In This Article Louis Armstrong

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • Iconography
  • Commentary on Armstrong’s Film Acting
  • Commentary on Armstrong’s Writings and Other Verbal Output
  • Commentary on Armstrong’s Artwork
  • Other

Music Louis Armstrong
by
William Bauer
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 March 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0240

Introduction

A towering figure in cultural history, Louis Armstrong transformed music and society. His contributions as jazz trumpeter and singer, actor and comedian, composer and bandleader, and author and international celebrity continue to resonate. As the first African American artist to achieve nationwide stardom in the entertainment industry, Armstrong used his celebrity and immense musical gifts to bridge racial divisions in American society, opening doors for other African American performers to follow in his footsteps. Born into severe poverty on 4 August 1901, Armstrong attained artistic and commercial success in a career spanning more than fifty years. He worked in a variety of media—mainly music but also radio, film, print, and collage—sustaining a grueling performance schedule and producing hundreds of recorded tracks, many now canonical. In his published and unpublished autobiographies, essays, and innumerable letters, he left a substantial body of written work that reveals the multifaceted scope of his genius. Taken as a whole, his creative output speaks in a deeply personal voice of the human condition in all its complexity, transcending boundaries of time, place, ethnicity, and culture while also grounding his expression in his African American identity. Growing up in culturally and ethnically rich New Orleans, Armstrong absorbed a wide variety of musical styles, including “coon” songs, piano rags, brass band marches, opera and especially the blues. After making his presence felt in the budding Chicago and New York jazz scenes, he led a series of landmark 1920s recordings known as the “Hot Fives and Hot Sevens,” which hold a seminal place in the jazz literature. The unique style and sheer exuberance bursting forth from these and later discs set a standard for future generations of jazz musicians and popular entertainers—urging, inspiring, daring them to surpass it. His immediately recognizable sound, expressive range, ironic wit, and breathtaking abundance of ideas played a formative role in the emerging Swing Era style. His uncanny ability to harness the technological advancements of his day—in sound recording, radio broadcasting, cinema, and, later, television—further propelled his ideas into the popular imagination. Nowadays we take for granted that a jazz soloist will unleash his or her creativity in virtuosic feats of melodic invention. Armstrong convincingly demonstrated the idiom’s potential for such freedom of expression early in its development, leaving his indelible mark on the many songs he interpreted throughout his career, as well as on musicians of all persuasions and on the many lives he touched. Long after his death on 6 July 1971 his exemplary achievements continue to reverberate throughout the world.

General Overviews

The following sources offer broad portraits of Armstrong’s life and career, and typically provide critical appraisal of his musical contributions. The most recent sources benefit from information that surfaced after the opening of the Louis Armstrong House Museum in 1991. As co-editor of Louis Armstrong: A Cultural Legacy (Miller 1994) (and curator of the Queens Museum of Art’s exhibit for which the volume served as catalogue), Marc Miller had a wealth of pictorial detail at his fingertips to supplement his essays (see under Iconography see also “Louis Armstrong: A Portrait Record” in Miller 1994). Among these general works, Anderson 2013 gives readers the most detail. Cogswell 2003 provides many fresh insights, informed by the author’s role as executive director of the Louis Armstrong House Museum. Cogswell 2002 effectively updates prior entries in both the New Grove Dictionary of Jazz and New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Giddins 1998, Morgenstern 2000, and Harker 2004 effectively condense commentary that each author set forth in more expansive work cited elsewhere in this bibliography. Wagstaff 2007, originally published in 1981, is still worth ferreting out for its astute biographical sketch and style analysis. A subsection focuses on general overviews found in textbooks.

  • Anderson, Gene H. Louis Armstrong: Grove Music Essentials. The Grove Dictionary of Music. 2d ed. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

    DOI: 10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.A2248099E-mail Citation »

    Survey of Armstrong’s life and career. Considers his recordings, compositions, films and shows, and legacy. Available in print.

  • Cogswell, Michael. “Armstrong, Louis.” In The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz. 2d ed. Edited by Barry Kernfeld, 67–73. London: Macmillan, 2002.

    E-mail Citation »

    Two-part survey of Armstrong’s life and career. The first part is devoted to major biographical and professional events. The second part addresses musical style and influence, including a transcription of Armstrong’s solo on “Potato Head Blues.”

  • Cogswell, Michael. “Louis’s Life and Music.” In Louis Armstrong: The Offstage Story. By Michael Cogswell, 12–31. Portland, OR: Collector’s Press, 2003.

    E-mail Citation »

    Armstrong’s career set forth in straightforward language and accompanied by numerous photographs. A subsection, “Louis the Musician,” identifies key factors behind his impact.

  • Giddins, Gary. “Louis Armstrong (The Once and Future King).” In Visions of Jazz: The First Century. By Gary Giddins, 83–102. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

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    Biographical details subsumed in a critical appraisal of Armstrong’s accomplishments as musician, instrumentalist, singer, and entertainer.

  • Harker, Brian. “Armstrong, Louis.” In Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance. 2 vols. Edited by Cary D. Wintz and Paul Finkelman, 42–46. New York: Routledge, 2004.

    E-mail Citation »

    Armstrong’s life and accomplishments contextualized by the Harlem Renaissance and African American perspective. (This source should not be confused with a single-volume work of the same title published by Facts on File, Inc.)

  • Miller, Marc. “Louis Armstrong: A Cultural Legacy.” In Louis Armstrong: A Cultural Legacy. Edited by Marc H. Miller and Donald Bogle, 17–66. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994.

    E-mail Citation »

    Vivid descriptions of the places Armstrong worked and lived, enriched by photographs, drawings, maps, and other illustrations that place the textual portrait of Armstrong in a rich cultural and visual context.

  • Morgenstern, Dan. “Louis Armstrong.” In The Oxford Companion to Jazz. By Dan Morgenstern, 102–121. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

    E-mail Citation »

    Ranges across Armstrong’s career, summarizing his musical achievements. Morgenstern knew Armstrong well and directly experienced many of the events described.

  • Wagstaff, Christopher. “Armstrong, Daniel Louis (Satchmo) 1900–71.” In New Makers of Modern Culture. Vol. 1. Edited by Justine Wintle, 15–16. London and New York: Routledge, 2007.

    E-mail Citation »

    Perceptive overview of Armstrong’s life and career, with key insights into distinctive stylistic traits of Armstrong’s trumpet and vocal work. Remains relevant despite common factual errors since corrected in the literature.

  • Whitaker, Matthew C. “Louis Armstrong.” In Icons of Black America: Breaking Barriers and Crossing Boundaries. Vol. 1. By Matthew C. Whitaker, 33–42. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2011.

    E-mail Citation »

    Armstrong’s accomplishments in the context of African American cultural history.

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