Louis Armstrong

Summary

Louis Daniel Armstrong also known by the nickname Satchmo or Pops (New Orleans, August 4, 1901 – New York, July 6, 1971) was an American trumpeter, singer and actor.

Armstrong was one of the most famous jazz musicians of the 20th century, achieving fame initially as a trumpeter, then establishing himself as one of the most important jazz singers even among the general public, especially towards the end of his career. He is considered one of the greatest and most influential figures in music of the 20th century, and his interpretative innovations allowed jazz music to evolve and expand, helping it become a world-famous genre.

The early years

Armstrong claimed to have been born on July 4, 1900, a date noted in many biographies. Although he died in 1971, it was not until the mid-1980s that his true date of birth (August 4, 1901) was discovered through examination of baptismal records. He was born into a poor family in New Orleans and was the grandson of slaves. He spent his childhood in a residential suburb of New Orleans known as Back of Town. His father, William Armstrong (1881-1922), abandoned the family when Louis was still an infant and left with another woman. His mother, Mayann Armstrong (1886-1942), thus left Louis and his sister Beatrice Armstrong Collins (1903-1987) to their grandmother, Josephine Armstrong, and sometimes to their uncle Isaac Armstrong.

At the age of five he returned to live with his mother and relatives, and saw his father again only under a few circumstances. He attended the Fisk School for boys. He brought home little money by collecting paper and finding leftover food, which he sold to various restaurants, but that was not enough to turn his mother away from prostitution. Armstrong grew up at the bottom of the social ladder, in a town characterized by strong racial discrimination, but also passionate about the kind of music that in those days was called “ragtime” and not yet “jazz.” Although he had a difficult youth (he ended up in reform school at a very young age), Armstrong did not regard those years as negative and drew inspiration from them. In an interview Armstrong stated, “Every time I close my eyes to blow into my trumpet, I look into the heart of good old New Orleans… It gave me something to live for.”

After being expelled from Fisk School at age eleven, Armstrong joined a quartet of boys whose lives were similar to his own and sang with them on the streets for money. He also began to get into trouble. At first he learned to play cornet in the marching band of a reform school for black boys, the Home for Colored Waifs in New Orleans, where he was sent many times for delinquency, most notably for a long time as a 12-year-old for celebrating New Year”s Eve in 1913 by shooting into the air with a revolver stolen from his stepfather, as some police records confirm.

Professor Peter Davis taught Armstrong some discipline and coached him musically. Louis meanwhile became the leader of the band. The Home Band played around New Orleans, and 13-year-old Louis began to concentrate on his cornet, beginning his musical career. At fourteen he left the Home Band, going to live first with his father and stepmother, then again with his mother and on the streets. Armstrong got his first job at Henry Ponce”s Dance Hall, where Black Benny became his protector and guide. At night young Louis played the cornet.

He passionately followed the frequent performances of the city band and missed no opportunity to listen to the greatest musicians, learning from Bunk Johnson, Buddy Petit, Kid Ory, and especially Joe “King” Oliver, who became a mentor and father figure to the young musician. Armstrong later played in bands and on New Orleans boats, starting with the renowned Fate Marable band. Louis described his time with Marable as “a pathway to college,” as it gave him much more experience. When Joe Oliver left town in 1919, Armstrong took his place in the band, then became the best jazz band in town.

The career and rise

On March 19, 1918, Louis married a girl from the state of Louisiana, Daisy Parker. They adopted a three-year-old boy, Clarence Armstrong, whose mother, Louis” cousin, died after giving birth. Little Clarence was mentally disabled (the result of an accident at a very young age) and Louis would spend the rest of his life caring for him. The marriage to Daisy failed quickly and they separated. Daisy died shortly after the separation.

Through various performances, Armstrong”s musical skills matured. By his early twenties, he could read music well and began to be included in various trumpet solos, becoming one of the first jazz musicians who had this ability, yet managing to incorporate his own personality and style into the solos. He created his own sound, unique and strongly characterized, and also began to sing in his performances. It was in 1922 that Armstrong joined the great immigration to the city of Chicago, where he was invited by his mentor Joe “King” Oliver to join his band. He would earn enough from his music that he would no longer have to make do with various jobs. In those years there was a great economic boom in Chicago and the city was literally full of job opportunities for blacks.

In the early 1920s Oliver”s band was the most prominent in Chicago, at a time the city itself was more jazz capital than New Orleans. Armstrong recorded his first records playing second cornet in Oliver”s band. Excited about his life in Chicago, he began writing nostalgic letters to his friends in New Orleans. Armstrong”s reputation grew, so much so that he was challenged in various competitions by people who wanted to show people the new phenomenon. Armstrong recorded his first records at Gennett Records and Okeh Records. In those days, he met Hoagy Carmichael (with whom he would later collaborate) who was introduced to him by Bix Beiderbecke, who had his own band.

Armstrong loved working with Olivier, but his second wife, pianist Lil Hardin Armstrong, incited him to seek more income and develop his own new style, away from Joe”s influence. Lil”s presence thus influenced the friendship between Louis and his mentor. In 1924 Armstrong acceded to an invitation to go to New York to play with Fletcher Henderson”s orchestra, the most popular African-American band at the time. Armstrong thus switched to the trumpet to work better with the other musicians. His influence on the band”s saxophone playing can be judged by listening to the band”s recordings during this period. Louis quickly adapted to Henderson”s musical style, playing on his trumpet and even attempting to play trombone. Soon he also began to sing and tell the stories of New Orleans. Henderson”s orchestra played at the best venues frequented by white people, including the famous Roseland Ballroom, with Don Redman”s class. Even Duke Ellington”s orchestra traveled to Roseland, only to witness the trumpeter”s magnificent performances.

During this period Armstrong made many recordings, arranged by his old New Orleans friend, pianist Clarence Williams; these included parts played by small jazz bands and the Williams Blue Five (some of the best ones featured Armstrong collaborating with one of his “rivals” in music and series of accompaniments with blues singers such as Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, and Alberta Hunter). After his New York stint in 1924, Armstrong returned to Chicago in 1925 to care for his wife, who again wanted to boost his career and increase earnings. He had been fine in New York, however, but he had to follow what his wife asked of him and leave the Henderson orchestra, which, again according to his wife Lil, somewhat limited his artistic growth. She used to call him “the greatest trumpeter in the world.” In reality, he was just a member of his wife”s band.

In any case, he recorded his own songs signed to his name during this period, both with Lil”s band and with Hot Five and Hot Seven, producing hits such as Potato Head Blues, Muggles (a reference to marijuana), and West End Blues. The group included Kid Ory (trombone), Johnny Dodds (clarinet), Johnny St. Cyr (banjo), his wife Lil on piano, and there was usually no drummer. Armstrong”s leadership style was very good for his bandmates, as St. Cyr said in an interview, “Working with him was so relaxing and he always gave his best.” He also played with Erskine Tate”s quintet, which performed, usually, at the Vendome Theatre. They also did soundtracks for some movies and shows, featuring jazz versions of classical music such as Madame Butterfly. He also began using scat sing (saying nonsense words, however) and was one of the first to record it in 1926. The group soon became famous and became one of the most celebrated in America. Young musicians, both black and white, were fascinated by Louis” new kind of jazz.

Disagreements with Lil, who always wanted him close to her, led him to separate from her in 1927. After this period, Armstrong began playing for the Sunset Café, owned by Joe Glaser (who in those years could be considered a sort of “manager” of Armstrong”s), with the Carroll Dickerson Orchestra, which was soon renamed Louis Armstrong and his Stompers, with Hines (musical director) on piano. Hines and Armstrong later became friends. In the years that followed, the club had Al Capone, the underworld boss, among its proprietary partners. During the Great Depression of 1929, Armstrong returned to New York, where he played in the orchestra of the musical Hot Chocolate, written by Andy Razaf and pianist

He began working in Harlem at Connie”s Inn, the most famous nightclub after the Cotton Club (which was also a sort of haven for New York Jewish underworld boss Dutch Schultz). Initially, Armstrong also had some success with his vocal recordings, including versions of famous songs composed by his old friend Hoagy Carmichael. His 1930s recordings had a great advantage especially with the introduction of RCA in 1931, which greatly helped singers and their various styles, such as Bing Crosby”s. Louis” famous rendition of the song Stardust became one of the most famous versions, thanks to Armstrong”s vocal skills and his approach to singing these songs. His version of Lazy River (recorded in 1931) was also quite successful. The 1932 single All of Me (music track) entered the Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 2005.

The Great Depression also had a great impact on the jazz world. The Cotton Club closed in 1936 and many musicians stopped playing. Bix Beiderbecke died and Fletcher Henderson”s band fell apart. King Oliver made a few recordings but by then the golden years had passed. Sidney Bechet became a tailor, and Kid Ory returned to New Orleans and started raising chickens. Armstrong moved to Los Angeles in search of new opportunities. He played at the new Cotton Club in Los Angeles, with Lionel Hampton as drummer. Bing Crosby and many other celebrities became frequent guests at the club. In 1931 Armstrong appeared in his first film, Ex-Flame. He was later convicted of marijuana possession, but was eventually only suspended. Also in 1931 he returned to Chicago and played with other bands and orchestras. When Louis visited New Orleans he was welcomed as a hero and saw his old friends again. He sponsored a local baseball team known as “Armstrong”s Secret Nine” and saw a mascot receive his own name. He later began a tour through Europe.

He then returned to the United States and began a series of tours of the country, during which his agent, Johnny Collins, regularly left Armstrong penniless. Collins was later fired. He finally chose Joe Glaser as his new manager and immediately began to deal with his debts and other problems. Armstrong also encountered a problem with his fingers and lips, which were deformed because of his playing. He thus began to use his voice more often and to appear in some theaters. He also appeared in another film, becoming an actor of sorts. In 1937, Armstrong replaced Rudy Vallee on a CBS radio program, becoming the first black person to have a part on radio. He divorced Lil in 1938 and married fiancée Alpha, with whom he would later divorce. In 1943, after many years on tour, he settled permanently in New York City, at 3456 107th Street North in the Corona neighborhood of Queens, where there is now a museum in his honor. Here he married his fourth wife, Lucille, and continued to develop his musical style. He recorded another Carmichael song, entitled Rockin” Chair. Over the next thirty years, Armstrong performed over three hundred nights a year.

The All Stars

After a concert at New York Town Hall on May 17, 1947, which featured a collaboration between Satchmo and trombonist Jack Teagarden, Joe Glaser disbanded the big Pops band and created a new, small, six-member lineup consisting of Armstrong, Teagarden (initially), Earl Hines, and other well-known musicians. The new group was announced at the opening of Billy Berg”s Supper Club. The lineup, which in February 1948 was invited as a headliner at the opening of the Nice Jazz Festival, was called the All Stars” and included Earl “Fatha” Hines, Barney Bigard, Edmond Hall, Jack Teagarden, Trummy Young, Arvell Shaw, Billy Kyle, Marty Napoleon, Big Sid Catlett, Cozy Cole, Tyree Glenn, Barrett Deems, and Filipino percussionist Danny Barcelona. During this period Armstrong appeared in many films, often as an extra or, very few times, as a co-star. He also appeared on the cover of Time Magazine on February 21, 1949.In 1964, he recorded one of his most famous songs, Hello, Dolly! The single immediately climbed the charts, “ousting” the Beatles from the number one spot on the Billboard Hot 100, reaching number two in Norway and number eight in Germany and Holland.In 1965 it won the Grammy Award for Song of the Year and Armstrong won the Grammy Award for Best Vocal Performance, Male.

In 1969 he performed the song with Barbra Streisand in the film Hello, Dolly! The song was honored in 2001 with a Grammy Hall of Fame Award. Louis Armstrong kept his schedule always full until a few years after his death. In his later years he sometimes played some clubs and shows. He also did tours in Africa, Europe and Asia. his dates with the public, due to age, became less frequent, but he equally continued to play until the day he died.

Personality

As a young man he was also known as Dippermouth, because of his habit of refreshing himself with a ladle from a bucket of water, always present on stage with Joe “King” Oliver”s band in Chicago in the early 1920s. The damage done to his mouth was caused precisely by the pressure with which he used to play, and this is clearly visible in many photos from the 1920s; as a result of this very style of his he was forced to stop performing for some periods of time. However, after the forced breaks, he improved his technique, and this allowed him to continue his career as a trumpeter. Friends and musicians affectionately called him “Pops,” which is the name Armstrong referred to them by, except Pops Foster, whom he called “George.”

He was also criticized for accepting the title “King of the Zulus” in the African-American community of New Orleans, an honorable role as leader of the Black Carnival but offensive to outsiders in their traditional costumes. He was an active Freemason, a member of Montgomery Lodge No. 18 in New York.. Armstrong was a prominent financial supporter of Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights activists, but he usually preferred to work quietly behind the scenes, not mixing his political ideals with his work. For this very reason, the few occasions when he made his ideas public made the news: the most important episode in this regard was Armstrong”s violent criticism of President Eisenhower during the conflict between segregationists and anti-segregationists that took place in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957.

On that occasion Armstrong called Eisenhower “disingenuous” and “spineless” because of his inactivity; Armstrong also canceled an already planned tour to the Soviet Union, declaring that the U.S. government could “go to hell” for the way it was treating black people in the U.S. South, and that he would never want to represent a government abroad that was in conflict with black people.

He was an extremely generous man, so much so that he is said to have donated more money than he kept for himself. Armstrong also took great care of his health. He used laxatives frequently, a sign that he was taking care of his weight, and he also practiced diet programs that he called “Satchmo diets.” He also loved food, as can be seen in the songs Cheesecake, Cornet Chop Suey, and especially Struttin” with Some Barbecue. He also maintained a strong connection between his life and New Orleans cuisine, ending his letters with “Red beans and ricely yours.”

Although he had no children, he loved children, entertaining them and encouraging young musicians. He cultivated a passion for writing, which led him to write constantly, even while traveling. In his writings he talked about everything: music, sex, food, memories of his youth, his medications, and even his bowels. Armstrong was also an avid music lover. He had large collections of his songs, including cassette tapes that he always took with him even on his tours. He enjoyed listening to his recordings and comparing his performances. This passion led him to purchase for his home the most “modern” audio equipment that was available at the time.

Armstrong says in his autobiography that he was initiated into Freemasonry in the lodge “Los Caballeros de Pitias,” he was also affiliated with the lodge “Montgomery No. 18” (Prince Hall of New York).

Armstrong died on July 6, 1971, of a heart attack, eleven months after playing the famous show in the Empire Room at the Waldorf-Astoria. Shortly before his death he had said, “I think I had a good life. I didn”t pray for what I couldn”t have and I had about everything I wanted because I worked at it.” At the time of his death he was living in Queens, New York City. He was buried at Flushing Cemetery, Flushing.

The funeral was attended by Nelson Rockefeller, then Governor of the State of New York, John Lindsay, then Mayor of New York City, and music and entertainment personalities such as Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Guy Lombardo, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Pearl Bailey, Count Basie, Harry James, Frank Sinatra, Ed Sullivan, Earl Wilson, Alan King, Johnny Carson, David Frost, Merv Griffin, Dick Cavett, and Bobby Hackett. Peggy Lee, one of Louis”s favorite singers, sang The Lord”s Prayer at the memorial service, while Fred Robbins, an old friend of Louis”s, gave his eulogy to Satchmo.

Colleagues and duets

During his long career he played and sang with many famous singers and musicians, including Jimmie Rodgers, Bing Crosby, Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, Bessie Smith, and especially Ella Fitzgerald. His influence on Bing Crosby is particularly important: the latter admired and imitated Armstrong, as can be seen on many recordings, and particularly in the 1931 song Just One More Chance. The New Grove Dictionary Of Jazz highlights precisely this influence Crosby received from Armstrong and also describes his singing style, which was very similar to that of Satchmo. In 1961 he duetted with Claudio Villa and Carlo Loffredo”s orchestra performing the Neapolitan song Maria marì (Ohi Marì).

Armstrong recorded three albums with Ella Fitzgerald: Ella and Louis, Ella and Louis Again, and Porgy and Bess for Verve Records with Oscar Peterson”s trio and drummer Buddy Rich. His recordings Satch Plays Fats, Fats Waller, and Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy from the 1950s are probably among his last most creative works, but oddities such as Disney Songs the Satchmo Way may also fall into the category. His participation in Dave Brubeck”s musical The Real Ambassadors was also applauded. For much of the show, however, his performances were criticized and called “too simple” or “repetitive.”

The hits and the last few years

Armstrong”s best-known songs include What a Wonderful World, Stardust, When the Saints Go Marching In, Dream a Little Dream of Me, Ain”t Misbehavin” and Stompin” at the Savoy. In 1964, Armstrong ousted the Beatles from the top spot on the Billboard Top 100 with Hello, Dolly!, which gave the 63-year-old trumpeter the record for being the oldest artist to have a song in the top spot. His 1964 song Bout Time was included in the film Bewitched (2005).

Performances in Italy and Europe

Louis Armstrong came to play in Italy during three international tours, in 1935, 1949 and 1952. During the latter visit, Armstrong recorded some trio pieces with Nunzio Rotondo and Nini Rosso, also taking part in the radio program Varietà internazionale aired from the RAI studios in Florence on October 25, 1952. Decades later the recording of that program was released on a CD entitled Satchmo Live in Florence ”52.

Armstrong also participated in the 1968 Sanremo Festival, accompanied by a band led by maestro Henghel Gualdi, with the song Mi va di cantare in conjunction with his Eritrean-born friend Lara Saint Paul. In February 1968 he also appeared with his friend on another RAI show, where he performed the song Grassa e bella, which he sang equally in Italian. Also in Italy she recorded in Italian on a CDI, Italian Record Company 45, Dimmi, Dimmi (in this case, mocking her poor command of the Italian language (in fact, not infrequently Armstrong had to perform reading stanzas transcribed phonetically in a manner akin to English), the cover was printed with the autographed caption “Excuse me if my pronunciation is not perfect, but I know you love me and that old Uncle Satchmo you will gladly forgive! With much love.”

In 1968 Armstrong made one last hit in the UK: the song What a Wonderful World stayed at the top of the UK charts for a month; however, penetration into the American market was more difficult. The song was used in the film Good Morning, Vietnam in 1987 and again climbed many charts worldwide. Armstrong also appeared on Johnny Cash”s show on October 28, 1970, where he sang Nat King Cole”s hit Rambling Rose. His last recording was We Have All the Time in the World for the soundtrack of the James Bond series On Her Majesty”s Secret Service; composed by John Barry, the song achieved posthumous success.

Grammy Awards

In 1972 Armstrong achieved an important posthumous recognition, being honored with the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award by the Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. This special merit was given to him for his significant contribution to the history of music, and his important influence on it.

Grammy Hall of Fame

Several of Armstrong”s recordings were honored with the Grammy Hall of Fame Award, a special honor given to musical recordings considered historically or culturally important.

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

The song West End Blues, in Armstrong”s version, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as one of the 500 songs important to the birth of rock and roll.

Honors

In 1995, the U.S. Post Office dedicated a 32-cent commemorative stamp to Armstrong.

Armstrong”s influence on the development of jazz is virtually immeasurable. Yet his bursting personality, both as a performer and as a public figure (especially in the latter part of his career), was so strong that it overshadowed his contributions as a musician and singer. A true trumpet virtuoso, Armstrong had a unique tone and an extraordinary talent for melodic improvisation. Through his technique, the trumpet emerged as a leading solo instrument in jazz, and became one of the genre”s signature instruments, being widely used by many subsequent exponents of the genre. A masterful accompanist, he possessed extraordinary abilities as a soloist; through his innovations, he laid important foundations for many jazz musicians who came after him.

His vocal style exerted an important influence on many other singers such as Billie Holiday or Frank Sinatra, and his vocal improvisations and inventions, made him one of the pioneers of scat (however, it is well established that it was through his contribution that scat became famous and imitated). Prominent musicians such as Duke Ellington, praised him through statements such as, “If anyone was a master, it was Louis Armstrong.” In 1950, Bing Crosby, the most successful vocalist of the first half of the 20th century, referring to Armstrong said, “He is the beginning and the end of music in America.” In the summer of 2001, in commemoration of the centennial of Armstrong”s birth, the main airport in New Orleans was renamed Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport.

In 2002, recordings made by Armstrong with the accompanying bands Hot Five and Hot Seven, between 1925 and 1928, were introduced into the United States National Recording Registry, and preserved in the Library of Congress National Register; the reason for this choice, was recognition of the importance and influence exerted by these recordings, on the subsequent development of jazz music. The main stadium of the US Open tennis tournament, was renamed Louis Armstrong Stadium in honor of Armstrong, who had lived a few blocks from the venue. Today, there are many bands around the world aimed at preserving and honoring Armstrong”s music and style, including the Louis Armstrong Society in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Sources

  1. Louis Armstrong
  2. Louis Armstrong