August 4th, 1901 in New Orleans, Louisiana
July 6th, 1971 in Corona, Queens, New York
The grandson of slaves, and the son of a prostitute and an absent father, trumpeter Louis Armstrong grew up in the rough streets of New Orleans. He sold newspapers and did other odd jobs to support his mother, but spent most of his time in the red-light district, known as Storyville. There he heard local bands play in bars and brothels.
At age 11, he was arrested for firing a pistol in the street during a New Year’s celebration and was sent to a school for delinquents. This played an important role in the young Armstrong’s musical life, for it was there that he received formal training, and even led the school’s band.
A Young Virtuoso:
In his teens, Armstrong proved to be a talented cornet player, and soon he was a featured as a soloist in local bands. In 1922, he was invited by bandleader Joe “King” Oliver to join his group in Chicago, Illinois. Armstrong began to outshine Oliver, and ambitiously decided to try his luck in New York City. He moved there briefly in 1924 to join Fletcher Henderson
’s big band. During this time he switched from cornet to trumpet.
He returned to Chicago in 1925 to record some of his most famous music with his Hot Five and Hot Seven bands. His playing on these records earned him acclaim and popularity for solos that were virtuosic and joyfully melodic. The risks and liberties he took on the trumpet were were exciting and unprecedented. He also endeared himself to audiences with his warm and often humorous vocals. He is credited with developing the wordless style of improvised singing known as “scat singing.”
A highly skilled musician, Armstrong succeeded in balancing his artistic integrity with popular appeal. His personality onstage and off was gregarious and lovable, and he was soon performing all over the country, especially in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles.
Although the 1930s were slow for the music industry, Armstrong toured continually, and even brought his act to Europe.
The 1940s were very fruitful, and aside from making several recordings, he appeared in over 30 films. His career remained steady from then on, and in 1964 the title track from his record “Hello, Dolly!” reached number one on the pop charts, beating even the Beatles. He toured Europe, Africa, and Asia on U.S. State Department-sponsored tours, and continued to thrill audiences until his death in 1971.
To this day, Armstrong is regarded as the father of jazz. His sophistication and inventiveness as a trumpet player changed the course of improvisation, as he inspired musicians to improvise using their own unique styles. His influence was pivotal in the development of jazz in the first half of the century, and guided the creative output of such figures as Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and Dizzy Gillespie. The joy he brought to the bandstand as a trumpeter, singer, and bandleader has yet to be matched.