It was 1901 when Louis Armstrong was born in what was known as the least American-like city that is New Orleans, Louisiana, making his presence even more impactful. Louis actually went through his entire life believing that he was the ultimate American boy, being born on July 4, 1900. Sadly his baptismal certificate was recovered after his death that proves that he was truly born on August 1st of the following year. Regardless, Armstrong began his legacy in a small home at 723 Jane Alley, which was short lived for his parents’ relationship soon ended. His father left to live with another women and his mother found a new house to live in, leaving her two children with their Grandmother. (Bergreen)
Louis’ first major introduction to music was through Mardi Gras, easily one of the biggest city celebrations in the country. Music is everywhere on Mardi Gras, in the streets, clubs, houses, you name it. During the marching, Louis followed a local drummer named Harry Zeno saying, “he would pull the handkerchief from under his snare drum…He would actually thrill me when he’d make a long clean roll on his snare.” (Bergreen)
At the time, the music played was called “ragtime”, not yet jazz but similar.
Pickles and Peppers (1908)
composed by Adeline Shepherd
the New Orleans Ragtime Orchestra
Nicknames for signature 2/4 feel, ragtime featured wonderful cornet playing that caught Louis’ ear at an early age. Jazz then emerged in Storyville, known as the red-light district of New Orleans where there were dozens of clubs. (jazz) Louis had his favorite spots to admire his favorite players, but he had yet to shape his craft.
Louis began playing music on a tinhorn used for celebrations that cost him 10 cents. He played it all day long and received praises from all of the kids in town. Louis even started playing songs on the horn and developed a great tone. At the time, he was working for the (white) Karnoffski family, doing labor. They supported his early interest in music and helped him buy a Bb cornet from a pawnshop with a raise. Louis basically spent all of his time with the family, which changed his view of white people. At the age of 7, Louis gained support from a group of people that should have just used him for labor, but instead showed a young African American compassion during a time that was almost unbearable for black Americans. In fact, the Karnoffski family received ridicule for being Jewish immigrants. Louis caught on early and was appalled by the way they were treated. It was clear that Mr. Armstrong had a good heart. (Bergreen)
Louis learned a lot from the Jewish circle that he worked for. They taught him the importance of hard work, and saving money. While he worked, Louis saw black males gambling in alleys and thought they were lazy. Saying, “They’d rather lazy around and gamble…Jewish people always managed to put away their nickels and dimes, profits which they knew would accumulate into a nice little bundle some day.” So in a way, Louis was hard on his own people. He knew his was seen differently, but that did not stop him from aspiring for more. It was this mentality that made him more than a musician. His good heart and understanding for hard work puts him up there with some of the greatest social activists.
“He knew himself, he knew many of his special strengths and abilities came from being black, and he was aware that his being black actually appealed to some whites…he revealed in everything black-in black music, black cooking, black speech, black humor, black neighborhoods, and black women.” – Bergreen, page 59
By age 11, Louis was making a name for himself in the early jazz community after joining his first quartet. He soon had big names from New Orleans “sponsoring” him in a way. But it was when Louis started a little rivalry with Sidney Bechet, a clarinetist with a good reputation for his playing. Louis reportedly could play High Society, which was a clarinet part better than Bechet, which was unheard of. A clarinet has a higher range than a cornet, so at 11 Louis was already innovating as a horn player.
Louis started using different word too. He called everyone a “cat” or “Pops”, he also used “scat” constantly, which is the word when referring to the signing style where you improvise using a jabbering type of language, basically just sounds. Louis had probably the most loved “scat” style that he “would lapse into when the music seemed to transport him, and he just went with it, riding along with it in his private musical language.” Armstrong heavily popularized words like ‘hip’ and ‘cool’, too. (Bergreen 161)
It was in the fall of 1921 where Louis would begin to change Jazz and music forever. Up until this point, ragtime and ‘trad” (traditional) players always played in an orchestrated fashion, briefly taking solos. These early solos would be very short and were usually used during “breaks” in the music, sort of like a drum fill. Louis essentially created the “extended solo”. The extended solo is jazz. A true jazz musician plays jazz today because of the chance to improvise solos and even entire songs. Its been said that Louis took his first extended solo in front of an audience while in the marble orchestra on a riverboat. Captain of the boat, Joe Steckfus, recalled, “with Fate at the piano and Louis on the trumpet, the balance of the orchestra not playing. That night Louis Armstrong stood up alone and played his trumpet solo accompanied by the piano. This was the first time. The applause and an requests for an encore was so great, they repeated the number.”
It was his studio sessions with the King Oliver Creole Jazz Band and then his group called ‘The Hot Five’ that are arguably two of the most important recordings in jazz history. It also went hand in hand with African American culture. New Orleans built the Louis Armstrong Park not only because he was a great musician but because he was a figure for African Americans. Blacks were successful in music before him, but it wasn’t until Louis came around did everything start to change.
In 1973, the idea for a park and statue to be made in the treme neighborhood, dedicated to Louis Armstrong was proposed by the Council of the City of New Orleans, as seen in The Times-Picayune:
In June of 1979, The Times-Picayune submitted an article speaking of the construction of the park/statue. It mentions how the city had already invested $5.1 million into the project.
Then in 1980, the city was finished with the park but was slightly set back due to financial issues. At that point, the park had taken seven years to be completed and had cost $10 million dollars.
The park was finally opened on April 15th, 1980 with a little help from some jazz legends. Count Bassie, Dave Brubeck, Al Bird, and Pete Fountain held a “mini jazz and heritage festival” in honor of the grand opening.