The early influence of Louis Armstrong on Coleman Hawkins, as mediated by Fletcher Henderson

by Tim Harding

(An edited version of this essay was published in Jazzline magazine,
Vol. 48, No. 2, Spring/Summer 2015)

Jazz musical lineages are normally tracked by instrument. Leading musicians are often described in the literature as having been primarily influenced by their predecessors on the same instrument – trumpeters are influenced by trumpeters, saxophonists by saxophonists, and so on.  In this essay, I propose to put forward a thesis that in the 1920s, trumpeter Louis Armstrong was the major jazz influence on tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins as a soloist; and that Hawkins also influenced musicians on other instruments, such as Roy Eldridge on trumpet.  This influence of Armstrong on Hawkins was mediated by bandleader Fletcher Henderson, in whose orchestra both were members from October 1924 to November 1925.

Louis Armstrong is widely regarded as the first great jazz soloist;[1] [2] although Sidney Bechet was arguably the first notable jazz soloist to make a recording.[3] [4] Armstrong was born in 1901 in the poorest section of New Orleans.[5]  He learned to play the cornet in the Coloured Waif’s Home where he later became leader of the children’s band there.[6] After he left the Waif’s Home, by day he was delivering coal from a mule-drawn cart and later on by night he was playing cornet in honky-tonk bars.  In time, he graduated to become a full-time musician, playing in the bands of Kid Ory, Fate Marable and the Tuxedo Brass Band.[7]

Armstrong’s main cornet mentor during his early life had been Joe ‘King’ Oliver, who had left New Orleans for Chicago in 1918 after the closing down of the Storyville red light district.  In mid-1922, Oliver invited Armstrong to play second cornet in his Creole Jazz Band at the Lincoln Gardens dance hall on the south side of Chicago.  It has never been clear why Oliver made this invitation, as these early jazz bands did not usually include two cornets.[8]

King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band in 1923 with Louis Armstrong seated in the centre

The early New Orleans style of jazz was polyphonic, based on collective improvisation rather than solos with accompaniment.  According to Gioia, ‘no early jazz band was better at this ensemble style of playing than Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band’.[9]  The only real exceptions to this ensemble New Orleans style were in the breaks, such as the two-cornet breaks in the Oliver band where Armstrong harmonised with Oliver’s lead.[10]

In the 1923 recordings of Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band we can hear the young Louis Armstrong ‘groping towards a solo-based jazz style: he is beginning to express feelings which will not long be containable within the matrix of the New Orleans model from which he sprang’.[11]  According to musicologist Gunther Schuller, Armstrong was ‘skillfully treading the fine line between the functional requirements of second cornet to King Oliver and his own burgeoning solo tendencies’.[12]

On ‘Chimes Blues’ Oliver allows Armstrong to play two choruses of the melody alone, but it is not really a jazz solo in the improvised sense.[13] [14]  Similarly, Armstrong’s solo on ‘Froggie Moore’ is primarily a statement of the melody of that particular strain of the tune as composed by Jelly Roll Morton, albeit with some of Armstrong’s own embellishments and rhythmic dash.[15] [16] [17]

On the 26 October 1923 recording of ‘Mabel’s Dream’, Armstrong plays an innovative and very appealing open horn counter-melody against Oliver’s muted statement of the original melody, which whether intentional or not sounds louder than Oliver’s playing.  Schuller describes this counter-melody as an amazing performance in its simplicity.[18]  A transcription by Schuller of the first eight bars of both recorded parts is as follows.

Figure 1. – first eight bars of Louis Armstrong’s counter-melody in ‘Mabel’s Dream’, as recorded by King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band on 26 October 1923.

mabels dream

Source: Schuller 1968, 83

The writer and musicologist Edward Brooks classifies Armstrong’s counter-melody as a solo that ‘constitutes one of the most moving climaxes of early jazz’.[19]

Interestingly, on the later 24 December 1923 recordings of Mabel’s Dream, Armstrong appears to have been ‘reined in’ by Oliver as his muted counter melodies are barely audible behind Oliver’s more powerful lead in the same passages of the tune.  Such restrictions on his freedom to solo may well have contributed to Armstrong being persuaded by his then wife Lil Hardin to leave the Oliver band in mid-1924.[20] [21]

According to the biographer Laurence Bergreen, Armstrong then experienced some racial discrimination when he tried to join the band of Sammy Stewart, who was a light-skinned African-American who had only Creoles and light-skinned blacks in his band.  Bergreen’s view is that Armstrong was too dark-skinned for Stewart’s band.[22]  Fortunately, Armstrong managed to get a job as first trumpet with Ollie Powers’ band in Chicago.[23]  However, as there are no relevant recordings, it is not clear how many solo opportunities Armstrong had in Powers’ band.

In September 1924, the successful African-American dance band leader Fletcher Henderson hired Armstrong specifically to be his featured soloist in New York.  Henderson had previously heard Armstrong in 1922 whilst on tour in New Orleans and offered him a job in his small touring band, but Armstrong had turned the offer down.[24] [25]  As Henderson’s 1924 offer now provided Armstrong an ideal opportunity to develop his own musical identity, he readily accepted it and travelled by train to New York from Chicago.[26]  Gioia described this transition as a major watershed in jazz history: ‘The New Orleans pioneers exit stage left; Armstrong on trumpet enters stage right heralding the new Age of the Soloist’.[27]  Similarly, Giddens credits Armstrong with changing jazz from a collective idiom to a soloists art.[28]

The Fletcher Henderson Orchestra in 1925, with Louis Armstrong 3rd from left and Coleman Hawkins 2nd from left

Before going on to discuss Armstrong’s performances with Henderson’s band, it is appropriate to outline the social and musical context that Armstrong was heading into.  Not only was there racial segregation between White and Black musicians, audiences and record buyers; there was also a structured hierarchy amongst the Black jazz musicians.  Trumpeter Rex Stewart has outlined what in effect was a four-tiered caste system amongst Black musicians in the New York of the mid-1920s.  At the top was the Clef Club, a union of Black musicians founded by former US Army Lieutenant James Reese Europe who played at ‘society’ functions, including for Whites-only audiences.  Next were the touring vaudeville musicians such as Mamie Smith and her band who played for both Black and White audiences.  Then there were the larger dance bands led by Fletcher Henderson, Sam Wooding and Billy Fowler who played in public for Black-only audiences.  On the lowest rung were musicians playing in small clubs, penny-a-dance halls and presumably speakeasies, again only for Black audiences.  Black musicians in the higher levels had little to do with those on the lowest level.[29]

Jazz historians agree that Henderson was a major figure, initially as a bandleader and musical talent spotter, and later as an arranger and composer.[30] But before Armstrong joined it, Henderson’s band was primarily an expert reading band playing written dance band arrangements inspired by the leading White bands such as those of Paul Whiteman and Vincent Lopez.[31] [32]  On the basis of their early recordings, the Henderson Orchestra even sounded like these White dance bands, and for this reason are likely to have sold records to White consumers.  Yet Henderson also made ‘race records’ backing blues singers, thus appealing to Black record-buying consumers as well. In this way, Henderson had cleverly segmented both the Black and White markets for his recordings.[33]

Henderson himself and his musicians, such as Charlie Dixon, Kaiser Marshall and Coleman Hawkins enjoyed Clef Club membership and contacts.[34]  So some members of Henderson’s band may have looked down upon Louis Armstrong socially if not musically.

On the other hand, musicians soon came to admire Armstrong’s unrivalled abilities as a jazz soloist.  Schuller is amazed at the disparity in quality between Armstrong’s solos and those of other musicians in the Henderson band’s early recordings.[35]  For instance, Armstrong’s hot solo on ‘Mandy Make Up Your Mind’ immediately follows some corny ‘doo-wacka-doo’ four-bar passages by the other two trumpeters Howard Scott and Elmer Chambers.  These passages were interspersed with some old-fashioned straight tenor sax playing by Coleman Hawkins, complete with the dated staccato slap-tonguing that very soon would go completely out of style.  Louis Armstrong himself described the impact he made on Henderson’s band as follows.

Well, I knew I couldn’t read music as fast as them cats, and Fletcher never let me sing. They’d got me there to blow that hot stuff. Lot of the time all I had to play in the arrangement was a 8 bar, maybe 16 bar solo. First time I did it, they went wild and I did too. Them cats all stood up and applauded and cheered. Just another night to me, you know, but it’s a good feeling to know that they satisfied that you’re with them’.[36]

The British trumpeter Humphrey Lyttelton reports Henderson’s principal arranger and lead alto player Don Redman as saying that ‘Louis, his style and his feeling, changed our whole idea about the band musically’.[37] [38]  Every bandleader then wanted to hire a trumpet soloist in Armstrong’s mould, from Paul Whiteman to Duke Ellington.[39]

According to Lyttelton, only one of Henderson’s other musicians, tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, had any potential as an improvising jazz musician.  (This is in the absence of trumpeter Joe Smith who replaced Howard Scott about seven months after Armstrong joined.)[40]

Like Henderson, Coleman Hawkins came from a middle-class African-American family.  His tours with Mamie Smith’s Jazz Hounds in 1922-23 placed him high in Rex Stewart’s second tier of black musicians.[41]  One of the few other jazz tenor saxophonists of this period, Prince Robinson had toured with Lillian Jones Jazz Hounds in 1919-21.  In this way, the tenor saxophone came to jazz via vaudeville.[42]

Mamie Smith’s Jazz Hounds in 1923 with Coleman Hawkins 2nd from right above playing tenor saxophone

Hawkins joined Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra in 1923, where he remained until 1934, sometimes doubling on clarinet and in the early years, on bass saxophone.  Prior to Louis Armstrong joining Henderson, Hawkins’ solos, whilst musically competent, lacked ‘swing’ or a jazz feel to them. They were typical of the early dance band style of this period.

According to the musicologist Jeffrey Magee, Armstrong’s influence left a profound mark on Hawkins.[43]  He was stunned by the strength of Armstrong’s music and strove to adapt this style to the tenor saxophone.[44]  This influence is illustrated by Hawkins solo on Henderson’s ‘The Stampede’ recorded on 14 May 1926, and notated below.  In this solo, ‘Hawkins now deploys a legato fluency in place of the heavy, slap-tongued staccato articulation’ of his earlier style.[45]

Figure 2. – first fifteen bars of Coleman Hawkin’s solo in ‘The Stampede’, as recorded by Fletcher Henderson and His Orchestra on 14 May 1926.


Source: Magee 2005, 113

Magee describes Armstrong’s influence on this solo as follows:

In the first four bars, for example, Hawkins takes a cue from Armstrong’s openings, with a syncopated phrase leading to the familiar three-note figure (mm. 1-2)….Other Armstrong-like effects spring up confidently, like the syncopated double-leap in m.10, and the rising, chromatic downbeat triplet in m.11…..In The Stampede’ we can hear Hawkins telling a story, working on the musical “coherence” that made Armstrong’s solos unique. At the age of 21, fuelled by his encounter with Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins had made impressive strides towards achieving an original solo voice.[46]

Lyttelton puts it this way:

Perhaps the most startling revelation of Armstrong’s liberating influence comes when Coleman Hawkins leaps out of the ensemble for his solo. Here for the first time is a glimpse of the tenor saxophone player from whom all rivals were to stand back in awe for the next decade. Not only is his solo couched in terms strikingly similar to Armstrong’s up-tempo contributions, but the actual notes themselves have a vibrant life of their own.[47}

Hawkins’s dramatic solo may have been one reason that ‘The Stampede’ was taken up by many other bands, with other saxophonists strongly influenced by Hawkins’s ‘Stampede’ phrases.[48] [49].  Roy Eldridge learned the solo by heart on trumpet and got his first job after playing it for an audition.[50] [51]  In this way, Eldridge was influenced by Armstrong indirectly via Hawkins;[52] as well as directly by hearing Armstrong play in person rather than from recordings.[53]  Hawkins went on to become ‘the undisputed master of the tenor saxophone’ and to have a major influence on all the early top tenor saxophonists except Lester Young.[54] [55]

This essay has illustrated how the young Louis Armstrong emerged from the New Orleans ensemble tradition to become jazz’s first great soloist. By the medium of the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, and with the encouragement of Fletcher Henderson himself, Armstrong in turn became a major influence on other early jazz soloists such a Coleman Hawkins and Roy Eldridge.  In doing so, Armstrong established the general stylistic direction of jazz for several decades to come.[56]

Works cited

[1] Schuller, Gunther. Early Jazz- Its Roots and Musical Development.  New York: Oxford University Press. 1968, 89-90.

[2] Lyttelton, Humphrey. The Best of Jazz. London: Portico, 1999, 116-122.

[3] Ibid.,55-57.

[4] Schuller, Early Jazz, 196-198.

[5] Giddins, Gary. Visions of Jazz. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998, 88.

[6] Collier, James Lincoln. Louis Armstrong. London: Pan Books, 1984, 42.

[7] Ibid.,69-84.

[8] Ibid., 93.

[9] Gioia, Ted. The History of Jazz. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

[10] Schuller, Early Jazz, 79.

[11] Brooks, Edward. Liner Notes for King Oliver Volume One 1923 to 1929. Festival Records, CD recording, D 26123, Sydney, 1995.

[12] Schuller, Early Jazz, 90.

[13] Ibid.,83.

[14] Giddins, Visions of Jazz, 81.

[15] Collier, Louis Armstrong, 105.

[16] Schuller, Early Jazz, 80.

[17] Giddins, Visions of Jazz, 81.

[18] Schuller, Early Jazz, 83.

[19] Brooks, Liner Notes.

[20] Panassie, Hugues. Louis Armstrong. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971, 10.

[21] Schuller, Early Jazz, 78, 90.

[22] Bergreen, Laurence. Louis Armstrong – An Extravagant Life. London: HarperCollins, 1997, 233.

[23] Ibid., 234.

[24] Collier. Louis Armstrong, 42.

[25] Giddins, Visions of Jazz, 91.

[26] Schuller, Early Jazz, 90-91.

[27] Gioia, Ted. The History of Jazz, 53.

[28] Giddins, Visions of Jazz, 88.

[29] Magee, Jeffrey. The Uncrowned King of Swing – Fletcher Henderson and Big Band Jazz. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005, 30.

[30] Magee, Jeffrey. ‘Fletcher Henderson, Composer: A Counter-Entry to the International Dictionary of Black Composers’ Black Music Research Journal, Vol. 19, No. 1, Spring 1999, 2.

[31] Ibid., 29.

[32] DeVeaux, Scott and Giddins, Gary. Jazz. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009, 123.

[33] Magee, The Uncrowned King of Swing, 34.

[34] Ibid., 30.

[35] Schuller, Early Jazz, 91.

[36] Meryman, Richard. Louis Armstrong – a self-portrait. New York: The Eakins Press, 1966, 32.

[37] Lyttelton, Humphrey. The Best of Jazz. London: Portico, 1999, 109.

[38] Giddins, Visions of Jazz, 92.

[39] DeVeaux and Giddens. Jazz, 150.

[40] Lyttelton, The Best of Jazz, 108.

[41] Magee, The Uncrowned King of Swing, 31.

[42] Schuller, Gunther. The Swing Era – The Development of Jazz 1930-1945.  New York: Oxford University Press. 1989, 427.

[43] Magee, The Uncrowned King of Swing, 112.

[44] DeVeaux and Giddens. Jazz, 163.

[45] Magee, The Uncrowned King of Swing, 112.

[46] Ibid.,113-114.

[47]  Lyttelton, The Best of Jazz, 113.

[48] Magee, The Uncrowned King of Swing, 114.

[49] DeVeaux and Giddens. Jazz, 163.

[50] Lyttelton, The Best of Jazz, 410.

[51] Magee, The Uncrowned King of Swing, 114.

[52] Lyttelton, The Best of Jazz, 113.

[53] Ibid., 408-411.

[54] Schuller, The Swing Era, 426.

[55] Gioia, Ted. The Imperfect Art. Stanford: The Stanford Alumni Association, 1988, 142.

[56] Schuller, Early Jazz, 89.

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