Louis Armstrong was one of the most influential and innovative jazz musicians of the 20th century. Born into poverty in New Orleans, Armstrong overcame hardship and adversity to emerge as America’s first jazz superstar and cultural ambassador to the world. His singular warm trumpet tone and charm with audiences captivated listeners and made him a beloved figure in American culture.
|August 4, 1901
|July 6, 1971
|New Orleans, Louisiana, USA
|Jazz, swing, traditional pop
Louis Armstrong was born on August 4, 1901 into severe poverty in New Orleans, Louisiana. His father, William Armstrong, abandoned the family soon after Louis was born. His mother, Mary Albert, worked long hours in a local brothel to provide for Louis and his sister Beatrice.
Armstrong grew up in a rough neighborhood known as “The Battlefield” where violence, prostitution, and corruption lurked around every corner. As a child, he was so hungry that he hauled coal to earn money for food, lugging heavy sacks up long flights of stairs for pennies. He also sold vegetables he’d find discarded to earn enough money to buy his first cornet from a pawn shop at the age of 11.
With the cornet, Armstrong found refuge from his difficult home life. He practiced fervently and by the time he was 13, he had drawn the attention of his neighbor, Russian jazz musician Nick LaRocca who recruited young Louis to play in his brass band. They performed at blacks-only social clubs and sporting events in the segregated Storyville entertainment district of New Orleans.
His talent was apparent immediately—he read music before learning to write. At the Colored Waif’s Home for Boys where he was sent after being arrested for toting a gun, Armstrong played cornet and bugle in the school’s band.
|Born in New Orleans, Louisiana
|Works odd jobs to earn money for first cornet
|Arrested for firing gun into air, spends time at Colored Waif’s Home for Boys
|Joins bands in Storyville district of New Orleans
|Marries Daisy Parker
In 1918, Armstrong married Daisy Parker. The same year, Armstrong’s mentor Joe “King” Oliver moved to Chicago to play cornet in the Southside hot jazz style that was thrilling Chicago nightclub audiences. In 1922, Oliver invited Armstrong to come to Chicago and play second cornetist in his Creole Jazz Band at the Lincoln Gardens. He made his first recordings with Oliver on April 5, 1923, unleashing powerful, syncopated improvisations and big rises that would forever change the jazz vernacular.
One of these earliest recordings was Dippermouth Blues featuring his first recorded solo. Armstrong’s exuberant playing complemented Oliver perfectly with creative rhythmic and melodic variations on standard New Orleans tunes. By 1924, Armstrong was ready to step into his own spotlight. Bandleader Fletcher Henderson recruited Armstrong to come to New York. This was a milestone as he embarked on a new career as a featured soloist and risk-taking demonstrator of scat singing with Henderson’s orchestra.
In 1925, Armstrong formed his own band, the Hot Five, with his wife Lil as pianist. They made some of the most influential jazz recordings of all time including Cornet Chop Suey, Gutbucket Blues, and Heebie Jeebies popularizing the use of scat syllables for his instrument rather than just lyrics.
Their 1926 recording by Louis Armstrong & His Hot Seven of West End Blues became Armstrong’s most famous solo and likely one of the most iconic jazz solos ever recorded with an opening cadenza featured in jazz history books.
|Joins King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band in Chicago
|Makes first recordings with Oliver’s band
|Moves to New York, joins Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra
|Forms Hot Five band, revolutionizes jazz with recordings
|Settles in New York, begins singing and acting career
Pop Star Turn
Armstrong switched to a massive big band format from 1929 to 1947, recording scores of sides for Okeh, then RCA Victor. For a short time he returned to small group New Orleans hot jazz style recordings with Louis Armstrong and the Mills Brothers.
But the public gravitated toward his joyful pop ballads and jazz vocals in the big band setting further popularizing his versions of songs like When the Saints Go Marching In, Dream a Little Dream of Me, Blueberry Hill and La Vie En Rose. From the 1930s through the end of his career, his resonant warm voice enthralled global audiences. His musical output soared with pop collaborations with Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald and more. His rendition of Hello Dolly shot to the top of the pop charts in 1964.
Armstrong essentially created the idea of the jazzman as pop star and cultural icon. With the advent of radio exposure, fans got to know his personal warmth and charm up close further skyrocketing his popularity and accessibility. His nicknames “Satchmo” and “Pops” exemplified the genuine affection people felt from his music, joyful persona and that beaming mile-wide smile.
Louis traveled the world extensively on tour dubbed America’s Jazz Ambassador by the State Department. His influence was felt firsthand by musicians from Africa to Japan as emerging genres adapted elements of his style. He recorded with international musicians, drawing new fans and aside from the civil rights movement, his popularity exceeded political boundaries.
In 1964, he recorded Hello Dolly in the key of G. Knocking the Beatles off the #1 spot, it solidly became the most famous version of the pop standard ever recorded. Armstrong died at home in Queens, New York on July 6, 1971. The house is now a museum.
Louis Armstrong overcame extreme hardship as a child growing up in poverty in turn of the century New Orleans. His innate musical talent was his vehicle to not only rise above those origins but to transform American music forever. Virtually single-handedly creating the soloist format in jazz, his influential recordings and breakthrough scat singing style fundamentally changed the course of the genre.
His good humor and showmanship essentially invented the concept of the jazz musician as media star. Louis Armstrong’s comedic and heartfelt performances made him one of the most beloved entertainers worldwide of the 20th century. While blatant discrimination limited his career options at certain points, his legacy transcended rigid social boundaries even in his lifetime. Louis Armstrong endures as an inspiration, pioneer, and father of jazz music itself.