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Louis Armstrong (1901-1971) and Beginnings of Jazz

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Mardi Gras, St. Charles Avenue, 1901. Group of spectators - both African American and white. An American art form now more than a century old, jazz emerged from the streets of New Orleans. The city has produced some of the world's great jazz musicians, none more celebrated than Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong.

Early Roots
A diverse mix of cultures in New Orleans dating back to the 18th century contributed to the rise of jazz. The slave trade brought to the port city numerous Africans, who sometimes gathered in Congo Square to dance and play music from their homelands. Many were exposed to West Indian culture after passage through the Caribbean. Free people of color known as Creoles played music derived from their European and African ancestries. New immigrants from European countries like Ireland and Germany also arrived, often living in close quarters in the city with people of color. The melting pot heated up a new form of music that took shape in the 1890s.

First Notes
Yelping Jazz Band. Eight members in various poses with instruments. Jazz grew out of different music styles that became popular at the end of the 19th century: ragtime, which was named after "ragging" or improvising tunes, the blues, and church music -- all integral to the African American experience in the city. New Orleans brass bands began incorporating these styles into their music and teaming with New Orleans mutual aid and benevolent societies to play at civic events. In a city known for its outdoor celebrations, musicians had many opportunities to perform, including during parades, political rallies, and even the music-filled funerals for which the city is known. Louis Armstrong, born in New Orleans in 1901, noted how the music brought cheer to a solemn occasion: "After the brother was six feet under the ground, the band would strike up one of those good old tunes like 'Didn't He Ramble' and all the people would leave their worries behind."

Son of New Orleans
Joe 'King' Oliver's Creole Jazz Band with Louis Armstrong, 1923. Armstrong, who would tour the world as an ambassador for jazz, started performing as a boy on the streets of his hometown, singing on street corners for spare change to support his family. He absorbed the New Orleans music scene and began playing small clubs and parades before Joe "King" Oliver, a fellow horn player, became his mentor. When Oliver left for Chicago, Armstrong took his place in a popular New Orleans band. But it was when Armstrong left New Orleans that his career truly began to flourish.

International Fame
Louis Armstrong as Zulu King (middle) for Mardi Gras, 1949. After performing on Mississippi riverboats, Armstrong went to Chicago in 1922 to play for Oliver's band. He later played in New York City with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra and soon began recording songs, including "West End Blues," a famous early jazz tune. In 1929 Armstrong appeared on Broadway and recorded "Ain't Misbehavin." In the 1930s he began touring internationally, including in England and Paris, and his fame increased with appearances in films, on the radio, and in theaters, dance halls and nightclubs. By the 1950s Armstrong was a star who was greeted by more than 100,000 people on a trip to West Africa and later recorded the number one hit "Hello Dolly." A return to New Orleans, however, would prove to be a personal milestone.

King of New Orleans
Louis Armstrong, playing trumpet, 1953. In 1949 Armstrong accepted an invitation from the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club to be crowned king of the Mardi Gras. Notwithstanding the treatment African Americans received in the segregated South at the time, Armstrong said, "There's a thing I've dreamed of all my life ... to be king of the Zulus' Parade. After that, I'll be ready to die." Satchmo (short for "Satchelmouth," a quip about the size of his mouth) would live until 1971, performing all the while and cementing the reputation of his hometown as the cradle of jazz.

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