Louis Armstrong

Birth name: Louis Daniel Armstrong
Birthplace: New Orleans, Louisiana, USA
August 4, 1901 – July 6, 1971
Years Active: 1919 – 1971

Louis Armstrong is an internationally recognized American cultural icon. He initially became well known during the 1920s and ‘30s as a Jazz music pioneer. During that time, Armstrong provided innovative contributions as an instrumentalist and vocalist that were fundamental to Jazz’s stylistic evolution and signature sound. Over the course of his career he defined and transformed numerous roles and traditions within Jazz. However, by the 1950s and ‘60s, Armstrong had transcended his legendary Jazz status and achieved universal acclaim as a beloved entertainer performing American popular music around the world. One of his most enduring classics is his recording of the song, “What a Wonderful World.” 

Born and raised in New Orleans around the city’s vibrant arts culture, Armstrong showed an early interest in music. Working from a very early age, he saved enough money to buy his first musical instrument, a cornet. Unfortunately, circumstances led to Armstrong being sent to a local reform school in 1913 at 11 years old, but it was while at the school that he began to formally learn music. Harnessing his latent talent and thriving in the education environment, Armstrong quickly excelled and was soon leading the school’s brass band. 

Leaving the reform school in 1914, Armstrong was determined to become a professional musician in New Orleans. He connected with the well-regarded local cornetist, Joe “King” Oliver who began mentoring him. Honing his craft with Oliver’s support, Armstrong’s music career began to take off. After Oliver relocated to Chicago for higher profile music opportunities in 1918, Armstrong took his place in the Kid Ory Band. By 1922, Oliver summoned his young protégé to join his band and Armstrong headed north. 

With Armstrong now in Oliver’s band, the ensemble had a unique lineup of two cornetists. Since the cornet occupied a lead role in Jazz music, the sound of two playing simultaneously left audiences enthralled and the group became a Chicago sensation. Although Armstrong was playing one of the lead instruments, he typically occupied a secondary role to Oliver. However, he was often called upon by his boss to be a featured performer; sharing the spotlight, creating impromptu harmonies to Oliver’s melody, and playing solos. This challenging task led Armstrong to develop a very original style that would prove hugely influential.

Armstrong’s celebrated playing also transformed the sound of Jazz. His captivating virtuosity in Oliver’s band shifted the genre away from collective improvisation amongst the entire band to the now more-standard Jazz format of a single improvising soloist backed by a group grounded in supportive rhythm and sympathetic harmony. With Armstrong’s popularity surging, more opportunities came his way. 

While in Oliver’s band, Armstrong was championed by the group’s pianist, Lillian Hardin. Hardin advised Armstrong that he should move beyond his subordinate spot in Oliver’s band and form his own group. Encouraged by Hardin’s support, Armstrong left Oliver’s band in 1924 to go to New York City to play with Fletcher Henderson’s exemplary Jazz big band. Armstrong was a featured soloist in the group and played with the ensemble for one year before returning to Chicago to join Hardin’s new band. Around this time, he switched from playing cornet to trumpet.

In 1925, Armstrong made his recording debut as a bandleader. Signing a recording contract, he made his legendary Jazz quintet and septet recordings with his Hot Five and Hot Seven bands. Over the next couple years, he had his first hit record and made his vocal recording debut. After working with and fronting numerous groups in Chicago during the late 1920s, Armstrong returned to New York City in 1929. New York would be his hometown for the remainder of his life.

During the 1930s, Armstrong worked on Broadway, toured and lived in Europe for a few years, and participated in numerous recordings – many of which became hit records. Once back in the U.S. during the mid-1930s, he performed extensively with his new big band around the country and began working in motion pictures. He was also a celebrated and contributing artist to the Harlem Renaissance, which included other renown entertainers like Gladys Bentley. During the decade, he also collaborated with vocalists Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith.

Economic hard times due to the Great Depression and World War II led to the end of his big band in the 1940s. Jazz swing music had reached the height of its popularity by the mid-1940s and Armstrong assembled a small group that he would continue to front until the end of his career, Louis Armstrong & His All-Stars. By the end of the 1940s he had grown beyond his public image as a Jazz musician, he was now as well known for his recordings and performances of Pop songs. 

Although Armstrong typically avoided commenting on politics, he harshly criticized the U.S. government for its lack of support for public school integration during the Civil Rights Movement. Throughout the 1950s and ‘60s, he continued to chart hit records. He also toured the world under a U.S. State Department sponsorship known as the Jazz Ambassadors. The program sought to promote American arts and culture globally and Armstrong performed throughout the Middle East, central and south Asia and Africa, and Eastern Europe – including areas of the Communist Bloc (East Berlin and Czechoslovakia).

According to some estimates, Armstrong performed as many as 300 nights a year during the 1960s. In 1964, Armstrong won the Grammy Award for Best Vocal Performance for his hit song, “Hello, Dolly!” and became the oldest person to receive the award. The song also bumped the Beatles from the No. 1 spot on Billboard during the height of Beatlemania in the U.S. In 1967, he recorded his classic international hit, “What a Wonderful World.”

By the late 1960s, health issues began to keep Armstrong from touring regularly. His final concerts were a string of shows at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York City during 1971. Louis Armstrong died on July 6, 1971 at his home in Corona, Queens, New York City at the age of 69. He posthumously received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1972. Many of his historic recordings are now in the Grammy Music Hall of Fame. In 1977, his house in Queens was designated a National Historic Landmark and serves as the Louis Armstrong House Museum.