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Decades after his death, Louis Armstrong is still the most famous of all jazz musicians. A large part of his popularity during the later part of his career was due to his distinctive singing and joyful personality that were always impossible to resist. Armstrong’s musical innovations early in his life are so enormous that he permanently changed jazz and was arguably the most significant of all musicians to play jazz.

Although he believed, and it was widely reported, that he was born on July 4, 1900, after his death a birth certificate was found that showed his birthdate as August 4, 1901. He grew up in a very poor, fatherless family, first performing music by singing in a kid’s vocal group on the streets. In New Orleans Armstrong was always surrounded by music, and he was inspired to start playing cornet when he was eleven, hoping someday to play in the city’s parades. The turning point of his life occurred on New Year’s Eve of 1912 when Armstrong found a pistol and shot it off in the air in celebration. He was quickly arrested, and when it was deemed that he was not being brought up properly, he was sent to live in a waifs’ home.

Although being confined could have permanently damaged his life, Armstrong enjoyed the disciplined setting and the home’s student bands. He began to work earnestly on his cornet playing, and by the time he was released two years later, he was an up-and-coming player with a growing reputation. Back in the streets of New Orleans, he began to be hired by local groups while retaining a day job for a few years. He befriended King Oliver, who became his mentor and role model. In 1919 when Oliver moved to Chicago, Armstrong took his spot with trombonist Kid Ory’s band. Armstrong also began working on the riverboats with Fate Marable’s highly rated group. While with Marable, he learned to read music very well and developed quickly as a technician. In 1922 when King Oliver offered him a job with his Creole Jazz Band in Chicago, Armstrong was ready.

While with Oliver’s band, where his nickname was “Satchelmouth,” Armstrong amazed listeners by spontaneously harmonizing two-bar breaks with the other cornetist. He was mostly restricted to playing second cornet behind Oliver in the ensemble-oriented band, but when he took occasional short solos, Page 23  it was obvious that he was surpassing his inspiration. He made his recording debut with the Creole Jazz Band in 1923, and on his very first solo, “Chimes Blues,” the notes may have been worked out in advance, but his sound, phrasing, and personality were already in evidence. Armstrong married Oliver’s pianist, Lil Harden, who urged her new husband to leave Oliver, feeling that he would never be a star if he had to play second cornet. Armstrong was reluctant and stayed with Oliver until mid-1924 when he accepted an offer to join Fletcher Henderson’s big band in New York.

A year and a half later, Armstrong moved back to Chicago. On November 12, 1925, he recorded the first three numbers with his Hot Five. Although he was featured nightly during the next couple of years with big bands in Chicago theaters, including Erskine Tate’s Vendome Orchestra and the Carroll Dickerson Orchestra, his recordings with his Hot Five and Hot Seven from 1925 through 1928 were Armstrong’s greatest contributions to music. In 1927 he switched permanently to trumpet. The original Hot Five, which recorded through 1927, teamed the cornetist with clarinetist Johnny Dodds, trombonist Kid Ory, pianist Lil Harden Armstrong, and Johnny St. Cyr on banjo and guitar. The band was on the surface a conventional New Orleans jazz group; Ory played percussion while Dodds offered countermelodies, and the pianist and banjoist emphasized every beat. It was also a giant step ahead due to the leader. While there were plenty of ensembles, particularly in the earlier recordings, it was Armstrong’s solo flights and his joyful virtuosity that made these recordings so special.

On “Gutbucket Blues,” for only the second time on record, Armstrong’s voice is heard as he introduces his sidemen. He took vocal choruses on a fair number of these combo recordings. While nearly all singers up to that point sang pretty straight, sticking to both the words and the melody of the sheet music, Armstrong was constantly improvising, phrasing in an unpredictable but logical manner, and altering notes that often made songs seem more rewarding and certainly more swinging than they had previously. In addition, he was a master at making up nonsense syllables called scat-singing and soloing in his vocals like a horn. Although a 1908 record by Gene Greene “The Ragtime King” is the earliest known scat-singing to be documented, Armstrong popularized it with his instantly recognizable gravelly voice. By the late 1920s many vocalists were scatting, even quite a few who did not realize that their ideas were copies of Armstrong’s.

Oddly enough, the Hot Five only appeared in public once, at a special concert held by their record label, Okeh. Although the band sounded like an organized group, with spots for each musician, Armstrong was the dominant force. The original Hot Five made thirty-three recordings including such classics as “Heebie Jeebies” that featured Armstrong’s influential scatting, the initial version of Ory’s “Muskrat Ramble” that became a Dixieland standard, “Big Butter and Egg Man,” the eerie “Skid-Dat-De-Dat,” a spectacular showcase for Armstrong on “Cornet Chop Suey,” a perfect trumpet solo on “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue,” and a tradeoff between Armstrong and guest guitarist Lonnie Johnson on “Hotter Than That.”

In 1927 for eleven selections, the group expanded with drummer Baby Dodds, Pete Briggs on tuba, and John Thomas substituting on trombone for Ory to become the Hot Seven. Armstrong’s outstanding playing on “Willie the Weeper,” “Wild Man Blues,” and particularly “Potato Head Blues,” with him playing over a stop-time rhythm on which the rhythm section accents the first beat of a bar together, but otherwise drops out, sounded way ahead of his time. No jazz trumpeter was on his level during this era, and he continued to progress.

Inspired by the piano playing of Earl Hines, Armstrong made a set of 1928 recordings with his Savoy Ballroom Five, which was actually six or seven pieces. Like Armstrong, Hines enjoyed playing with time, breaking up the rhythm, and taking adventurous breaks that found him stretching the boundaries of classic jazz. Third in importance with the group was drummer Zutty Singleton who made the most of the least, playing almost as a percussionist with cowbells and cymbals. The other musicians, trombonist Fred Robinson, Jimmy Strong on clarinet and tenor, banjoist Mancy Cara, and sometimes altoist Don Redman, had relatively minor roles because the music had moved beyond the democracy of New Orleans jazz.

Armstrong’s creative ideas and Hines’ innovative piano playing are very evident during such numbers as “Fireworks,” “A Monday Date,” “Basin Street Blues,” “St. James Infirmary,” and particularly in their time-defying trumpet-piano duet on “Weatherbird.” “West End Blues” was Armstrong’s favorite personal recording and the musical highpoint of his career. It has a remarkable opening trumpet cadenza, inspired scatting by Armstrong, and a very dramatic closing instrumental statement. It is one of the great moments of recorded history, showing that jazz had already evolved at that early stage from a regional folk music into an art form.

While Louis Armstrong was now famous among musicians and in Chicago, it was time for him to stretch out even more. He relocated to New York in 1929.


Stride piano was the dominant style in the late 1920s, but Earl Hines was the first major pianist to move beyond it. Rather than continuously keeping the beat with a steady stride, he often suspended time with his left hand, taking unexpected breaks yet always coming back without missing a beat. His right often played ringing octaves that emulated a horn, allowing him to be heard over a band, and was dubbed “trumpet style.”

The pianist first emerged in the early 1920s playing with singer Lois Deppe’s group in Pittsburgh. After moving to Chicago, Hines played with local orchestras and met Louis Armstrong; they worked together in a big band throughout 1927. The next year was one of Hines’ greatest: he played and recorded regularly with Jimmie Noone’s Apex Club Orchestra, recorded some stunning piano solos, was featured with Louis Armstrong’s Savoy Ballroom Five, and on his twenty-fifth birthday in December debuted his big band at Chicago’s Grand Terrace Ballroom. Although he played more conventionally with his big band until the mid-1940s, whenever Hines took a piano solo or performed unaccompanied, he always proved that he was one of the most exciting of all jazz pianists.



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almost 2 years ago

THis site was so helpful to me. Thank you so much for providing such interesting and authenticated information.

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about 5 years ago

Is there a way to see louis armstrong's birth and death certificates without being charged for them. My son wants to do a school project on him and the teacher requires these. i have searched and searched with no result..can you help me locate one?