Vic Hobson and the roots of Louis Armstrong’s music

Interview with Vic Hobson

Download the mp3 here

Louis Armstrong was a genius – no doubt about that.

But there’s no such thing as a genius in a vacuum.

For some strange reason, the culture and community that gave birth to Louis Armstrong is given short shrift in accounts of his life and art.

In his autobiography and in interviews, Armstrong painted a vivid picture of the world he grew up in, but until now, there has been no in-depth inquiry into what he meant when he said things like “I figure singing and playing is the same,” or, “Singing was more into my blood than the trumpet.”

Now thanks to Vic Hobson’s book “Creating the Jazz Solo” we’re starting to understand what he meant.

Book: Creating the Jazz Solo: Louis Armstrong and Barbershop Harmony (American Made Music Series)

Click here to learn more about Vic Hobson’s work:

Comments and insights sought (scroll to the bottom of the page)

Comments and insights sought from musicians, music educators and scholars. We’re opening this up to a moderated discussion.

Our goal: To discover if there was something valuable and now lost in music education that can be productively revived.

Musical references:

The Hidden Roots of Jazz Harmony

– Ken McCarthy
Jazz on the Tube

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Jamming at "La Maganette"
The Hidden Roots of Jazz Harmony


  1. To Dave Bryant:

    I came across something interesting…a narrative about the early music education Louis Armstrong received as a child BEFORE picking up the cornet at the Waif’s Home.

    At the end of the interview – which covered a new book with lots of breakthrough scholarship – the author Vic Dobson talks about the music that preceded jazz as we know it today…and it sounds a whole lot like a version of Harmolodics!!!

    My understanding of theory is too weak to be sure, but I think this is significant.

    What the author Vic Hobson uncovered suggests a new (but old) approach to music education for young people that would make them free(er) musicians and not just chart followers.

  2. Dave Bryant replied:

    Thanks, I enjoyed Mr. Hobson’s interview very much.

    There are several affinities between Ornette’s music and this confluence of solfege with barbershop quartets that struck me:

    One is the primacy and importance of the interval — Ornette thought that melody trumped all of the other elements of music, and mastery of the intervals was the key to crafting strong melodies.

    I don’t know how much background Ornette had with vocal music, but you know who did — Charlie Haden, who grew up singing with his family and understood the roles of different harmony lines, and especially the bass, through that experience.

    I also thought about the deviations from equal temperament that barbershop singers employ to get that distinctive sound, but you guys didn’t touch on that much, so I don’t know if that was something that was employed the same way in Armstrong’s era, or a later development. As you know, Ornette was all about deviation from equal temperament (and I’ve got the scars to prove it …)

    Ornette was fascinated with the clefs and their relationships to the roles of various instruments. This idea of a cultural tradition of working out 4-part harmony on the fly is intriguing, though.

    The terminology of referring to one voice as “the lead” got my attention in particular.

    At one rehearsal, when Ornette was passing out handwritten charts of a new composition, my part said “Piano Lead” — which seemed pretty impressive, until I found out that the other guys had parts that said “Guitar Lead” and “Bass Lead.”

    He was working from the concept that every part was “the lead,” and said that he wanted us to think and play that way, and not think that we weren’t “the lead” because of our instrument. I wondered in passing where he had picked up that kind of archaic-sounding terminology, but who knows, he may have gotten it from exactly the type of experience Mr. Hobson describes.

    I will definitely share the interview with Mr. Hobson and your thoughts with some colleagues.

    – Dave Bryant

  3. Vic Hobson wrote:

    I was struck by a similar quote from Ron Carter about how he constructed bass lines with reference to the melody rather than the chords.

    “I am seeing something other than the chords the composer has given me. Once I hear the melody, and once the soloist starts to play the changes that go with this melody, I’m already seeing something behind the lead sheet that tells me that these other changes are possible.” Ron Carter (Downbeat January 2019)

  4. In response to Dave Bryant, Ken McCarthy wrote:

    I too was thinking of Charlie Haden singing on the radio with his family at the age of 2.

    Ornette used to mention “unison” to me all the time. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t talking about octaves, but what exactly was he talking about?

    I know two things: 1) he had his own language for talking about music and 2) HE clearly knew what he was talking about and musicians who worked with him in a serious way figured it out and had life-changing benefits from doing so.

    It was revelation to learn that Armstrong received formal music training as a child in grammar school. The speed with which he took to the cornet possibly came from that.

    It makes me wonder if there was some kind of historic educational “iceberg” below the surface that laid the foundation for all these geniuses to surface as they did.

    New Orleans trumpet player Lionel Ferbos, who I met when he was 102, said he was trained in solfege and the idea was you didn’t get an instrument as a kid until you could sing first. (I’ve heard similar things from older musicians from Cuba and Puerto Rico.)

    Ornette used to also tell me about the sheer volume of musical activity that took place in his neighborhood growing up: guys singing, playing a comb with wax paper etc. Music made by humans was everywhere all the time.

    He also said when he finally got his first horn, he could practically play it right away (ala Armstrong.)

    Given how expensive instruments were, it makes sense that the vast majority of music-making was vocal and with easily-made instruments.

    Bringing us to the present, how many music programs for kids are hampered by the cost of instruments? From what I’m learning, this should not be a barrier to kids getting first class music instruction.

    Yes, please share far and wide. I’d love to hear from more musicians and music educators too.

  5. I’m wondering if starting with an instrument and reading is like trying to learn a language by reading it instead of learning how to speak it.

    Conversely, if you start your musical life by singing, you can go more directly from concept to expression thereby spending your formative years MAKING music vs wrestling with an instrument and reading (aka “learning”), a process that starts you out by keeping you a step or two removed from actually PLAYING music until you “come out the other side” of the education process.

    There’s always a huge number of people who have “studied” a language and feel they’ve failed to learn it vs. the small number who learn to actually speak it. This is weird because for an infant and small child the learning of the native language always takes place and without the need for “formal” education.

    Given that human beings are – at their core – musical beings at least as much as they are language-speaking beings, the huge percentage of people alienated from the making of music is also a suspect condition.

    Come to think of it, this discomfort with creating that many people have was something Ornette often commented on to me. He also talked a lot about connections between language and music. In fact, his great unfinished (as far as I know) work was called “The Oldest Language.”

  6. Anonymous says

    From the book “Sophisticated Giant: The Life and Legacy of Dexter Gordon” by Maxine Gordon.

    “Dexter’s first performing ensemble was a jug band (the others played on washtubs, pie plates for symbols, and kazoos) and played in amateur shows in the neighborhood.” p. 30

    One of Gordon’s ancestors, his grandfather Frank Gordon, owned and operated a barbershop in North Dakota. Maxine points out that in that era “tonsorial establishment” were major commercial and community centers.

    She goes on: “The barbershop is also central to the story of bebop in the 1940s, as the latest records were discussed, sold, exchanged and played there – many had turntables – and the barbershop has always served as a meeting place for Black men and a reliable locale for political discussion and strategy sessions.” p. 22

    In the same way we don’t talk about air (we just breathe it), things like barbershops as music venues , ensembles with improvised instruments, and community amateur contests were so common, they don’t usually merit a mention in most musician biographies and yet their existence does much to explain the heights the culture achieved.

  7. Regarding barbershops, Gilberto says that in Cuba many musicians also became barbers or tailors as to earn some more money during the day as they worked as musicians during the night. Besides, musicians regularly went to barbershops where the barber was a musician himself so MUSIC was a very common topic discussed there. This tradition or whatever is called was transferred to the US by Cuban musicians who were also barbers. Gilberto remembers that many Cuban musicians living in NY went to his stepfather’s barbershop where they talked about music. He doesn’t recall any record players or the selling of records there.

    In public elementary school there were extra curriculum subjects as English, Sewing and Music where solfege was told. When I was a kid it was the beginning of choirs in school.

  8. Gilberto Valdez says

    I asked singer/drummer/band leader Gilberto Valdez (born in Havana in 1938 if his musical education included Solfegge.

    Here was his answer:

    “YES. I whole year before allowing me to start learning to play the piano. It was hell.”

    Same tradition in old New Orleans as related to me by trumpeter Lionel Ferbos (born in New Orleans, 1911.)

    “…lessons with Professor Paul Chaligny, an exacting Creole task-master who would not let him blow the horn until he knew how to read music and had mastered the rudiments of theory.”

  9. Solfege makes another appearance at a key moment in jazz music history – via the trumpet.

    When Mario Bauzá, the father of Afro-Cuban jazz, was trying to get his first shot at playing in the jazz idiom in the late 1920s, he abandoned the alto sax and clarinet and picked up the trumpet.

    His goal was fill the trumpet chair of Celido Curbelo’s band which played North American style music in Cuba and was seeking a player adept in jazz.

    “Bauzá learned quickly. After only a few weeks of diligent practice, and aided by his mastery of solfege, Bauzá became the band’s trumpet soloist.”

    – From “Machito and His Afro-Cubans: Selected Transcriptions” – Paul Austerlitz and Jere Laukknanen

  10. “Machito also received instruction in solfège and flute.” (1)

    An amateur musician, Andrade taught solfége to children in the neighborhood free of charge. Mario (Bauzá) picked up on these lessons by eavesdropping and surprised his godfather when, at about six years of age, he performed difficult solfége assignments perfectly. Andrade determined that Mario would receive a formal musical education from the best teachers available. The child’s solfège instructor, however, imposed such a strict regimen that after six months Mario told his godfather he wanted to stop. But his god- father said he must continue. After studying solfège for two years, Mario began taking oboe lessons. When he registered his dislike of the oboe, he was allowed to switch to clarinet. The demanding practice schedule imposed upon the boy left little time for play. As Bauzá later recalled, it was just “study, study, study, so that I didn’t have no kid’s life.”(2)

    – From “Machito and His Afro-Cubans: Selected Transcriptions” – Paul Austerlitz and Jere Laukknanen

    (1) Raúl Fernánadez, personal communication with the author.
    (2) Mario Bauzá, interview by Anthony Brown.

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