Louis Armstrong |
The house of jazz

The fierce skills and enormous personality of jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong made up the cornerstone upon which the house of jazz was built.

Louis Armstrong was born at the beginning of a century he helped define, on August 4, 1901 (he would later claim, in true showman style, he was born on July 4, 1900).

Life in the Mayann neighborhood of New Orleans could be violent at times, giving the area the nickname ‘the Battlefield.’ Armstrong was two when his father left the family, and the boy went on to live with his grandmother for a few years before returning to the rough neighbourhood and attending a segregated school.

He made money working for his neighbours the Karnoffsky’s; a Jewish immigrant family who took him in and cared for the fatherless boy. Years later Armstrong, would note how the experience affected him and wore a Star of David until the day he died.

When Armstrong was still a boy, he sold coal on the streets when he heard the earliest hints of jazz music, emanating from dance halls and brothels, as well as spasm bands who turned household objects into instruments. The Karnoffsky’s gave him a cornet to play, which he quickly learned.

In 1912, he shot a blank round from a handgun into the air, leading to his arrest. He was sent to live at the Colored Waif’s Home where he had no bedding and where corporal punishment was common. He survived by playing cornet in the band where he was soon promoted to band leader. Upon his release, he lost no time finding work as a musician, playing for a mob connected dance hall.

Playing on the River

It wasn’t long before Armstrong developed a reputation as an incredible talent. He played on riverboats and found a mentor in Joe “King” Oliver. In 1922, Oliver called him up to Chicago to play in his band, and they were cutting records the following year. But in 1925, under the urging of his new wife Lillian Hardin, Armstrong struck out on his own, building a band and changing jazz forever.

This period of recordings as Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five (later expanded to seven) marks one of, if not the, most pivotal moments in jazz history. He was the first to emphasise solos in jazz, and his vocals added character and flair and a whole lot of scat to the music. To get a sense of his spectacular vocal powers, listen to his rendition of “Lazy River.”

The cultural impact of his work, coming along during the height of the Harlem Renaissance, was wide and profound — even moving poet Langston Hughes to change his approach to writing.

The band toured the country, and by the mid 1930’s, they were touring the world. Their recordings were setting the world of jazz on fire and Armstrong was beginning to appear in films and taking on responsibilities as the leader of big bands. But the heavy schedule took its toll. While touring Europe, Armstrong injured his lip so severely that he had to set down the trumpet for an entire year.

Louis Armstrong & International Stardom

The fall of big bands led to the formation of Louis Armstrong and His All Stars. The group found major commercial success with radio hit after radio hit. During this time, he toured the world so often he was called Ambassador Satch.

The rise of bop and a new crop of stars like Miles Davis marked the end of Armstrong’s reign. Younger audiences viewed Armstrong’s stylings as old fashioned and uncomfortably akin to minstrel shows.

But no one could doubt Armstrong’s commitment to social justice. He was an outspoken critic of the Arkansas Governor’s handling of the Little Rock Nine and often spoke up for the rights of black people.

His last big hit came in 1964 with the recording of “Hello Dolly!” — his first recording session in years. The song surpassed The Beatles to land at Number One, and it remained in the Hot 100 for 22 weeks!

The constant touring and intense playing style led to frequent heart attacks, and in 1971, he died. He left behind a world so dramatically changed for his being a part of it. Perhaps more than any other human being, Louis Armstrong defined jazz music. To this day, his legacy is a source and fount for all jazz lovers.