The Hidden Roots of Jazz Harmony

“Basin Street Blues” – Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five (1928)
The barbershop quartet starts at 1:20

Louis Armstrong (voice and cornet), Jimmy Strong (clarinet), Fred Robinson (trombone), Mancy Cara, (banjo), Earl Hines (celeste and piano), Zutty Singleton (drum

At the 1:20 mark Hines stops playing the piano and leads the singing that supports Armstrong’s vocal solo, a role Armstrong was thoroughly familiar with going back to his childhood as a street singer.

Note that when the band comes back in after a short piano break by Hines, the piano drops out again and the “barbershop” harmonies come back (at 2:20) to support Armstrong’s cornet solo.

This was the “zone” where Armstrong was most comfortable throughout his career and all his artistry was rooted in it.

Before he mastered the horn, Armstrong sang lead (the improvising part) in a vocal quartet. He always considered his singing to be his primary art.

“Singing was into my blood more than the trumpet… I had one of the finest All Boys Quartets that ever walked the streets of New Orleans.” – Louis Armstrong.

Critics who think Armstrong’s singing was something added on later in his career as a sort of show biz pandering are just plain ignorant and have no ears.

Earl Hines, raised in Pittsburgh, was also thoroughly familiar with the Afro-American vocal art now known as “barbershop quartet” music. In fact, he was a trained barber.

See if you can hear the “barbershop” in the accompanying chords in this improvised piece by him:

“I don’t think I think when I play. I have a photographic memory for chords, and when I’m playing, the right chords appear in my mind like photographs long before I get to them.” – Earl Hines


Jazz harmony uses the materials of European harmony, but in a different way.

There is a theory that the unique harmonies of American music derive from Liszt’s “Liebstraum” no. III, a composition published in 1850.

This theory is interesting but obscures that fact that many European classical composers took inspiration from jazz: Erik Satie, Maurice Ravel, Darius Milhaud, Dmitri Shostakovich, Kurt Weil, Antonín Dvořák, and Igor Stravinsky. Presumably they knew the Liszt piece and none of them referred to Liszt-influenced jazz harmony.

Here’s the kind of music they were responding to: inspired lyrical improvisation over syncopated barbershop harmonies. Louis Armstrong plays “Star Dust” (1931)


For more about this topic, see Creating the Jazz Solo: Louis Armstrong and Barbershop Harmony by Vic Hobson.

Click here to visit Vic Hobson’s website.

Bonus: Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy – “I Only Have Eyes for You”
Another trumpet master who feels the great Afro-American vocal tradition

– Ken McCarthy
Jazz on the Tube

P.S. Our unique programming is made possible by help from people like you. Learn how you can contribute to our efforts here: Support Jazz on the Tube

Vic Hobson and the roots of Louis Armstrong's music
The greatest band you never heard of - but heard a lot of