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

In my last post, I raised questions concerning Armstrong and his musical taste: How and when did Armstrong acquire his musical taste? In what ways did “good music” impact his work? This week I add another inquiry: How did listening to his favorite music allow Armstrong to strengthen his relationships with non-human and human entities, such as music, technology, friends, and family?

There are countless moments in Armstrong’s lifetime that influenced his musical taste and his understanding of “good music” versus “bad music.” For example, while an adolescent in New Orleans Armstrong had various jobs that took him to different parts of the city where he heard a variety of musical styles. During the nineteenth century New Orleans was a classical music hub where professional and amateur orchestras, chamber music ensembles, opera companies, and choral societies flourished. By the advent of the twentieth century the city was inhabited by performers playing European, Caribbean, and American musical styles, and as such it rivaled several other major “music” metropolises due its diverse musical offerings.[1]

While attending the Colored Waifs’ Home for Boys as a tween, Armstrong not only enhanced his musical palette by performing in a brass band, but also listened to symphonic and operatic traditions at the request of Peter Davis, his music teacher.[2] Later, when Armstrong lived in Chicago in the 1920s, he was exposed to classical music again while playing in the Vendome Theater. The Vendome, known as the premier African American venue in Chicago’s South Side, offered silent films, stage revues, and other performances. Erskine Tate was the leader of the theater’s ensemble, the Vendome Orchestra. While under the direction of Tate, Armstrong played classical repertoire, such as the overture from William Tell or the “Intermezzo” from Cavalleria Rusticana, on his trumpet with the group. The orchestra’s music, which also included popular numbers, would play before, during, or after silent films. In the following clip, Armstrong reminisces about his time playing with the orchestra and advocates for people to “listen to all kinds of music.”

Armstrong discussing his performances with the Vendome Orchestra and the importance of being a well-rounded music listener

Armstrong’s experiences with classical music did not begin and end with his time in New Orleans or his stint at the Vendome. During his professional career, he strengthened his relationship with classical music, a kind of music he considered “good,” in public and private settings. One such private setting was his home in Corona. While in his house Armstrong would listen, solo or with friends and family, to his classical music records, which comprised the majority of his music collections. Armstrong owned numerous discs featuring the symphonies, operas, chamber music, and art songs of composers such as Claude Debussy, George Bizet, Johann Strauss, Dmitri Shostakovich, Giuseppe Verdi, Ludwig Van Beethoven, and Frédéric Chopin.

For Armstrong, listening to classical music or another kind of “good music” could be an individual or social activity. While listening to his classical records alone Armstrong engaged in an “alternative” listening practice known as “individuated listening.” This type of listening was not as commonplace in the early twentieth century as it is today.[3] Instead, another kind of listening was the norm — “collective listening.” During the period from 1890-1945, many families would congregate in one room of their house and listen to recorded sound.[4] “Collective listening” helped form what several scholars have referred to as “listening communities” or “listening publics” and played a role in stimulating collective memories.

While doing “individuated listening” Armstrong would often multitask. On some of his reel-to-reel tapes, music plays on a record player, but he is not nearby listening to it and instead is in another room talking with someone. On such tapes, the music serves as the key sound while Armstrong’s voice is barely audible. On other tapes, it seems as if Armstrong is not anywhere near his reel-to-reel machines while they are recording or copying discs or other tapes until he reveals his presence by making a sound. It is likely that on these tapes he is engaging in some of his other hobbies such as making collages or scrapbooks, or writing, while waiting for his audio recordings to finish. Armstrong did not always passively interact with recorded sound. At times, he would verbally react (shout, comment, or laugh) to what he was hearing, such as in the following clip when he listens to one of his favorite classical singers, Enrico Caruso.

Armstrong reacting to Enrico Caruso’s voice

Other times, Armstrong would practice his trumpet while listening to recorded sound. In the following clip, he warms up while music from Richard Wagner’s Götterddämmerung plays in the background. The sound of his trumpet clashes with and drowns out the operatic passages.

Armstrong warming up to the sounds of Götterddämmerung

When Armstrong would listen to music with others, he would do “collective listening.” There are many reel-to-reel tapes that capture his listening sessions with his friends and family. On many of these tapes, Armstrong et. al would take on the role of commentators, introducing and offering their opinions on music albums, often from Armstrong’s home collections. In the clip featured below, Armstrong and his friend Stuff Crouch remark on a record featuring some of Johann Strauss’s waltzes. Prior to this moment, they had finished listening to music from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical South Pacific.

Armstrong and Stuff Crouch talking about Johann Strauss’s waltzes

For Armstrong “good music” such as a classical music gave him joy and helped him relax, especially when he was at home. However, the impact of classical music on him goes deeper than this. Several music scholars have noted that he quoted operatic and classical pieces in his music, especially during his early career. Others have attempted to find a connection between “the bravura gestures of operatic divas” and his trumpet sound.[5] In an interview about his trips to Italy, Armstrong articulated what his music and classical music had in common. He stated:

After I finished my concert at the Neon Concert Hall I had to rush over to La Scala and stand by those big cats like Verdi and Wagner, and all of them, and take pictures, cause they figure our music is the same – we play ‘em both from the heart; and they wanted that picture to put up in the lobby, me standing by those big boys there.[6]

According to Armstrong, “playing from the heart” links his music to that of classical composers. While listening to classical music, Armstrong would temporarily deemphasize his role as creator of music and assume the role of active listener. As an active listener, he strengthened his relationship with classical music, allowing it to influence him and his music in various ways.


[1] John Baron, Concert Life in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans: A Comprehensive Reference (Baton Rouge, LA, Louisiana State Press, 2013), xi-4.

[2] “2001 clippings – Concert to Explore Influence on Satchmo” Object ID: 2008. 5.70, January 1, 2001,  https://collections.louisarmstronghouse.org/asset-detail/1070456, The Louis Armstrong Archives.

[3] In the time of the digital age, “individuated listening” is common and made easier due to the abundance of earbud and earphone options that allow music consumers to privatize their listening experience.

[4] William Howland Kenney, Recorded Music in American Life: The Phonograph and Popular Memory 1890-1945 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), xvii.

[5] Joshua Barrett, “Louis Armstrong and Opera,” The Musical Quarterly, vol. 76, no.2 (1992), 221.

[6] “Reel-to-reel tape recorded by Louis Armstrong – LAHM Tape 160/Louis Tape 97- Track 1,” Object ID: 1987.3.159, January 1, 1957, https://collections.louisarmstronghouse.org/asset-detail/1108738, The Louis Armstrong Archives.

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