz could never again revert to being entertainment or folk music. The clarion call of ‘West End Blues’ served notice that jazz could compete with the highest order of musical expression. Like any profoundly creative innovation, ‘West End Blues’ summarized the past and predicted the future.” (Burnett) Louis Armstrong and his sound were accepted by the nation with open arms and did not receive any published negative criticism.

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Jazz in American Culture. (2019, Dec 18). Retrieved February 6, 2023 , from
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