A towering figure in jazz history, Armstrong—a virtuoso performer, a master of melodic improvisations, daring experiments in tone and pitch, and rhythmic ideas—inspired generations of musicians.
Louis Armstrong was born in New Orleans on August 4, 1901, to Mary Albert (known as “May Ann”), a domestic and sometime prostitute, and Willie Armstrong, a laborer who soon abandoned them. The boy, raised by a grandmother, grew up poor in New Orleans’ red-light district; a few blocks filled with dance halls, brothels, honky-tonks, and the constant swirl of blues and ragtime on the verge of becoming jazz.
At a Home for Colored Waifs (to which he was sent repeatedly for delinquency) Armstrong learned to play the cornet. Released in his early teens, he borrowed instruments, sat in at local establishments, and learned his way around the rags, marches, and songs of the day; Joe “King” Oliver, a jazz cornetist and important musical figure, befriended Armstrong, taught him technique, gave him opportunities to play, and presented him with an instrument.
Oliver went to Chicago in 1918; Armstrong replaced him in what was considered New Orleans’s leading jazz band, led by trombonist Kid Roy. Armstrong honed his musical skills working in dance halls and on riverboats. In 1922 Oliver invited Armstrong to Chicago to play in his popular Creole Jazz Band. Recordings in Oliver’s 1923–24 series reveal the strength and musicianship of Armstrong’s improvised second cornet parts, notably in “Dippermouth Blues.”
Musicians began to recognize Armstrong as a leader in “hot” music as jazz emerged, a relaxed style less stiff than ragtime. Jazz depended on extensive use of syncopated rhythms and surprising patterns of off-beat, staggered accents filled within a constant tempo. It also depended on a musician’s ability to accent the notes a certain way. Armstrong, more than any other player, demonstrated his brilliance as an architect of spontaneous but disciplined improvisations and as an instrumental virtuoso who transcended the traditional ensemble New Orleans improvisation.
In 1924 Armstrong wed Lillian Hardin, the band’s pianist. She was the second of Armstrong’s four wives (he had married Daisy Parker in 1918, and would marry Alpha Smith in 1938 and Lucille Watson in 1942). There were no children from these marriages. Hardin encouraged Armstrong to go to New York City to join Fletcher Henderson’s big band. Armstrong chafed under the strict Henderson rhythms, but found an outlet and opportunity in solos where his free-flowing improvisation enchanted listeners and strengthened his musical reputation.
Over the next years Armstrong moved from cornet to trumpet, and worked with various groups in Chicago and elsewhere—most notably with the “Hot Five” and the “Hot Seven” who he organized and included his wife on piano and Kid Ory on clarinet. Armstrong’s recordings of “Big Butter and Egg Man,” “Potato Head Blues,” and “Struttin” with Some Barbecue” confirmed his international reputation as the most creative jazz musician of his time.
It was during these years Armstrong made his first scat recording. A manner of singing using nonsense syllables, scat presents the voice as a solo instrument. He continued to make effective use of the trumpet, but also made increasing use of his voice. This vocalizing, not limited to scat singing, became an integral part of his performance. In successive recordings Armstrong’s solos became more frequent after the success of his scat singing of “Heebie Jeebies.”
Armstrong soon adopted the format he used until 1947—a big band as background for his vocal and instrumental solos. He made recordings of then popular songs (e.g., “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” Some of These Days,” “When You’re Smiling”), often making them standards of the future among younger jazz players and fans. For B. H. Hagin, a 1930s music critic writing in the New Republic, Armstrong “offered the … exciting experience of moment- to-moment working of a creative mind with an inventive exuberance controlled by a sense for coherent developing form.”
During the 1930s Armstrong began to appear in movies, including Betty Boop cartoons and features with Bing Crosby, such as “Pennies From Heaven” (1936). In 1937 Armstrong became the first African American featured in a network radio series (years later he would appear extensively on TV).
By the mid-1930s the music known as swing largely fostered by Armstrong’s work, had become the popular idiom—there were swing bands in dance and concert halls, on screen and radio. Ideas from Armstrong’s classics, such as “Mahogany Hall Stomp” or “Gut Bucket Blues” echoed through other bands. Armstrong himself did not make many quest appearances, and his career now depended as much on his humorous vocals such as “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead You Rascal You,” as on his more ambitious instrumental efforts such as “Swing That Music” or “Jubilee.”
By 1947 the big band ear was drawing to a close, and that year Armstrong appeared in a specially arranged concert at New York’s Town Hall, with a small ensemble, including trombonist Jack Teagarden, drummer Sidney Catlett, and Hines. The evening’s success led Armstrong to cut back permanently to a small group he called his “All-Stars.” Using a repertory that went back to his early years, including a selection of vocal-instrumental successes, Armstrong (now “the grand old man of jazz”) pursued a grueling tour schedule.
His appearances included songs like “Blueberry Hill” and “Cold, Cold Heart” that would become standards for younger performers, and songs he made standard such as Mack the Knife from Three Penny Opera and the title song from the Broadway show Hello Dolly, probably the most successful single of his career.
The All Stars toured the world— Armstrong’s international travels, some under the auspices of the U.S. State Department, earned him a new nickname, “Ambassador Satch,” in addition to many others including “Dippermouth,” “Satchelmouth,” and “Satchmo.” A heart attack in 1959 and other health problems curtailed his performing. He died from a heart attack at home in the Corona section of Queens, New York, on July 6, 1971.
Louis Armstrong Archives. CUNY. Queens College. New York.
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