Louis Armstrong

Louis Daniel Armstrong (1900-1971) was an early jazz trumpet virtuoso, and he remained an important influence for several decades.

Louis Armstrong was born into a poor African American family in New Orleans on July 4, 1900. As a youngster, he sang on the streets with friends. In 1913 he was arrested for a prank and committed to the Waif's Home, where he learned the cornet and played in the band. On his release he began performing with local groups. Joe "King" Oliver, leader of the first great African American band to make records, befriended him, and Armstrong joined Oliver in Chicago in 1922, remaining until 1924, when he went to New York to play with Fletcher Henderson's band.

When he returned to Chicago in the fall of 1925, Armstrong began to cut one of the greatest series in the history of recorded jazz. These Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings find him breaking free from the conventions of New Orleans ensemble playing, his trumpet work notable for its inventiveness, rhythmic daring, improvisatory freedom, and technical assurance. In 1928 he started recording with drummer Zutty Singleton and pianist Earl Hines, the latter a musician able to match Armstrong in virtuosity. Many of the resulting records are masterpieces, the performances highlighted by complex ensembles, unpredictable harmonic twists, and rhythmic adventurousness. During these years Armstrong was working with big bands in Chicago clubs and theaters. His vocals, featured on most post-1925 records, are an extension of his trumpet playing in their phrasing and rhythmic liveliness, and are delivered in a unique guttural style.

By 1929 Armstrong was in New York leading a nightclub band. Appearing in the theatrical revue Hot Chocolates, he sang "Fats" Waller's "Ain't Misbehavin'," Armstrong's first popular song hit. From this period his repertoire switched mainly to popular song material, which presented a new challenge because of the relative harmonic sophistication. Some notable performances resulted. His virtuosity reached a peak around 1933; then his style underwent a process of simplification, replacing virtuoso display by a mature craftsmanship that used every note to maximum advantage. He re-recorded some of his earlier successes to considerable effect.

Armstrong continued to front big bands, often of inferior quality, until 1947, by which time the big-band era was over. He returned to leading a small group which, though it initially included first-class musicians, became over the years a mere background for his vaudevillian talents. During the 1930s Armstrong had achieved international fame, first touring Europe as a soloist and singer in 1932. After World War II and his 1948 trip to France, he became an inveterate world traveler, journeying through Europe, Africa, Japan, Australia, and South America. He appeared in numerous films, the best a documentary titled Satchmo the Great (1957).

In his later years the public thought of Armstrong as a vaudeville entertainer—a fact reflected in the bulk of his record output. But there were still occasions when he produced music of astonishing eloquence and brilliance. He died in New York City on July 6, 1971.

Further Reading on Louis Daniel Armstrong

Armstrong's autobiographical Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans (1954) is informative and entertaining on his early years. Swing That Music (1936), though ostensibly by Armstrong, was almost certainly ghosted and is of limited interest. Max Jones and John Chilton, Louis: The Louis Armstrong Story, 1900-1971 (1971), is a superb study and is particularly informative about his life during the 1930s. An outstanding critical study of Armstrong's records of the 1924-1931 period is in Richard Hadlock, Jazz Masters of the Twenties (1965). See also Louis Terkel, Giants of Jazz (1957).