Louis Armstrong, c. 1925.
Courtesy of the Frank Driggs Collection.
Born August 4, 1901, in New Orleans, LA
Died July 6, 1971, in New York City
“My whole life has been happiness,” Louis Armstrong liked to say, and he managed to make everyone who heard him feel that no matter how bad things got, everything was bound to turn out all right, after all. But his warm, unaffected presence sometimes masked the fact that he was also the most influential innovator in the history of jazz.
He was born in the poorest neighborhood in New Orleans, and the story of his rise is as astonishing, as inexplicable – and as American – as Abraham Lincoln’s. While in Fletcher Henderson’s band in 1924 and 1925 he introduced the world to the super syncopated interpretation of the 4/4 rhythms that became the art of big band swing. The power and virtuosity, the musical logic and emotional intensity of his playing on his own “Hot Five” and “Hot Seven” recordings made between 1925 and 1929 persuaded a generation of musicians that jazz could be a soloist’s art. And for the forty-plus years that followed he was the universally recognized ambassador of America’s music, beloved throughout the world. Along the way he extended the range of his instrument, fused the sound of the blues with the American popular song, and revolutionized American singing, bringing to it the same irresistible drive he’d brought to instrumental jazz.
He was, as trumpet player and Armstrong contemporary, Max Kaminsky, wrote, “the heir of all that had gone before and the father of all that was to come.” Miles Davis agreed: “You can’t play anything on your horn that Louis hasn’t played,” he said. “I mean not even modern.”
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