Louis Daniel Armstrong, affectionately known as "Satchmo," (August 4, 1901 – July 6, 1971) was an American jazz musician and singer, and by consensus the most dominant and influential figure in jazz history. With his soaring, lyrical improvisations, Armstrong largely invented the role of the soloist in early polyphonic jazz, while he also ranks among the most influential vocalists in twentieth century popular music.
Mastering poverty, a succession of unstable homes, and degrading conditions in turn of the century New Orleans through indefatigable optimism, Armstrong obtained his first penny horn and developed his inimitable singing style while lodging with a sympathetic immigrant Jewish family. During these years, he learned to respect people of different faiths and races, and throughout his life he served as an emmissary of good will through his entertaining stage presence and virtuoso performances.
Growing up among pimps and prostitutes, whom he always identified as "my people," Armstrong adopted the ethos of the street in his private life. Married four times—the first time to a knife-wielding prostitute—Armstrong was reckless and immature in love relations, adhering religiously to a personal dictum: Never belong to only one woman. He was also an unapologetic drug user who set an example that would become emblematic of the bohemian jazz musician. By the end of his turbulent life, Armstrong had transcended music to become an iconic figure in American popular culture.
Armstrong was born August 4, 1901, to a poor family in New Orleans, Louisiana. His youth was spent in a section of New Orleans so violent it was called "The Battlefield." His father, William Armstrong (b. 1881), abandoned his children when Louis was an infant. His mother, Mary Albert Armstrong (1886–1942) was just fifteen and sometimes worked as a prostitute to support herself. She left Louis and his younger sister Beatrice Armstrong Collins (1903–1987) under the upbringing of his grandmother, Josephine Armstrong, for the first five years of his life.
At six, Armstrong earned a little money peddling odds and ends from the junk wagon of a kindly Jewish immigrant family, the Karnoffskys. He spent ten cents for a tin horn and gained confidence with the Karnoffsky's encouragement. “They could see I had music in my soul,” Armstrong said. “They really wanted me to be something in life. And music was it.”
Armstrong also credited the Karnoffskys for his emotion-drenched singing style. “I felt relaxed singing the song called ‘Russian Lullaby’ with the Karnoffsky family when Mother Karnoffsky would have her little baby boy in her arms,” Armstrong remembered. “We all would sing together until the little baby would doze off … [and] when I reached the age of eleven I began to realize it was the Jewish family who instilled in me singing from the heart.”
Armstrong never forgot his formative experiences with the Karnoffskys. He recognized that these immigrant Lithuanian Jews endured hardships and discrimination with fortitude and industry, and this planted a seed of empathy in the youth that transcended racial boundaries. Armstrong always saw jazz as a joyful, unifying art. “These people who make restrictions,” he observed about more militant forms of modern jazz, “they don’t know nothing about music. It’s no crime for cats of any color to get together and blow.”
He first performed publicly in the band of the New Orleans Home for Colored Waifs, where he had been sent after firing his father's pistol into the air at a New Year's Eve celebration. He followed the city's frequent brass band parades and listened to older musicians every chance he got, learning from Bunk Johnson, Buddy Petit, and above all, Joe "King" Oliver, who acted as a mentor and almost a father figure to the young Armstrong. Armstrong later played in the brass bands and riverboats of New Orleans, and first started traveling with the well-regarded band of Fate Marable which toured on a steamboat up and down the Mississippi River; he described his time with Marable as "going to the University," since it gave him a much wider experience working with written arrangements. When Joe Oliver left town in 1919, Armstrong took Oliver's place in Kid Ory's band, regarded as the best jazz band in New Orleans.
On March 19, 1918, Louis wed Daisy Parker, a hot-tempered prostitute from Gretna, Louisiana, who would use up his earnings and attack him with various objects, including a bread knife razors, and bricks. They soon adopted a 3 year old son, Clarence Armstrong (1914–1998) whose mother, Louis's cousin, had died shortly after giving birth. Many out-of-state musicians offered him work, but Louis held out for a position in Joe "King" Oliver's band. After four years of waiting, Armstrong finally got the invitation to join Oliver's Creole Jazz Band in Chicago. Oliver's band was the perhaps the best and most influential jazz band in Chicago in the early 1920s, at a time when Chicago was the center of a flourishing jazz scene. Armstrong made his first recordings, on which he took some solos, while playing second cornet in Oliver's band in 1923. In setting out for Chicago, Armstrong was joining what came to be called the "Great Migration," a northern exodus that would send one and a half million African-Americans northward between 1917 and the late 1920s.
Playing in Joe Oliver's band was a dream come true for Armstrong, but his new wife, pianist Lil Hardin Armstrong, urged him to seek more prominent work. Shortly after leaving the band, he received a telegram from Fletcher Henderson offering 55 dollars a week to come to New York. Fletcher Henderson was one of the biggest names in dance music at the time. Armstrong switched to the trumpet to blend in better with the other musicians in his section. His influence upon Henderson's tenor sax soloist, Coleman Hawkins, can be judged by listening to the records that the band made during this period. During this time, he made many recordings on the side. These included small jazz bands with the company of Sidney Bechet) and a series of accompaniments for Blues singers.
He returned to Chicago in 1925, and began recording under his own name with his famous Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five, and Louis Armstrong and his Hot Seven, with such hits as "Potato Head Blues," "Muggles" (a reference to marijuana), and "West End Blues." His recordings with Earl "Fatha" Hines and Armstrong's trumpet introduction to "West End Blues" remains some of the most famous and influential improvisations in jazz history—setting the standard for jazz musicians for many years to come.
Armstrong returned to New York, in 1929; then moved to Los Angeles, California, in 1930; then toured Europe. After spending many years on the road, he settled permanently in Queens, New York, in 1943.
During the next thirty years, Armstrong played more than three hundred gigs a year. Bookings for big bands tapered off during the 1940s due to changes in public tastes: Ballrooms closed, and there was competition from television and from other types of music becoming more popular than big band music. It became impossible to support and finance a 16-piece touring band.
In 1947, Armstrong dissolved his big band and established a six-piece small group featuring Jack Teagarden, Earl Hines, and other top swing and dixieland musicians. The new group was announced at the opening of Billy Berg's Supper Club.
This group was called the Louis Armstrong and his All Stars, and included at various times Barney Bigard, Edmond Hall, Jack Teagarden, Trummy Young, Arvell Shaw, Billy Kyle, Marty Napoleon, Big Sid Catlett, Cozy Cole, and Barrett Deems. During this period, Armstrong made many recordings and appeared in over thirty films.
Armstrong had a high-pressure approach to playing the trumpet that caused noticeable damage to his embouchure. This led to his emphasizing his singing career due to stints of time in which he was unable to play. Over the years, his singing gained nearly as much recognition as his trumpet playing.
In 1964, he recorded his biggest-selling record, Hello, Dolly! The song went to number one on the pop chart two weeks after the Beatles landed in the Unites States, making Armstrong the oldest person to ever accomplish that feat at age 63. He continued touring until few years before his death, and never completely stopped performing.
Louis Armstrong died of a heart attack on July 6, 1971, at age 69. He was residing in Corona, Queens, New York City, at the time of his passing.
Armstrong's warm Southern personality and natural love of entertaining evoked a response from the audience. He was an extremely generous man who was said to have given away almost as much money as he kept himself.
The nickname "Satchmo" or "Satch" is short for "Satchelmouth" (describing his embouchure). In 1932, Melody Maker magazine editor Percy Brooks greeted Armstrong in London with "Hello, Satchmo!" shortening Satchelmouth, and it stuck. Friends and fellow musicians usually called him "Pops," which is also how Armstrong addressed his friends and fellow musicians (except for Pops Foster, whom Armstrong always called "George").
He was criticized for accepting the title of "King of Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club" (in the New Orleans African American community, an honored role as head of leading black Carnival Krewe, but bewildering or offensive to outsiders with their traditional costume of grass-skirts and blackface makeup satirizing southern white attitudes) for New Orleans Mardi Gras, 1949.
The seeming racial insensitivity of Armstrong's King of the Zulus performance has sometimes been seen as part of a larger failing on Armstrong's part. Where some saw a gregarious and outgoing personality, others saw someone trying too hard to appeal to white audiences and essentially becoming a minstrel caricature. Some musicians criticized Armstrong for playing in front of segregated audiences, and for not taking a strong enough stand in the civil rights movement
Armstrong, in fact, was a major financial supporter of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights activists. He preferred, however, to work quietly behind the scenes as to keep his politics separate from his work as an entertainer. A few exceptions include Armstrong's criticism of President of the United States Eisenhower, calling him "two-faced" and "gutless" because of his inaction during the Little Rock Nine conflict over school desegregation. As a protest, Armstrong canceled a planned tour of the Soviet Union on behalf of the U.S. State Department saying, "The way they're treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell," and that he could not represent his government abroad when it was in conflict with its own people.
In his early years, Armstrong was best known for his virtuosity with the cornet and trumpet. The greatest trumpet playing of his early years can be heard on his Hot Five and Hot Seven records. His improvisations on these records were daring and sophisticated for the time while often subtle and melodic. Armstrong's playing is filled with joyous, inspired original melodies, creative leaps, and subtle driving rhythms. He delivered his ideas with an assertive and overpowering sound. His tone and his delivery electrified the stage with brilliant energy. Armstrong's playing technique, honed by constant practice, extended the range, tone and capabilities of the trumpet. In these records, Armstrong almost single-handedly created the role of the jazz soloist, and has been called the father of jazz for his groundbreaking level of improvisational achievement.
Armstrong's work in the 1920s shows him playing at the outer limits of his abilities. The Hot 5 records, especially, often have minor flubs and missed notes that do little to detract from listening enjoyment since the energy of the spontaneous performance comes through. By the mid 1930s, Armstrong achieved a smooth assurance, knowing exactly what he could do and carrying out his ideas with perfectionism.
The influence of Armstrong on the development of jazz is virtually immeasurable. As a virtuoso trumpet player, he had a unique tone and an extraordinary talent for melodic improvisation. Through his playing, the trumpet emerged as a solo instrument in jazz. He was a masterful ensemble player in addition to his extraordinary skills as a soloist. With his innovations, he raised the bar musically for all who came after him.
Armstrong had a significant impact for jazz singing. He had an extremely distinctive, gravelly voice, which he deployed with great dexterity as an improviser—bending the lyrics and melody of a song for expressive purposes. He was also greatly skilled at scat singing, or wordless vocalizing, and according to some legends he invented it.
Armstrong appeared in more than a dozen Hollywood films (though few of particular note), usually playing a band leader or musician. He was the first African American to host a nationally broadcast radio show in the 1930s. He also made assorted television appearances, especially in the 1950s and 1960s, including appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Louis Armstrong has a record star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on 7601 Hollywood Boulevard.
Many of Armstrong's recordings remain popular. More than three decades since his passing, a larger number of his recordings from all periods of his career are more widely available than at any time during his lifetime. His songs are broadcast and listened to every day throughout the world in films, television broadcasts, and radio. His 1923 recordings, with Joe Oliver and his Creole Jazz Band, continue to be listened to as documents of ensemble style New Orleans jazz, but more particularly as great jazz records in their own right. "Melancholy Blues," performed by Armstrong and his Hot Seven was included on the Voyager Golden Record sent into outer space to represent one of the greatest achievements of humanity. The main airport in New Orleans was named Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport in his honor.
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