With magnetic charisma, expressive scat singing, and incredible trumpet skills, Louis Armstrong changed music forever. This weekend, the Houston Symphony pays tribute to the icon with Wonderful World: The Louis Armstrong Songbook, featuring acclaimed vocalist and trumpeter, Byron Stripling.
Widely recognized as the founding father of Jazz, Satchmo’s influence as an artist, musician and cultural icon is unmatched. We talked with Mark Hughes, principal trumpet, and John Parker, associate principal trumpet, about Armstrong’s continued legacy and the impact the musician has made on them.
Houston Symphony: When did you first become aware of Louis Armstrong?
Mark Hughes: My first memory of Louis Armstrong was hearing him singing “Hello Dolly” when I was a child. Besides his unique voice, I was taken by how happy he appeared to be while performing.
Associate Principal Trumpet John Parker
John Parker: I feel like I’ve known about Louis Armstrong for as long as I can remember, and I knew all his famous songs growing up, like “What a Wonderful World.” He is just one of those names that transcends time and generational gaps in a way that not many other artists have done. I didn’t start listening seriously to his trumpet playing until much later in high school as I was getting more serious about the instrument as well.
Watch: Louis Armstrong singing “Hello Dolly”
HS: What would you say are the hallmarks of his playing style? What characterizes a Louis Armstrong performance and distinguishes it from other great trumpet players?
MH: Louis had a unique vibrato. I’ve never heard any other player use a vibrato like it. It was very wide, yet still vocal. So wide that it sounded like a tremolo between two different pitches. He also had an extremely advanced ability to play around with the established tempo. He might play 5 beats of music against 4 beats being played by the rhythm section. He was so effective doing this, you wouldn’t notice if just casually listening, but in trying to write down what he played, you’d see it right away. This rhythmic complexity was one of many examples of his genius.
JP: Louis’ playing has always inspired me. Not many players have the ability to balance incredible power with the tenderness that he always showed. In all of his recordings, you can tell he was thinking like a vocalist and not a trumpet player, which is something that I think carries value across the board in our profession, regardless of what style of music you are performing.
HS: Where does Louis Armstrong stand in the all-time list of great trumpet players?
MH: In the world of jazz musicians, all the great jazz trumpeters of our time can trace back their seemingly unique gifts back to seeds that were planted by Louis Armstrong. Sadly, much of his genius was only handed down by those who were able to hear him live. Recordings made during his most productive time were limited in length and only allowed a certain level of complexity to be captured. Those who heard him live, would tout that he played dozens of choruses of improvisation, growing in complexity and difficulty frequently having him displaying amazing feats of strength and range unheard of by other players of his time. On recordings there were limits to 4 or 5 choruses greatly limiting his palate of creativity.
JP: I think a lot of trumpet players would say that Louis Armstrong is like a grandfather that has inspired them. He set an incredible standard of musicality and expression that is still admired to this day. He’s definitely near the top of my own personal list of great trumpeters, and not even because he could do anything spectacular, technically speaking, on the horn that nobody else could do. It was more about his style and expression. When listening to his recordings, it isn’t the notes themselves that awe me, it is how he plays them.
HS: To what extent does his legacy transcend jazz and influence classical and all genres of music?
MH: Armstrong has influenced jazz and classical players alike with his singing style. You can almost hear the words as he plays.
JP: I think Louis is one of those artists whose name will be engrained in our culture for centuries. In a 21st century full of ever-growing media and musical output from so many different artists, Armstrong’s music maintains relevance because of its uniqueness and stylistic excellence.
HS: What pieces are you most excited about performing, and why?
MH: Some of my favorite Louis tunes are “What a Wonderful World,” “Mack the Knife,” “C’est Si Bon,” “La Vie En Rose,” “Cabaret,” “Hello Dolly,” “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South,” and anything he did with Billie Holiday.
JP: I am actually not performing on this program myself, but I am going to come to one of the shows, and highly recommend everyone else try to attend as well! I’m most excited about hearing “Sometimes I feel like a Motherless Child” and the “Saint Louis Blues”.
Join us for Wonderful World: The Louis Armstrong Songbook November 5-7. Tickets still available!