This biographical article is part of JAZZ.FM91’s supplementary research component to expand on The Journey to Jazz and Human Rights documentary podcast series. Click here to find out more.
Louis Armstrong was born on Aug. 4, 1901, in New Orleans, La., in a neighborhood so poor that it was nicknamed “The Battlefield.” On New Year’s Eve in 1912, Armstrong fired his stepfather’s gun in the air during a New Year’s Eve celebration and was arrested on the spot. He was then sent to the Colored Waif’s Home for Boys. There, he received musical instruction on the cornet and fell in love with music. In 1914, the home released him, and he immediately began dreaming of a life making music. One of the greatest cornet players in town, Joe “King” Oliver, began acting as a mentor to the young Armstrong, showing him pointers on the horn and occasionally using him as a sub.
Beginning in 1919, Armstrong spent his summers playing on riverboats with a band led by Fate Marable. It was on the riverboat that Armstrong honed his music reading skills and eventually had his first encounters with other jazz legends, including Bix Beiderbecke and Jack Teagarden.
By the mid 1920s, Armstrong moved to Chicago and made his first records with a band under his own name: Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five. From 1925 to 1928, Armstrong made more than 60 records with the Hot Five and, later, the Hot Seven. Today, these are generally regarded as the most important and influential recordings in jazz history; on these records, Armstrong’s virtuoso brilliance helped transform jazz from an ensemble music to a soloist’s art. His stop-time solos on numbers like Cornet Chop Suey and Potato Head Blues changed jazz history, featuring daring rhythmic choices, swinging phrasing and incredible high notes.
In the 1930s, after the Great Depression, Armstrong moved to Los Angeles to seek new opportunities. He played at the New Cotton Club in Los Angeles with Lionel Hampton on drums. The band drew the Hollywood crowd, which could still afford a lavish night life, while radio broadcasts from the club connected with younger audiences at home.
After spending many years on the road, Armstrong settled permanently in Queens, N.Y., in 1943 in contentment with his fourth wife, Lucille. Although subject to the vicissitudes of Tin Pan Alley and the gangster-ridden music business, as well as anti-black prejudice, he continued to develop his playing.
During the 1940s, a widespread revival of interest in the traditional jazz of the 1920s made it possible for Armstrong to consider a return to the small-group musical style of his youth. Armstrong was featured as a guest artist with Lionel Hampton’s band at the famed second Cavalcade of Jazz concert held at Wrigley Field in Los Angeles which was produced by Leon Hefflin Sr. on Oct. 12, 1946.
During the next 30 years, Armstrong played more than 300 performances a year. Bookings for big bands tapered off during the 1940s due to changes in public tastes: ballrooms closed, and there was competition from television and from other types of music becoming more popular than big band music. By the 1950s, Armstrong was a widely beloved American icon and cultural ambassador who commanded an international fan base. However, a growing generation gap became apparent between him and the young jazz musicians who emerged in the postwar era such as Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins.