Louis Daniel Armstrong (August 4, 1901–July 6, 1971)
✪ Louis Daniel Armstrong, affectionately known by his popular nicknames “Satchmo, Satch” and “Pops,” was an American musician, trumpeter, composer, vocalist and radio, television and film personality. He was among the most influential figures in Jazz. His career spanned five decades over several eras in the history of Jazz. He received numerous accolades including the Grammy Award for Best Male Vocal Performance for Hello, Dolly! in 1965; as well as a posthumous award of the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1972. in 2017, he was inducted into the National Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame.
With his instantly recognizable rich & gravelly voice, Armstrong was also an influential singer and skillful improviser who could easily bend the lyrics and melody of a song. He was also skilled at scat singing. By the end of Armstrong’s life, his influence had spread to popular music in general. Armstrong was one of the first popular African-American entertainers to “cross over” into wide popularity with white and international audiences.
Armstrong is believed to have be born in New Orleans on August 4, 1901; however, no formal record of his birth exists. His parents were Mary Estelle “Mayann” Albert and William Armstrong. Mary Albert was from Boutte, Louisiana and gave birth to Louis at home when she was about sixteen. Less than a year and a half later, Mary estelle & William had a daughter, Beatrice “Mama Lucy” Armstrong (1903–1987). William Armstrong abandoned the family shortly thereafter.
Louis Armstrong was raised by his grandmother until the age of five when he was returned to his mother. He spent his youth in poverty in a rough neighborhood known as The Battlefield on the southern section of Rampart Street. At six he attended the Fisk School for Boys, a school that accepted black children in the racially segregated system of New Orleans.
At the age of 6, Armstrong lived with his mother and sister and worked for the Karnoffskys, a family of Lithuanian Jews, at their home. He would help their two sons, Morris and Alex, collect “rags and bones” and deliver coal.
Armstrong would later write about what he learned from them: “how to live—real life and determination.” His first musical performance may have been at the side of the Karnoffskys’ junk wagon. To distinguish them from other hawkers, he tried playing a tin horn to attract customers. Morris Karnoffsky gave Armstrong an advance toward the purchase of a cornet from a pawn shop. In memory & tribute to this family who had raised & helped him, Armstrong wore a Star of David until the end of his life.
When Armstrong was eleven, he dropped out of school and joined a quartet of boys who sang in the streets for money. Cornetist Bunk Johnson said he taught the eleven-year-old to play by ear at Dago Tony’s honky tonk. Armstrong also got into trouble. Borrowing his stepfather’s gun without permission, he once fired a blank into the air and was arrested on December 31, 1912. He spent the night at New Orleans Juvenile Court, then was sentenced the next day to detention at the Colored Waif’s Home. Life at the Waif Home was spartan. There were no mattresses and daily meals were often little more than bread and molasses. Captain Joseph Jones ran the home like a military camp and frequently used corporal punishment.
Armstrong developed his cornet skills by playing in the Waif Home band. Peter Davis, who frequently appeared at the home at the request of Captain Jones, became Armstrong’s first teacher and chose him as bandleader. With this band, the thirteen-year-old Armstrong eventually attracted the attention of Kid Ory.
On June 14, 1914, Armstrong was released into the custody of his father and his new stepmother, Gertrude. He found a job at a dance hall owned by Henry Ponce, who had connections to organized crime. He met the six-foot tall drummer Black Benny, who became his guide and bodyguard. Around the age of fifteen, he pimped for a prostitute named Nootsy, but that relationship failed after she stabbed Armstrong in the shoulder and his mother choked her nearly to death.
Armstrong briefly studied shipping management at the local community college, but was forced to quit after being unable to afford the fees. While selling coal in Storyville, he heard spasm bands, groups that played music out of household objects. He heard the early sounds of jazz from bands that played in brothels and dance halls such as Pete Lala’s.
Early in his career, Armstrong played in brass bands and on riverboats in New Orleans, first on an excursion boat in September 1918. Throughout his riverboat experience, Armstrong’s musicianship began to mature and expand. At twenty, he could read music. He became one of the first jazz musicians to be featured on extended trumpet solos, injecting his own personality and style. He also started to sing in his performances.
In 1922, Armstrong moved to Chicago at the invitation of King Oliver, although Armstrong would return to New Orleans periodically for the rest of his life. Oliver’s band was among the most influential jazz bands in Chicago in the early 1920s. For the first time in his life, Armstrong lived luxuriously in his own apartment with his first private bath.
Armstrong’s first studio recordings were made on April 5–6, 1923 with Oliver for Gennett Records. The quality of the performances was affected by lack of rehearsal, crude recording equipment, bad acoustics and a cramped studio. However, these early recordings were true acoustic, the band playing directly into a large funnel connected directly to the needle making the groove in the master recording. Electrical recording would not be invented until 1926.
In 1925, He formed Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five and recorded the hits “Potato Head Blues” and “Muggles.” The word “muggles” was a slang term for marijuana, something he used regularly during his life. Among the Hot Five and Hot Seven records were “Cornet Chop Suey, Struttin’ With Some Barbecue, Hotter Than That” and “Potato Head Blues,” all featuring highly creative solos by Armstrong.
Armstrong made a huge impact during the 1920s Harlem Renaissance. During this time, he began scat singing (improvised vocal jazz using nonsensical words) and was among the first to record it in 1926 on the Hot Five recording “Heebie Jeebies.” Young trumpet players across the country bought these recordings and memorized his solos. Young musicians across the country, black or white, were turned on by Armstrong’s new type of Jazz.
In his early years, Armstrong was best known for his virtuosity with the cornet and trumpet. Along with his “clarinet-like figurations and high notes in his cornet solos,” he was also known for his “intense rhythmic ‘swing’, a complex conception involving … accented upbeats, upbeat to downbeat slurring and complementary relations among rhythmic patterns.”
His 1930s recordings took full advantage of the new RCA ribbon microphone, introduced in 1931, which imparted warmth to vocals and became an intrinsic part of the ‘crooning’ sound of artists like Bing Crosby. Armstrong’s interpretation of Carmichael’s “Stardust” became one of the most successful versions of this song ever recorded, showcasing Armstrong’s unique vocal sound and style and his innovative approach to singing songs that were already standards.
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The Great Depression of the early 1930s was especially hard on the Jazz scene. The Cotton Club closed in 1936 after a long downward spiral and many musicians stopped playing altogether as club dates evaporated. Armstrong moved to Los Angeles in 1930 to seek new opportunities. In 1931, Armstrong appeared in his first movie, Ex-Flame and was also convicted of marijuana possession but received a suspended sentence. In 1937, Armstrong substituted for Rudy Vallee on the CBS radio network and became the first African American to host a sponsored, national broadcast.
Over 30 years, Armstrong played more than 300 performances a year, making many recordings and appearing in over thirty films. He was the first jazz musician to appear on the cover of Time magazine on February 21, 1949.
The Louis Armstrong House Museum website states:
Judging from home recorded tapes now in our Museum Collections, Louis pronounced his own name as “Lewis”. On his 1964 record “Hello, Dolly”, he sings, “This is Lewis, Dolly” but in 1933 he made a record called “Laughin’ Louie”. Many broadcast announcers, fans, and acquaintances called him “Louie” and in a videotaped interview from 1983 Lucille Armstrong calls her late husband “Louie” as well. Musicians and close friends usually called him “Pops.”
Armstrong’s four marriages produced no offspring: Daisy Parker (m. 1919; div. 1923), Lil Hardin Armstrong (m. 1924; div. 1938), Alpha Smith (m. 1938; div. 1942) & Lucille Wilson (m. 1942)
Armstrong had a colorful and charismatic personality. In addition to being an entertainer, he was also an extremely popular & greatly beloved public figure. His autobiography vexed some biographers and historians because he had a habit of telling tales, particularly about his early childhood when he was less scrutinized and some of his embellishments lack consistency.
The trumpet is notoriously hard on the lips and Armstrong suffered from lip damage over most of his life. This was due to his aggressive style of playing and preference for narrow mouthpieces that would stay in place more easily, but which tended to dig into the soft flesh of his inner lip. Eventually he took to using salves and creams on his lips and also cutting off scar tissue with a razor blade. By the 1950s, he became the official spokesman for Ansatz-Creme Lip Salve.
The nicknames “Satchmo” and “Satch” are short for “Satchelmouth.” Although the origin of the nickname is uncertain, the most common tale biographers tell is the story of Armstrong as a young boy in New Orleans dancing for pennies. He would scoop the coins up off the street and stick them into his mouth to prevent the bigger children from stealing them. Apparently, someone dubbed him “satchel mouth” for his mouth acting as a satchel. Another tale is that because of his large mouth, he was nicknamed “satchel mouth” which was then later shortened to “Satchmo.”
The nickname “Pops” came from Armstrong’s own tendency to forget people’s names and simply call them “Pops” instead. The nickname was eventually turned on Armstrong himself.
When asked about his religion, Armstrong answered that he was raised a Baptist, yet he always wore a Star of David and was friends with the Pope. The Star of David he wore in honor of the Karnoffsky family who took him in as a child and lent him money to buy his first cornet. He was also baptized a Catholic in the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in New Orleans. During his lifetime, he met both Pope Pius XII and Pope Paul VI.
Armstrong was very concerned with his health. He frequently used laxatives to control his weight, a practice he advocated both to acquaintances and in the diet plans he published under the title Lose Weight the Satchmo Way. His laxative use began as a child when his mother collected dandelions and peppergrass around the railroad tracks to give to her children for their health. Armstrong’s laxative of preference in his younger days was Pluto Water, but when he discovered the herbal remedy Swiss Kriss, he became an enthusiastic convert; extolling its virtues to anyone who would listen and passing out packets to everyone he encountered, including members of the British Royal Family. Armstrong also appeared in humorous, risqué, cards that he had printed to send to friends. The cards bore a picture of him sitting on a toilet—as viewed through a keyhole—with the slogan “Satch says, ‘Leave it all behind ya!'”
Armstrong was also a heavy marijuana smoker for most of his life and spent nine days in jail in 1930 after being arrested outside a club for drug possession. He described marijuana as “a thousand times better than whiskey.”
The concern with his health and weight was balanced by his love of food, reflected in such songs as “Cheesecake, Cornet Chop Suey,” and “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue;” though the latter was written about a fine-looking companion and not food. He maintained a strong connection throughout his life to the cooking of New Orleans, always signing his letters, “Red beans and ricely yours …”
Armstrong was one of the first artists to use recordings of his performances to improve himself. He was also an avid audiophile with a large collection of recordings, including reel-to-reel tapes, which he took on the road with him in a trunk during his later career. He enjoyed listening to his own recordings to compare his performances musically. In the den of his home, he always had the latest audio equipment and would sometimes rehearse and record along with his older recordings or the radio.
During his long career he played and sang with some of the most important instrumentalists and vocalists of the time, including Bing Crosby, Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, Earl Hines, Jimmie Rodgers, Bessie Smith and Ella Fitzgerald.
By the 1950s, Armstrong was a widely beloved American icon and cultural ambassador who commanded a very large international fanbase. However, a growing generation gap became apparent between him and the young Jazz musicians such as Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins who began to emerge in the postwar era. The postwar generation regarded their music more as abstract art and considered Armstrong’s vaudevillian style, half-musician and half-stage entertainer to be outmoded. He seemed to them to be a link to minstrelsy that they were were ashamed of. He called Bebop “Chinese music.” While touring Australia in 1954, he was asked if he could play Bebop. “‘Bebop?” he husked. “I just play music. Guys who invent terms like that are walking on the streets with their instruments under their arms.”
In the week of May 9, 1964, his recording of the song “Hello, Dolly!” went to number one. An album of the same title was quickly created around the song and also shot up the charts to number one, knocking The Beatles off the top of the chart. The album sold very well for the rest of the year and quickly went “gold.” (sold more than 500,000 copies). His performance of “Hello, Dolly!” also won for best male pop vocal performance at the 1964 Grammy Awards. in 1990, Armstrong was also posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an early influence.
Armstrong toured well into his 60s, even visiting part of the Communist Bloc in 1965. He also toured Africa, Europe and Asia with great success under the sponsorship of the US State Department, earning him the nickname of “Ambassador Satch.” In the 1960s, he also toured Ghana and Nigeria. In 1968, Armstrong scored one last popular hit in the UK with “What a Wonderful World,” which topped the British charts for a month. By 1968 as he was approaching 70, his health began to fail. Heart and kidney ailments forced him to stop touring.
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Armstrong enjoyed many types of music, from blues to the arrangements of Guy Lombardo to Latin American folksongs to classical symphonies and opera. He incorporated influences from all these sources into his performances, sometimes to the bewilderment of fans who wanted him to stay in convenient narrow categories. Armstrong made his last recorded trumpet performances on his 1968 album Disney Songs the Satchmo Way.
Against his doctor’s advice, Armstrong played a two-week engagement in March 1971 at the NY Waldorf-Astoria’s Empire Room. At the end of it, he was hospitalized after suffering a heart attack. He was released from the hospital in May and quickly resumed his trumpet practice & playing. Still hoping to get back on the road, Armstrong died of a heart attack in his sleep on July 6, 1971.
Louis Armstrong is interred in Flushing Cemetery, Flushing, in Queens, New York City. His honorary pallbearers included Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Pearl Bailey, Count Basie, Harry James, Frank Sinatra, Ed Sullivan, Earl Wilson, Alan King, Johnny Carson and David Frost. Peggy Lee sang “The Lord’s Prayer” at the services. Al Hibbler sang “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” ✪
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