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Could Any Other Jazz Trumpeter Match Up with Louis Armstrong in the 1930s?
The short answer is no—but these eight horn players came close
I’ve written a lot about Louis Armstrong over the years. And it’s surprisingly difficult to do.
What’s the problem, you ask?
Satchmo (as he was called) seems like such a straightforward subject. He played the same songs over and over for decades—leaving behind more than 50 recordings of many of them. And he always played them in the same style, more or less.
Audiences liked him as soon as they saw him. He charmed them effortlessly. By any measure, Louis Armstrong was one of the greatest entertainers of the 20th century. And even if you just watch a short film clip, you feel his appeal almost instantly.
Armstrong is like mom’s apple pie—there’s no need to explain anything, just take a taste.
So why is it so hard to write about Satchmo?
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The reality is that Armstrong’s skill as an entertainer actually makes it more difficult to grasp his musical innovations. He changed the course of American music back in the 1920s by inventing a whole new vocabulary for both instrumental and vocal music. He literally played melodies on the horn nobody had played before—in fact, he invented and performed hundreds of phrases (improvised them, no less!) that redefined the sound and scope of jazz.
But the rest of the jazz world eventually learned to imitate these phrases. Armstrong’s vocabulary became their own, quickly entering the public domain by implication. (Given today’s intellectual property court rulings, Armstrong could have sued for millions.) And that, too, makes it hard for people nowadays to grasp the depth and breadth of his impact.
Today, we’ve all heard those elaborate melodic phrases, filled with color and invigorating rhythmic twists—so we tend to forget that nobody knew how to play them back in 1920.
Back then we needed Louis Armstrong to show the way. I would go so far as to say that he had a bigger influence on commercial music than anyone else during the first half of the 20th century. Without Armstrong there really is no Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, no Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, no Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, no American Idol and The Masked Singer.
(I know that last clause sounds like a joke, but it really isn’t—TV singing competitions borrow heavily from Armstrong’s musical vocabulary.)
This legacy is only barely reflected in his famous moments at the heart of pop culture—such as Armstrong singing “Hello Dolly” in a hit Hollywood movie. Or touching people’s hearts with “What a Wonderful World.” Or charming audiences with his banter. Those are all lovely achievements, but don’t get to the essence of who this artist was, and how much he means to the evolution of American music.
I’ve written about this elsewhere—for example in The History of Jazz and How to Listen to Jazz—where I’ve tried to guide newcomers through this important subject. And in the future, I promise to write more here about Armstrong’s classic recordings.
But today I want to address another matter, also important—well, at least it’s important to me. I want to look at the trumpeters who tried to be the “next Louis Armstrong.”
I will say upfront that this was an impossible dream. I’m reminded of all those basketball players who wanted to be the “next Michael Jordan.” Somebody actually compiled a list of 120 basketball players who were given that title over the years—they include everyone from Grant Hill to Penny Hardaway.
As it turned out, this was not a title to chase—because you could have a great career, and still seem like a failure if your benchmark for success was matching MJ.
That’s unfair in sports—and in jazz too. You ought to be evaluated on your own merits. So with that in mind, I want to introduce you to eight amazing trumpeters, who sadly had to operate in Louis Armstrong’s shadow.
They deserve better.
Each of them tasted greatness, and left behind fantastic music. Let’s give them their due, and celebrate their (too often forgotten) legacy.
1. Jabbo Smith
Jabbo Smith was still a teenager when jazz musicians started talking about him as the next great trumpeter. He recorded with Duke Ellington when he was just 18, and even turned down a chance to join that band—because he had bigger plans for his career.
“Jabbo Smith was as good as Louis,” insisted bassist Milt Hinton….But Smith eventually moved to Milwaukee, where he worked for a car rental company.
By the time he started recording with the Brunswick label in 1929, word on the street was that Smith was truly “the next Louis Armstrong.” He recorded twenty tracks for Brunswick (nineteen eventually released) that shook up jazz fans, and are today considered his greatest works. But few bother to listen nowadays.
That’s a crying shame. “Jabbo was as good as Louis,” insisted bassist Milt Hinton. “He was the Dizzy Gillespie of that era. He played rapid-fire passages while Louis was melodic and beautiful.”
But then Jabbo Smith just disappeared.
He didn’t really vanish, but like many musicians suffered from the collapse in record sales after the 1929 stock market crash. When I say collapse, I’m not exaggerating—demand for records in the US fell more than 90%. There was nothing Jabbo Smith could do in this environment. He eventually moved to Milwaukee, where he worked for a car rental company.
Many people in the jazz world thought Jabbo Smith was dead, but he made a comeback in the late 1960s. But the time for him to launch a jazz revolution had come and gone. Yet he deserves something better than he has today—which is almost nothing. You won’t see his name in those jazz halls of fame or in the best-all-time lists. But, lordy, listen to him play back in 1929. In particular, check out his stop-time solo at the 65 second mark.
2. Hot Lips Page
Even Louis Armstrong’s manager Joe Glaser thought that Hot Lips Page could be the next Satchmo. Glaser traveled to Kansas City in 1936, and was so excited about this trumpeter that he hatched a plan to sign the Count Basie band to a management contract—and replace Basie with Hot Lips Page as bandleader!
Basie turned down this offer, as you can imagine. So Page signed with Glaser as a solo artist. In December 1936, Page arrived in New York with every expectation that he would be anointed as the “next Louis Armstrong.”
For a time, the newcomer flourished at the top of the world—or Manhattan, which amounted to the same thing in the jazz scene of that era. He attracted sellout crowds at Smalls Paradise in Harlem, and toured extensively. He also helped break down segregation in American music by performing with Artie Shaw, who was one of the biggest stars in music at that juncture.
But then the new bebop style arrived on the scene. Hot Lips Page tried to match up with the young modern jazz players at those famous Minton’s jam sessions, and for a time it looked as if he might make the switch to the more modern approach. But he never found a large audience among postwar jazz fans. Instead Page bounced around from gig to gig, playing with other oldtimers, or backing up singers, or even trying his hand at R&B—and delivered the goods in every setting, but with few big paydays.
At the time of the trumpeter’s death in 1954, he was just 46. But in the constantly shifting jazz scene of that era, Hot Lips Page was already considered ancient history—unfairly, because he continued to play at a high level until the very end.
Here he is back in 1938—check out his fiery solo at the 1:10 mark.
3. Bubber Miley
In some ways, Bubber Miley was better equipped than any of these trumpeters to escape Louis Armstrong’s shadow, even back in the 1920s. He had three huge advantages:
Miley didn’t sound anything like Armstrong, relying on a repertoire of growls, moans, bent notes, and other tone distortions that were his signature sounds;
He used the mute—especially the plunger mute—better than anyone of his generation, including Armstrong; and
He was the star soloist with the Duke Ellington band at the very moment when this orchestra gained widespread acclaim.
On those early Ellington classics—"Black and Tan Fantasy", "East St. Louis Toodle-Oo", "The Mooche,” and "Creole Love Call"—Miley is almost as important as the composer himself. And it’s hardly an exaggeration to say that Ellington was building his band around what this trumpeter could do with the horn.
But Bubber Miley was his own worst enemy. Alcoholism and his resulting unreliability led to his departure from the Ellington band in 1929. Three years later he was dead from tuberculosis, at just 29. You can measure his greatness in many ways, but I find it significant that Ellington spent the rest of his life hiring trumpeters who had some stylistic connection to Miley—a powerful improviser who, nonetheless, proved irreplaceable.
4. Henry ‘Red’ Allen
I almost never hear anyone mention Red Allen nowadays, even in jazz circles. But during his lifetime, he had a core of loyal admirers who viewed him as the most formidable challenger to Louis Armstrong. One of his greatest fans was jazz critic Whitney Balliett, who never let an opportunity go by of praising Allen’s brilliance.
I can’t do better than quote Balliett’s own words:
“Red Allen’s style was fully formed by 1930. Louis Armstrong hovered in its background, but Allen's originality dominated it. It was an elegant, fearless style, and it was perfectly balanced. His full, often declamatory tone was crimped by growls or piercing high notes; his basically legato approach was enlivened by rushes of on-the-beat notes; his seemingly straightforward melodic content was enriched by long, sagacious phrases and by a daring choice of notes….By 1934 he had become a full-fledged innovator.”
That’s lovely writing by the way, and proves that Balliett himself was a master of “long sagacious phrases.” Yet despite all that, Henry ‘Red’ Allen could never shine bright enough to match Louis Armstrong’s rising star. But those old records are still a delight to hear.
Check out a rare TV appearance from Red Allen, where he displays his improvisational skills as part of an all-star band.
5. Bix Beiderbecke
Unlike the other rivals to Armstrong described here, Beiderbecke is a genuine jazz legend—almost a mythical figure whose life and times became emblematic of the Jazz Age. (Consider for example, Dorothy Baker’s influential novel Young Man with a Horn, which was inspired by Beiderbecke.)
The horn here is, I must say, the cornet—so perhaps it’s misleading to list him among the trumpeters here; but Armstrong himself started on cornet, and Bix would have embraced the trumpet had he lived longer. But that wasn’t his destiny. In 1931, Beiderbecke died at age 28, only realizing a small part of his potential.
Yet even in that short career, Bix changed the shape of jazz. He helped invent the romantic jazz ballad. He defined a cool melodic sound that would later have enormous crossover impact on mainstream music. He epitomized the jazz lifestyle (in both good ways and bad). And he created a prototype for a kind of jazz counterculture intellectual, inspiring many others to adopt a similar posture and worldview.
He even began to compose quasi-experimental piano pieces—with a degree of boldness that genuinely anticipates the modern jazz ethos of the 1950s.
Here is one of his most influential tracks, “I’m Coming Virginia”—which showed, back in 1927, that jazz could be slow and sweetly melodic in a way that was revolutionary at the time.
6. Frankie Newton
Frankie Newton was one of the greatest trumpeters of his day, and also a committed political activist with a short temper. But those were a dangerous combination back in the pre-Civil Rights era, when African-American musicians were expected to keep quiet about their more strident opinions.
He never had another leader date after 1939, perhaps due to conflicts with record labels and their representatives. But he remained one of the most expressive trumpet soloists of his day. If he hadn’t died at age 48 in 1954, Newton almost certainly would have enjoyed a comeback as a Swing Era pioneer.
“The Blues My Baby Gave to Me” is, in the words of critic Thomas Cunniffe, “not only Frankie Newton’s greatest recording, it is also one of jazz’s few perfect records.”
7. Bunny Berigan
Few of the trumpeters on this list achieved crossover fame, despite their grand reputations in the jazz community. But Bunny Berigan was one of the biggest stars in America at his peak—which, alas, didn’t last long.
His recording of “I Can’t Get Started” made clear that Berigan was a double threat—as both trumpeter and vocalist. This song, which he recorded several times, was a huge hit, and Berigan’s track later got enshrined in the Grammy Hall of Fame.
You could complain endlessly about this music. Berigan’s voice is thin and sometimes a bit off pitch. Lists songs of this sort always risked turning into novelty tunes, and Berigan himself seems to embrace the corniness. Yet his trumpet playing possesses genuine grandeur, and his naturalistic singing captured the public’s imagination.
For a while, Berigan looked like the real deal—a next Louis Armstrong with multimedia potential. He showed up regularly on CBS national radio network, and got lauded as a leader of the Swing Era. Even Hollywood stardom seemed like a realistic possibility.
But it all fell apart. Berigan never could find another song that matched the success of “I Can’t Get Started.” Heavy drinking led to health issues and financial problems. In 1939, he actually declared bankruptcy. A comeback attempt fell apart when the bandleader was diagnosed with cirrhosis. In 1942, Berigan died at just age 33.
Today he is remembered for that one hit song. But if you dig more deeply into his oeuvre, you will discover that he was one of the finest trumpeters of his day–and even Louis Armstrong himself praised Berigan lavishly as a worthy rival.
8. Roy Eldridge
With the arrival of Roy Eldridge, we encounter someone who is genuinely a ‘next Armstrong’—at least in the context of his time and place. He never matched Armstrong’s fame or income, but Eldridge was a legitimate trumpet virtuoso at the top of the Swing Era hierarchy. He both built on Armstrong’s foundation and set the stage for Dizzy Gillespie, the leader of the emerging bop sound. As such, he is a key linking figure in the history of jazz. But even more to the point, Eldridge was a flaming hot soloist who could match up with the best of any era.
But history is often unfair to ‘transitional’ figures. Eldridge hurt his career by quitting music in 1938 (to study radio engineering). He soon returned to the bandstand, and after joining Gene Krupa in 1941 had a chance at crossover fame. But World War and bebop intervened. By the time he launched his own big band in late 1945, the audience for large jazz orchestras was already shrinking.
Eldridge continued to make great music, but in his forties he had to compete with Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Clifford Brown, and a host of other rising stars. As a result, he rarely found an audience as large as his talent. But his surviving recordings are legit classics of the highest caliber.
Coming soon: I will look at Louis Armstrong’s greatest recordings from the 1930s—and we will get more insight into how he retained his top position in the face of these brilliant rivals.