Why you should care

Because sometimes accidents make history.

With no record executives around to kill the buzz, the mood of the recording session at Chicago’s legendary Okeh Studios was relaxed and informal as Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five band recorded tracks with uninhibited, improvisational brio. While laying down “Heebie Jeebies,” Armstrong happened to drop the lyric sheet that bandmate and composer Boyd Atkins had written out for him — or so the legend goes. Armstrong kept going anyway, scat-singing his way through the band’s soon-to-be hit song. As he later recalled, “When I finished the record, I just knew that people would throw it out. … And to my surprise, they all came running out of the control booth and said, ‘Leave that in.’ ”

Armstrong’s off-the-cuff scatting in “Heebie Jeebies” during that session on Feb. 26, 1926, is often cited as the first instance of this vocal style in which the singer improvises rhythms and melodies using nonsensical words — or no words at all — rather than lyrics. However, it’s more accurate to say that he popularized scat. Some claim that ragtime singer Gene Greene was the first with his recording “King of the Bungaloos,” which features a scat chorus. Others cite the celebrated early jazz pianist Jelly Roll Morton, who credited comedian Joe Sims for using scat in his routines.

Armstrong was arrested at age 11 for disturbing the peace on New Year’s Eve, 1913, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

But no serious jazz fan disagrees with the fact that Armstrong’s “Heebie Jeebies” launched this unique form of vocal expression onto the national stage. “As [Louis Armstrong] himself recalled, scat had been around on the fringes of music since he was very young,” explains Laurence Bergreen, author of Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life. “It was his genius to find it, adopt it and refine it.”

Armstrong’s scat model inspired the bandleader and jazz singer Cab Calloway, who in turn inspired George Gershwin to use the method in his seminal opera Porgy and Bess, which was first performed in 1935.

But Armstrong’s journey to becoming one of the most influential figures in jazz was long and arduous. Born on Aug. 4, 1901, he spent his formative years in Storyville, an area of New Orleans that was so poor it was known as “the Battlefield.” His father was a factory worker who abandoned the family not long after Armstrong was born. His mother, desperate for money, often worked as a prostitute. She was only 16 when she gave birth to Louis.

He was forced to leave school in the fifth grade to begin working. A local family, the Karnofskys, gave him a job delivering coal and collecting junk. The Karnofskys treated young Louis like family, often having him over for dinner and encouraging him to pursue music. To attract customers to the family’s junk wagon, Louis played a tiny tin horn instead of ringing a bell. After a while, the Karnofsky patriarch, Morris, lent him money to buy his first cornet.

Armstrong was arrested at age 11 for disturbing the peace on New Year’s Eve, 1913, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Sent to the New Orleans Colored Waifs Home for Boys, he joined a band and met his first real music teacher, Peter Davis. Under Davis’ tutelage, Armstrong developed his natural musical talent, and by the time he left the home in 1914, he was able to start making a living playing the horn in New Orleans.

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The Hot Five band: (from left) Louis Armstrong, Johnny St. Cyr, Johnny Dodds, Kid Ory and Armstrong’s wife, pianist Lil Hardin Armstrong.

In the 1920s Armstrong moved to Chicago at the request of the great jazz cornetist Joe “King” Oliver. Almost immediately Armstrong revolutionized what F. Scott Fitzgerald termed the Jazz Age with his introduction of the extended solo. Before his arrival in Chicago, jazz was played in much the same way as orchestra music and left little room for improvisation or solos. Armstrong’s introduction of extended solos skyrocketed him to fame and turned him into one of the most sought-after musicians in New Orleans and Chicago. Around this time he switched from cornet to trumpet, and the recordings he made with his bands the Hot Five and the Hot Seven, including “Heebie Jeebies,” remain to this day some of the most beloved of all time.

The 1930s and ’40s represented a period of decline for Armstrong, as a grueling tour schedule began to affect his health and skill. But the influential musician enjoyed a resurgence in popularity in the 1950s and ’60s, when he once again revolutionized jazz with his distinctive, throaty voice on tracks such as “What a Wonderful World.”

Though he was criticized by some members of the Black community for not taking a more active role in the civil-rights movement and for playing Uncle Tom to mostly white audiences, he remained a towering figure in jazz until his death in 1971.

To this day, Armstrong is seen as perhaps the most innovative figure in 20th-century jazz. Though he may not have invented scat, his “Heebie Jeebies,” along with his many other contributions, forever changed the genre.

Louis Armstrong — “Satchmo,” “Pops,” “Ambassador Satch”

  • Vitals: born Aug. 4, 1901, New Orleans, Louisiana; died: July 6, 1971, New York, New York
  • Instruments: Cornet, trumpet, vocals
  • Standards: “Heebie Jeebies” (1926), “West End Blues” (1928), “Star Dust” (1929), “Mack the Knife” (1955), “Hello, Dolly” (1964), “What a Wonderful World” (1967)
  • Quirks: Attributed his 1950s dieting success to an herbal laxative that he liberally handed out to friends; during a 1932 royal command performance in London, he alerted King George V, “This one’s for you, Rex.”
  • Another take: The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong, directed by John Akomfrah (1999)

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