<<I’ve just attended a jazz music class. The teacher gave us this question: “What is the difference between the styles of Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday?” I’m making a small research to answer this question. Can you help?>>
Louis created a bravura solo style at a time when jazz was predominately an ensemble music. As a singer, he took aspects of his trumpet style– his approach to rhythm, and of course his unique personality– and developed a highly distinctive vocal approach. All the imitators who mimic his gravelly tone don’t come close to copying his phrasing, his use of space, the nobility of his sound.
If you listen to Billie, and accept her own claim that she imitated Louis, you understand how important it is for one to take the lessons from another’s style and allow them to filter through one’s own personality. The observation about their different ways of dealing with life– Billie singing of the sadness, where Louis lets most of it slide– is a valid one, but if you listen to how they both sang in the 30s, you’ll notice Billie’s singing style, even her choice of songs, was closer to Louis than in her last recordings.
The other noteworthy difference is found here: Billie anesthesized herself with heroin and alcohol against the ravages of Black American life, becoming somewhat of a jazz martyr, not unlike Charlie Parker. Armstrong, on the other hand, found a way to survive, and even thrive, in the system without ever losing his sense of self. If you doubt it, consider these two instances:
At a formal dinner in Europe, Louis was asked how he was able to attain success when so many black artists could not. He replied, without anger, that “you just gotta get some white man to put his hand on your shoulder and say, ‘this is my nigger’. That’s what Mr Glaser (Louis’ long-time manager, Joe Glaser, handled his affairs for years, made a fortune from Louis’ work, yet Louis always called him ‘Mr’) does for me.”
The other story was after the incident in the 1950s of the children being refused admission to school due to racism. When asked by a reporter about it, Louis said, “I tell you what should happen: Mr. Eisenhower (then US president) should go down there and walk those kids into that school himself!”
One would expect a comment like that from Malcolm X or Medgar Evans, but from the smiling, lovable entertainer Satchmo?…
Billie went through a lot in her life but, although it’s not popular to say about icons, some of it was self-induced. She didn’t choose racism, but she did choose heroin; she didn’t choose to be raped as a child, or to be left to grow up in a brothel, but she did choose abusive men over and over; she didn’t choose for big band life to be so oppressive (wearing dark makeup so she wouldn’t be mistaken for white; driving past lynched bodies on the bus) but she did choose to take refuge in the Cafe Society world where she was no more than a feel-good purge for white folks: “We’re here listening to this black woman sing about her troubles, so we can’t be all bad”…
For all the flak Louis took, often from other blacks, he never allowed his hardships to be the primary influence in his music. You can’t listen to him without an involuntary smile coming across your face. Rarely will that feeling occur when listening to Billie and that, to my mind, is the major difference between their two styles: Billie’s singing brought you into the hell that was her everyday, while Louis invited you into a state of joy while he was onstage, ever aware of what awaited him (and us) when the show was over.
© 2005 by Scotty Writes Music
Scotty Wright – jazz voice