Personalities | Louis Armstrong | Twenties | Jazz & Blues

An incomparable figure in the history of jazz, Armstrong played with an unprecedented virtuosity and bravura, while retaining an individual tone and a deceptively laid-back style. In the early 1920s, he shifted the emphasis of jazz from ensemble playing to a soloist’s art form, while setting new standards for trumpeters worldwide.

The sheer brilliance of his playing is best exemplified by his epochal masterworks from the 1920s, such as ‘Potato Head Blues’, ‘West End Blues’, ‘Muggles’, ‘Hotter Than That’, ‘Tight Like This’, ‘Cornet Chop Suey’ and ‘Weather Bird’ – all marked by a passionate, robust attack, dramatic, slashing breaks and a remarkable flexibility and range. As Miles Davis put it, ‘You can’t play anything on your horn that Louis hasn’t already played’.

The Making Of A Star

Born in New Orleans on 4 August 1901, Armstrong began playing cornet after being sent to the Colored Waif’s Home in 1913. Nicknamed ‘Dippermouth’ or ‘Satchelmouth’ (shortened to Satchmo) because of his wide, toothy grin, Armstrong came up playing in parade bands and bars around Storyville. In late 1918, he replaced his mentor Joe ‘King’ Oliver in Kid Ory’s band and honed his skills in that outfit until Ory’s relocation to California in 1919 caused the band to split up. Armstrong remained in New Orleans, joining Fate Marable’s band and playing on the Mississippi riverboats. The experience that Armstrong gained during this period was instrumental in his passage from an amateur jobbing musician to a professional jazz artist. Apart from the opportunities for travel that the riverboats offered, the performance and rehearsal schedule for the band was a gruelling one, and Armstrong had to strengthen his embouchure, sharpen his improvisational skills and learn to read music. Marable’s band was also home to many future stars and Armstrong collaborators, including bass player Pops Foster, banjoist Johnny St. Cyr, clarinetist Johnny Dodds and his brother, percussionist Warren ‘Baby’ Dodds.

Satchmo Joins King Oliver

On 8 August 1922, Armstrong accepted an invitation to play second cornet to King Oliver in Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band in Chicago, alongside the Dodds brothers, trombonist Honoré Dutrey and pianist Lil Hardin, who became Armstrong’s second wife. The band had a residency at Lincoln Gardens, where they had built up a reputation as the hottest ticket in Chicago. Louis made his recording debut with the Creole Jazz Band for Gennett on 6 April 1923, although as second cornet he took few solos, tending to remain more in the background of Oliver’s lead (notable exceptions to this can be heard on ‘Chimes Blues’ and ‘Froggie Moore’). He remained with Oliver’s band throughout that year before moving to New York in early 1924 to join Fletcher Henderson’s band during its residency at the Roseland Ballroom.

Moving East

Henderson had seen Armstrong play during a visit to New Orleans in 1922; he had been impressed and had invited Louis to join his band there and then, but the offer was turned down. This time, however – possibly at...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz & Blues, founding editor Howard Mandel


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