It would be difficult to find a better embodiment of the American dream than Louis Armstrong, who was born in 1901 to a single mother in the rough, poverty-stricken Back O’ Town neighborhood near what is today the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Though he sang on street corners and taught himself the cornet, there was little to suggest that a boy with scant education or formal musical training would become one of the defining musicians of his age.
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“The key to Armstrong’s success is the discipline he brought to bear,” says Bruce Boyd Raeburn, curator of the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University. “Armstrong was a hard worker and was extremely curious as a child. He did the work necessary and paid attention to everything going on around him.”
What was going on, in many of the neighborhoods where Armstrong found himself, was jazz. Back O’ Town, Storyville and other areas were musical melting pots in the early 1900s, where blues and ragtime mixed with the city’s prevalent opera and chamber music traditions. Musicians such as Jelly Roll Morton, Buddy Bolden and Joe “King” Oliver, who later became Armstrong’s mentor, were helping to define the new genre, making names for themselves in the smoky din of New Orleans’ dance halls, saloons and honky tonks.
Armstrong’s own musical education was anything but conventional. His most basic instruction came while he was incarcerated for 18 months (for firing a gun into the air) at the Colored Waif’s Home for Boys. The young cornet player would later hone his craft on the Mississippi River, playing aboard the paddle steamer Sidney. “It was a safe way to test greener pastures elsewhere, but with a round trip ticket, because he could always come back to New Orleans,” says Raeburn.
When Armstrong did leave the city in 1922 to join Joe Oliver’s band in Chicago, it would mostly be for good. The entertainer would spend much of the Prohibition era back and forth between Chicago and New York during one of his most productive periods, as a sideman and later as the leader of his Hot Five and Hot Seven bands. Armstrong, who would soon become known to his audiences as “Satchmo” and “Pops,” would find that the world beyond New Orleans would not tire of his infectious smile, gravelly voice and remarkable ability to convey a landslide of emotion in the singular note of a trumpet—a talent evident on tracks such as “West End Blues” and “Potato Head Blues.”
Sadly, Armstrong’s birthplace was demolished decades ago, as was the Colored Waif’s Home where he learned to play. And though the city has made strides to commemorate him—with its airport, a downtown park and an annual “Satchmo” summer festival—the struggle to preserve New Orleans’ early jazz sites continues. Those in the know, however, can still pick up the trail of the Crescent City’s greatest musical treasure at these five spots—and of course, hear some swingin’ good jazz along the way.
A modest brown sign commemorates Congo Square, a spot in Louis Armstrong Park now paved and lined with trees around its perimeter, where, from the mid-1700s to the 1840s, local slaves would congregate to play music on Sunday evenings. The pastime helped to preserve African rhythms and music traditions that would work their way into jazz, less than a century later. Located just steps from the French Quarter, the 32-acre Louis Armstrong Park was founded in 1980 in honor of NOLA’s favorite son, and contains Perseverance Hall—a Masonic lodge and later a dance hall where jazz musicians, early on, played for black and white audiences alike—and a larger-than-life, bronze statue of Armstrong by sculptor Elizabeth Catlett.