Louis Armstrong

An American Original

Louis Armstrong smoking with his trumpet, October 31, 1957. Times photo by Bob Moreland

The greatest influence in all of American popular music, Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong stands out, not only as a master of the jazz trumpet, but as a superlative vocalist, whose unique phrasing made of every song he sang, his own. Beyond that, he was an ambassador of musical goodwill, around the world, for over fifty years- carrying with him, wherever he went, the exuberant spontaneity and joy which, for him, music always fostered. As Bing Crosby once said of him, “The Reverend Satchelmouth is the beginning and the end of music in America.”

When asked about Louis, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie responded, “Louis Armstrong’s station in the history of Jazz …is unimpeachable. If it weren’t for him, there wouldn’t be any of us.” Frank Sinatra is renowned to have repeatedly insisted that Louis Armstrong made the vocalization of popular music into an art form. While the ever elegant Duke Ellington memorialized his friend, saying, “If anyone was Mister Jazz, it was Louis Armstrong. He was the epitome of jazz and always will be. He is what I call an American standard, an American original.”

In measuring Louis Armstrong’s impact on the jazz idiom, noted music critic Ralph Gleason reflected, “He took the tools of European musical organization- chords, notation, bars and the rest- and added to them the rhythms of the church and New Orleans and (by definition) Africa; brought into the music the blue notes, the tricks of bending and twisting notes; and played it all with his unexcelled technique. He went as far as he could by using the blues and popular songs of the time as skeletons for his structural improvisations.” But Louis Armstrong’s passage to the top was a long and arduous journey from the very bottom  of society.

He was born Louis Daniel Armstrong, on August 4, 1901 in the Back O’ Town section of the Black Storyville district in New Orleans, on Jane Alley in a neighborhood known as the “Battlefield.” His father, William Armstrong, a worker in a turpentine factory, deserted the family soon after his son was born. His mother, Mary “Mayann” (Albert) Armstrong, who worked as a domestic, was only fifteen at the time of his birth. Louis spent the first years of his life with his grandmother, Josephine Armstrong. Around age five, he was returned to his mother along with his little sister, Beatrice (who was nicknamed Mama Lucy).The family lived in abject poverty in segregated Black Storyville.

At age seven, Louis began working before and after school for the Karnofskys, a family of Russian Jewish immigrants. The young boy collected used bottles and rags and helped to deliver coal. While riding through the streets on the Karnofskys junk wagon, Louis was constantly exposed to music. He was influenced not only by the blues and ragtime, which emanated from the nearby dance halls and honky-tonks, but by gospel music in local churches, as well. Soon, in an attempt to earn money for his family, he formed a vocal quartet with three other boys.

In the third grade, with no real parental guidance, Louis dropped out of school and stopped working for the Karnofskys. He spent his days roaming the streets with the other boys in his group, serenading for spare change on street corners throughout the red-light district. While his mother referred to him as “Little Louie,” his friends called him “Gatemouth,” “Dippermouth” and “Satchelmouth,” alluding to his wide, gaping grin.

In the streets on New Year’s Eve, 1912, Louis fired a pistol (loaded with blanks) in the air in celebration. A nearby policeman promptly arrested him for the offense and took him off to juvenile court. The following day, eleven year old Louis was sentenced to the Colored Waifs Home for Boys, a New Orleans reform school.

It was there that Louis was afforded the opportunity, by band director Peter Davis, to participate in the Waifs Home band- first as a singer, then as a percussionist, a bugler and finally, as a cornetist. It is noteworthy that Louis’ first real introduction to musicianship came through the Waifs Home band, in that he was given a far more formal musical education than he might have received on his own, in the streets of New Orleans. The Waifs Home band played traditional brass band music, which placed a premium on precision and accuracy, with an emphasis on group consistency over individual performance.

In June of 1914, Louis was released from the Waifs Home. He lived briefly with his father, but then returned to his mother and sister. He spent the next few years selling newspapers and unloading bananas from boats in order to earn money for his family. He did not own an instrument at the time, but spent every spare moment listening to bands in clubs, such as Matranga’s and Funky Butt Hall. Cornetist Joe “King” Oliver, who played in trombonist Kid Ory’s band, was Louis’ favorite musician. Oliver served as a father figure for Louis. He gave the teenager his first real cornet, teaching him the nuances of the instrument. Louis idolized Oliver and called him “Papa Joe.”

Under Oliver’s tutelage, Louis’ repertoire grew, as did his status in the local musical community. When Oliver left New Orleans to form his own band in Chicago, in 1919, Louis briefly took his place in Kid Ory’s band. Shortly thereafter, Louis met and married Daisy Parker, a former prostitute from Gretna, Louisiana. Only weeks after their marriage, Daisy threatened him with a razor during a street celebration. Louis quickly filed for divorce.

Soon after, Louis joined Fate Marable’s band, playing on paddle-wheelers owned by the Streckfus Mississippi Boat Lines. For the next three summers, Louis played his cornet for a strict bandleader, who required him to learn how to read music with proficiency. He was paid fifty-five dollars a week, more than he had ever earned before. Louis stayed with Marable until 1921, when he returned to New Orleans. He played in drummer Zutty Singleton’s band for a short time. He also played in parades with the Allen Brass Band, and on the bandstand with Papa Celestin’s Tuxedo Orchestra and with the Silver Leaf Band.

In the early years of the “Roaring ‘20s,” the New Orleans style of music took the Chicago by storm. In the summer of 1922, King Oliver summoned his protégé to perform with his band at Lincoln Gardens in the Windy City. Louis played his cornet in King Oliver’s Creole Band for the next two years. As a member of King Oliver’s band, he appeared on his first recordings in April of 1923 at the Gennett Studios in Richmond, Indiana. It was while playing with Oliver, that Louis met Lillian Hardin, who was the talented pianist in the Creole Band.

After a brief courtship Lil and Louis were married in February of 1924. A very bright, ambitious woman, who led bands of her own, Lil was convinced that Louis was wasting his talent playing in Oliver’s band. By the end of 1924 she persuaded Louis to move out from under his mentor’s wing. Louis briefly worked with Ollie Powers’ Harmony Syncopators before he moved to New York to play in Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra for thirteen months.

During that time he also played on dozens of recording sessions with numerous blues singers, including Ma Rainey, Trixie Smith, Clara Smith, as well as on Bessie Smith’s classic 1925 recording of “St. Louis Blues.” He also recorded with Clarence Williams and the Red Onion Jazz Babies and Sidney Bechet.

In 1925 Louis moved back to Chicago and joined Lil’s band, the Dreamland Syncopators, at the Dreamland Cafe. He also played in Erskine Tate’s Vendome Orchestra and then with Carrol Dickenson’s Orchestra at the Sunset Café (where Louis was billed as “The World’s Greatest Trumpet Player”). Louis recorded his first Hot Five records that same year, for the Okeh label. This was the first time he was to make records under his own name. Lil was a major contributor to Louis’ Hot Five, and some Hot Seven, recordings. She played piano, occasionally sang and composed several of the band’s early hit songs including “My Heart” and“Struttin’ with Some Barbecue.”

Members of the group (most of whom were part of King Oliver’s Creole Band) included Louis, Lil, banjoist Johnny St. Cyr, saxophonist, trombonist Kid Ory, clarinetist Johnny Dodds and his brother, drummer Baby Dodds. The records made by Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven are considered to be seminal jazz classics and speak to Louis’ matchless creative powers. The band never played live, but continued recording through 1928.

During his time fronting the Hot Five and Hot Seven, Louis was responsible for numerous musical trends. “Heebie Jeebies” is generally regarded as one of the first recorded examples of scat singing. Louis always insisted that he was forced to improvise his vocal when the lyric sheet for the song fell on the floor, during a 1926 recording session. Later the same year, he followed the scat singing success of that song with “Skid-Dat De-Dat.”

Earl Hines replaced Lil on piano for all of the 1928 Hot Seven sessions. Hines also recorded the lovely celeste parts on “Basin Street Blues.” In June of 1928, Louis and the Hot Seven recorded “West End Blues,” a song which ushered in the concept of the solo as the focus in jazz presentations; and a song which later became one of the first recordings named to the Grammy Hall of Fame. In addition, during that same period, Louis switched instruments, from the mellow-toned cornet to the brighter sounding trumpet.

By early 1929, Louis had graduated to pop star status, recording popular standards and Tin Pan Alley hits with his orchestra or various big bands. In the early ‘30s, he popularized such numbers as “Tiger Rag,” “Shine,” “Body and Soul,” “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home,” “On The Sunny Side Of The Street” and “Stardust.” Louis was brought back to New York to star in the Fats Waller/Andy Razaf Broadway revue, Hot Chocolates. His recording of the song “Ain’t Misbehavin’,”  released in September of 1929,  became a Top Ten hit.

He appeared occasionally with Dave Peyton and Fletcher Henderson and with the Luis Russell Orchestra. The Russell band first backed him on the record “Mahogany Hall Stomp,” (named after a notorious New Orleans brothel). Louis moved to Los Angeles in 1930, where he headed a band called. He worked and recorded in Los Angeles with Les Hite’s band (in which the drummer was Lionel Hampton), and in New York with Chick Webb. In 1931, he returned to Chicago, assembling his own band, Louis Armstrong and the Stompers, for touring purposes. Succumbing to the stresses of separate careers, Louis and Lil separated in 1931.

In 1932 he returned to California, before embarking for Europe, where he was to become a phenomenal success. Upon arriving in England, where the tour began, Louis was met by Percy Brooks, the editor of Melody Maker magazine, who excitedly greeted him by saying, “Hello, Satchmo!” (inadvertently contracting “Satchelmouth” into “Satchmo“). Taken with the new nickname, Louis quickly adopted it. For the next three years he was continually on the road. He toured the United States countless times, returning to Europe in 1934.

Louis came back to the U.S. in 1935, hiring Joe Glaser to be his manager. He had become acquainted with Glaser while playing at the Sunset Café, in Chicago in the ‘20s. Glaser managed the club. He proved to be a great manager and friend for Louis. He attended to bookings and business affairs, allowing Louis to focus upon his music. Glaser hired the Luis Russell Orchestra, with Russell as the musical director, to serve as Louis’ backup band. Russell’s Orchestra was principally comprised of New Orleans musicians, many of whom had played with Louis in King Oliver’s Creole Band.

The band was renamed Louis Armstrong and his Orchestra and had its premiere in Indianapolis on July 1, 1935, becoming one of the most popular acts of the Swing era. In 1935, Louis signed to the recently formed Decca Records label, subsequently scoring a double-sided Top Ten hit with “I’m in the Mood for Love” and “You Are My Lucky Star.” Meanwhile, Glaser put the band to work. They toured constantly for the next twelve years. Louis would routinely perform three hundred nights a year. He rested only when his lip would become inflamed- a problem aggravated by his improper embouchure on the trumpet. He suffered  from the malady, intermittently, over the ensuing thirty years. Often times Louis’ lips were so swollen from his performances, they would bleed .

Louis also won several small roles in films, beginning with Pennies From Heaven, with Bing Crosby,in 1936. He also continued to record for Decca, achieving the Top Ten hits, “Public Melody Number One” in 1937 and “When the Saints Go Marching In” in 1939. In November 1939, he returned to Broadway for the short-lived musical, Swingin’ The Dream,a jazz version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream.

In 1938 Lil and Louis finally divorced. Louis then married Alpha Smith, his third wife. The endless touring was hard on their marriage and they were divorced four years later. But Louis soon wed for a fourth and final time, to Lucille Wilson. They remained married for the rest of his life.

With the swing music on the decline in the years following World War II, Glaser fired the orchestra in 1947, replacing them with a small group that was to became one of the most popular bands in jazz history- Louis Armstrong and the All Stars. Over the succeeding fifteen years, the band toured relentlessly, featuring a cast of exceptional musicians, including Earl Hines on piano, clarinetist Barney Bigard, trombonist Jack Teagarden, bassist Arvell Shaw, drummer Sidney ‘Big Sid’ Catlett and vocalist Velma Middleton.

Louis reached the Top Ten of the LP charts in June 1951with Satchmo At Symphony Hall. Later in ‘51 he scored his first Top Ten single in five years with “(When We Are Dancing) I Get Ideas.” The single’s B-side, also a chart entry, “A Kiss to Build a Dream On,” was sung by Louis in the 1951 film The Strip. In 1993, the song gained renewed popularity when it was used in the film Sleepless in Seattle. He scored a hit as well with his 1955 pop treatment of “Mack the Knife.”

Louis Armstrong and the All Stars were enormously popular worldwide. Louis became known as “America’s Ambassador.” He and the band continued to tour throughout the ‘50s until his health began to fail. He was sidelined by a heart attack in 1959, and was increasingly bothered by his lip problem. By the early ‘60s, he was forced to severely restrict his touring.

Slowing down, Louis began to explore again his tremendous gift for vocal expression. He scored a huge international hit with his recording of “Hello Dolly,” which knocked the Beatles’ “Can’t Buy Me Love” off the top of the charts and won for him a Grammy for Best Vocal Performance in 1964. In 1968 Louis recorded another Number One hit with “What A Wonderful World,” which became a hit again in the 1987 film Good Morning Vietnam. But Louis’ health continued to deteriorate. He was hospitalized several times over the remaining three years of his life, though he continued playing and recording to the end.

The world’s greatest jazz musician died in his sleep on July 6 1971, at his home in Queens, New York. Louis Armstrong’s funeral attracted over 25,000 mourners- among them numerous entertainers, musicians, and politicians. His pall bearers included such celebrities as Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Guy Lombardo, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Frank Sinatra, and Johnny Carson. A month after his death, Lil Hardin, who had remained close to Louis, even after their divorce, was invited to perform at a memorial concert for him in Chicago. Lil was playing “St. Louis Blues” on stage at the concert when she suddenly collapsed and died.

Louis Armstrong stands as the most important individual in jazz history. He played powerfully inventive, technically inspired solos, elevating jazz from a mere source of amusement to an art form. He impacted every jazz trumpet player who came after him. But he also exerted a profound influence upon blues and pop music as well. He was, as one of his musical heirs, Wynton Marsalis, has noted, the “Thomas Edison of jazz.” He was an innovator with incomparable skills and the originator of a universally venerated musical language, which was to forever change the face of American popular music.