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Louis Armstrong’s and Bix Beiderbecke’s Jazz Music Essay

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Updated: Jun 22nd, 2020

Improvisatory Styles and Musical Philosophies

When examining the reason behind Armstrong’s worldwide popularity in comparison to the relative obscurity of Beiderbecke, it is immediately obvious that the main reason behind this was due to the fact that Armstrong was willing to take risks when it came to his approach to jazz. Beiderbecke’s musical style, while definitely soulful and reflective, lacked the “energy” that was apparent in Armstrong’s own work.

First and foremost, it should be noted that taking aside his talent for music, Armstrong actually did have some issues with his playing style that was apparent to some of his listeners. The first is that he had a habit of skipping over notes when it came to playing particular pieces and tended to incorporate variances into popular jazz renditions that were far from the norm (What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years, 2011).

This tended to alter the intended performance of a piece; however, it was the uniqueness that of the music created that drew audiences to him. In fact, his habit of skipping over notes at times was overshadowed by the sheer “power” of his performance. When it was combined with the improvisation that he was known for, it created a spectacle of jazz composition that “wowed” audiences whenever they listened to any of his performances.

In comparison, while Beiderbecke can be considered as an incredibly talented jazz musician, his performances were far more “by the book” as compared to Armstrong. While his music did reflect the “soulfulness” that jazz was known for and were somewhat altered based on his own improvised style of playing, the fact remains that they lacked the power and range that Armstrong had (Haim, 2011). It is this lack of range that this paper believes is one of the secondary reasons behind the relative obscurity of Beiderbecke and the popularity of Armstrong.

To prove this, it is important to examine the views of Haim (2011) who delved into the various criticisms leveled against the works of Armstrong and Beiderbecke in order to better understand how the concept of “range” influences the general perception of an audience to a particular musician. For example, it was noted that while Armstrong often reached into the upper levels of the register when it came to the tempo and volume of his performances, Beiderbecke rarely did so and was focused more on maintaining a melody that resonated with those of his fellow musicians within an ensemble (Haim, 2011).

These differences are also evident in the manner in which both showcased their talents as solo performers wherein Armstrong exemplified power, showmanship and a wide range of emotions when it came to his playing while Beiderbecke was more cool and collected, preferring a style that was more melodic, flowing and more in line with what one would expect from jazz (Haim, 2011). While it may be true that both musicians incorporated various types of improvisation in their respective interpretations of a jazz piece, Armstrong always seemed to come out on top due to the dynamism and variety of possible tempos he incorporated. This is one of the reasons why “range” was an important factor when it came to the popularity of Armstrong over Beiderbecke since he simply incorporated a greater repertoire of different sounds and styles which enabled him to capture a greater audience than Beiderbecke.

Musical Influences

When examining the musical influences that helped to shape Armstrong, it is important to note that aside from Jazz, he had a strong interest in many other types of music such as “the Blues”, classical music (i.e. Beethoven, Chopin, etc.), various types of opera music and even Latin American folk songs. As explained by Lauterbach (2014), it was often the case that Armstrong actively attempted to incorporate such musical influences into his performances resulting in renditions that were often far from the norm.

On the other hand, since Armstrong is known for his inventive and improvisational style of playing, the incorporation of musical influences from different stylistic backgrounds seemed to have been a success since it resulted in renditions that became widely popular. Evidence of this can be seen in his various solo performances which were lauded as being brilliant, highly exhilarating and possessed a considerable energy all on their own (Lauterbach, 2014).

When examining the history behind Beiderbecke, the origin of his interest in music seems to stem from Nick LaRocca and Dixieland jazz from which he originally developed his love for jazz music (Haim, 2011). From then on he did not receive any formal training and instead taught himself how to play and developed his talent over the years by going to various jazz performances, listening to artists as they played and generally tried to improve on what he heard through his own improvisational style. It should be noted that Beiderbecke was interested in jazz music to the point that he preferred playing instead of being in school (Haim, 2011).

As a result, he focused more on becoming a musician and eschewed formal education so that he could become a better jazz player. Unfortunately, Beiderbecke also happened to suffer from a considerable case of alcoholism, this led him to go from one band to another and eventually resulted in his death when he was 28 years old. Whether such a condition contributed to his musical talent is never really elaborated on, however, it is known that it led to his untimely demise at such a young age (Haim, 2011).

Political and Social Conditions that Influenced their Lives

When comparing the situations of Beiderbecke and Armstrong, it can be seen that both were in vastly different social and political circles which in turn impacted the way in which they expressed themselves through music. Armstrong was born in a time of considerable political upheaval which was characterized by the civil rights movement due to racial segregation that was occurring within America at the time.

Armstrong was not given the same opportunities, rights as well as many privileges that were accorded to the Caucasian population and had to work considerably to be given the same priveleges. It is believed that these inherent limitations influenced his early career in music wherein he strived to do better and better since music was his only outlet in what he deemed to be a world that had limited opportunities to him due to the color of his skin. One interesting aspect about Armstrong is that there is little about this past life (i.e. before he became a musician) that is known to biographers. Whether this was due to him willfully trying to ignore all the issues he had with his childhood or a simple eccentricity on his part will never be truly understood.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have Beiderbecke who lived a life of relative comfort and privilege. Born as the son of a wealthy merchant, Beiderbecke really did not have anything to worry about in life since not only was he rich, he was also born a Caucasian during an era where this particular social class had most of the power and influence within the U.S. While it cannot be stated with outright conviction that the generally “soft” life that Beiderbecke led resulted in an inferior level of musical talent as compared to Armstrong, the fact remains that their individual social situations did have an impact on how they approached jazz music.

Comparing Beiderbecke and Armstrong

Teachout (2005) explains that the essence of jazz, when compared to other styles of music, is “different” in the sense that it does not adhere to a certain structure and a way of playing it. Instead, it is more accurate to assume that the core of many jazz performances is the concept of improvisation wherein a performer often interprets a particular type of jazz song in their own way. On average, jazz compositions are often altered based on the general “energy” of the audience within a particular venue, the interactions musicians have with each other when it comes to playing and even encompasses the mood of the musician at that particular moment.

What you have to understand is that jazz is far more “impressionistic” as compared to other types of music in that the flow of the song and the way it is played changes based on personal interpretation and feelings within that particular moment. This sets it apart from other styles of music wherein adherence to the measure and beat of the piece is absolutely essential. Teachout (2005) goes on further to explain that it is the life experiences of the performer leading up to the moment of the performance that influences how a particular piece is played out and how a performance is done in the first place.

When comparing the lives of Beiderbecke and Armstrong, a significant disparity is seen wherein Beiderbecke was born into a life of privilege while Armstrong was born into a life of poverty and discrimination. While such a difference may not seem all that important, one factor that is vital to take into consideration is the fact that the renditions of particular jazz songs tend to change based on the type of person that is playing it (What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years, 2011).

Stereotypically, jazz is often stated to be “a collaboration between composer and performer” wherein the value of the rendition of a particular song is dependent not only on the one who wrote it but also with the style of improvisation used on the song by the performer. It is based on this that the emotions that a person is able to incorporate into a song is heavily dependent on their life’s experiences. Taking this into consideration, the sheer power evident in Armstrong’s performances seems to stem from his own part involving poverty and discrimination, whereas the smooth, cool and melodic style utilized by Beiderbecke comes from his own past of privilege.

This is not to stay that both men are not equally talented in their own way, however, since Armstrong had a much harsher life growing up and developing into who he was, it is not surprising that he was able to present a more powerful presence since through his music he is apparently shouting against the injustice that he had to endure (What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years, 2011).

Reference List

Haim, A. (2011). The Story of Bix Beiderbecke’s Davenport Blues. IAJRC Journal, 44(1), 10-16. Web.

Lauterbach, P. (2014). Sister Cities: Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans and Stax Records’ Memphis. Virginia Quarterly Review, 90(2), 207-211. Web.

Teachout, T. (2005). Homage to Bix. Commentary, 120(2), 65-68. Web.

What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years. (2011). Publishers Weekly, 258(14), 44-45. Web.

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