Jazz Profiles from NPR
Louis Armstrong: The Trumpeter
Produced by Njemile Carol Jones

Louis Armstrong  

Before Louis Armstrong ever sang a duet with Ella Fitzgerald or Bing Crosby, before "Hello Dolly" or "It's A Wonderful World," there was just a lanky young man with a bright, beautiful horn. That young man transformed the trumpet into a solo instrument capable of astonishing range and lyrical beauty.

Listen to trumpeters Ruby Braff and Jon Faddis talk about Armstrong's innovations as a trumpeter

Armstrong also vastly redefined the context in which the trumpet was played. His sense of rhythm and timing took jazz from a staid 2/4 beat to a languid, more sophisticated 4/4 feel, paving the way for swing and for soloists to take center stage in jazz.

Listen to Braff explain how Armstrong pushed the rhythmic envelope for jazz

But while Armstrong was clearly an innovator of epic proportions, he never forgot who or what came before he arrived on the scene. He masterfully blended this knowledge of and respect for the past with an ability to reinterpret it for the future, allowing him to take the music where others had tried and failed.

Listen to trumpeter Wynton Marsalis tell how Armstrong used musical ideas from the past in his playing

Early in his career, Louis was taking what was called "Creole jazz" or dance music, which was formally scripted, and combining it with trumpeter Buddy Bolden's rougher, more improvisation-based street music, to create what would eventually become jazz.

Listen to biographer Laurence Bergreen explain how Armstrong combined elements of "Creole jazz" and "street music"

I don't listen to fanatics who tell me how to blow my horn. I guess that's why I've been playing 40 some years. Now, they are getting the best trumpet that I ever had in me.
-- Louis Armstrong in 1971  

Armstrong accomplished this feat with almost no formal training. What little training he did have began when he was placed in the New Orleans Colored Waif's Home at the age of twelve after a run-in with the police. The punishment turned out to be a mixed blessing, for while he was incarcerated he was also afforded the opportunity to wear a uniform, play in a real band and take lessons on the trumpet.

Listen to Bergreen talk about Armstrong's stay at New Orleans Colored Waif's Home

While at the Waif's Home, Armstrong also got the chance to hear some of the Crescent City's finest musicians. Cornetist Freddie Keppard performed in a club near the home as did trumpeter and bandleader King Joe Oliver, who took the boy under his wing when Armstrong was out on his own and taught him how to read music and work on his playing technique.

When Oliver left for Chicago, Armstrong considered following, but chose to stay in New Orleans and work with some of the other top musicians of the day like trombonist Kid Ory and the Dodds brothers. Armstrong also played in one of the most popular marching bands of the day, learning more about discipline and how to interact with an audience. He also fine-tuned his ability to both read and write music.

Listen to Armstrong and music historian Dan Morgenstern talk about Armstrong's tenure with the New Orleans' marching bands


In Chicago, King Oliver (left) was keeping tabs on Armstrong's progress, and in 1922 offered him a place in his band. It became Armstrong's biggest challenge yet -- the band had no parts written specifically for trumpet, so Satchmo was forced to listen closely to King Oliver and improvise.

Listen to Armstrong and music scholar Gunther Schuller explain what Armstrong brought to King Oliver's band

Soon Armstrong's undeniable talent was getting notice -- even classically trained musicians from Chicago would come to hear the incredible sounds this young man from New Orleans created on his horn. Despite all the attention, Armstrong was still number two in Oliver's band.


Lil Hardin (left), the band's piano player and the future Mrs. Armstrong, explains that Oliver kept Armstrong in the second trumpet-chair so that he, Oliver, would still be "King." Hardin, who greatly influenced Armstrong's technique and style, convinced him to leave the band.

After playing for a time in a silent film orchestra, Armstrong moved to New York City in 1924 to join Fletcher Henderson's band. Tired of the restraints of following King Oliver, Armstrong was ready to fly solo. Some members of Henderson's band looked down upon Armstrong for his ragged appearance, but once he began to blow, they were the ragged ones!

Listen to Armstrong recall playing in the orchestra for silent films

In 1925, Armstrong put together the Hot Five, expanding his popularity even more. Armstrong recorded his first composition, "Cornet Chop Suey," with this group. His style on the cornet, showcased by his brilliant and innovative cadenza on "West End Blues," produced one of the most copied jazz solos of all time. This monumental 1928 recording was a blend of artistry, endurance, and showmanship that has rarely, if ever, been matched in jazz.

Listen to Armstrong talk about his composition "Cornet Chop Suey"

The immortal "West End Blues" with the opening cadenza put the world on notice that jazz was a music that could not be dismissed as folk music.
-- Dan Morgenstern  


Perhaps the most powerful element of Armstrong's legacy is the confidence, spirit, and conviction with which he played. Both Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie warmly acknowledged this contribution, and Duke Ellington made sure to include a portrait of Armstrong in his "New Orleans Suite."

Listen to trumpeter Harry "Sweets" Edison (left) talk about Armstrong

While he didn't follow new musical trends, Armstrong never stopped challenging himself, always striving to maintain his own high standards. He never developed a love for bebop, which quickly replaced swing as the sound of modern jazz. Armstrong's disdain for bebop even sparked rumors of rivalry between him and Dizzy Gillespie -- which both men, in action and words, routinely dismissed.

Listen to Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie clear the air about their supposed rivalry

Armstrong often spoke of how friends urged him to retire, but he would just as soon play. The horn did contribute to his ailing health, so he made a compromise by breaking up his playing with extended periods of singing, which was less taxing physically.

Listen to Armstrong explain the importance of trumpeters keeping their chops


View the Louis Armstrong: The Trumpeter show playlist


More InfoBrowse the NPR Jazz Web site -- NPRJazz.org

More InfoBrowse the NPR Jazz Feature on Louis Armstrong

ListenListen to the NPR 100 feature on Louis Armstrong's "West End Blues"

ListenListen to the NPR 100 feature on Louis Armstrong's "Hello Dolly"

ListenListen to the NPR Basic Jazz Record Library entry for the The Complete Hot Fives and Hot Sevens Recordings

ListenListen to the NPR Basic Jazz Record Library entry for Louis Armstrong's CD The Best of the Decca Years


More InfoThe Official Site for The Louis Armstrong House & Archives