It was around 1917 in New Orleans that Louis Armstrong acquired his first Victrola and began collecting records. He once recalled it this way: “Big event for me then was buying a wind-up Victrola. Most of my records were the Original Dixieland Jazz Band–Larry Shields and his bunch. They were the first to record the music I played. I had Caruso records too, and Henry Burr, Galli-Curci, Tetrazzini–they were all my favorites. Then there was the Irish tenor, McCormack–beautiful phrasing.”
These operatic influences were a critically important element in shaping Armstrong’s whole cognitive process during his formative years. They help explain much of the bravura of his brilliant playing. Even more fascinating is how sound bites from such operas as Verdi’s RIGOLETTO, Bizet’s CARMEN, or Leoncavallo’s PAGLIACCI can be found embedded in his improvisations. In fact, in one of his interviews he spontaneously burst out singing an excerpt from the “Quartet” from RIGOLETTO, saying “that was the first thing I used to make all the time”–meaning that early on he practiced this “lick” in different keys.
In addition, there is a unique piece performed by Armstrong called “Skid-Dat-De-Dat.” In all fairness, most of the credit for the creation of this number should go to Armstrong’s second wife, Lil Hardin. The structure of this piece is totally unique in that it is organized in modules of four measures, with an underpinning of four chords moving in whole notes, one per measure. The reason I say that it is “totally unique” is simply that the form of most jazz pieces from this period is based on the twelve-bar blues or the thirty-bar structure of the popular song–sometimes called “Broadway song form.” In any event, basing my research on very compelling circumstantial evidence, I have concluded that this structural detail is explained by Lil Hardin’s classical music studies at the time, including her earning a diploma from the Chicago College of Music and giving a recital of music by Mozart, Chopin, Debussy, and others. Specifically, I have argued that “Skid-Dat-De-Dat” owes a huge debt to the fugue subject with which the finale of Mozart’s last symphony, the “Jupiter,” begins.
Later jazz musicians, like Charlie Parker, J.J. Johnson, and the Modern Jazz Quartet also borrowed ideas from such composers as Stravinsky, Ravel, Bartok, Hindemith and J.S. Bach–a topic too vast to pursue for now in any detail.
For those interested in pursuing this topic further, a good place to start are some of my own publications:
“Louis Armstrong and Opera” THE MUSICAL QUARTERLY, Summer 1992.
THE MUSICAL WORLD OF J.J. JOHNSON (Scarecrow Press and Institute of Jazz Studies, paperback edition, 2002)
LOUIS ARMSTRONG AND PAUL WHITEMAN: TWO KINGS OF JAZZ (Yale University Press, 2004)
As a music without boundaries jazz clearly fosters a spirit of openness and a receptivity to ideas coming from many different sources, some of which might be surprising to many listeners.