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Humanities LibreTexts

9.1: Louis Armstrong

  • Page ID
    51213
  • Cornetist, trumpeter, singer, and entertainer. An early nickname was “Dipper” (or “Dippermouth”) and somewhat later (and more famously) “Satchelmouth” or “Satchmo,” both references not just to physical characteristics but to the hugeness of his sound. Armstrong was one of the most important figures in the history of jazz. He was born in perhaps the worst slum of New Orleans, but surrounded from an early age by the rich and varied musical culture of that unique city. As a youngster he sang as part of a vocal quartet, and his first instrument was reportedly a tin horn given him by a Jewish family he worked for.

    After being arrested in 1912 for firing a pistol on New Year’s Eve, he was sent to the Home for Colored Waifs, where he began playing the cornet and had his first musical training. During his later teen years, Armstrong began playing with trombonist Kid Ory’s Jazz Band, and in 1922 moved to Chicago where he joined the band of King Oliver, with whom he played second cornet. In 1924 he traveled to New York to play with Fletcher Henderson’s band, a stint that had a startling impact on the large-ensemble jazz played in that city. In 1925, back in Chicago, he began a series of recordings under his own name that would become classics of early jazz (“Hotter Than That,” “West End Blues,” “Weather Bird,” and many others). By the end of the Twenties he had emerged as perhaps the greatest trumpeter in jazz, and is largely credited for jazz’s evolution from a collective style to a soloist’s art. In 1929 he moved to New York, and in the next decade became an international superstar.

    His appearance in almost 20 films and State Department-sponsored tours in the 1950s and 1960s brought jazz to international audiences and earned him the nickname “Ambassador Satch.” Though he always considered himself first and foremost an entertainer, his solo trumpet playing is remarkable for its brilliance and virtuosity, hot tone, and fluid rhythmic sense. The rough, gravelly quality of his voice (in many ways similar to his trumpet technique) is instantly recognizable and his dazzling vocal improvisations using nonsense syllables, called “scatting,” became widely imitated. Among his hits as a singer toward the end of his career were “What a Wonderful World” (featured in the movie Good Morning Vietnam), “Mac the Knife,” and especially “Hello, Dolly,” the immense popularity of which took him utterly by surprise (the song knocked the Beatles out of first place on the pop charts in 1964). Armstrong’s generosity was legendary, and in later years he could often be found on the steps of his home in Corona, Queens (now a museum), playing his horn with neighborhood kids.

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