There is no jazz musician as closely intertwined with the history of jazz music as Louis Armstrong. Louis Daniel Armstrong grew up in poor conditions in New Orleans, Louisiana: The city where jazz was born. Without the musical atmosphere of the city of New Orleans, Louis Armstrong could not have ignited his musical talent.
In 1717, the city was founded as Nouvelle-Orléans in reference to the French city of Orléans: The city’s population was composed of Native Americans and French settlers. At some point in history, Louisiana was Spanish territory – the Spanish architecture of the city can be admired until today.
Contrast between two cultures
Louis Armstrong was born in 1901: it was the turn of the century. At that time, New Orleans was one of the most diverse cities in the United States: On the one hand, there was the musical culture imported from the African slaves. On the other hand, New Orleans had the first opera house in the United States -– thanks to the numerous European settlers. From both musical styles, European and African, the New Orleans style developed. Louis Armstrong, who was himself a great fan of opera, made the New Orleans style and its numerous descendants world-famous.
New Orleans in Chicago
At the age of twelve, Louis Armstrong received his first music lessons: he impressed his teachers and classmates – after a very short time he had learned to play the tambourine. It wasn’t long before Armstrong also mastered the cornet – his musical talent earned him his first money, which enabled him to escape the material desolation of his home in New Orleans: The musical potential in New Orleans had also been exhausted.
Starting in the mid-1920s, the New Orleans in Chicago jazz style developed. The name says it all: musicians from New Orleans worked in Chicago from then on.
Numerous jazz musicians and their ensembles from New Orleans took the nearly 1,000 mile journey to Chicago and developed their musical skills there. Among them was Louis Armstrong.
In April 1923, Louis Armstrong stood in a recording studio for the first time: as a member of the Oliver Creole Jazz Band, Louis Armstrong and his band members recorded more than two dozen takes. At that time, recording technology was still purely mechanical: recording was done through a large funnel connected to a needle. The needle recorded the sound through the vibrations of the air. Electric recording techniques did not exist until two years later.
At that time, Louis Armstrong was a jazz instrumentalist: He did not yet use his voice, which would later make him world famous.
Around 1925, Louis Armstrong received an offer from bandleader Fletcher Henderson to become part of his New York band. Armstrong now played the trumpet in addition to the cornet. Louis Armstrong changed the rhythmic nature of the Fletcher Henderson orchestra: he brought a touch of swing to the band’s performances and recordings. This swinging component of rhythm, long a component of jazz music, later advanced to a style all its own, ubiquitous in the thirties under the name of Swing.
When Louis Armstrong was once asked what swing meant, he replied, “If you have to ask that, you’ll never understand it.”
After his time with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, during which he recorded over 30 titles, Louis Armstrong returned to Chicago: here he formed his own band Hot Five. Armstrong’s wife Lil Armstrong took over the piano, and the other band members changed constantly.
The Hot Five were mainly heard on recordings: The Chicago music industry recognized the potential of bands like the Hot Five in the late twenties. It was with the Hot Five that Louis Armstrong invented scat singing: When he forgot the words to the song Heebie Jeebies while recording, he made a few sounds instead, which were christened scat and became an integral part of jazz singing. Around 1927, Louis Armstrong finally switched from cornet to trumpet – it was a trend among jazz musicians at the time to switch to trumpet.
Success & Earl Hines
Heebie Jeebies became a hit and sold over 40,000 copies in just a few weeks – at at time when it was already a huge success to sell 10,000 copies, this was a phenomenal success.
Louis Armstrong had become a star with his Hot Five, which also played as a septet under the name Hot Seven. For a long time, the ensemble members were exclusively musicians from New Orleans – until Armstrong decided in 1928 to hire mainly musicians from the North.
In the late twenties, Louis Armstrong collaborated with jazz pianist Earl Hines: Earl Hines played a style on the piano that was christened trumpet style – Hines’ melody lines were reminiscent of the sound of a trumpet.
Hines and Armstrong shared their approach to the swing component of jazz. Together they recorded two milestones in jazz history in 1928: West End Blues and Weather Bird.
It was not the last time Louis Armstrong made jazz history: the swing era was about to blossom and with it Louis Armstrong’s career…
Simon von Ludwig
Main sources: Knauer, Wolfram: “Black and Blue – Louis Armstrong [His Life and Music]”, 2021 Reclam publishing house and numerous recordings by Louis Armstrong
Cover picture: © Simon von Ludwig