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By Ben Sandmel
Trumpeter, cornetist and singer Louis Armstrong is often erroneously regarded as the sole inventor of jazz. This honorific is intrinsically impossible, because the evolution of any musical genre is a complex and gradual socio-cultural process. It is quite appropriate, however, to state that Armstrong made vital, indispensable contributions to the emergence of jazz, in New Orleans, which was one of such music’s prime points of origin. (It is similarly erroneous — although equally prevalent — to cite New Orleans as the sole “birthplace” of jazz, because other regions contributed significantly to the emergence of this multi-cultural music.) As his career progressed, on the global stage, Armstrong became one of the most important and influential musicians of the 20th century.
Along with Sidney Bechet, Jellyroll Morton, King Oliver, and others, Armstrong represented the second-generation of jazz artists to emerge from New Orleans circa 1915 – 1925. But the city was not receptive or supportive towards jazz in those days, and Armstrong’s estimable career unfolded outside of New Orleans. His success, popularity and high regard were based on several factors. Armstrong was a deft, imaginative instrumentalist. He started out on the cornet, an instrument that is very similar to the trumpet, and later began playing the trumpet per se. Armstrong was a major innovator in terms of making the trumpet an important vehicle for improvisation, a highly fluid approach to rhythm, and a bold experimental approach to phrasing that flirted with rhythmic disaster but never stumbled. He played with deep, expressive emotionalism, vast range and a sublimely clear tone. In addition to this instrumental prowess, Armstrong applied the same aesthetic approach to his singing, which was extremely soulful and often included the non-verbal concept known as scat singing, in which his voice functioned as an instrument. This multi-talent significantly elevated the standards of musicianship among jazz players and vocalists alike. By the 1960s Armstrong also attained renown became a pop-music icon and a personable performer, beyond the realm of jazz.
Armstrong gave his birth date as July 4, 1900, although the late scholar Tad Jones discovered the true date to be August 4, 1901. Armstrong was raised on Jane Alley in a rough neighborhood known as “back of town,” near the present location of Orleans Parish Prison, in an area known as “back of town.” In a retrospective interview with Life magazine, Armstrong recalled having “…a ball growing up there as a kid. We were poor and everything like that, but music was all around you. Music kept you rolling.”
The childhood music referred to included spirituals, military parade music, blues, and ragtime — which, when seamless combined around the turn of the century, forged the music now known as jazz. As a child Armstrong would stand outside a neighborhood bar called the Funky Butt Hall, and watch performances through chinks in the walls. He also absorbed early jazz — as first played by such artists as Charles “Buddy” Bolden – at funeral processions, second-line parades, and other community gatherings. Armstrong also held a laboring job in the New Orleans red-light district known as Storyville, where the sporting house featured some of the best musicians in town, whom Armstrong studied carefully.
As a pre-teen Armstrong began singing on the streets with other neighborhood kids; significantly, he sometimes accompanied them on a slide whistle. At age twelve Armstrong got arrested for firing a pistol in the air on New Year’s Eve. He was sent to the Colored Waifs Home, where teacher/bandleader Peter Davis taught him to play the cornet and read music. (Davis also trained…