Pops. Sweet Papa Dip. Satchmo. He had perfect pitch and perfect rhythm. He was a small man, but the extent of his influence across jazz, across American music and around the world has continuing stature; he supplied revolutionary language that took on such pervasiveness that it became commonplace, like the light bulb, the airplane, the telephone.
He grew up poor, hustling and hustling. Yet his world was not dominated by the deprivation of poverty but by the ceremonial vigor of the Negroes of New Orleans and their music: rags, blues, snippets from opera, church music and whatever else. At the Colored Waifs’ Home, young Louis first put his lips to the mouthpiece of a cornet; soon he was formidable. Musicians then were wont to have “cutting sessions” — battles of imagination and stamina. From 1920 on, young Louis was hell on two feet if somebody challenged him. Fairly soon, he was left alone. He took his music to Chicago, then to New York City, where his improvised melodies and singing set the city on its head. The stiff rhythms of the time were slashed away by his combination of the percussive and the soaring. His combination of virtuosity, strength and passion was unprecedented. No one in Western music — not even Bach — has ever set the innovative pace on an instrument , then stood up to sing and converted the vocalists. He did.
Apollo and Dionysus met in the sweating container of a genius from New Orleans whose sensitivity and passion were epic in completely new terms. He bent and twisted pop songs until they were shorn of sentimentality and elevated to serious art. He brought the change agent of swing to the world, the most revolutionary rhythm of the 20th century. Pops. Sweet Papa Dip. Satchmo.
This entry is excerpted from the new TIME book The 100 Most Influential People of All Time, which profiles spiritual icons, leaders, explorers, visionaries and cultural titans throughout human history. Available wherever books are sold and at time.com/100peoplebook
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