Task: Analyze, compare, and discuss the musical styles and philosophies of Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke. Discuss their musical backgrounds and influences, as well as the political and/or social conditions shaped their musical lives. Focus on the “hot jazz” approach of Armstrong in contrast to the “cool, reflective” side of Beiderbecke. Investigate the reasons for Armstrong’s world-wide popularity as opposed to Beiderbecke’s relative obscurity.
Leon Bismark Beiderbecke, also known as Bix Beiderbecke, was a figure of special prominence in the history of jazz music. A talented, skillful, and passionate multi-instrumentalist, Bix Beiderbecke’s personality and life can be viewed as incarnation of the age itself. However, it seems that nowadays Bix Beiderbeck’s name and life work sound familiar only to those who claim themselves to be aficionados and genuine connoisseurs of jazz music. Louis Armstrong, in turn, is renowned as one of the most influential and popular figures in the history of jazz music. Further investigation of both composers’ musical worlds is essential for understanding Bix Beiderbecke’s relative obscurity and Louis Armstrong’s worldwide popularity.
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As far as the question of what being a popular and celebrated jazz musician means, one of the statements made by Brian Harker (46) suggests that jazz musician’s being successful is by and large a matter of inspiration. Developing his statement further, the researcher refers to Louis Armstrong’s life work, in particular, by pointing out that “Armstrong’s improvised performances made compelling compositional sense, even to composers of art music for the concert hall” (Harker 46). Apart from that, somehow, Louis Armstrong has managed to redefine the very idea of solo performance in jazz music (as quoted in Harker 47). “Logical development and progressive expansion” is Louis Armstrong’s key to creating a stylistically coherent musical composition (as quoted in Harker 47). Most of Louis Armstrong’s music composed at around the 1920s, however, can be considered as either coherent or lengthy, i.e. structurally continuous, but never both (Harker 48). Lack of structural continuity has, as a rule, occurred due to and has been associated with the musicians’ own persistence to avoid repetitions and monotony (Harker 49). There was a cohort of musicians in the 1920s’ America, including Bix Beiderbecke, who considered Armstrong to be a godfather of what nowadays is referred to as correlated choruses (Harker 50). As critics and musicians explain it, correlated choruses may differ melodically, yet at the same time they represent the “matched phrases that could be played in the context of the rhythm section” (as quoted in Harker 50). All things considered, Louis Armstrong has been reputed as a musician whose strong point was improvisation and, in the meantime, as a musician whose manner of paraphrasing resolved itself, but was not limited to “transparent re-phrasings” and “distant echoes of the melody” (Harker 52).
Medical specialists argue that improvisation has very much in common with medicine in a sense that improvisation is regarded as a basis for patient-doctor/caregiver communication (Haidet 165). Specifically, understanding the history of jazz music is assumed to “enhance one’s understanding of many modern medical issues” (Haidet 165). The cases of Louis Armstrong as opposed to Bix Beiderbecke give insight into the problem of racial disparities (Haidet 165). So far as improvisation is concerned, it is typically defined as “the primary vehicle that jazz players use to relate and communicate musically with one another” (Haidet 165). Thus, the relevance of improvisation as a purely musical term and artistic (creative) principle is made self-evident and self-explanatory.
At this point, it is essential to take a small detour and consider the following points. It may be rather a sad thing to admit that racial and ethnic prejudices flourished in America, most especially, perhaps, in the first half of the twentieth century (not to mention slavery as one of the darkest pages in the history of the country and the humanity on the whole). In this respect, some musicians might have had more opportunities in the United States than others. Building on that, musicians like Bix Beiderbecke at that time could have been considered as more successful and more popular if compared to those who like Louis Armstrong represented the minority in the American society. The concept of worldwide popularity, however, attempts to eliminate racial and ethnic prejudices by simply not taking aspects of artist’s race and/or ethnicity into account. In other words, ethnicity and race have nothing to do with the fact of being renowned as successful and popular or not. What makes one a genuinely favored and successful artist is talent. As far as Louis Armstrong is concerned, some other peculiar features of his music are resilience, optimism, and the composer’s own attempt to be relatable to people, their problems, and basically to what they are and what they are about. It cannot be denied, however, that Louis Armstrong’s background, both social and racial, has played a significant role in his formation as a composer and performer. King Oliver was a jazz musician, a cornet player, and a New Orleans-based resident whom Louis Armstrong idolized. King Oliver was one of those who urged Armstrong to pursue music (Anderson). In the summer of 1919, Louis Armstrong who was around 18 years old at that time joined Fate Marable’s riverboat band. Here is how Gene H. Anderson, one of Louis Armstrong’s biographers, describes that particular period in the musician’s life:
Since bands on the river played for dancing from stock arrangements, Armstrong, tutored by Marble and fellow bandsman David Jones, learned to read music for the first time. Armstrong claimed to have met and subsequently to have been influenced by Bix Beiderbecke. On a trip upriver to Davenport, Iowa from St. Louis, the riverboat’s summer hub. Evidently, Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke met each other. However, a question of whether or not they made each other’s acquaintance and whether or not they associated has remained an unraveled mystery till these days.
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Scat singing as one of the distinctive features of Louis Armstrong’s creative manner asserted itself approximately in the late 1920s, at the time when the record of the song called “Heebie Jeebies” was made (Anderson). In the 1940s and the 1950s, Louis Armstrong earned himself a reputation of a strong opponent of bebop; musician’s stage persona was regarded as “vaudevillian”; some jazz musicians called Louis Armstrong “a smacking of ‘Uncle Tom’”; and he was considered as “a sell-out” and “old-fashioned and out-of-touch” (Anderson). Apparently, most criticism of that kind was unreasonable, ungrounded, and unjustified. Even more so, Louis Armstrong is renowned as one of the god fathers of “hot jazz”, which is an expressive, experimenting, yet vivid and strict subgenre of jazz music.
Speaking about Bix Beiderbecke as one of the icons of jazz music, one of his biographers writes: “Bix Beiderbecke symbolized the “Jazz Age” in America. His life and legend, based upon anecdotal evidence, oral history and memory, emphasizes his short life (1903-31), his great musical inventiveness, and his substance abuse” (Roba 147). Developing his statement further, the researcher continues: “… the influence of ethnicity has never been examined in-depth as a major source of his [Bix Beiderbecke’s] American musical importance” (Roba 147). Bix Beiderbecke is claimed to be “the first influential white jazzman in popular American culture” (Roba 147). Wistfulness is considered to be a peculiar feature of Bix Beiderbecke’s personality and his life work (Roba 147). Clearly, Bix Beiderbecke was in a more favorable position socially and politically, as opposed to Louis Armstrong who was forced to work much harder to earn respect and love of the audience. German-American culture blossomed and received nationwide attention and acclaim as the World War I got to an end (Roba 148). Thus, it happened so that Bix Beiderbecke and his works pushed jazz music to transcending the limits of race and ethnicity in the sense that jazz music as such originated in New Orleans, the first jazz composers were African-Americans, but musicians of many other races and ethnicities popularized jazz. Furthermore, it is thanks to Bix Beiderbecke that the Midwestern version of jazz emerged and started to blossom (Roba 149). Bix Beiderbecke’s family did not approve of the musician’s life choices, claiming that he was wasting his talent and, even more so, that the lifestyle that the musician had subscribed for and adopted was ruining him (Roba 150). It was difficult for Bix Beiderbecke to accept his family’s disapproval, which circumstantially led to the musician’s tragic passing at a very young age. “He [Bix Beiderbecke] was a supreme melodic player – where every note counted – and a very emotional player” (as quoted in French). All things considered, Louis Armstrong’s and Bix Beiderbeck’s music had very much in common stylistically. The principal difference between both musicians’ works was mainly contextual. In other words, Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke, in a way, stood opposite to one another for one of the key artistic features of Louis Armstrong as a composer was expressiveness and desire to experiment, while Bix Beiderbecke made use of music as his own means of reflection and catharsis.
As long as questions of race, ethnicity, and ethnic disparity continue being brought up, it should be pointed out that popularity of this or that artist, as well as of his or her work is merely a matter of aesthetics (Crouch). Jazz music is all about understanding oneself, others, and the world through observation, reflection, and judgments (Crouch). Uniqueness and individuality are intrinsic qualities of jazz music. Since it is a form of art, jazz music can be regarded as a subjective phenomenon by no means. A maxim that represents the message behind jazz music is the following: “Look like what you look like, come from wherever you come from, be either sex and any religion, but understand that blues and that swing are there for you too – of you want to play jazz” (Crouch). Jazz, perhaps, like no other genre of music gives an opportunity and space for artists to assert themselves and to improve their skills.
Every note in jazz music is in its right place. Jazz has some strict rules, but it gives space for experimentation and self-expression like no other genre. Bix Beiderbecke and Louis Armstrong were both unique figures in jazz music. Each composer’s contribution to jazz was unparalleled. Their musical compositions reflected their identities. More importantly, however, music affected Bix Beiderbecke’s and Louis Armstrong’s lives to a great extent. Experimentation, improvisation, inspiration, and persistence in aesthetic and artistic perfection are what jazz music is all about. In retrospect, what made Louis Armstrong’s creative manner so appealing is the topicality of composer’s works. What Bix Beiderbecke, in turn, had to offer was his own talent. It is rather unfair that Bix Beiderbecke has been forgotten by the contemporaries, but that is how the law of popularity works: being retable, intelligible, and memorable is always in front of sophistication, as well as artistic and stylistic perfection. Apart from that, the statement made above gives insight into the reasons of Louis Armstrong’s worldwide popularity and assists with understanding why musicians like Bix Beiderbecke have earned themselves respect and love of quite a small amount of people.