1901 - 1971
When speaking of Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby once commented that he was "the beginning and the end of music in America. Though Armstrong didn't single handedly create jazz, he did steer it through five decades of development, breathing structure and imagination into its fiber. In the process he helped change the American cultural landscape. Armstrong was an exceptional trumpeter and singer. His articulation and range on the trumpet were revolutionary and he ushered in soloing to jazz. As a singer he was just as influential, popularizing scat and interpreting both jazz and pop songs with style and heart. Armstrong's music embodies the energy, soul, and beauty of jazz.
Armstrong was the progeny of a cultural potpourri of music specific to New Orleans. He arrived at a precise opening in time when jazz was not yet called jazz. Black southern culture percolated influences from blues, ragtime, spirituals, funeral parades, and dance music and was ripe for merging.
Born in the Storyville district of New Orleans, August 4, 1901, Louis grew up in a neighborhood thick with poverty and rough characters. It was a threadbare childhood of shopping in garbage cans and singing on the streets for tips. Louis only made it to fifth grade before he was working for a living. In an auspicious turn of events, Louis was sent to reform school when he was 12 for firing a pistol into the air on New Year's Eve. The school gave him a firm footing in music with singing lessons and eventually cornet instruction.
Louis spent his mid-teens working as a longshoreman and labourer by day and took to playing his cornet in Storyville's red light district by night. New Orleans was a burgeoning hotbed for a new form of music. Louis's imagination was stoked by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band recordings as well as Caruso and John McCormack records. He checked out the local clubs to listen to bands, including his favourite, the Kid Ory Band with Joe "King" Oliver. Oliver became a mentor for young Louis and when he hit the road for Chicago fortunes in 1919, he endorsed Louis to take his place with Kid Ory.
It wasn't long before Oliver telegrammed Armstrong to join his Creole Jazz Band in Chicago as a second cornetist. The two horn players had excellent rapport, creating astonishing duet breaks, the younger player shadowing Oliver's leads with remarkable precision. Armstrong's chops were soon superceding his mentor's and bigger fish were calling in New York with Fletcher Henderson's band. Joining Henderson improved his music reading, phrasing and confidence, completing his metamorphosis into a skilled and soulful horn player.
He returned to Chicago in 1925 and within days was recording as a bandleader with a quintet called the Hot Fives. This band and the extended Hot Sevens brought Armstrong momentous fame, showcasing his superb soloing and creative scat singing. Critics compared his coarse croon to that of his trumpet playing, pinpointing the use of "dentals, labials, and gutturals", or colouring vowels with gravelly rattles. It is said that fellow musicians were leaning out windows trying to get colds so they could sound like Louis. An original and influential singing style to say the least.
The over 40 sides that the Hot Five and Hot Seven bands recorded became veritable jazz classics. Aside from Armstrong's vocal inventiveness, songs like "Potato Head Blues", "Savoy Blues", "Cornet Chop Suey", and "West End Blues" exemplified a style tagged "Hot Solos", and purged the jazzscape of strict ensemble playing forever. The various incarnations of these bands recorded until December of 1928, but never played live.
The 1930s were a period of rabid productivity for Armstrong, playing Broadway, appearing in feature films, incessant touring of America and Europe, and recording with the biggest names in the business. He'd now switched to playing trumpet and as the big band sound escalated Louis was at the forefront, keeping it fresh and flexible. Even in these large bands of 15 or more musicians, Louis was the focal point. The swing years incited a mixed repertory of pop songs and jazz standards which remains some of his most enduring work. Songs like "Struttin With Some Barbecue , "Big Butter and Egg Man , "Jeepers Creepers , "Swing That Music , and many more.
Big Band music popularity began to wane by 1947 and as many band leaders found touring with large numbers too expensive, Armstrong took his cue. A younger, more progressive jazz movement called bebop was storming the scene, forcing Armstrong to adjust once again. He scaled back to a six-piece called the All Stars with such big gun musicians as Earl Hines, Jack Teagarden, and, at one point, showcasing a young tenor saxophonist named Dexter Gordon. The All Stars would remain Armstrong's band for the rest of his life and help establish his popularity world wide.