A Century of Satchmo
By Phillip D. Atteberry
This material is copyrighted and was originally published in The Mississippi Rag, April, 2001.
When all necessary qualifications have been made, I still think Louis Armstrong is the greatest figure in jazz. And yet I disagree with much that has recently been written about him. Critics have too frequently used the occasion of Louis' 100th birthday to deify him rather than provide helpful, realistic assessments of his accomplishments. The problem with gods, whether theological or musical, is that they are worshipped more than understood, and if anybody deserves to be understood, it's Louis Armstrong. So on this occasion of Louis' 100th birthday, let's begin by examining some of the myths surrounding him. Then we will be in a better position to define his greatness.
The first and greatest myth about Louis Armstrong is that he created the jazz solo. It would be nice if that were true. It would make teaching jazz easy and dramatic. But it's a myth. Louis was the first great jazz soloist. He standardized the "theme--solo--theme" format that became the grammar of jazz for decades. But he was not the first soloist. The point is important because the more we understand the origins of the instrumental solo the more we can appreciate how Louis both reflects and transcends his era.
Overwhelming evidence suggests that instrumental solos existed well before the first jazz recordings in 1917. From the beginning, jazz has been performance-based music (as opposed to composer-based), and part of that performance has involved musicians using their instruments to flaunt their personalities and abilities. At what point this flaunting turns into soloing is impossible say.
It is clear, however, that the central feature of early instrumental "solos" (especially with brass instruments) was strength rather than artistry. Buddy Bolden, for example, was remembered largely because he could play louder and longer than anybody. To my knowledge, no one has ever commented on what Buddy Bolden played, but on the terrific strength with which he played it. To understand much of Louis' early work, we need to remember that he emerged from this tradition. Doc Cheatam and others liked to reminisce about Louis in the late 20's hitting fifty high C's in a row (some say it was a hundred). What goes unsaid, however, is that such playing requires more strength than artistry. It is a Buddy Bolden approach to the instrument. The point is this: To the extent that we elevate Louis to the jazz gods, we think of him as transcending his era. In truth, Louis was also a product of his era, and much of his playing can only be understood from that context.
It is unfortunate that so much emphasis on Louis' early career focuses on his solos, for I think the greatness of those early recordings has as much to do with his ensemble work. In defending this admittedly controversial proposition, I will confess that I have never particularly enjoyed listening to the King Oliver recordings of 1923 and '24. I hear jazz historians praise them to the brink of breathlessness, but I don't hear as much energy in those recordings as I do some of the early ODJB sides. And yet I am impressed by one thing--Louis' finds a role for the second cornet that allows him to integrate rather than compete with the rest of the ensemble. To me that is remarkable because so much small group jazz has always been about competition--"cutting" contests in one form or another. Louis' small-group recordings never were. His ensemble work was always about instrumental integration, whether it was the earliest recordings with King Oliver or the last sessions with the All-Stars.
Not everyone agrees, of course. In discussing the Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings, Richard Sudhalter and Joe Muranyi observe that Kid Ory and Johnny Dodds were never able to find Louis' musical wavelengths, causing the ensemble passages to suffer. My ears hear it differently. While it might be true that Johnny Dodds and Kid Ory did better work later on, the ensemble work with the Hot Fives and Sevens is more listenable today than the solo work because one doesn't need as much historical context to appreciate it. In order to appreciate those early solos, one must understand that an entire musical language is being created and that the function of the instrument is being redefined. But let's face it, not everybody has the ears or the historical understanding to realize all that. But you don't need any context to respond to infectious interplay of the ensemble. I teach jazz history to college freshman--who have no background or historical understanding--and when I play them the Hot Fives and Sevens, it's the ensemble passages they respond to. It is also worth noting that when Louis re-recorded his Hot Five and Seven material in 1957 for his Musical Autobiography, the solos are frequently altered and improved, but the ensemble passages are reproduced almost exactly like the originals, and they haven't lost a thing.
I don't wish to be misunderstood. Of course Louis Armstrong was the preeminent soloist of his age, but to the extent that we focus on him as a solo artist and mythologize the idea that he created the jazz solo, we lose sight of his equally important role in the development of ensemble jazz.
Another monumental myth about Louis Armstrong is that he created "scat" singing. We've all heard the story of the sheet music to "Heebie Jeebies" falling to the floor and Louis scatting his way out of the tune and into jazz history. It is a delightful story but not true. Surely no one seriously believes that Louis and the Hot Fives were huddled over a piece of sheet music during the recording. But whether they were or not, Cliff Edwards ("Ukelele Ike") was the first to scat on record--at least as far as I know. In 1923, he scats the melody to James P Johnson's "Old Fashioned Love." And in 1924 he scats entertainingly through some breaks of Gershwin's "Fascinatin' Rhythm." More to the point, however, scat singing seems to have been fairly common in early New Orleans. So Louis did not invent scat singing, he merely took an existing vocal technique to a new level, underscoring the point, once again, that Louis Armstrong was a musical integrator as much as he was an innovator.
It further needs to be admitted that Louis' earliest vocals are not particularly good. Louis became one of the two or three most important vocalists in the 20th century, but it was not until the 1930's that the full range of his vocal talents emerged.
In order to understand and appreciate this talent, we would do well to remind ourselves of some central but increasingly neglected facts about the development of popular singing. Before microphones, virtually all singers were belters. If you couldn't be heard, you couldn't get hired. I mean no disrespect to Al Jolson when I say that he rose to stardom in part because he could be heard in the back row of large theatres. With the development of microphones and improved recording technology, a new approach to singing was needed, though many did not recognize it. Billy Murray and Irving Kaufman sold a lot of records in the teens and early 20's by imitating the brash, Jolson style, but they were doomed by their limitations, which every advance in technology revealed more glaringly.
In reaction to this noisy style, a group of softer singers emerged. High-pitched tenors with effeminate voices and phrasing, their styles were built upon understatement. Gene Austin, Smith Ballew and "Whispering" Jack Smith were the most prominent.
Both styles, however, had the same problem. Neither allowed a fully realized personality to emerge through the song. All of the belters sound pretty much alike, as do the "whisperers." Bing Crosby is often credited with finding a musical middle ground, and certainly he does. But Louis Armstrong is the first singer to demonstrate the full possibilities of projecting a personality through a vocal.
When I teach college composition (which is what I do most of the time), I encourage students to worry less about grammatical fine points and to develop their "voices."
"What do you mean by 'voice'?" they ask.
I explain to them that "voice" is the personality that emerges through the words that they write. It's the collection of feelings and impressions that gives them a unique lens on the world and makes them different from everyone else.
The same concept applies to singers. "Voice" is the personality that emerges through the singer's delivery--the lyric inflection, the rhythmic adjustments, the tone quality and a thousand other nuances. If those nuances are managed skillfully, interesting personalities emerge. If you think about the century's great vocal performances--Bing Crosby's "White Christmas," Billie Holiday's "Lover Man," Ella Fitzgerald's "Lady, Be Good," Frank Sinatra's "I've Got You Under My Skin," Nat Cole's "Sweet Lorraine"--they all project "voice" in thorough and fascinating ways.
Louis Armstrong was such an important singer because he projected a "voice" more consistently and more thoroughly than any of his contemporaries. One could illustrate this with hundreds of vocals, but I'll comment only on one, Louis' 1936 recording of "I Hope Gabriel Likes My Music," with the Luis Russell Big Band. The song, by Dave Franklin, has a thin melody and an awkward transition from the main theme to the bridge. The lyrics express a trumpet player's hope that Gabriel will like his music when he gets to heaven and a willingness to alter that music if he doesn't. All in all, it's not a great song, which explains why not many people recorded it.
Louis' vocal, however, is terrific. He recognizes the inherent shallowness of the piece, and approaches it lightly. The song's strength is its rhythmic appeal, and Louis immediately accentuates that with periodic scat bars. Those scatting moments, moreover, also enhance the lyrics. "If I play too sweet, turn on the heat"--followed by two bars of lively scat. "If it's too much toot, I use my mute"--followed by two bars of more relaxed scat. Then Louis intersperses bits of the melody to introduce the soloists. The song becomes a vehicle for the expression and development of a "voice" that is humorous, ironic, but also musically adventurous.
Louis' "voice," of course, is not always the same. There is a strong element of "pathos" in his rendition of "Black and Blue" and a huge streak of bawdiness in "That's My Desire" and "Baby, It's Cold Outside" and a wave of preachiness in "Down By the Riverside." But whether or not we always feel comfortable with Louis' vocals, they invariably ooze with personality.
Ironically, however, Louis' capacity to express a unique musical "voice" often makes him more effective with mediocre songs than with great ones. In the same recording session with "I Hope Gabriel Likes My Music," Louis recorded Ellington's "Solitude." It's not as effective because Louis' delivery competes with rather than enhances the song. Will Friedwald has accurately observed that the "satchmoification" of a song has a leveling effect, reducing great songs and elevating mediocre ones.
It would not be fair, however, to discuss Louis as a vocalist without commenting on his technical ability, which many still underrate. When I was kid in high school, I fell in love the great technicians of vocal jazz--Mel Torme, Ella Fitzgerald, Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. I heard nothing remarkable in Louis Armstrong. But my dad kept insisting that Louis was one of the best, so I kept listening. And finally I began to hear why. Louis' range is greater than the casual listener realizes. He also sings in tune throughout that range, which sets him apart even from most good singers, who maintain better intonation in the middle of their ranges than at the fringes.
I first came to appreciate Louis' technical abilities when I listened to Ella and Louis do Porgy and Bess (Verve, 1957). Louis was fifty-six when that was recorded, and his vocal tools had diminished. But his range on that album is extraordinary, as is his intonation. Critics of the album maintain that the personalities of Ella and Louis overwhelm the musical characterizations of Porgy and Bess. I don't think so. Ella's voice evokes Bess wonderfully, and Louis makes a thoroughly eccentric but altogether musical Porgy. Again, it's all about using one's musical tools and outlook to project a unique "voice."
Most discussions of Louis Armstrong focus on his pioneering work of the 1920's. Critics have often struggled to explain Louis' sudden abandonment of jazz innovation for the pop market in the early 30's. During his lifetime, he was often accused of lowering his musical values. Since his death (and the process of deification) he has been applauded for seeking new worlds to conquer.
Neither explanation is quite right. I am convinced that Louis Armstrong spent very little time thinking about the music he made. He was a man of musical intuitions rather than convictions, as all of his public comments suggest. When a reporter asked him to define jazz, his celebrated response was, "if you don't know, I can't explain it to you." When Edward R. Murrow asked him about kinds of music, Louis said, "There's only two kinds of music, good and bad."
Some years ago, when I was interviewing Yank Lawson, I kept pressing him to talk about his music. Finally, in a moment of exasperation, he said, "I can't talk about it because I never think about it. I just play it. I play it how I feel it at the moment, and when I'm done, I go home!" I strongly suspect that Louis was the same way. His material was governed in large measure by the people who managed him. It is no accident that his most innovative period occurred while he was under the influence and direction of Lil Hardin, an extraordinarily creative and innovative person. When Lil Hardin's influence waned, Joe Glaser's increased, and shortly thereafter, Jack Kapp's, founder of Decca Records, thereby determining the course of Louis' career.
It is difficult to speak objectively about either Joe Glaser or Jack Kapp. They were strong personalities with unshakable loyalties and dark undersides. And yet it is impossible to understand Louis Armstrong's career without considering these two.
The more one knows about Joe Glaser, the scarier he is. Though he muzzled the press successfully during his lifetime, recent research demonstrates that he was a bootlegger, a pimp, a racketeer and a rapist of extremely young girls. And yet for all his despicable qualities, he loved Louis Armstrong and took care of him, which is fortunate, for Louis' childhood did not provide him with the life skills to survive at the social and economic levels to which his music propelled him. Had someone like Glaser not come along, Louis may well have gone the way of King Oliver, dying toothless and forgotten in a small Georgia town.
But even though Glaser loved Armstrong and his music, he did not understand the extent of Louis' talent or his profound impact on the music world. Glaser understood power and profit, and he immediately set about to make Louis profitable and himself powerful. Among other things, this meant involving Louis with prominent record producer Jack Kapp, and ultimately signing Louis with Kapp's new record label, Decca.
Kapp is another controlling and controversial figure. Business-oriented people admire him. He produced a quality product inexpensively and did much to bolster the record industry during the darkest days of the depression. Without Decca records, many of the great names in popular music during the 1930's would have recorded less, and some not at all.
But Kapp did not understand music either--and he especially didn't understand jazz. To Kapp, good music was profitable music. He recorded all his artists in a variety of contexts with a variety of material to see what sold. He didn't understand improvising and felt that a song should be played like a song. Lee Wiley quipped that he needed a sign above his door saying "Sing the Melody."
With Louis' career in the grips of Joe Glaser and Jack Kapp, and without strong musical convictions of his own, he quickly shifted from jazz innovation to standard pop. To me, that was not a bad thing. Louis had gone as far as he was going to go as a ground-breaking instrumentalist. If one listens to Louis' work at the end of the 20's and into 1930, one hears some great trumpet work, but it's strongly reminiscent of what he had already played.
The pop market of the early 30's was a worthy arena for Louis' talents because there were so many good songs being written. Of course we idealize that "Golden Era" of popular music by remembering the great songs and forgetting the lousy ones. But even so, there were lots of inherently good songs and a larger variety of songs to work with than ever before. Jack Kapp's philosophy of recording people in a variety of ways with a variety of material gave Louis lots of opportunities to find the full range of his musical voice.
In general, Joe Glaser's management of Louis was unimaginative but pragmatic. What it lacked in innovation, it made up for in stability. Whatever bad one wants to say about Glaser (and there is a world of criticism to be made) he kept Louis healthy and performing for a lot of years. I interviewed Jack Lesberg some years ago. He talked of touring Europe and Africa with Louis in the middle 50's. "It was great," he said. "We were allowed to bring our wives; we stayed in the best hotels; performances were scheduled to keep us rested, and I never had to worry about the bass. It was always on stage and tuned when I got there. The following year," continued Lesberg, "I toured Europe with Earl Hines and Jack Teagarden. Everything was different. Scheduling was hectic, traveling difficult, and I spent all of my time trying to see that the bass was taken care of. The differences had nothing to do with Louis, Earl or Jack. It was all about Joe Glaser's management. When Joe Glaser was in charge, things worked."
Glaser's putting Louis back with a small group, his "All-Stars," in 1947 has been much applauded, for the small ensemble was Louis most comfortable venue, but Glaser has also been criticized for forcing Louis to play the same small repertoire year after year. One does wonder what Louis might have done had Lil Hardin controlled his musical agenda. It's a fair question, but one we can never answer. It is fair to say that if Louis' career was not managed as well as it might have been, it was managed better than most, and Louis needed a manger more than most.
Since we stand at the centennial of Louis' birth, it is appropriate to glance briefly at how his recordings have fared in the increasingly turbulent record industry. There are hundreds of Louis Armstrong CD's on the market, and most people reading this article have more than a passing acquaintance with them. I will, consequently, make only a few comments and suggestions.
First, the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens are available in a variety of releases. The best is on the JSP (UK) label. It is a four CD set simply entitled, Louis Armstrong: The Hot Fives and Sevens. It sells for about $30.00 from the common Internet sources. The sound quality of this release is good; all selections are in chronological order, and the Vocalion sides of 1928 and 1929 are included. I would beware of Columbia's five volume set under the same title. The sound remastering is not as good, and the price is twice as high. If you are in the market for a single disc abridgment, try West End Blues: The Very Best Hot Fives, by Music Club. This was released in May of 2000. It contains intelligently chosen and first rate remastering of some 1925-27 Okeh material.
I also like Decca's three volume set showcasing Louis' pop work from 1935-38: Rhythm Saved the World, Heart Full of Rhythm, and Pocket Full of Dreams. These sell from $13.00 to $15.00. Louis is backed up by Luis Russell's big band on most of these tracks. Each disc contains a good variety of music. I am less enamoured with Decca's other compilations: The Best of the Decca Years, Volume 1: The Singer, and The Best of the Decca Years, Volume 2, The Composer. The first volume contains Louis' most popular vocals, but not necessarily his best or most jazz oriented. The second volume contains some seldom heard things, but overall the material and the performances are inconsistent.
As for the 1940's, RCA's, The Complete Town Hall Concert (1947) is top notch. Louis' chemistry with Jack Teagarden was never better, Sid Catlett's drumming is terrific, and Bobby Hackett's cornet complements are memorable. Of course this concert is also available on Louis Armstrong: The Complete RCA Victor Recordings (a four CD set). Louis recorded some big band sides for RCA in 1932-3, and later with an early edition of his All-Stars in 1946-7. This four CD set is evenly divided between the two periods. The early material contains some cuts with Louis and the Chick Webb band as well as with Louis and his own band. These make interesting listening. A good single volume compilation of the 1946-'47 material is Pops: The 1940's Small Band Sides. A few cuts from Town Hall are included as well as the best studio material.
Decca's contribution to the 1940's material is Satchmo at Symphony Hall, recorded in 1947 but not released until '51. The material is standard concert fare for the All-Stars. All members of the ensemble are featured on one number and shown to good advantage. The sound quality isn't as good as it might be, but plenty good enough to enjoy.
Even though the All-Stars tended to play the same repertoire in concert throughout the 50's, Louis recorded a lot of diverse material in the studio. By this time, Joe Glaser had ended Louis' exclusive contract with Decca and was shopping around for the best deals. The Columbia material may be the best. Ambassador Satch (1956) catches the All-Stars live and in top form. This album contains perhaps my two favorite Louis Armstrong performances, "Royal Garden Blues," and "All of Me." In 1954, in honor of W.C. Handy's 80th Birthday, Louis and the All-Stars recorded Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy. This is one of the best albums Louis ever recorded. The material fits perfectly, and Louis' lip is in good shape. Satch Plays Fats, recorded a few months later, is equally good. Happily, this has recently been released with the original cover and four bonus tracks. I am not as keen on the two CD set, The Great Chicago Concert, recorded live at the Medina Temple in 1956. This has its moments, but it is expensive, and the sound quality is uneven.
Louis also recorded memorably for Verve in 1957. The collaborations with Ella Fitzgerald are my favorites. Ella and Louis and Ella and Louis Again are hard to beat. Ella and Louis swing lightly and with great chemistry, aided immeasurably by the Oscar Peterson. Louis' lip was in bad shape during these recordings, so he plays little trumpet, but his vocals are inimitable. A third album that deserves mention is Louis Armstrong Meets Oscar Peterson. These tracks are from the same session but without Ella. The tunes are all standards; the delivery is relaxed swing. Nobody gets too adventurous, so the album isn't great, but it is thoroughly pleasant. I have already expressed my admiration for Ella and Louis' Porgy and Bess album, but I haven't mentioned the lush arrangements of Russ Garcia, which give this album a totally different feel from the previous two albums. Speaking of Russ Garcia, I am happy to say that Louis Under the Stars has recently been released on CD. This is a curious combination of Garcia's lush arrangements and impish vocals by Louis on standards like "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails," "Body and Soul," and "I Only Have Eyes for You." This album projects an unusual personality, but it works well for me.
Louis did not abandon Decca entirely in the 50's. In 1957 he recorded Louis and the Angels,, and a few months later the companion volume, Louis and the Good Book. Both are arranged by Sy Oliver, and both are worth having. Again, I am pleased to note that both have recently been released on a single CD. Sy Oliver goes overboard with the choral backgrounds at times, especially on The Angels album, but both albums swing well and have strengths that far outweigh the weaknesses.
Louis continued to record a lot of diverse material in the 60's. It would be tedious to handicap all the albums, so I will mention only a few. The Complete Roulette Sessions with Duke Ellington are good but a little misleading. Like Armstrong and Oscar Peterson, Louis and Duke don't have particularly compatible styles, but on this album, Duke merely sits in on piano with the All-Stars to do some of his numbers. Even though Louis' trumpet work was becoming increasingly inconsistent during these years, he does well on these takes. A couple of other 60's albums worth noting are on Audio Fidelity, The Best of Louis Armstrong and Louis and Dukes of Dixieland. I think, to be precise, the first album was recorded in 1959 and released in 1960. It is notable because the All-Stars revisit songs of old New Orleans. Some were recorded by Louis and/or King Oliver; a few are tunes they never got around to. The Duke of Dixieland album is rip-roaring fun. Louis' vocals are exuberant. He doesn't play much trumpet, but Frank Assunto blows vigorously in the bright, Armstrong tradition. Finally, I wouldn't totally dismiss the Hello, Dolly! album of 1964. This was hastily thrown together and rushed to market in an attempt to capitalize on Louis' surprise hit single (which knocked the Beatles out of the number one slot for the first time in eleven weeks). But however slip shod the design, some nice cuts resulted. This album shows Louis at his mid-sixties best.
When I teach jazz history, my students often argue with my assertion that Louis Armstrong is the greatest figure in jazz. They put forth energetic--if not always well-reasoned--cases for Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker, among others. And that's good, because it leads to mind-stretching debate.
To make my case for Louis, I ask the students to read an essay by Aaron Copland called "The Planes of Listening." In it, Copland observes that we listen to music on three levels, or "planes." The first is the "sensuous plane," which is just grooving to the music rather than thinking about it. The second is the "expressive plane," which is a search for meaning, and third is the "sheerly musical plane," which is delighting the technical details of the performance. To me, a large quantity of Louis Armstrong's work can be listened to and enjoyed on all three levels at once, whether one is listening to "Black and Blue," "Rockin' Chair," Hotter Than That," or "Lazy River." Even Louis' late work, which reveals significantly diminished lip and stamina, contains such subtlety of tone color and rhythmic playfulness that one can enjoy a world of expression and technical virtuosity. I cannot think of another artist for whom the same can be said with such consistency.
Secondly, I maintain that Louis is the greatest figure in jazz because his accomplishments transcend music. Of course things get a little dicey at this point, because we don't want to confuse musicianship with politics or social stature. And yet Louis is a unique case. In ways that no one else ever has, he embodied the expansive, generous democratic impulses at the heart of America and at the heart of jazz. In spite of being a Black man born in impoverished circumstances and living through a century of racial abuse, Louis developed and maintained an unshakable civility. He was a true democrat in that his music transcended racial, geographic, intellectual and socio-economic boundaries and tensions.
To me, that became particularly important in the late 40's and early 50's when the beboppers, with their introspection and self-absorption, turned away from mainstream audiences. It is a great irony that in the same year Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie put bebop into the jazz forefront, Louis Armstrong hit the road with his All-Stars.
Of course no one at the time understood the irony. Louis Armstrong was not reacting against anything or making any sort of cultural statement, he was simply being himself. And that is another of his greatest gifts. John Coltrane, in my opinion, never found himself. His music can be best understood as a massively energetic and persistent search for identity. Louis Armstrong, amid great cultural changes and upheaval, never lost himself. Whether he was on a New York concert stage with Leonard Bernstein or in a high school gymnasium in Kansas, he was always Louis, loving his work, and loving the people he shared it with. That is "soul" in the deepest sense. When Louis Armstrong plays jazz, it's not about being black or white, old or young, progressive or traditional. It's about democracy, about being inclusive rather than exclusive.
Wynton Marsalis, in explaining the complexity of bebop, says that "with great art, you have to go to it. It doesn't come to you. Shakespeare," he said, "doesn't come to you. You have to go to him." I disagree. Like Shakespeare, Louis Armstrong saw no difference between art and entertainment. Like Shakespeare, Louis worked in forms that everybody understood and made extensive use of broad, simple humor. Having Velma Middleton do the splits on stage is just like something Shakespeare would do in the middle of a tragedy. But within that framework, Louis--like Shakespeare--stretched the limits, taking the audience not only through familiar musical territory but into uncharted terrain as well. I don't mean to bash bebop and other modern forms of jazz. Much of it I admire. But any art form that disdains the audience is flawed. Any art form that rejects the full range of human emotions is flawed. Bebop rejected humor and romance. (OK, I admit that Dizzy was funny, but he is the exception.) Bebop is about creating fantastic musical tensions, both chordal and rhythmic, and trying to resolve them with technical virtuosity. The music becomes a metaphor of the internal tensions that so many of the musicians possessed. It's no wonder that audiences often said, "Gee that's interesting, but I've got enough problems of my own."
In short, Louis felt his music to be "of the people and for the people." The modernists increasingly saw their music as being "of themselves and for others like themselves." It has become a cliché to say that jazz is American music, but one can't understand jazz without appreciating that "Americanness." Similarly, one cannot understand Louis Armstrong without understanding that he is both a great American and a great jazzman. In fact he is a great jazzman in part because he is a great American.
If we could put ourselves in a time capsule and revisit the past, changing it to suit our whim and experimenting with different possibilities, I suspect we might learn that jazz, more or less as we know it, could have happened without a lot of prominent people. If Benny Goodman hadn't come along as the King of Swing, someone else would have. Something like jazz could have happened without Ella Fitzgerald or Count Basie or Thelonious Monk or even Duke Ellington. But jazz as we know it simply could not have happened without Louis Armstrong. Yes, some form of improvised music would have developed and that music would still have been about democracy and given birth to a wide range of voices and styles. But without Louis Armstrong, the music's syntax, its texture, and its personality would have developed so differently, that we would be hard pressed to call it jazz. And that's why Louis Armstrong is the greatest jazzman of them all.