Louis Armstrong

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About Louis Armstrong

Born in 1901 in New Orleans, the cradle of jazz, Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong is the most important figure to emerge from the musically rich city. He first made his mark in the band led by cornetist Joe Oliver, whom he followed to Chicago in 1922, cutting his first records with the group the following year. Armstrong’s growing fame and feverish creativity led him to form his own groups, The Hot Fives and The Hot Sevens, between 1925 and 1928. Early on he embraced the contrapuntal style of early jazz mastered by Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, but he soon pioneered the jazz solo, an extended improvisation gliding through the chord changes of each tune. His devastating technical mastery eclipsed that of his peers, and his brilliantly melodic, inherently bluesy, and rhythmically inventive playing paved the way to the swing quality that so largely defines the music. He used his raspy, avuncular singing to forge a second weapon on par with his horn work in both originality and influence, transforming scat singing into an art form, and rode it to mainstream success. By the ’30s he was a pop star, touring in Europe, appearing in Hollywood movies, and leading a buoyant big band. Adapting to the declining appeal of swing orchestra, in 1947 Armstrong debuted a smaller, more nimble all-star band. He endured on the pop charts despite changing tastes, scoring pop hits in the ’50s (“Mack the Knife”) and the ’60s (“Hello, Dolly!” and “What a Wonderful World”). Given his iconic status and international fame, he was enlisted as a cultural ambassador by the U.S. State Department. He died in 1971, but the magnetism and power of his work remain undiminished, the product of a lifelong elevation of jazz’s bawdy roots into one of America’s finest cultural achievements.

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