Louis Armstrong: A Cultural Legacy

Louis Armstrong

"Louis Armstrong's station in the history of jazz is umimpeachable. If it weren't for him, there wouldn't be any of us." Dizzy Gillespie, 1971

Early Days in New Orleans

Armstrong was born in one of the poorest sections of New Orleans on Aug. 4, 1901. "He was a prodigy," says art historian and curator Marc Miller, "a hard-working kid who helped support his mother and sister by working every type of job there was, including going out on street corners at night to sing for coins." At age 7, he bought his first real horn--a cornet. When Armstrong was 11 years old, juvenile court sent him to the Jones Home for Colored Waifs for firing a pistol on New Year's Eve. While there, he had his first formal music lessons and played in the home's brass band. After about 18 months he was released. From then on, he largely supported himself as a musician, playing with pick-up bands and in small clubs with his mentor Joe "King" Oliver. Oliver was one of a handful of noted musicians in New Orleans--along with Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet and others--who were creating a distinctive and widely popular new band music out of blues and ragtime. Soon, sheet music publishers and record companies would make jazz a household name.

Louis Armstrong with his family Louis Armstrong with His Mother, Mayann Armstrong,
and Sister, Beatrice Armstrong

Villard Paddio
Courtesy of the Louis Armstrong Archive
Queens College, CUNY

Chicago and New York

The early 1920s saw Armstrong's popularity explode as he left New Orleans for Chicago to play with "King" Oliver's Creole Jazz Band, and then moved on to New York, where he influenced the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra with improvisation and a new musical vocabulary.

When he returned to Chicago in 1926, he was a headliner on records and radio, and in jazz clubs, wowing audiences with the utter fearlessness and freedom of his groundbreaking trumpet solos. His "scat" singing transformed vocal tradition and musicians studied his recordings to hear what a horn could do. It has been said that Armstrong used his horn like a singer's voice and used his voice like a musical instrument.

Negros Who Work on Broadway Negros Who Work on Broadway
From scrapbook #55, n.d.
Louis Armstrong
Mixed-media collage
Courtesy of the Louis Armstrong Archive
Queens College, CUNY

In 1929, he returned to New York, where he performed at Connie's Inn in Harlem and on Broadway in Connie's Hot Chocolates, and made his first nationwide hit recordings. Jazz was becoming a worldwide phenomenon and Armstrong was its leader, as was recorded in the November 1934 issue of Music: Le Magazine du Jazz (Brussels): "Armstrong arrives! Who is Armstrong? The true king of jazz. The only one who could convince those who doubt."

52nd Street at Night 52nd Street at Night
Charles Peterson, 1935
Black and white photograph
Courtesy of the Louis Armstrong Archive
Queens College, CUNY

He was one of America's most significant artists by the late 1930s, and had created a sensation in Europe with live performances and records. His music had had a major effect on "swing" and the big band sound.

Reel 163 Reel 163
Louis Armstrong, n.d.
Mixed-media collage on cardboard reel-to-reel tape box
Courtesy of the Louis Armstrong Archive
Queens College, CUNY

Ambassador Satch

After World War II and though the early years of the Cold War, Armstrong served as "Ambassador Satch," spreading good will for America around the globe including State Department-sponsored tours and broadcasts in the '60s. He was especially well-received in the newly independent nations of Africa, marked by such events as a 1956 concert celebrating Ghana's independence, attended by more than 100,000 Louis Armstrong fans.

Although he was no stranger to racial prejudice himself, Armstrong rarely made public statements. In 1957, however, he publicly condemned the violence that swept Little Rock over school integration and how it was handled. "Do you dig me when I say, 'I have a right to blow my top over injustice?'" he said. For this statement, Armstrong was called a firebrand in newspapers across the country.

By the '50s, Armstrong was an established international celebrity--an icon to musicians and lovers of jazz--and a genial, infectiously optimistic presence wherever he appeared. His death on July 6, 1971, was front-page news around the world, and more than 25,000 mourners filed past his coffin as he lay in state at the New York National Guard Armory.

Armstrong summarized his philosophy in the spoken introduction to his 1970 recording It's A Wonderful World. "And all I'm saying is, see what a wonderful world it would be if only we would give it a chance. Love, baby, love. That's the secret. Yeah."

City of Health--Colony of Homeless Children City of Health--Colony of Homeless Children
January, 1961
Louis Armstrong in United Arab Republic
Unidentified photographer
Black and white photograph
Courtesy of Louis Armstrong Archive
Queens College, CUNY

Louis Armstrong: A Cultural Legacy was funded in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, a federal agency, and by the New York State Council on the Arts. Additional support was provided by Mobil Foundation Inc. The exhibition was part of "America's Jazz Heritage," A Partnership of the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund and the Smithsonian Institution. Organized by the Queens Museum of Art and the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) in cooperation with the Louis Armstrong Archives at Queens College, City University of New York, the exhibition made its eighth--and final--stop at the National Portrait Gallery. The Washington showing of Louis Armstrong: A Cultural Legacy was made possible through the generous support of Infiniti, a Division of Nissan Motor Corporation U.S.A.

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