Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century, dies in New York City at the age of 69. A world-renowned jazz trumpeter and vocalist, he pioneered jazz improvisation and the style known as swing.
Louis Daniel Armstrong was born in New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz, in 1901. He grew up in poverty and from a young age was interested in music. In 1912, he was incarcerated in the Colored Waif’s Home for Boys, allegedly for firing a gun into the air on New Year’s Eve. While there, he played cornet in the home’s band. Upon his release, he dedicated himself to becoming a professional musician and soon was mastering local jazz styles on the cornet. He attracted the attention of cornetist Joe “King” Oliver, and when Oliver moved to Chicago in 1919 he took his place in trombonist Kid Ory’s band, a leading group in New Orleans at the time. He later teamed up with pianist Fate Marable and performed on riverboats that traveled the Mississippi.
In 1922, King Oliver invited Armstrong to Chicago to play second cornet in his Creole Jazz Band, and Armstrong made his first recordings with Oliver the following year. In 1924, he moved to New York City and demonstrated his emerging improvisational style in the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra. In 1925, Armstrong returned to Chicago and formed his own band–the Hot Five–which included Kid Ory, clarinetist Johnny Dodds, and pianist Lil’ Hardin, Armstrong’s second wife.
This band, which later grew into the Hot Seven, recorded some of the seminal pieces in the history of jazz, including “Savoy Blues,” “Potato Head Blues,” and “West End Blues.” In these recordings, Armstrong abandoned the collective improvisation of New Orleans-style jazz and placed the emphasis on individual soloists. He switched from cornet to trumpet during this time and played the latter with unprecedented virtuosity and range. In the 1926 recording “Heebie Jeebies,” he popularized “scat singing,” a style in which jazz vocalists sing musical lines of nonsensical syllables in emulation of instrumental improvisation. His joyous voice, both coarse and exuberant, was one of the most distinctive in popular music.
In 1929, Armstrong returned to New York City and made his first Broadway appearance. His recordings, many of which were jazz interpretations of popular songs, were international hits, and he toured the United States and Europe with his big band. His music had a major effect on the swing and big band sound that dominated popular music in the 1930s and ’40s. A great performer, Armstrong appeared regularly on radio and in American films, including Pennies from Heaven (1936), Cabin in the Sky (1943), and New Orleans (1947). In 1947, he formed a smaller ensemble, the All-Stars, which he led until 1968.
Louis Armstrong had many nicknames, including Satchmo, short for “Satchelmouth”; “Dippermouth”; and “Pops.” Because he spread jazz around the world through his extensive travels and hit songs, many called him “Ambassador Satch.” Although in declining health in his later years, he continued to perform until his death on July 6, 1971.