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Abshire, Nathan (27 June 1913–13 May 1981), Cajun musician, was born near Gueydan, Louisiana, the son of Lennis Abshire. His mother’s name is unknown. From a family of accordion players, Abshire made his public dance hall debut on the accordion at the age of eight. Like many other rural French-speaking people of Louisiana during his youth, he had little schooling and never became literate in his preferred French or in English. He married Olia Boudreaux, and he and his wife adopted one son....

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Adams, Pepper (08 October 1930–10 September 1986), jazz baritone saxophonist, was born Park Adams III in Highland Park, Michigan, the son of Park Adams, Jr., a manager of a furniture store, and Cleo Coyle. The family had been reasonably well off until the store went bankrupt in the depression, one year after Adams’s birth. Adams grew up in poverty. His parents traveled to live with different relatives before settling with his grandparents in Rochester, New York....

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Adderley, Cannonball (15 September 1928–08 August 1975), jazz saxophonist, was born Julian Edwin Adderley in Tampa, Florida, the son of Julian Carlyle Adderley, a high school guidance counselor and jazz cornet player, and Jessie Johnson, an elementary school teacher. The family moved to Tallahassee, where Adderley attended Florida Agricultural and Mechanical College High School from 1941 until 1944. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Florida A & M in 1948, having studied reed and brass instruments with band director Leander Kirksey and forming, with Kirksey, a school jazz ensemble. He then worked as band director at Dillard High School in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and jobbed with his own jazz group....

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Akeman, Stringbean (17 June 1914–10 November 1973), banjo player and comedian, was born David Akeman in Annville, Kentucky, the son of James Akeman and Alice (maiden name unknown). Situated halfway between Corbin and Richmond, Annville was part of a region that produced several other notable banjoists, such as ...

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Albany, Joe (24 January 1924–12 January 1988), jazz pianist, was born Joseph Albani in Atlantic City, New Jersey. His parents’ names are unknown. His father was a carpenter. Raised in the Los Angeles area, Joe played accordion as a child and took up piano in high school. The family returned to Atlantic City by the summer of 1942, when he first played professionally at the Paddock, a striptease club. Immediately back in Los Angeles, Albany joined scat singer Leo Watson’s group, and he also married, but details of the marriage are unknown....

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Henry Allen © William P. Gottlieb; used by permission. William P. Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress (LC-GLB13-0004 DLC).

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Allen, Henry “Red” (07 January 1908–17 April 1967), trumpeter, was born Henry James Allen, Jr., in Algiers, Louisiana, the son of Henry James Allen, Sr., a trumpeter and leader of a brass band, and Juretta (maiden name unknown). Allen received instruction from his father and his two uncles, who were also trumpeters. Rehearsals were held at home, giving Allen the opportunity to hear New Orleans greats like ...

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Ammons, Albert C. (23 September 1907–02 December 1949), jazz pianist, was born in Chicago. His parents’ names are unknown; both were pianists. Ammons was a teenage friend of Meade Lux Lewis. The two learned to play by following the key action of player pianos and by imitating more experienced musicians, including Hersal Thomas and Jimmy Yancey. Ammons, having access to his parents’ instrument, developed his skills faster than Lewis. Both men were particularly influenced by a tune called “The Fives,” a blues involving strong, repetitive, percussive patterns in the left hand, set against equally strong and percussive but less rigorously repetitive counterrhythmic patterns in the right; this piano blues style came to be known as boogie-woogie....

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Ammons, Gene (14 April 1925–06 August 1974), jazz tenor saxophonist, was born Eugene Ammons in Chicago, Illinois, the son of Albert Ammons, a boogie-woogie pianist; his mother’s name is unknown. Like several other prominent jazzmen, Ammons studied music at Du Sable High School under Captain Walter Dyett. Initially he idolized ...

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Cat Anderson, c. 1946-1948. © William P. Gottlieb; used by permission. William P. Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress (LC-GLB23-0008 DLC).

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Anderson, Cat (12 September 1916–29 April 1981), jazz trumpeter, was born William Alonzo Anderson, Jr., in Greenville, South Carolina. Nothing is known of his parents, who died when he was four. Anderson grew up in Jenkins’ Orphanage in Charleston, where as a boy he received the nickname “Cat” after scratching and tearing in a fight with a bully. He played in the orphanage’s renowned bands, beginning on trombone and playing other brass and percussion instruments before taking up trumpet. From 1929 onward he participated in orphanage band tours, and in Florida in 1933 he formed the cooperative Carolina Cotton Pickers with fellow orphanage musicians. Returning to Charleston in 1934, they continued playing as the Carolina Cotton Pickers and then resumed touring....

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Archey, Jimmy (12 October 1902–16 November 1967), jazz trombonist, was born James H. Archey in Norfolk, Virginia. Nothing is known of his parents. He started playing the trombone in 1912 and from 1915 to 1919 studied music at Hampton Institute, spending his summers playing in a band led by pianist Lillian Jones. After working in Quentin Redd’s band on the Atlantic City boardwalk around 1922, Archey moved to New York City in 1923 and played with trumpeter Lionel Howard’s band at the Saratoga Club and the Capitol Palace. The next year he worked at Ed Small’s and from 1925 to mid-1926 spent a year touring with the Lucky Sambo Revue and another few months with the Tan Town Topics. Starting in late 1926 he worked with the bands of John C. Smith and Arthur Gibbs and began a residency at the Bamboo Inn with Ed Campbell. In 1927 he played in pianist Edgar Hayes’s pit band at the Alhambra Theater, briefly toured with ...

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Armstrong, Harry (22 July 1879–28 February 1951), vaudeville performer, pianist, and popular composer, was born Henry Worthington Armstrong in Somerville, Massachusetts, the son of Henry Armstrong, a piano salesman, and Elizabeth Stuart. Armstrong competed as a professional boxer before joining a street corner vocal quartet in Boston in 1896. He moved to New York in 1898 and played piano in a restaurant in Coney Island and later at the Sans Souci Music Hall in Manhattan. He composed and performed his own songs, many of which were published by the firm of M. Witmark, where Armstrong worked as a rehearsal pianist....

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Louis Armstrong © William P. Gottlieb; used by permission. William P. Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress (LC-GLB13-0017 DLC).

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Armstrong, Louis (04 August 1901–06 July 1971), jazz trumpeter and singer, , known universally as “Satchmo” and later as “Pops,” was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, the illegitimate son of William Armstrong, a boiler stoker in a turpentine plant, and Mary Est “Mayann” Albert, a laundress. Abandoned by his father shortly after birth, Armstrong was raised by his paternal grandmother, Josephine, until he was returned to his mother’s care at age five. Mother and son moved from Jane Alley, in a violence-torn slum, to an only slightly better area, Franklyn and Perdido streets, where nearby cheap cabarets gave the boy his first introduction to the new kind of music, jazz, that was developing in New Orleans. Although Armstrong claims to have heard the early jazz cornetist ...

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Ashby, Irving C. (29 December 1920–22 April 1987), jazz guitarist, was born in Somerville, Massachusetts, the son of an apartment superintendent. His parents’ names are unknown. The family was musical and closely in touch with the world of entertainment: “ Fats Waller used to come by the house all the time,” Ashby told writer James Haskins (p. 57). Ashby taught himself to play guitar. At age fifteen he joined a band that played sophisticated arrangements for college dances, and, deeply embarrassed by his inability to read music, he began to learn chordal notation. He performed at a nightclub at Revere Beach while attending Roxbury Memorial High School. Ashby’s abilities as a classical guitarist won him a scholarship at an open audition for the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, but the school had no guitar teacher and thus the award went to the runner-up: “So that’s the extent of my conservatory background—in and out the same day,” he told writer Harvey Siders (p. 10). Having made his own ukulele at age twelve, Ashby helped to manufacture guitars at the Stromberg factory in Boston during a period when he was performing on a radio show on station WNAC....

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Ashley, Thomas Clarence (29 September 1895–02 June 1967), folk singer and instrumentalist, was born Clarence Earl McCurry in Bristol, Virginia, the son of George McCurry, a bartender, and Rosie Belle Ashley. Shortly before he was born, his father, who was locally known as an old-time fiddler, revealed that he had a second family and left to be with them; it was only years later that the young singer met him. The boy took the name of his mother’s family and moved with them to Ashe County, North Carolina, about 1896. In this remote mountain area he grew up, learning folk songs and the old clawhammer style of banjo-playing. By 1907 he had received his first guitar, an instrument only then becoming popular in the mountains, and by the time he was a teenager he was gaining his first professional experience by traveling with Doc White Cloud’s medicine show. Such shows, common in the rural South through the 1930s, featured a self-styled doctor who sold patent nostrums to the public; to attract an audience, the doctors hired musicians to play on a makeshift stage. Ashley played off and on in such shows for about twenty years, often portraying a traditional blackface comic character called “Rastus” in addition to making music. Later he helped train another young singer in the show, ...

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Atkins, Chet (20 June 1924–30 June 2001), guitarist, was born Chester Burton Atkins, the son of James Atkins, a musician, and Ida Sharp Atkins, at his maternal grandfather's farm near Luttrell, Tennessee. The family was poor, and James Atkins, who had formal music training, cobbled together a living as a gospel singer, piano tuner, and music teacher. When Chester—he did not receive the nickname Chet until adulthood—was in grade school, his parents divorced; each remarried, and his father moved to Georgia. Chester remained in Luttrell with his mother, stepfather, and numerous siblings....

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Chet Atkins in Washington, D.C., on 20 Sep.1980 Courtesy of AP Images