Louis Armstrong (1901-1971), American jazz, cornet, and trumpet player, singer, bandleader, and popular entertainer. Armstrong overcame poverty, a lack of formal education, and racism to become one of the most innovative and influential musicians of the 20th century, and one of the most beloved entertainers in the world.
Armstrong influenced not only trumpeters but, directly or indirectly, nearly all subsequent instrumental and vocal jazz music, as well as a wide range of popular music. He is perhaps best known for helping to pioneer a style known as swing, which later formed the basis for most jazz and rhythm-and-blues (R&B) music. In addition to his technical virtuosity and creative melodic ideas, Armstrong was renowned for playing and singing with passionate, joyful feeling and an exuberant tone. He established the expressive possibilities of the young art form of jazz and set fundamental standards for improvisation.
Born Louis Daniel Armstrong in New Orleans, Louisiana, he grew up in dire poverty and did not attend school beyond the fifth grade. His father abandoned the family about the time of Armstrong's birth, and he was raised by his mother in the urban slums of New Orleans. As a youth, Armstrong joined a vocal quartet and sharpened his musical ear for harmony by singing with the group on the streets. From about 1912 to 1914 he was incarcerated for delinquency at the Colored Waifs' home in New Orleans, where he was given a cornet to play in the home's brass band. While there, he learned the cornet and other musical instruments and dedicated himself to becoming a professional musician.
About 1917 Armstrong attracted the attention of cornetist King Oliver, who played a style of jazz known as New Orleans, and began a fruitful apprenticeship with the respected musician. After Oliver left for Chicago about 1919, Armstrong played in the New Orleans jazz band of American trombonist Kid Ory and in the band of American pianist Fate Marable, which performed on the riverboats of the Mississippi River. In 1922 Armstrong joined Oliver and his Creole Jazz Band in Chicago and made his first recordings with Oliver the following year. Armstrong moved to New York City in 1924, where he joined the band of American pianist Fletcher Henderson and expanded his reputation as a leading soloist in the style of music known as hot jazz.
After 1925 Armstrong began leading his own band and also recorded with some of the most renowned blues singers of the time, including American singer Bessie Smith. From 1925 to 1928 he led a recording group called the Hot Fives (later known as the Hot Sevens) that included Kid Ory, American clarinetist Johnny Dodds, and pianist Lil Hardin, Armstrong's second wife. Their recordings include the songs “Cornet Chop Suey” and “Big Butter and Egg Man” in 1926; “Potato Head Blues” and “Struttin' with Some Barbecue” in 1927; and, in 1928, “West End Blues,” and “Weather Bird,” a duet with American pianist Earl Hines. In these recordings, which are considered some of the most seminal and enduring pieces in the history of jazz, Armstrong abandoned the traditional collective improvisation of New Orleans-style jazz and almost singlehandedly transformed the music from a group art into an art form for the individual soloist. Having switched from the cornet to the trumpet during this period, Armstrong also set new standards for trumpeters, extending the playable range of the instrument with impressive high notes.
In the 1930s and 1940s Armstrong led a big band (see Jazz: The Big-Band Era), toured Europe on several occasions, and increasingly pursued a career as a popular entertainer in motion pictures. The first black to appear regularly in American feature films, Armstrong acted in such movies as Pennies From Heaven (1936), Cabin in the Sky (1943), and New Orleans (1947).
In 1947, prompted by the commercial decline of big-band music, Armstrong formed a septet called the All Stars, which featured, at various times, such American musicians as trombonists Jack Teagarden and Trummy Young, clarinetist Barney Bigard, and Earl Hines. This band, which Armstrong led until 1968, became largely a vehicle for his own playing and singing. His recordings with the All Stars include Satchmo at Symphony Hall (1951), Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy (1954), and Satch Plays Fats (1955). Armstrong accumulated affectionate nicknames over the course of his career, including Dippermouth, Satchelmouth, Ambassador Satchmo, Satch, and Pops. He became an unofficial musical ambassador from the United States, performing all over the world; in 1957, for instance, he appeared before an audience of 100,000 people in Ghana. In 1956 he wrote the autobiography Satchmo.
Armstrong was one of the first artists to record scat singing (the singing of improvised wordless sounds rather than formal lyrics), in the song “Heebie Jeebies” (1926), and eventually his voice became one of the most recognizable of the 20th century. In part because of his vocals, a number of his records became hits, including “Blueberry Hill' (1956), “Mack the Knife” (1956), “Hello Dolly” (1964), and “What a Wonderful World” (1967). In 1964 his recording of “Hello Dolly” became the number-one song on the Billboard magazine popular-record charts, replacing “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” by the British rock-music group the Beatles. That same year Armstrong won a Grammy Award for “Hello Dolly.”
In addition to having appeared in more than 50 motion pictures, Armstrong is featured in the concert film Jazz on a Summer's Day (1958), the motion-picture documentary Satchmo the Great (1957), and the video documentary Satchmo (1986). In 1976 a statue dedicated to Armstrong was erected in New Orleans and a park was named in his honor. Posthumously, he was selected for a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (1972) and two Hall of Fame Grammy Awards (1974 and 1993). In 1996 Queens College announced plans to turn Armstrong's longtime home in the Queens borough of New York City into a museum in his honor. Armstrong's archives are preserved at Queens College.