Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong, "King of Jazz" shows this animated expression at his press conference at the Savoy Hotel, London, May 3, 1956. AP Photo
Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong, "King of Jazz" shows this animated expression at his press conference at the Savoy Hotel, London, May 3, 1956. AP Photo

Revered jazz musician Louis Armstrong landed in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood 100 years ago. His arrival was part of the Great Migration, a period in which Black folks left the Jim Crow South for opportunities in the North and West.

WBEZ producer Cianna Greaves talked to Vocalo content director Ayana Contreras about Chicago’s influence on his music.

Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong, "King of Jazz" shows this animated expression at his press conference at the Savoy Hotel, London, May 3, 1956. AP Photo
Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong, "King of Jazz" shows this animated expression at his press conference at the Savoy Hotel, London, May 3, 1956. AP Photo

Revered jazz musician Louis Armstrong landed in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood 100 years ago. His arrival was part of the Great Migration, a period in which Black folks left the Jim Crow South for opportunities in the North and West.

WBEZ producer Cianna Greaves talked to Vocalo content director Ayana Contreras about Chicago’s influence on his music.

Mary Dixon: Revered jazz musician Louis Armstrong landed in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood 100 years ago. His arrival was part of the Great Migration, a period in which Black folks left the Jim Crow South for opportunities in the North and West. A concert series today and tomorrow celebrates his legacy. WBEZ producer Cianna Greaves talked to Vocalo content director Ayana Contreras about Chicago’s influence on his music.

Cianna Greaves: So Ayanna, tell me what drew Louis Armstrong to Chicago?

Ayana Contreras: I think coming from New Orleans, the immediate draw was that Chicago was a recording center that a lot of cities didn't have at their disposal specifically for jazz and what was called at that point, ethnic music. Everything from Blues to Polish music, just a whole lot of things were being recorded here. So between that music industry and of course the Chicago Defender, which was distributed pretty vastly in the South. The reputation of Chicago really proceeded itself in a lot of ways. Also, you know, Chicago being a train hub. There was a direct train from his hometown in New Orleans to Chicago. Um, and last but not least his mentor King Oliver was here in Chicago. 

Cianna Greaves: What was Chicago like at that time?

Ayana Contreras: You know, not to be cliché, but it really was a city on the make. In the 1920s, that was when most of our housing stock was being built up and even a lot of our main commercial strips. Most of that stuff was built during this time period. So it was just a city that was full of excitement and jazz was in the soundtrack of all of it. It really represented this modernity, that people were attracted to. 

Cianna Greaves: Louis Armstrong had a very unique sound and personality. What did Chicago musicians make of his style? 

Ayana Contreras: So musicians in general noted that he was quite brash and loud and not in a rude way, but just really exuberant we'll say. The story that sticks with me was that one of his early recordings, he was playing for another band leader. They were all gathered around this horn which was how things were recorded back then. Just one recording device. And he was so loud that they excommunicated him to the corner of the studio so that he didn't overpower all the other musicians. 

Cianna Greaves: How did his style differ from what was already happening in Chicago? 

Ayana Contreras: You know, I think the Chicago sound really was an amalgamation of a lot of different Black sounds, right? Like it's a space where gospel and blues and later what became rhythm and blues was really germinating. But he, coming from New Orleans, was bringing another, another interesting strain. There's a quote that I heard that he said jazz actually rose from the dead. The real music came from the grave and that's how jazz began and that is why it brings people to life. You know he came from new Orleans where jazz was in the clubs but jazz was also a way in which to celebrate death through marches. And it just really changed the way in which people understood what jazz could be. 

Cianna Greaves: In your opinion what is the main takeaway from Louis Armstrong's time in Chicago. 

Ayana Contreras: It was a really formative period for him, working with his mentor, but also working with a lot of other musicians that were really giving him a chance to shine in a solo way that he hadn't done. I think if he hadn't come to Chicago, it's hard to know like, what he would have become. I do think that the freedom in Chicago, the city on the make, that it hadn't been established what Chicago was going to be yet. I think that helped him realize the possibilities.

Cianna Greaves: And the story of Armstrong's time in Chicago actually intersects with your own family history. As I understand, your grandmother actually met him?

Ayana Contreras: The story is that my grand mother who was five foot four, and some change, wound up in a club one night sitting on his lap and she talked about that for many, many years. And this is because, you know, she was born in like 1916, but he came back multiple times and there's a lot of photos of him in Chicago and in the Bronzeville area in particular. So that's a funny story that stays in our lore. 

Cianna Greaves: Ayana Contreras is the content director at Vocalo Radio. Ayana, thank you so much for sharing your knowledge and your personal story of Louis Armstrong with us today.

Ayana Contreras: Thank you.


WBEZ transcripts are generated by an automatic speech recognition service. We do our best to edit for misspellings and typos, but mistakes do come through.