The Dissonances of Louis Armstrong

Meaning Through Contrast:

By: Andrew Koehler


The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground…The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become. Conversely, the absolute absence of burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant. [1]

            In nearly every facet of life, meaning is partially derived from contrast: heaviness vs. lightness, mundanity vs. liminality, and dissonance vs. consonance.  Extremes and dichotomies are often rendered meaningless without their counterparts for means of comparison.  The aforementioned quote from Milan Kundera highlights two contrasting states of being: heaviness and lightness.  Neither state of existence is inherently better, but it is only after bearing the burdens of heaviness that one is able to fully appreciate the inherent freedom of lightness.  Sweet food is only sweet when understood in comparison to something sour.  Similarly, anthropologist Nelson Graburn understands tourist travel “…in terms of the contrasts between the special period of life spent in tourist travel and the more ordinary parts of life spent at home while working.  Tourism experiences are meaningful because of their difference from the ordinary.”  Without a mundane home life, the liminal experiences associated with travel would lose a great deal of significance.  Quite simply, liminality would not exist if an individual lacked an ordinary home/work life for the purpose of comparison.[2]  Likewise, consonance derives its meaning via comparison with dissonance. 

            There are three main levels at which I will be exploring dissonance.  Internally, a person may experience dissonance between their actions and their beliefs.  This disconnect creates an uneasiness inside the individual, driving that person to find a way to resolve the disparity.  Musically, dissonant chords, notes and rhythms urge forward motion to consonance.  While there are many different genres of music (spanning the globe), nearly every genre is based on this fundamental idea of creating tension to then provide release.  Finally, in a broader social context, extreme racial tensions present since the Antebellum Era imbued great importance to President Obama’s inauguration.  Having a black president would not be nearly as important if there was never a racial dissonance to overcome.  In all of these settings, the stresses of dissonance pave the path to resolution.

Internal Dissonance


If you cannot bear to live in everlasting dissonance between your beliefs and your life, thinking one thing and doing another, get out of the medieval whited sepulchers, and face your fears. I know very well it is not easy.[3]

            Psychologists use the term cognitive dissonance to refer to the incongruity between one’s beliefs or actions.  The social psychologist Bertram Gawronski explains, “The theory postulates that inconsistent cognitions elicit an aversive state of arousal (i.e., dissonance), which in turn produces a desire to reduce the underlying inconsistency and to maintain a state of consonance.”[4]  Cognitive dissonance arises when one’s actions/beliefs conflict with each other.  In the musical realm, cognitive dissonance is typified by Louis Armstrong’s stage presence: more specifically, the inconsistency between his charismatic singing persona and his virtuosic trumpet playing. 

A Performer’s Mask

            Armstrong’s dual identities can be seen in a number of his performances.  The 1965 Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen (ZDF) broadcast of “Hello Dolly” (featuring Louis Armstrong and Max Gregor) clearly demonstrates the transitions between Armstrong’s two conflicting identities.[5]  The moment he approaches the mic, his overly charismatic stage presence comes to the forefront.  His performances became iconic because of this persistently positive singing persona.  Louis “essentially projects a specific persona to his listeners, a persona that is characterized by spontaneity, humor, and a natural ebullience.”[6]  After exuberantly singing the chart once through (0:51 into the piece), he lifts up his trumpet and wipes the smile off of his face.  It is interesting to note that as his trumpet is brought to his face, he turns his back to the audience, as well as the camera.  Almost as if he needs a brief, tranquil moment to mentally prepare himself for the dramatic role change—from the carefree, lighthearted singer, to the serious trumpet virtuoso.  Some might argue that the reason he is not as animated/cheerful while playing trumpet as compared to singing, is a result of the physically restricting nature of the instrument.  However, if you analyze at his facial expressions, most notably his eyes, during the last bar of his solo (1:40 in the clip) you can watch him shift back to the lighthearted singer persona—and it happens while his trumpet is still in his mouth [see Figure 1].

Figure 1.

Louis Armstrong performing “Hello Dolly”.  This screenshot is taken from the last bar of his trumpet solo (at time 1:40).

It might be impossible to smile while playing trumpet, but it is still possible to be expressive and/or animated.  His maintenance of this serious demeanor for the vast majority of his trumpet solos belies his other identity, clearly distinguishing it from his light, vocal personality.  The lightness of his singing inscribes meaning to the heaviness of his trumpet playing (and vice versa).  In a critical essay of L, H, & R, Martin Williams critiques Hendrick’s vocalese group for being light: “I wonder if they don’t sometimes make it seem pretty light stuff.  At any rate, if some of those lines that Hendricks has set to Lester Young’s solos really represent the kind of thing Prez was talking about musically, then I must have been living in a fool’s paradise all these years for admiring Prez’s depth so much.”[7]  While Williams is not referring to Louis’ music in this quote, it touches on the general issue of singing’s reputation as ‘light,’ as compared to instrumental music’s reputation of ‘heaviness.’  Much like Kundera’s dilemma, both lightness and heaviness reflect different aspects of Armstrong’s on-stage personality, manifesting themselves in stark contrast to each other.  

Cause of the Conflicting Identities

Repeatedly these artists had “masked” their genius within the expectations of popular entertainment as descended from minstrelsy…Louis Armstrong, for instance tempered his innovative trumpet style with an affable onstage demeanor…Before a crowd Armstrong could become Pops or Satchmo, a joking presence who dazzled audiences with down-home wit and folksy charm.[8] 

            In The Souls of Black Folk, the civil rights activist W.E.B. DuBois coined the term ‘double consciousness’ to reflect the phenomena of an individual viewing themselves through the lens of others: “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”[9] While DuBois intended for this term to refer to occurrence of black Americans seeing themselves through the eyes of white Americans, it can be repurposed to apply to musicians viewing themselves through the lens of the audience.  A case can be made that Armstrongs’ overly joyful singing personality is an act for the audience’s sake, and that his more introspective, serious trumpet playing is his true self.  While Armstrong was undoubtedly one of the largest forces behind the jazz movement, some peers accused him of being a ‘sell-out.’ [10]  This was mainly a combination of performing for white audiences coupled with his over-the-top, arguably fake, cheerfulness whilst singing.  In a review of Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, Dave Szatmary explains that “…the author shows the complexity of Armstrong, who onstage seemed eternally happy but exploded in moodiness in private, who insisted on a doctrine of self-help but exhibited boundless generosity.” [11]  Armstrong’s’ colleagues often viewed the inconsistency between his off-stage and on-stage personalities as hypocritical.  His “singing character” may be contrived and/or exaggerated, but he plays trumpet in accordance with his true black, off-stage identity.  Among Armstrong’s strongest critics included the incredibly influential jazz leaders, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis.  Davis’ autobiography addresses Armstrong’s conflicting identities: “I loved the way Louis played trumpet, man, but I hated the way he had to grin in order to get over with some tired white folks. Man, I just hated when I saw him doing that, because Louis was hip, had a consciousness about black people, was a real nice man.”[12]  The disconnect between Armstrong’s musician identity and his singing identity is a source of dissonance which resulted in much internal tension.  But every time he picks up his trumpet, that dissonance is resolved, as he reduces the intensity of his ‘fake’ charismatic stage personality.  When Louis turns his back to the audience to mentally switch gears during “Hello Dolly”, it is possible that he is doing so to face the musicians (rather than just have an introspective moment alone).  With every musical transition, Louis is forced to view himself from a different, and often conflicting, perspective.  Ironically, music that has words, and therefore a clear semantic intention, has a reputation of lacking meaning—or at least lacking profundity.  The double-consciousness that Armstrong experiences demands that he view himself both as this serious “heavy” musician, yet also as a “light” singer-entertainer. 

The Resolution

Scatting…does not taint the music with the impurity of denotations…so scat singing, in avoiding the use of words, is seen to strive for the abstraction, the purity, of the music itself.[13]

            If Louis hypothetically sings for the audience, and plays trumpet for the musicians (and himself), where is the compromise?  How does Armstrong reconcile these two opposing identities?  The point of intersection between singing and trumpet playing, where Louis strikes internal resolution on stage, would be the act of scatting.  Scatting is a vocal technique that allows the singer to utilize wordless sounds, which simulate a musical instrument:

…In classic cuts like ‘Lazy River,’ ‘All of Me,’ and ‘Stardust,’ scat originates in the way Armstrong fills the breaks between the lines of the lyric, accompanying himself with hornlike comments, and then allows the words of the song to bleed over into the commentary, mingling call and response in a voice that is not one voice, in a voice that seems haunted by another voice or voices…[14]  

In a perfect blending of Armstrong’s competing identities, scat frees him of the responsibility of choosing between personalities: “A music where the action of words and music falling away from each other might best be described as a release, a sought-out condition of flow.”[15]  Once Armstrong is metaphorically “freed” from his internal dissonance, a search for identity occurs: an identity not shackled by either lightness or heaviness.  In Chapter XIV of The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. DuBois explores the origins of scat, attributing the loss of semantics as a cultural search for identity.[16]  While it is indeed a stretch to claim that Louis scats in an effort to reconcile his two identities, DuBois interpretation of scatting certainly supports this idea (albeit on a much more micro scale). 

Musical Dissonance

Music needs the juxtaposition of opposites to achieve its drama, so harshness and dissonance are simply part of the material a musician can use to create a musical work.  All one thing is a bore—all dissonance, or all fatuous consonance.  George Winston and Guns and Roses are two sides of the same worthless coin in my esthetic world.[17]

            In an interview with All About Jazz, Chuck Israels articulates the need for musical contrast.  As discussed earlier, contrast is what provides significance to both dissonance and consonance: the lightness of consonance only resolves because of its emersion from the uneasiness of dissonance.  Musically, dissonant chords “…demand[s] an onward motion to a stable chord. Thus dissonant chords are 'active'; traditionally they have been considered harsh and have expressed pain, grief, and conflict.”[18]  Further examining the concept of musical dissonance, the psychoacoustician Richard Parncutt explains dissonance as a kind of auditory sandpaper: “On the scientific side, Helmholtz (1863) focused on dissonance (roughness), Stumpf (1883, 1890) on consonance (fusion). Roughness is an auditory sensation reminiscent of passing fingertips across sandpaper; it is familiar from harmonic musical intervals of a major or minor second, clusters in 20th-Century music such as Penderecki’s Threnody for the victims of Hiroshima, and deliberately distorted electric guitar sounds.”[19]  Both of these definitions of dissonance exist in nearly all types of music, spanning from classical to jazz.  However, the terminology and application changes between genres: classical theorists have a different lexicon than jazz theorists (cadences and suspensions vs. ii-V-I progressions).  While the discourse might change, the idea of dissonance implying a move to consonance is musically universal.

Double-Consciousness of Time

            Louis Armstrong creates dissonance in a new and revolutionary manner, separate from harmonic dissonance.  Instead of creating tension and release through his melodic ideas, he creates tension through the temporal placement of notes.  He is able to skew time in a way that creates certain uneasiness as a listener.  Even though his internal clock is still processing the “true” tempo of the tune, he can essentially play in a different musical “time zone.”  Circling in and out of these two senses of time provides a tension and release very similar to the melodic dissonance/consonance described by Parncutt.  In Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the narrator observes Armstrong’s innovative way of creating tension: “Invisibility, let me explain, gives one a slightly different sense of time, you’re never quite on the beat. Sometimes you’re ahead and sometimes behind. Instead of the swift and imperceptible flowing of time, you are aware of its nodes, those points where time stands still or from which it leaps ahead. And you slip into the breaks and look around.  That’s what you hear vaguely in Louis’ music…”[20] Ellison is referring to Armstrong’s double experience of time.  When a musician has a great sense of time, jazz musicians will often refer to their playing as being “in the pocket.”  This is generally a compliment, as having an unwavering sense of time is a sought-after quality in music.  But Armstrong is able to switch back and forth between being “in the pocket” and “stepping outside” of that pocket.  Every time he plays a phrase that evokes temporal dissonance, it is often disconcerting for the listener until Louis resolves back to the pocket. 

Beat Displacement in Classical Music

            While Louis was one of the first jazz musicians to popularize “playing with the beat,” it had somewhat existed in classical music for years.  Harold Kreb’s Fantasy Pieces: Metrical Dissonance in the Music of Robert Schumann, explores a fictional town called Euphonia, where each sector is dedicated to one musical pursuit.  In the first chapter, the characters (Florestan and Eusebius) are introduced to the Rhythmic Quarter, where they discover the complex theories of metrical tension and beat displacement. Below is one of the first musical examples introduced in the Rhythmic Quarter.

Figure 2.

Notice how left and right hand line up (or rather don’t line up) vertically: “Within a few years, the children reach the point where the dividing of any beat in the bar, the syncopated forms, the blending of irreconcilable rhythms, and so on, hold no difficulties for them. They learn to approach rhythmic complexities with excitement and joy rather than trepidation.” [21]  This excerpt can be used as a partial metaphor for Louis’ particular way of “playing with time.”  If the right hand were taken to represent a tune’s technically true sense of time, the left hand would represent how Louis projects his own sense of time on top of it.  The above excerpt demonstrates how time can be somewhat distorted to generate metrical dissonance. 

Rhythmic Inventiveness

         If you count every eighth note, the above Bergson example can still be understood by method of music theory (and mathematics).  While Bergson’s piece can be comprehended by subdividing constant eighth notes, Louis’s tension is more complex.  The reason that Armstrong’s temporal dissonance is so much more revolutionary than what is found in the Rhythmic Quarter, is that his ‘time-related dissonance’ does not conform to the uniform tempo of the piece.  He has his own time wavelength, which is not restricted to the piece’s implied temporal limitations.  There are many manifestations of this dissonance, but it is most clearly demonstrated when watching a transcription whilst simultaneously listening to the recording.  An accurate visual representation Louis’ music is nearly impossible to notate because of the complexity of his sense of time.  It is no longer a as simple as re-notating the metric meter; it is a matter of superimposing Armstrong’s completely separate experience of time on top of the established beat.  Below is the transcription[22] for “La Vie En Rose”, from the album Satchmo Serenades.[23]

Figure 3.

If this transcription were presented to a musician who had never been exposed to Armstrong’s recording of the tune, the resulting performance would drastically differ from the Satchmo Serenades track.  In fact, it is slightly disconcerting to simultaneously follow this written form of musical discourse while listening to the aural recording.  Using standard musical notation, Guenza’s transcription cannot truthfully represent Armstrong’s sense of time, because it is more complex than simple beat displacement.  Armstrong will play slightly behind or ahead of the beat, effectively slanting the time, in the style suggested by Ellison’s Invisible Man.  There are many examples of Armstrong’s altered sense of time in “La Vie en Rose,” one of which occurs noticeably in measure 8 of the transcription.  The four sixteenth notes on the second beat of the transcription do not, truly, start on the second beat.  He begins “slow” compared to the transcription, and speeds up to reach the 3rd beat, arriving ‘in time’ with the other musicians.  Ron Holloway coined the term an “ambidextrous sense of time”[24] when asked about Sonny Rollins.  Armstrong arrived on the jazz scene some thirty years earlier than Newk, and was one of his improvisational idols: “I love this, because I feel that jazz improvisation is the ultimate.  You have to create on the spot, the essence of this music from Louis Armstrong and all the great people who followed in his path.”[25]  Considering Armstrong’s profound influence on Rollins, I believe that the “ambidextrous sense of time” intended to describe Newk’s playing, most adeptly describes his predecessor Louis Armstrong’s double-perception of time.

Trusting your Bandmates

            It is important to note that, in jazz, once the beat is first established, the piece is effectively set in motion.  No matter how an individual experiences time, they must be aware of how their improvisatory decisions relate to the original beat.  To perform this form of dissonance successfully (without getting lost), Louis’ band must trust that his altered experience of time is intentional, and not a mistake: “That musicians rely upon one another to orient and reorient themselves—especially when playing against the time—is apparent in the following story about lack of trust relayed by one of the participating musicians.”[26]  Louis’ ‘liquid’ experience of time[27] is dependent on the other musicians “stay[ing] grounded”[28] while he steps inside and outside of the pocket.  They must create a firmly established ‘fixed’ beat to allow Louis to weave his way through time.

Social Dissonance

Jazz originally was the accompaniment of the voodoo dancer, stimulating the half-crazed barbarian to the vilest deeds.  The weird chant, accompanied by the syncopated rhythm the voodoo invokes, has also been employed by other barbaric people to stimulate brutality and sensuality.  That is has a demoralizing effect upon the human brain has been demonstrated by many scientists.[29] 

            The emersion of jazz into popular culture sparked strong responses from various white critics.  Articles such as Unspeakable Jazz Must Go!,[30] Why Jazz Sends Us Back to the Jungle,[31] and many others of the 1920s[32] demonstrate the common-held belief that jazz is morally destructive and sinful.  But when delved into more deeply, the articles reveal that the white critics’ true criticism of jazz has very little to do with music.  It becomes clear, that “Stunningly, what remains consistent in the reports on jazz is not the ultimate dislike of the music, but the political and social dislike of the black population…the articles on jazz that appeared in mainstream magazines between 1917 and 1930 reveal the racial prejudice that white jazz critics had against African Americans”[33] It was not the music itself that was the main concern to critics, it was their racial bias held against the black population.  Citing ‘doctors’ and ‘ethnologists,’ these critics hide from the root cause of their critiques: social dissonance.  Naturally, when Louis Armstrong’s achieved mainstream acceptance, it broke down many racial barriers, causing numerous white critics to reconsider their racist feelings about jazz.

His Diverse Audience

Louis Armstrong’s station in the history of jazz is unimpeachable.  If it weren’t for him, there wouldn’t be any of us.[34]—Dizzy Gillespie

            There are many strong opinions about Louis Armstrong’s method of dealing with racism, but he was undeniably one of the first black musicians to successfully reach both a black and white audience.  Even in a time period heavily characterized by racial intolerance, Armstrong’s diverse fan base was brought together through their mutual love of his music: “We’re getting ready to play a swell dance here tonight for the colored folks and the white folks are invited as spectators and I’m tellin you Leonard you never seen such wonderful gatherings in all your life as they do all down in in these parts…Honest they get along down here at these dances just like one ‘beeg family.”[35]  His performances attracted a diverse crowd, however there is a stark contrast between the ways that the ‘white folks’ absorb his performances compared to the ‘colored folks’.  The use of the word ‘spectators’ to describe the white folks’ presence at his shows implies a sort of detachment between them and the music, whereas the black folk really feel the music.  The lack of a physical connection between the white folk and his music (unlike the ‘swell dancing’ of the black folk) indicates that they are not experiencing his music the way that it is intended; they are hearing, but not listening.

            Also worth noting is the line claiming that the audience gets along like one ‘beeg family’ is intended ironically: “Translated into Standard English, as many of Armstrong’s writings were, the letter to Feather would lose much of the ironic undertone created by cacographic misspelling “big” as “beeg”…Armstrong and Feather shaking their heads at the hopelessly reactionary white Southern audience.”[36]  While white listeners were accepting of Armstrong and his music, his black audience was not granted the same release from social norms.  In other words, he was able to break the color barrier for himself, but was not able to extend that impunity to his black audience. 

Did He Truly “Break” the Color Barrier?

This is the mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in America—this urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible.[37]

            In “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” Langston Hughes articulates the contradictory nature of being both an ‘American’ and a ‘Negro’ in the 1920s.  The double-consciousness emerging from those two opposing identities caused many black Americans to act more ‘white’ in an effort to gain acceptance by the white community.  Louis Armstrong was no exception to this practice.  Attempting to stay true to his roots, he developed a way to maintain his black identity while also appealing to a white audience.  This was made possible through the adoption of his on-stage “white” persona.     

Armstrong, who, as we shall see, remained largely docile in the face of racial oppression, began to think about the need for an on-stage persona from this artificial racial perspective, one that would reinterpret elements of the minstrel show stereotypes.[38]

To clearly demonstrate the minstrel-esque qualities present in his singing persona, I obtained an image of ‘Pops,’ and an eerily similar image from a minstrel show.  Figures 4A and 4B reveal striking parallels between Louis Armstrong’s stage persona and the cover of John Wallace’s minstrel show: “Niggerosities: Speeches, Finales, Farces, Business Etc …”

                           Figure 4A                                                                Figure 4B[39]

In line with their uncannily similar pose and dress, both individuals display the quintessential exaggerated smile present in many blackface performances.  That overly charismatic smile is indicative of a contrived blackness—derived from white stereotypes of African Americans.  It effectively masks Armstrong’s true racial identity and instead promotes the clichéd ‘Jim Crow’ version of blackness found at minstrel shows.

            If Armstrong is, hypothetically, putting on a minstrel show for his white spectators, is he truly breaking the color barrier?  I would argue not.  Dizzy Gillespie can be viewed on both sides of the issue.  On the one hand, he confesses that “if it weren’t for him [Louis], there wouldn’t be any of us,” indicating that Armstrong paved a path to cultural acceptance for future black musicians.  However, at the same time, Dizzy admits: “We didn’t appreciate that [his stage persona] about Louis Armstrong, and if anybody asked me about a certain public image of him, handkerchief over his head, grinning in the face of white racism, I never hesitated to say I didn’t like it.  I didn’t want the white man to expect me to allow the same things Louis Armstrong did.” [40]  By not being true to his own black identity, Armstrong superficially caters to the white audience: they might be accepting of his contrived on-stage persona, but not of him as a black individual.  While this was still a vital step in overcoming social norms, his disingenuous persona ensured that Louis was not viewed as a black musician.  Many other musicians share similar views about the negative impact of Armstrong’s ‘minstrel show’ stage persona. 

            In a letter to Leonard Feather, Louis Armstrong recalls a time he claims to have broken the color barrier—when he hosted the radio broadcast The Royal Gelatin Hour (formerly called Fleischmann’s Yeast) during Rudy Vallée's summer vacation in 1937 [41]:

Feather has apparently asked Armstrong to reflect on the most important events in jazz during the past twenty-five years. Near the end of his life, Armstrong would respond to this question with a review of the golden days from his New Orleanian youth…But in 1941, his mind moves first to 1937, when he hosted radio broadcasts sponsored by Fleischmann’s Yeast—one of the many occasions upon which Armstrong broke the color barrier.[42] 

By hosting The Royal Gelatin Hour, Louis became the first African American to host a national network program.  But similar to Gillespie’s criticism of Louis’ on-stage persona, the radio audience does not view him as a black host.  Radio, by the very nature of how it is broadcasted, is a form of discourse that naturally veils one’s physical appearance.  While his listeners obviously knew the color of his skin, radio is not the ideal medium for breaking the color barrier.  That being said, it was still a crucial step in challenging the status quo and beginning to pave the way for others to break the color barrier.

Black and Blue

            Louis Armstrong famously covered Fats Waller’s “Black and Blue,” a very powerful, racially-charged tune.  It is one of the few occasions where he levels with the audience about racism and its affect on his life.  Nevertheless, he still grins while performing the tune (much in line with Gillespie’s earlier criticism).  Despite Armstrong’s smiling stage persona, it becomes clear while watching the video[43] that he is not simply singing light words.  In fact, he altered the original lyrics to make them more heavy[44] and personal.   

I'm white...inside...but, that don't help my case
That's life...can't hide...what is in my face

How would it end....ain't got a friend
My only in my skin
What did i be so black and blue[45] 

His performance of “Black and Blue” is one of the few times that Armstrong directly acknowledges racial dissonance and its impact on him as a black man.  I believe that the above excerpt contains the most poignant lines in the song; it is an admission that despite all of Louis’ efforts to gain acceptance by his white audience, the color of his skin is still what defines him to his white critics.  It is rather ironic that he claims to not be able to “hide what is in [his] face,” even though he goes to great lengths to do just that.  He puts on a semi-minstrel show every time he performs, doing everything in his power to not appear threatening or black. 

                        Tragically, as revealed in his rendition of “Black and Blue,” ‘acting white’ does not gain Armstrong unanimous acceptance by the white population; much adversity is still faced.  As a result, he paradoxically loses some support of black individuals (for ‘acting white’) and is also not accepted by certain white individuals (because he can’t ‘hide what is in his face’).    At this point in time, it is impossible for him to appeal to both a black and white fan base simultaneously, as none of his actions occur in isolation: the black individuals notice his minstrel-show qualities, while the white individuals cannot see past the ‘sin’ of his skin color.  Unlike the other two forms of dissonance in Louis’ life (internal and musical), switching back and forth between his two conflicting identities does not resolve racial tension.  It is important to note, however, that due to extreme racial oppression prevalent in his era, he likely wouldn’t have ever had the chance to impact a white audience at all without the existence of his stage persona.  He simply did what was necessary to share his music with the most listeners possible. 

Jive Talk

            Louis Armstrong was blessed with the gift of linguistic play, which was integral to the jazz scene: “…there are more than four hundred words used among swing musicians that no one else would understand.  They have a language of their own…”[46] The lexicon of terms associated with jazz music developed into hipster jive, a style of vernacular utilized primarily by African Americans.  White Americans were aware of its existence, however, they were largely out-of-touch with its application: “many whites could not hold their own in black-rooted jive talk.  They knew the right words, but not how to use them.”[47]  In Phil Ford’s Dig: Sound and Music in Hip Culture, the exchange between Social Worker and Big Educator illuminate the disconnect between Standard English and jive talk when a translator is not present.[48]  Armstrong committed himself to mastering both dialects to try to bridge the gap between those who spoke jive and those who spoke English.

            As a game, Armstrong would often change his mode of speaking from jazz talk to Standard English.  Much like Armstrong’s two opposing identities on stage, he was comfortable switching between his two dialectal identities when conversing with white critics:

He demonstrates his mastery of two linguistic registers common in black speech: ‘broad talk,’ which twists the ‘vernacular into stylized use, in the form of wit [or] repartee,’ and ‘formal talk,’ which centers on ‘eloquence and manners through the use of formal standard English.  Thus, Armstrong can decipher the script, but he also knows when and how to diverge from it.[49]

Armstrong’s unparalleled ability to switch between ‘black talk’ and ‘white talk’ is a perfect example of his appealing to both insiders and outsiders of the jazz community.  He can transition from Standard English to hipster language as seamlessly as he transitions from minstrel show to trumpet playing, and from ‘in the pocket’ to ‘out of the pocket’: “The requirement of mastering several musical styles was demanded of any African-American musician of Armstrong’s generation working in the popular sphere…”[50] Armstrong epitomized this idea in more ways than were alluded to in his book; he not only mastered several musical styles and performance styles, but several linguistic styles as well.  His authority over these opposing styles allowed him to adapt to difficult situations where others could not, predominantly due to their skin color. 

So What?

            Dissonance played a vital role in influencing Armstrong’s actions as an individual, a musician and as a civil rights activist.  A search for identity is fundamental in all three spheres of his life.  In the case of internal and musical dissonance, he finds comfort by switch back and forth between his two opposing identities.  Both of these forms of dissonances are manifestations of social dissonance, as racial tension forces him to wear two distinct masks.  As one of the first African Americans to break into popular culture, he was integral to starting the movement to racial harmony and acceptance.  Nevertheless, he did so by hiding under the veil of whiteness via his on-stage antics and the juggling of his identities.  Whether or not he was able to truly transcend racial dissonance is largely conjecture.  But regardless of the degree to which Armstrong overcame his various dissonances, tension was the constant, underlying motivator of his actions, generating an urge towards consonance and resolution.






[1] Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (New York: Harper & Row, 1984)

[2] Nathan H Graburn, Tourists and Tourism: A Reader, By Sharon Gmelch (Long Grove, IL: Waveland, 2004) 23-33.

[3] Leo Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God Is within You (New York: Scribner's 1913).

[4] Bertram Gawronski, “Back to the Theory of Dissonance Theory,” Social Cognition. 6th ed. Vol. 30 (New York: Guilford Publications, 2012).

[5] "Hello Dolly" Perf. Louis Armstrong and Max Gregor. Youtube. Web. <>.

[6] Daniel Stein, Music Is My Life: Louis Armstrong, Autobiography, and American Jazz (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2012).

[7] Martin Williams, Jazz Masters in Transition, 1957-69 (New York: Macmillan, 1970).

[8] Michael Borshuk, Swinging the Vernacular: Jazz and African American Modernist Literature (New York: Routledge, 2006).

[9] W. E. B. DuBois, "The Souls of Black Folk," The Souls of Black Folk (Chicago: McClurg & Co, 1931). 1-12.

[10] Terry Teachout, Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009).

[11] Dave Szatmary, "Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong," 134.13 Academic Search Complete. Web.

[12] Miles Davis with Quincy Trope, Miles: The Autobiography (New York: Simon, 1989).

[13] Barry Keith Grant, "Purple Passages or Fiestas in Blue?: Notes toward an Aesthetic of Vocalese," Popular Music and Society (18.1 1994): 125-43.

[14] Brent Hayes Edwards, "Louis Armstrong and the Syntax of Scat," Critical Inquiry (28.3 2002).

[15] Daniel Stein, Music Is My Life: Louis Armstrong, Autobiography, and American Jazz (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2012).

[16] W. E. B DuBois, "The Sorrow Songs," The Souls of Black Folk (New York: Vintage  Library of America, 1990).

[17] Chuck Israels, "Chuck Israel: Evans, Education and Philosophy," Interview, All About Jazz, 27 May 2010.

[18] Roger Kamien, An Appreciation: Music, 4th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002). Print.

[19] Richard Parncutt and Graham Hair, "Consonance and Dissonance in Music Theory and Psychology," Journal of Interdisciplinary Music Studies (5.2 2012)

[20] Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (New York: Vintage International, 1995).

[21] Harald Krebs, Fantasy Pieces: Metrical Dissonance in the Music of Robert Schumann (New York: Oxford UP, 1999).

[22] Mauro Guenza, "La Vie En Rose, Louis Armstrong Trumpet Solo Transcription," ETP Music, Web.


[23] Louis Armstrong, La Vie En Rose, Satchmo Serenades (All Music, 1952).

[24] Joshua Redman, “Sonny Rollins Interviewed by Joshua Redman: Newk’s Time” (Jazz Times Magazine, 2005).

[25] Theodore W. Rollins, "In Conversation with Sonny Rollins," Interview by Stuart Nicholson, Web.

            <  sonny-rollins>.

[26] Ingrid T. Monson, Saying Something: Jazz Improvisation and Interaction (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1996).

[27] Michael Carvin, Interview by Ingrid Monson, Dec. 1990: New York, NY.

[28] Ralph Peterson, Interview by Ingrid Monson, 24 May 1990: New York, NY.

[29] Anne M. Faulkner, "Does Jazz Put The Sin in Syncopation," Ladies Home Journal (1921).

[30] John R McMahon, "Unspeakable Jazz Must Go!" Ladies Home Journal (1921).

[31] Walter Kingsley and William M. Patterson. "Why Jazz Sends Us Back to the Jungle."Current Opinion (1918).

[32] Sieglinde Lemke, Primitivist Modernism: Black Culture and the Origins of Transatlantic Modernismm (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998).

[33] Anderson Maureen, "The White Reception of Jazz in America," African American Review (38.1 2004).

[34] Louise McKinney, New Orleans: A Cultural History (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2006). 

[35] Louis Armstrong, "Letter to Leonard Feather," Letter to Leonard Feather, 18 Sept. 1941. MS. Atlanta, GA.

[36] Daniel Stein, Music Is My Life: Louis Armstrong, Autobiography, and American Jazz (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2012).

[37] Langston Hughes, "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," Keeping Time: Readings in Jazz History, Ed. Robert Walser (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999) 55-57.

[38] William Howland Kenney, Jazz on the River (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2005).

[39] John Wallace, Niggerosities: Speeches, Farces, Etc (Manchester, 1896).

[40] Dizzy Gillespie and Al Fraser, To Be, or Not ... to BOP: Memoirs (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1979).

[41] "Royal Gelatin Hour | Old Time Radio." Old Time Radio Catalog. Fleischmann's Yeast, n.d. Web. 18 Nov. 2013.

[42] Louis Armstrong and Thomas David, Louis Armstrong, in His Own Words: Selected Writings (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999).

[43] Louis Armstrong, Black and Blue: Louis Armstrong and His All Stars (Berlin, 1965). 

[44] Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (New York: Harper & Row, 1984).

[45] Louis Armstrong, Black and Blue: Louis Armstrong and His All Stars (Berlin, 1965). 

[46] Louis Armstrong, Rudy Vallée, Dan Morgenstern, Horace Gerlach, and Benny Goodman, Swing That Music (New York: Da Capo, 1993).

[47] Neil Leonard, "The Jazzman’s Verbal Usage," Black American Literature Forum (20.1/2 1986) 151-59.

[48] Phil Ford, “Somewhere/Nowhere” In Dig: Sound and Music in Hip Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).

[49] Daniel Stein, Music Is My Life: Louis Armstrong, Autobiography, and American Jazz (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2012).

[50] Louis Armstrong and Thomas David. Louis Armstrong, in His Own Words: Selected Writings (New York: Oxford UP, 1999).


Fun Fact:

The ancient Sumerians (4000 – 2000 BCE), who are thought to have developed the first form of writing (Cuneiform script), immortalised sheep in the form of gods in their religion.

One Kind