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Podcast: Why Was Louis Armstrong the Great Louis Armstrong?

We all know–and most of us love — the jolly, overweight trumpeter with the huge smile, gravelly voice and out-sized personality.

It is assumed in popular culture that Louis Armstrong was a genius. Indeed, the experts are even more certain of it than the rest of us. But, for non-experts, an interesting question arises: What, precisely, did Louis Armstrong do that sets him apart from the rest of great jazz players? Why are so many all but forgotten, while Armstrong is one of the two or three most recognizable faces on earth, even 43 years after his death?


One factor beyond Armstrong’s control that worked in his (and our) favor: Timing. In fact, timing was important in a couple of ways.

One element was simply the nature of technology. Commercial musical recording was still new when Armstrong made his mark. Had he emerged just a few years earlier all of it would have been lost.

The second way in which timing was important is the reality that breakthroughs do not happen in a vacuum. Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Jimi Hendrix – and Albert Einstein, to choose an obvious non-musical example – came on the scene at moment that their respective skills could act as the catalyst to create something tangibly new and different from that which existed before. In other words, there may have been others just as brilliant as Armstrong, but he or she came on the scene just before the stage was set or just after the big breakthrough was made. Armstrong came along at just the right time.

I’ve always been an Armstrong fan – a genuine smile is worth a thousand well played notes, and Armstrong offered both — and therefore appreciated the opportunity to speak with one of the real experts last week. Scott Yanow has written 11 books on jazz and writes for five jazz magazines and websites.

Scott’s answer to the question of what made Louis special is enlightening. It involves Armstrong’s new understanding of the nature of a solo and the use of his voice as an instrument (and vice versa). Mix those capabilities with the showmanship and humanity that characterized the man and you have a genius. You have Louis Armstrong.

Our New Things: Links to Music Sites and Info on Analog Tech and Vinyl

TDMB has focused on music and musicians. We will continue to do that, of course. We're also expanding our coverage to include vinyl and analog equipment.

More specifically, we'll look at this huge and interesting world from the perspective of music lovers who want a better experience, not committed non-audiophiles.

Check out is some of what we've written so far:

-- Assessing the Value of Vinyl Records: An Overview

-- 7 Quick Tips on Optimizing Your Turntable Cartridge

-- Why Vinyl Records Continue to Thrive

-- Finding the Best Amplifier

-- Finding the Best Phono Preamp

-- What Speakers Do I Need for My Turntable?

Check out more articles on analog equipment and vinyl.

The site also is home to The Internet Music Mapping Project, an effort to list and describe as many music-related sites as possible.

Our Music

--A Tribe Called Quest to The Dick Hyman Trio (In other words, A to H)

--Indigo Girls to Queen Ida (I to Q)

--Radiohead to ZZ Top (R to Z)

Reading Music

The stories of the great bands and musicians are fascinating. Musicians as a group are brilliant, but often troubled. The combination of creativity and drama makes for great reading.

Here are some books to check out.

Duke Ellington brought class, sophistication and style to jazz which, until that point, was proudly unpolished and raucous. His story is profound. The author, Terry Teachout, also wrote "Pops," the acclaimed bio of Louis Armstrong. Click here or on the image.


What else is there to say? Here is the story behind every song written by The Beatles. Click here or on the image.


The Grateful Dead don't get enough credit for the profound nature of its lyrics. Many of the band's songs are driven by a deep and literate Americana ("I'm Uncle Sam/That's who I am/Been hidin' out/In a rock and roll band" and "Majordomo Billy Bojangles/Sit down and have a drink with me/What's this about Alabama/Keeps comin' back to me?").

David Dodd's exhaustive study tells the story, song by song. Click here or on the image.

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