Nearly one hundred years ago, a seemingly minor event took place on the streets of New Orleans. A twelve year-old African-American boy was arrested by police for firing his stepfather’s revolver to celebrate New Years. This is still a common practice in New Orleans, despite the fact that falling bullets can injure or even kill people on the street.
However, in 1913, being black in Jim Crow New Orleans did not leave the young boy much leeway; the authorities removed him from his family and sent him to the New Orleans Home for Colored Waifs. There, it was expected, he would receive the right kind of discipline and training to enable him to reenter society.
The young boy spent several years at the home. As part of his rehabilitation, he received lessons in playing the cornet from Professor Peter Davis who frequently worked at the home at the request of the headmaster. The youngster had been taught to play the horn by ear, but he was in need of more formal training. Davis saw a spark in the the young miscreant, helped refine his playing, and eventually made him the band leader at the home. The young man began to attract attention for his horn playing; the notice would give spark to a noteworthy career.
The boy was released from the Waif’s Home when he was fourteen. Although he was technically returned to his family, he was guided by the musicians who played the local dance halls and brothels. He played in brass band parades and learned from the likes of Bunk Johnson, Buddy Petit, Kid Ory, and Joe “King” Oliver. Eventually, he signed on with Fate Marable’s band, which performed on riverboats up and down the Mississippi River. He referred to this period as his university, as he learned to play from written arrangements.
In 1919, Joe Oliver decided to move to Chicago and resigned from Kid Ory’s band; the young man replaced him and also became second trumpet for the Tuxedo Brass Band. In a couple of years, Joe Oliver, the mentor, summoned the young cornet player to Chicago.
Beginning in Chicago, Louis Armstrong, the young waif, the cornet player, would become the most recognized face of jazz music. In due time, his forceful playing and vocal stylings would change popular American music forever.
And quite possibly, it all stemmed from a young boy firing his stepfather’s gun on New Year’s Eve.