The influence of Louis Armstrong will always be heard in popular music.
He may be primarily known almost half a century after his death as the gravel-voiced singer of the sentimental favorite “What a Wonderful World,” singing of trees of green and skies of blue in the song that’s been featured in advertising and movies for decades, but Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong is much more than just a posthumous hawker of products. He was one of the inventors of a uniquely American art form and a 20th-century artist who broke through the barriers of racism to become one of the most beloved and important institutions in American history.
“The sound of that horn was pure spiritual essence. The sound of that horn was America.”
New Orleans was the birthplace of jazz and of its greatest ambassador, Louis Armstrong. Born into abject poverty on August 4, 1901, Armstrong was immediately abandoned by his wayward father and raised by his mother, Mayann, in a neighborhood of so much poverty and crime that it was literally called “the Battlefield.” With few resources, Armstrong reached only the fifth grade because he needed a job. Working for the Jewish Karnofsky family brought in enough money for Armstrong to buy his first cornet. When arrested for stealing and sent to Colonel Waif’s Home for Boys, Armstrong managed to find a mentor there in Peter Davis, who taught Armstrong the right way to play the instrument. At the age of 12, Armstrong became the leader of Colonel Waif’s Home for Boys Brass Band and went on to play in brass bands on riverboats on the Mississippi as a teenager.
Those riverboats, and the city from which they came, were epicenters of multiculturalism and music in the early 20th century, and during this time Black musicians in New Orleans took pieces of ragtime, such as Scott Joplin’s syncopated piano compositions, and blues, the 12-bar folk music created by Black Americans of the rural South in the 19th century, and created jazz. The exact moment of the invention of jazz is unknown, but its very creation was cooked up with the same sense of improvisation that characterizes the music itself. A combination of brass and woodwind instruments in a rollicking ensemble played music that Merriam-Webster defines as “propulsive syncopated rhythms, polyphonic ensemble playing, varying degrees of improvisation, and often deliberate distortions of pitch and timbre.”
The creation of jazz was a revolution that launched the modern popular music industry. By 1917 Nick LaRocca and his Original Dixieland Jass Band recorded the first jazz album commercially released, Livery Stable Blues. In the middle of this revolution, young Louis Armstrong played his cornet. Like other musicians of this time, he managed to eke out a living in the midst of the cruelty of institutionalized racism that defined an American South still stinging from the loss of the Civil War 50 years earlier.
Even in a generation of outstanding musical innovators, Armstrong stood out. While working running errands, he also had the great fortune to be offered music lessons from his employer’s husband, cornetist Joe “King” Oliver. One of the most important early jazz musicians, Oliver taught Armstrong until early 1918 and became his greatest mentor.
In the 1910s, Black Southerners migrated en masse to Chicago, and this growing community that now earned enough money to afford leisure time needed entertainment. Oliver left for Chicago, where King Oliver and his Creole Jazz Band entertained audiences at Lincoln Gardens Cabaret. Louis Armstrong joined Oliver in 1922 as second cornetist and was an immediate sensation. It wasn’t long before Armstrong would perform and make records under his own name.
In Chicago Armstrong added the final piece to the jazz puzzle, transforming it from an ensemble-based art form to a soloist’s art form. Until his emergence, a song released on a jazz album would be a straight ensemble recording without any instrumental solos. Louis Armstrong changed this, quickly becoming legendary for his skill and especially his improvisational techniques. His orchestra’s 1929 recording of “When You’re Smiling,” for example, showcases a spectacular solo that comprises the whole last minute of the piece. You can also hear Armstrong’s vocals, which quickly became as entwined in his legend as his cornet playing.
Louis Armstrong revolutionized the form of scat singing, which added an improvisational side to vocals that had nothing to do with written lyrics, making his gravelly voice as much of an instrument of the band as his cornet was. Armstrong became the most influential singer / instrumentalist of his era. Aside from his recordings from the ’20s, what cemented Armstrong’s popularity was his 1929 rendition of Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’” in the Broadway musical revue Hot Chocolate.
Following his big breakthrough, Armstrong began a life of constant touring that lasted over four decades. As one of the most recognizable and beloved stars in the jazz firmament, his popularity outlasted the peak years of big-band music in the ’30s and ’40s. Some in the jazz music community criticized his domestic touring because he played in front of segregated audiences and rarely, if ever, mentioned racial oppression in American. A change came in 1957, when he canceled a U.S. state department–sponsored tour in the Soviet Union. When conflicts arose in the U.S. over school desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas, he refused to participate in a tour designed to convince other nations that race relations weren’t a problem in America. “The way they’re treating my people in the South,” Armstrong told a reporter, “the government can go to hell.”
His invitation to tour was the result of his international fame, which had begun after World War II. When Louis Armstrong traveled the world, his popularity was even greater than it was back home. He became known as “Ambassador Satch,” spreading love and jazz across the globe.
“My whole life, my whole soul, my whole spirit is to blow that horn.”
Armstrong would sing and play a long succession of hits, with the peak coming late in life with his 1964 rendition of “Hello Dolly!” from the popular Broadway musical by the same name. Remarkably, that version hit number one on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 in the rock-and-roll era and ended The Beatles’ 14 consecutive weeks of three different songs sitting at the top spot.
Louis Armstrong passed away in 1971, but his role in the evolution of American music lives on. As a musician whose playing and singing will forever be immediately recognized, he’s one of the most vital artists in music history.