How Chicago put Louis Armstrong on a path to jazz greatness 100 years ago

Categories: WBEZ Chicago

The 21-year-old trumpeter from New Orleans stepped off a train at Illinois Central Station in 1922. Three fall jazz events explore his lingering influence on the city.

In 1967, Louis Armstrong recorded “What a Wonderful World,” a song known around the globe more than five decades later. That world, for Armstrong, started in Chicago.

Considered one of the most revered musical icons of all time, the trumpeter, singer and composer has inspired a yearlong celebration in Chicago that peaks this fall and winter. Performances across multiple venues will mark the 100th anniversary of Armstrong’s arrival in Chicago from New Orleans, his birth home, and feature some of Chicago’s most celebrated modern trumpeters, including Orbert Davis, Marques Carroll, Corey Wilkes and Maurice Brown.

Like his improvised vocals on early recordings, Armstrong’s trumpet playing was lively and loud — and continues to resonate with Chicago’s current-day jazz standouts. “In the end, the trumpet is about the amplification of the voice,” said Carroll, a trumpeter, educator and co-founder of the Chicago Soul Jazz Collective.

“With Armstrong, from the top of the register all the way down, it’s got personality, it’s got blues, it tells a story, and it captures you. No matter how old it gets, you can still turn it on and it’s relevant.”

Davis, the artistic director of the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic, compares Armstrong’s fundamental contribution to jazz in Chicago to Michael Jordan’s reign over the Chicago Bulls and the United Center. “Michael hasn’t played for years, yet he built that house. When you think Chicago and jazz, it is Louis Armstrong who built that house,” he said.

A dream comes true in Chicago

Armstrong stepped off the train at Illinois Central Station on Aug. 8, 1922. He was 21.

His life to that point had moved rapidly. Growing up impoverished in a vice district of New Orleans where he dropped out of school early and learned trumpet at a home for juvenile delinquents, Armstrong heard the early sounds of jazz in brothels and riverboats. But Chicago promised him the same things it did other Black Southerners who migrated to Chicago between 1910 and 1930: prosperity, sophistication and transformation.

In fact, Joe Oliver, his mentor in New Orleans, had rechristened himself King Oliver and became de facto royalty in Chicago’s South Side jazz nightclubs. As a bandleader, Oliver led concerts in clubs with such opulent names as the Deluxe Café, Dreamland Café, the Sunset and the Elite Café. King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band dominated Lincoln Gardens, the biggest dance hall on the South Side at 31st Street and Cottage Grove Avenue.

Armstrong would head there in a cab his first night in town to hear the group play.

In his 1954 autobiography, Armstrong described his first night in Oliver’s band as transformative.

“Let the youngster blow!” someone yelled out.

“My boyhood dream had come true at last,” he wrote.

For Armstrong, Chicago offered “plenty of work, lots of dough flying around, all kinds of beautiful women at your service. A musician in Chicago in the early 20s was treated and respected just like some kind of God.” Among his peers in Chicago were clarinetist-composer Sidney Bechet and pianist-composer Jelly Roll Morton, former New Orleanians who, like Armstrong, collectively pushed the limits of the music.

Although he started out as a sideman in Oliver’s band, Armstrong’s playing — bright and buoyant — put him front and center. His soloing helped move jazz from a rough-and-tumble form of dance music to an art form that was more sophisticated and expressive.

“Louis had a way of swinging all the notes, it’s so melodic. He would play the melody but then he would have this virtuosity that wasn’t like classical music, but it would have that same high level of brilliance to it,” Carroll said.

In Chicago, Armstrong met his future wife, Lil Hardin, and they lived in a two-story greystone in Bronzeville, which still stands today on 44th Street as a private residence. She was a composer and pianist who had moved to Chicago in 1918 from Memphis. Many of her early songs were recorded by others throughout her life, including Ringo Starr and Ray Charles, and she remained a presence on the Chicago music scene throughout her life after she and Armstrong divorced in 1938.

It was Hardin who encouraged him to step out on his own. But before he did, Armstrong and band traveled to Richmond, Ind. to record for Gennett Records in April 1923. Electrical recording had not yet been invented, so the entire band had to huddle around a giant horn that captured the vibrations of their instruments.

Armstrong’s playing, however, dominated, and he was ordered to perform from the corner of the room.

A lasting influence on Chicago jazz

Armstrong moved to New York the next year, but he returned to Chicago in 1925 to record the first of his Hot Five and Hot Seven sessions for Chicago’s OKeh Records, a record label that recorded early jazz and later specialized in R&B after it was sold to Columbia Records in 1926.

The sessions took place over three years and featured the introduction of scat singing and the invention of fully improvised soloing. Some of Armstrong’s most famous compositions –including “Potato Head Blues,” “Big Butter and Egg Man” and “Heebie Jeebies” – were recorded in those sessions. The recordings, 89 in all, are considered the foundation of modern jazz and burnished Armstrong as a household name and the most famous trumpeter in the world. Touring then took him all over the globe. A Hollywood film career followed.

“He was the first American pop star,” Carroll said.

Fifty-two years after his death, Armstrong still has influence in Chicago. At the Chicago Jesuit Academy where Carroll teaches jazz to children in the third through eighth grades, he makes it a point to introduce them to Armstrong’s style of playing that is, for beginners, deceptively simple.

“He is not complicated, but it’s not easy to play that. It’s easy to play fast and high but not to play fast and high the way he played,” Carroll said. “He would trill on a high note and then play all over the melody with arpeggios — he had endurance.”

Armstrong’s stardom came not only from his musicianship, but also from his public image: the handkerchief, the gravelly singing voice and his wide smile that is in every photograph, movie still and record cover, even in the Civil Rights era. “He gets a lot of criticism for smiling. How could he clown all the time when the world was falling apart? I think it was survival,” Davis said. “And the message is: We gotta go on. He knew he wasn’t just representing his people but representing the world. And with that, you gotta smile.”

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