When it comes to notable jazz musicians, not many can outrank Louis Armstrong. Famous not just for his glowing talent as a trumpeter, Louis Armstrong rose to fame in the 1920s and soon became a household name as a show-stopping jazz musician and beloved man of the stage. He became known as one of the most innovative musicians of his era, an important jazz improviser and ambassador of swing.
Louis Armstrong was born on 4th August 1901 in New Orleans, Louisiana, the city hailed as the home of jazz. Over the years Louisiana flourished as the go-to place for jazz superstars, many of whom grew up on those very streets. Among them was Armstrong, who became known early on as a person with a big heart and a huge smile, earning him the nickname, ‘Satchelmouth’, or ‘Satchmo’, as he was later known. Having to act as a provider for his poverty-stricken family, Armstrong worked all over city to earn handfuls of change, and his travels introduced him to the world of music. Often singing for money on street corners of his hometown, Louis Armstrong’s talent and enthusiasm began to get him noticed, and after teaching himself to play the cornet he was invited to join musical processions for funerals and small local appearances. His passion was observed very early on by the jazz legend Joe ‘King’ Oliver who became a mentor and father figure to Armstrong. Armstrong even took Oliver’s place in Kid Ory’s band as a trumpet player when Oliver moved away. He made his first recording with the band in 1923 and married the band’s pianist Lillian Harden the following year. Lilian was the second of his four wives.
Coronet to World’s Greatest Trumpet Player
In 1925, with encouragement from his wife, Armstrong began swapping between a number of prolific jazz bands, and he gave up his beloved cornet in exchange for a trumpet – a move he would never regret. His appearance at numerous jazz clubs saw him billed as ‘the world’s greatest trumpet player’, and the attention surrounding him grew phenomenally during this period.
During the Great Depression Armstrong, like many others at the time, struggled to find work and so made the move to LA to work in clubs and try and bring in money using his name as leverage. He began appearing in movies and his name became more than just that of a talented musician. He was becoming a star across all platforms. With his sense of humour, natural likability, and fantastic credentials, Armstrong was a hit with the American population.
The rise of Swing and an all round entertainer
Armstrong witnessed the rise of swing first-hand throughout the 1930s. Although favouring small, intimate bands, he decided to create a large swing band in order to make the most of the change in musical interest. During this period, following his divorce, he married Alpha Smith and Lucille Wilson in quick succession, earning himself a reputation as something of a ladies’ man.
In the late 1940s Louis Armstrong followed his head and his heart and returned to the nature of small ensembles, heading up a six-piece band called Louis Armstrong and the All-Stars. He saw his position in this group as not just a musician but as an entertainer, which helped earn him a great deal of dislike from younger jazz musicians at the time. They found him offensive and felt that he was making a mockery of the jazz scene. His new found love for being the entertainer saw him make a further 11 movies in the 1950s, although he continued to make music during this period.
The Pinnacle: “Hello Dolly”
Armstrong finally realised one of his dreams in 1964, earning himself the top spot in the charts by knocking the Beatles out of their 14-week number one spot with the hit Hello Dolly, the title song for the Broadway musical of the same name. This was followed by a gold-selling album of the musical’s hits, as well as a Grammy for best vocal performance. Many consider this the peak of Armstrong’s career as a musician.
Death all too soon
Following his second heart attack in just over 10 years, Louis Armstrong passed away on 6th July 1971. More than 25,000 mourners paid their respects to the memory of one of the most famous figures in jazz history. His fan base has remained consistent long past his death, owing not only to his profound impact on the musical world, but also his notable lasting effect on the hearts of the people of his generation.