It would be difficult to find two figures further removed from each other on the spectrum of African-American life in the early years of the 20th century than Louis Armstrong and Edward Kennedy Ellington. Armstrong was born in New Orleans in 1901 to an unwed, 15-year-old mother who worked as a domestic servant and, he believed, as a prostitute too. He rarely saw his father. In 1913, after firing a pistol towards the sky during New Year’s celebrations, Armstrong was confined to the Colored Waifs’ Home for Boys, a correctional institution where he received his first systematic lessons on the cornet. After his release in 1914, he threw himself into the musical life of uptown New Orleans, running errands for his mentor, the cornet player Joe ‘King’ Oliver, and gradually acquiring his own gigs in gambling houses and the sawdust saloons where working women picked up their clients. When he was 17 years old, one of those women, named Daisy, became his first wife.
Ellington, born in 1899, grew up in the Washington, DC neighbourhood around U Street that was home to the capital’s small, fiercely status-conscious black bourgeoisie. His mother’s family included doctors, lawyers and teachers, and while his father’s job as butler and personal assistant to a prominent white physician suggests something of a decline in social standing, the ethos of the black elite thoroughly permeated the Ellington household.