Louis Armstrong has undoubtedly left a strong and lasting impression on modern music. Often referred to as the “Father of Jazz,” he revolutionized the way people listen to and play music. With his unmistakable vocals and solo style, he recorded some of the most influential jazz albums ever, performed nightly with unparalleled charisma, and had a long and fruitful career domestically and overseas. Although his road to success was a rocky one, after his death in 1971 he is remembered for not only his contributions to jazz music, but to American culture as a whole. Here are ten facts about the man who shaped jazz music into what it is today.
1. A tough childhood prevented Armstrong from finishing school.
Louis Armstrong was born in raised in New Orleans, Louisiana, in an area called “The Battlefield.” His father left soon after his birth, leaving Louis’ mother to be his sole caretaker. As a result of financial hardship, his mother often left Louis in the care of her mother while she turned to prostitution. Because of his familial situation, Armstrong was forced to leave school during fifth grade to begin working. He soon formed a strong relationship with a Jewish family who employed him, encouraged him, and even fed him.
2. Louis was arrested at 11 years old.
In 1912, Armstrong took a New Year’s celebration to an unacceptable level when he fired his stepfather’s pistol into the air. He was immediately arrested and then sent to the Colored Waif’s Home for Boys. It was there he developed a passion for playing the cornet. He was mentored by Professor Peter Davis, who recognized young Armstrong’s potential and taught him both music and strict discipline. Upon his release from the home, Armstrong continued developing his talent, eventually being mentored by Joe “King” Oliver, a leading cornet player in New Orleans.
3. He adopted his cousin’s child.
During his marriage to Daisy Parker, Armstrong adopted three-year-old Clarence, the child of Armstrong’s cousin, who had died in childbirth. Clarence had suffered a head injury at an early age that left him mentally disabled, and he was taken care of by Armstrong his entire life. Unfortunately, during this time Louis’ marriage to Daisy failed, and she passed away shortly after their divorce.
4. He moved to Chicago to join King Oliver’s band.
A few years later, Armstrong reconnected with Oliver when he was invited to join his band in Chicago. During this time he was married to pianist Lillian Hardin, who later told Armstrong she felt as though Oliver was holding him back. Soon thereafter he left Chicago for New York, where he joined Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra. Armstrong’s style was quickly adopted by Henderson and his arranger, transforming the group into what is now regarded as the first big jazz band. Despite this success, Armstrong felt his southern roots weren’t accepted in New York, so he returned to Chicago.
5. He recorded 60 of the most influential jazz records in history – all in the span of three years.
Between 1925 and 1928, Armstrong cut more than 60 records with his band the Hot Five. It was then that Armstrong single-handedly transformed jazz into a soloist’s art. Unprecedented and daring swing rhythms, extremely high-pitched notes, and scat-singing soon became the new norm for jazz music.
6. Armstrong didn’t switch to playing the trumpet until 1926.
During his time recording with the Hot Five and Hot Seven, Armstrong also played nightly with Erskine Tate’s orchestra at the Vendome Theater in Chicago. This was where he switched to playing the trumpet so the sound would fuse better with the other players.
7. He got into some trouble with the mob.
Armstrong got tangled up with rival mob bosses who controlled the night club scene in New York and Chicago. As a result, Louis avoided these areas during the early 30′s, hit the road, and ended up staying in California for a short time. Unaware of the continuing feud between bosses, Armstrong was threatened by gangsters when he returned to play in Chicago, ordering him to go to New York. Armstrong defied them, returned to the south, and shortly thereafter began touring Europe.