Louis Armstrong: Biography, Songs & Facts

Instructor: Alisha Nypaver

Alisha is a college music educator specializing in historic and world music studies.

When it comes to 20th-century jazz, Louis Armstrong was the man! This innovational composer and musician helped to define American jazz, and his legacy still influences musicians today.

Who Was Louis Armstrong?

Louis Armstrong, aka Satchmo
Image of Armstrong.

Louis Armstrong, also known as 'Pops' or 'Satchmo,' was a jazz musician from New Orleans who was known for his cornet playing, improvisation, and for popularizing scat singing. He founded several jazz bands and recorded many influential works that became jazz standards.

From Coal Boy to Cornetist

Armstrong was born in 1901 in New Orleans, a city that has been dubbed 'the birthplace of jazz.' To earn money for his impoverished family, young Louis delivered coal to Storyville, a red light district that was full of jazz music. Louis was fascinated by the sounds, and managed to get his hands on an instrument called the cornet, a small, trumpet-like instrument with a warm sound.

The cornet, a smaller version of the trumpet.
Photo of cornet.

A few experienced musicians showed Louis some techniques, but for the most part, he was self-taught. When he was fourteen years old, he got his first music job playing in a dance hall band. Over the next few years, Louis crossed paths with many New Orleans jazz greats, learning from them and continuing to grow as a musician.

Pops' Professional Career

By the 1920s, Storyville had been shut down by the local government, and with the disbandment of the brothels and dance halls, musicians' jobs disappeared too. Many New Orleans jazz musicians started to move to Chicago in search of work, including Armstrong. There, he joined Joe 'King' Oliver's Creole Jazz Band.

The band was popular, and its success helped launch Armstrong's professional musical career. With the encouragement of his then-current wife Lil Hardin Armstrong, he formed his own bands, the 'Hot Five' and later the 'Hot Seven.' It was with the latter group that he recorded the song 'Potato Head Blues,' a hit song that helped bring Armstrong into the national spotlight.

Armstrong was a virtuoso performer on the cornet and the trumpet whose technical skills were only overshadowed by his remarkable ability to improvise. Improvisation is a standard characteristic of jazz music that involves composing music in real time, often only fractions of a second before it is played.

Armstrong helped to popularize scat singing, a type of vocal improvisation using nonsensical syllables instead of intelligible words (like 'bob-shoo-boo' or 'doo-wah-ditty-ditty'). His 1926 hit 'Heebie Jeebies' prominently features the scat style, and it was this recording that helped introduce American audiences to this unique vocal technique and catapulted Armstrong to national fame.

Album cover of Heebie Jeebies, the first major hit to feature scat.
Photo of album cover.

Armstrong often sang in more conventional styles as well, showing off his deep and gravelly voice. You might have heard it before on one of his more popular recordings, such as the famous version of the song 'What a Wonderful World,' or his hit single 'Mack the Knife.'

In 1943, Armstrong settled in New York City, playing hundreds of gigs a year, first with his big band, a traveling group of 16 musicians, and later with his All Stars band.

Armstrong performing with two of his All Stars band members, Jack Teagarden (left) and Barney Bigard.
Photo of jazz musicians.

In 1964, he set a record for the oldest person to record a Billboard Hot 100 chart-topper with the hit 'Hello, Dolly!' He continued touring in the United States and in Europe until just before his death in 1971, and was posthumously given a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award the following year.

Musical Influence and Legacy

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