Like most of the great innovators in jazz, Louis Armstrong is a small man. But the extent of his influence across jazz, across American history and around the world has continuing stature. His life was the embodiment of one who moves from rags to riches, from anonymity to internationally imitated innovator. Louis Daniel Armstrong supplied revolutionary language that took on such pervasiveness that it became commonplace, like the light bulb, the airplane, the telephone.
Armstrong was born in New Orleans on Aug. 4, 1901. He grew up at the bottom, trying to bring something home to eat, sometimes searching garbage cans for food that might still be suitable for supper. The spirit of Armstrong's world, however, was not dominated by the deprivation of poverty and the dangers of wild living. As a child, he was either dancing for pennies or singing for his supper with a strolling quartet of other kids who wandered New Orleans freshening up the subtropical evening with some sweetly harmonized notes. But he had his dreams.
In 1915, he got first cornet and was soon known around New Orleans as formidable. The places he played and the people he knew were sweet and innocent at one end of the spectrum and rough at the other. Out of those experiences, everything from pomp to humor to grief to majesty to the profoundly gruesome and monumentally spiritual worked its way into his tone. He became a beacon of American feeling.
In 1922 he went to Chicago and joined his mentor Joe Oliver, and the revolution took place in full form. His improvisations set the city on its head. The stiff rhythms of the time were slashed away by his combination of the percussive and the soaring. His combination of virtuosity, strength and passion was unprecedented. No one in Western music has ever set the innovative pace on an instrument, then stood up to sing and converted the vocalists.
Armstrong traveled the world constantly. In 1932 he visited Europe and played for King of England. In 1956 he was hailed by crowds during African tour. In 1964 his recording of Hello, Dolly, hit No. 1. Armstrong died on July 6, 1971 in New York City. But he will always remain as one of the greatest artists who make the world a happy place.