Armstrong in the ever-evolving world of music — Part I

…Well, what is progressive? You tell me cause all we play is good music. We never did worry about styles. There ain’t no such thing as styles in music. There ain’t but two kinds — good or bad — that’s all…[1] — Louis Armstrong

The above quotation, stated by Louis Armstrong during an interview in England in 1968, offers insight into how he conceptualized his work concerning industry-specific and vernacular music categorizations and labels. To some, Armstrong’s declaration that there exist two kinds of music, good and bad, may sound simplistic and vague. However, Armstrong’s statement serves as an interesting point of departure. It inspires various questions concerning the cultivation of his musical identity, ideas, and taste within the ever-evolving world of jazz, popular music, and classical music in the twentieth century. How did Armstrong situate and identify his music in relation to existing and developing music genres and subgenres? How did his musical identity disrupt or confirm music dichotomies — progressive/traditional, artist/entertainer, jazz/popular music, instrumentalist/vocalist? How and when did Armstrong acquire his musical taste? In what ways did “good music” impact his work?

Certain critics have identified Armstrong’s music during his late career as stale, traditional, repetitive, and static. In the quotation featured at the beginning of this post, Armstrong addresses these critiques and makes two crucial “refusals.” First, he “refuses” to discuss his music using the term “progressive” and, in turn, offers his preferred terminology for categorizing music (“good” or “bad”). Second, his words hint that he “refuses” to accept the prevailing idea that musicians, especially those who perform popular music, have to reinvent themselves to remain relevant or “progressive.”

By the time Armstrong entered his middle years, there were new and developing music genres and subgenres within jazz and popular music, such as bebop, cool jazz, hard bop, soul jazz, R&B, and rock ‘n’ roll. To many, these genres and subgenres were “progressive” and stood in contrast sonically, rhythmically, and ideologically to the kind of music Armstrong was performing for audiences as “Ambassador Satchmo” during and after the 1950s. Players of the aforementioned genres and subgenres had many opportunities for musical and other types of reinvention. In the world of rock ‘n’ roll, for example, there was an emphasis on fashion. A rock ‘n’ roller’s identity, expressed through his/her music, clothing, and attitude on and off stage, was something record companies could market and re-market to America’s youth. It is probable that Armstrong would have based his understanding of the term “progressive” on its meanings within jazz and popular music scenes. One interpretation of his “refusal” to define his work as “progressive” is that he wanted to distinguish his music from other genres and subgenres. However, Armstrong’s statements on jazz and popular music demonstrate that this is not necessarily the case.

On a few of his reel-to-reel tapes, Armstrong talks about rock ‘n’ roll. In a clip from a 1964 radio interview (featured below), he draws connections between the origins and performers of rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, and other Black musical traditions.

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LAHM 1987.3.397

Armstrong’s remarks about Black church music and rock ‘n’ roll complement the National Museum of African American History and Culture’s exhibition texts about the genre. One of the museum’s labels describes rock ‘n’ roll as having “the structure of American popular song with the sounds of African American sacred and secular musical styles”[2] such as R&B, jazz, blues, and gospel. Armstrong’s statement — “I know we did a lot of the things the kids so famous on now days, we did way back in the early days, you know – riffing, and jumping, and shouting…” — alludes to jazz performers who were rock forerunners. NPR writers Robin Lloyd and Nick Morrison explore this topic in a 2010 article entitled, “Post-War Rhythm and Blues: Bridging Jazz, Rock.”[3] They highlight Black R&B musicians with jazz training that “helped pave the way for rock n’ roll.”[4]

Armstrong discusses bebop on his reel-to-reel tapes and in print media. In a 1950 magazine article he states:

…Bop ain’t playing to me; it’s a secret. They make a mistake by not putting the lead to the public. There’s no point in playing if you can’t let someone outside of yourself know what’s going on. Now you take someone who comes to a place and just wants to relax and enjoy some music; he’d like you to play just a plain old melody. But you take a bop man, he’s just going to variate all night long. That’s all bop is; it was created just for those musicians.[5]

Based on this statement it seems that Armstrong dislikes bebop’s frantic sounds that obscure melodic lines and its existence as a genre for artists’ introspective musings. However, in a 1958 newspaper article Armstrong refrains from criticizing the genre. Writer Nat Hentoff quotes him as saying the following:

Ridiculous! It’s a matter of being open-minded musically. Too many people are inclined to generalize. Like somebody says, ‘Do you like bop? That’s an absurd question. If it’s good, I’ll like it no matter what’s it’s called![6]

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s Armstrong provided contradicting opinions on bebop and its musicians. For those who are curious about Armstrong’s changing thoughts on the genre, it seems that an examination of his relationship with bebopper Dizzy Gillespie might offer some insight.

Armstrong with musicians Dizzy Gillespie (left) and Gene Krupa (center)

Armstrong’s second statement about bebop in which he remarks, “if it’s good, I’ll like it no matter what it’s called,” is similar to other statements he has made when asked what kind of music he enjoys. Even though Armstrong discussed rock ‘n’ roll and bebop in interviews, the music that comprised the majority of his record collections and reel-to-reel tapes was classical music (more on this topic in the next post). It does not do Armstrong and his music justice to describe him, especially in his late career, as a constant in an ever-changing world of music. A review of his musical output reveals that he remained artistically imaginative and had a broad musical palette. Examine, for instance, the period between 1960-61. In that time alone, Armstrong worked with Duke Ellington, The Dukes of Dixieland, Bing Crosby, Dave and Iola Brubeck, and his All Stars. As such, his music included the sounds of swing, pop, trad, R&B, and musical theater. Armstrong never fit into one music category. Instead, he moved along a sliding scale, at times existing somewhere in-between progressive/traditional, artist/entertainer, jazz/popular music performer, and instrumentalist/vocalist.


[1] “Ricky Riccardi – Video Pops 2: Louis Armstrong in His Own Words,” YouTube, August 21, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ub0ItDbfMVw&t=1930s.

[2] Exhibition wall text, “Musical Crossroads – Rock & Roll,” The National Museum of African American History and Culture, accessed during a visit to the museum on November 4, 2019.

[3] Robin Lloyd and Nick Morrison, “Post-War Rhythm and Blues: Bridging Jazz, Rock,” NPR, May 11, 2010, https://www.npr.org/2010/05/11/126607409/post-war-rhythm-and-blues-bridging-jazz-rock.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “News Clippings – Louis on the Spot,” Object ID: 1993.16.2, July 02, 1950, https://collections.louisarmstronghouse.org/asset-detail/1067977, The Louis Armstrong Archives.

[6] “1958 News Clippings – Bobby; Armstrong and the Modernists” Object ID: 2008.5.27, January 01, 1958, https://collections.louisarmstronghouse.org/asset-detail/1069850, The Louis Armstrong Archives.

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