Armstrong often stated that he was born on July 4, 1900, a date that has been noted in many biographies. Although he died in 1971, it was not until the mid-1980s that his true birth date of August 4, 1901 was discovered by researcher Tad Jones through the examination of baptismal records.
Armstrong was born into a poor family in New Orleans, Louisiana, and was the grandson of slaves. He spent his youth in poverty, in a rough neighborhood known as “the Battlefield”, which was part of the Storyville legal prostitution district. His father, William Armstrong (1881–1933), abandoned the family when Louis was an infant and took up with another woman. His mother, Mary “Mayann” Albert (1886–1927), then left Louis and his younger sister, Beatrice Armstrong Collins (1903–1987), in the care of his grandmother, Josephine Armstrong, and at times, his Uncle Isaac. At five, he moved back to live with his mother, her relatives and a parade of “step-fathers”.
He attended the Fisk School for Boys, where he most likely had early exposure to music. He brought in some money as a paperboy and also by finding discarded food and selling it to restaurants, but it was not enough to keep his mother from prostitution. He hung out in dance halls close to home, where he observed everything from licentious dancing to the quadrille. For extra money he also hauled coal to Storyville, and listened to the bands playing in the brothels and dance halls, especially Pete Lala’s, where Joe “King” Oliver performed as well as other famous musicians who would drop in to jam.
After dropping out of the Fisk School at age eleven, Armstrong joined a quartet of boys who sang in the streets for money. He also started to get into trouble. Cornet player Bunk Johnson said he taught Armstrong (then 11) to play by ear at Dago Tony’s Tonk in New Orleans, although in his later years Armstrong gave the credit to Oliver. Armstrong hardly looked back at his youth as the worst of times but drew inspiration from it instead: “Every time I close my eyes blowing that trumpet of mine—I look right in the heart of good old New Orleans… It has given me something to live for.”
He also worked for a Lithuanian-Jewish immigrant family, the Karnofskys, who had a junk hauling business and gave him odd jobs. They took him in and treated him like family; knowing he lived without a father, they fed and nurtured him. He later wrote a memoir of his relationship with the Karnofskys titled, Louis Armstrong + the Jewish Family in New Orleans, La., the Year of 1907. In it he describes his discovery that this family was also subject to discrimination by “other white folks” nationalities who felt that they were better than the Jewish race… “I was only seven years old but I could easily see the ungodly treatment that the White Folks were handing the poor Jewish family whom I worked for.” Armstrong wore a Star of David pendant for the rest of his life and wrote about what he learned from them: “how to live—real life and determination.” The influence of Karnofsky is remembered in New Orleans by the Karnofsky Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to accepting donated musical instruments to “put them into the hands of an eager child who could not otherwise take part in a wonderful learning experience.”
Armstrong developed his cornet playing skills by playing in the band of the New Orleans Home for Colored Waifs, where he had been sent multiple times for general delinquency, most notably for firing his stepfather’s pistol into the air at a New Year’s Eve celebration, but it was only an empty shot, as police records confirm. Professor Peter Davis (who frequently appeared at the home at the request of its administrator, Captain Joseph Jones) instilled discipline in and provided musical training to the otherwise self-taught Armstrong. Eventually, Davis made Armstrong the band leader. The home band played around New Orleans and the thirteen-year-old Louis began to draw attention by his cornet playing, starting him on a musical career. At fourteen he was released from the home, living again with his father and new step-mother, Gertrude, and then back with his mother and thus back to the streets and their temptations. Armstrong got his first dance hall job at Henry Ponce’s where Black Benny became his protector and guide. He hauled coal by day and played his cornet at night.
He played in the city’s frequent brass band parades and listened to older musicians every chance he got, learning from Bunk Johnson, Buddy Petit, Kid Ory, and above all, Joe “King” Oliver, who acted as a mentor and father figure to the young musician. Later, he played in brass bands and riverboats of New Orleans, and began 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.
In 1919, Joe Oliver decided to go north and resigned his position in Kid Ory’s band; Armstrong replaced him. He also became second trumpet for the Tuxedo Brass Band.
He was a very charismatic innovative performer whose musical skills and bright personality transformed jazz from a rough regional dance music into a popular art form. One of the most famous jazz musicians of the 20th century. He worked odd jobs as a boy, including delivering milk and coal and selling newspapers and bananas. He also played the cornet with various bands in the New Orleans area. From 1922-24 Louis played with King Oliver’s Original Creole Jazz Band.
Throughout his riverboat experience, Armstrong’s musicianship began to mature and expand. At twenty, he could read music and started to be featured in extended trumpet solos, one of the first jazz men to do this, injecting his own personality and style into his solo turns. He had learned how to create a unique sound and also started using singing and patter in his performances. In 1922, Armstrong joined the exodus to Chicago, where he had been invited by his mentor, Joe “King” Oliver, to join his Creole Jazz Band and where he could make a sufficient income so that he no longer needed to supplement his music with day labor jobs. It was a boom time in Chicago and though race relations were poor, the city was teeming with jobs available for black people, who were making good wages in factories and had plenty to spend on entertainment.
Oliver’s band was among the most influential jazz bands in Chicago in the early 1920s, at a time when Chicago was the center of the jazz universe. Armstrong lived luxuriously in Chicago, in his own apartment with his own private bath (his first). Excited as he was to be in Chicago, he began his career-long pastime of writing nostalgic letters to friends in New Orleans. Unusually, Armstrong could blow two hundred high Cs in a row. As his reputation grew, he was challenged to instrumental “cutting contests” by hornmen trying to displace him. Armstrong made his first recordings on the Gennett and Okeh labels (jazz records were starting to boom across the country), including taking some solos and breaks, while playing second cornet in Oliver’s band in 1923. At this time, he met Hoagy Carmichael (with whom he would collaborate later) who was introduced by friend Bix Beiderbecke, who now had his own Chicago band.
Armstrong enjoyed working with Oliver, but Louis’ second wife, pianist Lil Hardin Armstrong, urged him to seek more prominent billing and develop his newer style away from the influence of Oliver. Lil had her husband play classical music in church concerts to broaden his skill and improve his solo play and she prodded him into wearing more stylish attire to make him look sharp and to better offset his growing girth. Lil’s influence eventually undermined Armstrong’s relationship with his mentor, especially concerning his salary and additional moneys that Oliver held back from Armstrong and other band members. Armstrong and Oliver parted amicably in 1924. Shortly afterward, Armstrong received an invitation to go to New York City to play with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, the top African-American band of 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 made by the band during this period.
Armstrong quickly adapted to the more tightly controlled style of Henderson, playing trumpet and even experimenting with the trombone. The other members quickly took up Armstrong’s emotional, expressive pulse. Soon his act included singing and telling tales of New Orleans characters, especially preachers. The Henderson Orchestra was playing in prominent venues for white-only patrons, including the famed Roseland Ballroom, featuring the arrangements of Don Redman. Duke Ellington’s orchestra would go to Roseland to catch Armstrong’s performances and young horn men around town tried in vain to outplay him, splitting their lips in their attempts.
During this time, Armstrong made many recordings on the side, arranged by an old friend from New Orleans, pianist Clarence Williams; these included small jazz band sides with the Williams Blue Five (some of the most memorable pairing Armstrong with one of Armstrong’s few rivals in fiery technique and ideas, Sidney Bechet) and a series of accompaniments with blues singers, including Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, and Alberta Hunter.
Armstrong returned to Chicago in 1925 due mostly to the urging of his wife, who wanted to pump up Armstrong’s career and income. He was content in New York but later would concede that she was right and that the Henderson Orchestra was limiting his artistic growth. In publicity, much to his chagrin, she billed him as “the World’s Greatest Trumpet Player”. At first, he was actually a member of the Lil Hardin Armstrong Band and working for his wife. He began recording under his own name for Okeh with his famous Hot Five and Hot Seven groups, producing hits such as “Potato Head Blues”, “Muggles”, (a reference to marijuana, for which Armstrong had a lifelong fondness), and “West End Blues”, the music of which set the standard and the agenda for jazz for many years to come.
The group included Kid Ory (trombone), Johnny Dodds (clarinet), Johnny St. Cyr (banjo), wife Lil on piano, and usually no drummer. Armstrong’s band leading style was easygoing, as St. Cyr noted, “One felt so relaxed working with him, and he was very broad-minded … always did his best to feature each individual.” Among the most notable of the Hot Five and Seven records were “Cornet Chop Suey,” “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue,” “Hotter Than that” and “Potato Head Blues,”, all featuring highly creative solos by Armstrong. His recordings soon after with pianist Earl “Fatha” Hines (most famously their 1928 “Weatherbird” duet) and Armstrong’s trumpet introduction to and solo in “West End Blues” remain some of the most famous and influential improvisations in jazz history. Armstrong was now free to develop his personal style as he wished, which included a heavy dose of effervescent jive, such as “whip that thing, Miss Lil” and “Mr. Johnny Dodds, Aw, do that clarinet, boy!”
Armstrong also played with Erskine Tate’s Little Symphony, which played mostly at the Vendome Theatre. They furnished music for silent movies and live shows, including jazz versions of classical music, such as “Madame Butterfly”, which gave Armstrong experience with longer forms of music and with hosting before a large audience. He began to scat sing (improvised vocal jazz using nonsensical words) and was among the first to record it, on the Hot Five recording “Heebie Jeebies” in 1926. The recording was so popular that the group became the most famous jazz band in the United States, even though they had not performed live to any great extent. Young musicians across the country, black or white, were turned on by Armstrong’s new type of jazz.
After separating from Lil, Armstrong started to play at the Sunset Café for Al Capone’s associate Joe Glaser in the Carroll Dickerson Orchestra, with Earl Hines on piano, which was soon renamed Louis Armstrong and his Stompers, though Hines was the music director and Glaser managed the orchestra. Hines and Armstrong became fast friends and successful collaborators.
Armstrong returned to New York, in 1929, where he played in the pit orchestra of the successful musical Hot Chocolate, an all-black revue written by Andy Razaf and pianist/composer Fats Waller. He also made a cameo appearance as a vocalist, regularly stealing the show with his rendition of “Ain’t Misbehavin'”, his version of the song becoming his biggest selling record to date.
Armstrong started to work at Connie’s Inn in Harlem, chief rival to the Cotton Club, a venue for elaborately staged floor shows and a front for gangster Dutch Schultz. Armstrong also had considerable success with vocal recordings, including versions of famous songs composed by his old friend Hoagy Carmichael. His 1930s recordings took full advantage of the new RCA ribbon microphone, introduced in 1931, which imparted a characteristic warmth to vocals and immediately became an intrinsic part of the ‘crooning’ sound of artists like Bing Crosby. Armstrong’s famous 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 had already become standards.
Armstrong’s radical re-working of Sidney Arodin and Carmichael’s “Lazy River” (recorded in 1931) encapsulated many features of his groundbreaking approach to melody and phrasing. The song begins with a brief trumpet solo, then the main melody is introduced by sobbing horns, memorably punctuated by Armstrong’s growling interjections at the end of each bar: “Yeah! …”Uh-huh” …”Sure” … “Way down, way down.” In the first verse, he ignores the notated melody entirely and sings as if playing a trumpet solo, pitching most of the first line on a single note and using strongly syncopated phrasing. In the second stanza he breaks into an almost fully improvised melody, which then evolves into a classic passage of Armstrong “scat singing”.
As with his trumpet playing, Armstrong’s vocal innovations served as a foundation stone for the art of jazz vocal interpretation. The uniquely gritty coloration of his voice became a musical archetype that was much imitated and endlessly impersonated. His scat singing style was enriched by his matchless experience as a trumpet soloist. His resonant, velvety lower-register tone and bubbling cadences on sides such as “Lazy River” exerted a huge influence on younger white singers such as Bing Crosby.
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. Bix Beiderbecke died and Fletcher Henderson’s band broke up. King Oliver made a few records but otherwise struggled. Sidney Bechet became a tailor, later moving to Paris and Kid Ory returned to New Orleans and raised chickens.
Armstrong moved to Los Angeles in 1930 to seek new opportunities. He played at the New Cotton Club in Los Angeles with Lionel Hampton on drums. The band drew the Hollywood crowd, which could still afford a lavish night life, while radio broadcasts from the club connected with younger audiences at home. Bing Crosby and many other celebrities were regulars at the club. In 1931, Armstrong appeared in his first movie, Ex-Flame and was also convicted of marijuana possession but received a suspended sentence. He returned to Chicago in late 1931 and played in bands more in the Guy Lombardo vein and he recorded more standards. When the mob insisted that he get out of town, Armstrong visited New Orleans, had a hero’s welcome and saw old friends. He sponsored a local baseball team known as “Armstrong’s Secret Nine” and had a cigar named after him. But soon he was on the road again and after a tour across the country shadowed by the mob, Armstrong decided to go to Europe to escape.
After returning to the United States, he undertook several exhausting tours. His agent Johnny Collins’s erratic behavior and his own spending ways left Armstrong short of cash. Breach of contract violations plagued him. Finally, he hired Joe Glaser as his new manager, a tough mob-connected wheeler-dealer, who began to straighten out his legal mess, his mob troubles, and his debts. Armstrong also began to experience problems with his fingers and lips, which were aggravated by his unorthodox playing style. As a result, he branched out, developing his vocal style and making his first theatrical appearances. He appeared in movies again, including Crosby’s 1936 hit Pennies from Heaven. In 1937, Armstrong substituted for Rudy Vallee on the CBS radio network and became the first African American to host a sponsored, national broadcast.
After spending many years on the road, Armstrong settled permanently in Queens, New York in 1943 in contentment with his fourth wife, Lucille. Although subject to the vicissitudes of Tin Pan Alley and the gangster-ridden music business, as well as anti-black prejudice, he continued to develop his playing. He recorded Hoagy Carmichael’s Rockin’ Chair for Okeh Records.
During the subsequent 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 under such circumstances to support and finance a 16-piece touring band.
During the 1940s, a widespread revival of interest in the traditional jazz of the 1920s made it possible for Armstrong to consider a return to the small-group musical style of his youth. Following a highly successful small-group jazz concert at New York Town Hall on May 17, 1947, featuring Armstrong with trombonist/singer Jack Teagarden, Armstrong’s manager, Joe Glaser dissolved the Armstrong big band on August 13, 1947, and established a six-piece traditional jazz group featuring Armstrong with (initially) Teagarden, Earl Hines and other top swing and Dixieland musicians, most of whom were previously leaders of big bands. The new group was announced at the opening of Billy Berg’s Supper Club.
With the publishers’ permission, Armstrong recorded the first American version of “C’est si bon” on June 26, 1950, in New York, with English lyrics by Jerry Seelen. When it was released, the disc garnered worldwide sales. In the 1960s, he toured Ghana and Nigeria, performing with Victor Olaiya during the Nigerian Civil war.
In 1964, he recorded his biggest-selling record, “Hello, Dolly!”, a song by Jerry Herman, originally sung by Carol Channing. Armstrong’s version remained on the Hot 100 for 22 weeks, longer than any other record produced that year, and went to No. 1 making him, at 62 years, 9 months and 5 days, the oldest person ever to accomplish that feat. In the process, he dislodged the Beatles from the No. 1 position they had occupied for 14 consecutive weeks with three different songs. Armstrong made his last recorded trumpet performances on his 1968 album Disney Songs the Satchmo Way.
Armstrong kept up his busy tour schedule until a few years before his death in 1971. He also toured Africa, Europe, and Asia under the sponsorship of the US State Department with great success, earning the nickname “Ambassador Satch” and inspiring Dave Brubeck to compose his jazz musical The Real Ambassadors.
He appeared in Broadway shows, including “Hot Chocolates” and “Swingin’ the Dream” and many films, including Pennies from Heaven 1936; Every Day’s a Holiday, 1937; Going Places 1938; Dr. Rhythm 1938; Cabin in the Sky 1943; Jam Session 1944; New Orleans 1947; The Strip 1951; Glory Alley 1952; The Glenn Miller Story 1954; High Society 1957; The Five Pennies 1959; A Man Called Adam 1966; and Hello, Dolly 1969.
Louis’s nickname Satchmo was an abbreviation of “satchelmouth,” a joke on the size of his mouth; he was also nicknamed Gatemouth, Dippermouth, Dip, and simply Pops. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an “early influence” in 1990 and in 2001 the city of New Orleans renamed its airport to Louis Armstrong International Airport.
He died of a heart attack on July 6, 1971 at age 69.
The honorary pallbearers included Governor Rockefeller, Mayor Lindsay, 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.
Satchmo Interviews Opinions and Expressions
Jazz experts, even the purists who criticized Mr. Armstrong for his mugging and showmanship, more often than not agreed that it was he, more than any other individual, who took the raw, gutsy Negro folk music of the New Orleans funeral parades and honky-tonks and built it into a unique art form.
Over the years, his life and his artistry changed radically. He left New Orleans for Chicago in the early nineteen-twenties, when he was still playing the cornet, and before 1930 made some of his most memorable recordings–with his Hot Five or Hot Seven groups.
Mr. Armstrong won his initial fame playing an endless grind of one-night stands. Under constant pressure to put on a show that made the customers tap their feet and cry for more, he did not hesitate to exploit a remarkable flair for showmanship. His mugging, his wisecracking and most of all his willingness to constantly repeat programs that had gone over well in the past won him the cheers of his audiences, along with the disapproving clucks of some of his fellow musicians and jazz specialists.
The criticism that he no longer improvised enough, innovated enough, mattered little to Mr. Armstrong. He dismissed the more “progressive” jazz approved of by some leading critics as “jujitsu music.”
He did not mind being called “commercial” because he followed popular music trends, and he deliberately introduced into his repertory crowd-pleasers such as “Mack the Knife” and “Hello, Dolly!,” which put his recordings on the bestseller charts when he was in his 60’s.
As his ability to play his horn exceptionally well waned with the years, Mr. Armstrong supplanted his trumpet solos with his singing voice. An almost phenomenal instrument in its own right, it has been compared to iron filings and to “a piece of sandpaper calling to its mate.”
Just watching an Armstrong performance could be an exhilarating experience. The man radiated a jollity that was infectious. Onstage he would bend back his stocky frame, point his trumpet to the heavens joyfully blast out high C’s. When he sang he fairly bubbled with pleasure. And as he swabbed away at the perspiration stirred up by his performing exertions, Satchmo grinned his famous toothy smile so incandescently that it seemed to light up the auditorium.
“I never did want to be no big star,” Mr. Armstrong said in 1969, in an interview for this article. “It’s been hard goddam work, man. Feel like I spent 20,000 years on the planes and railroads, like I blowed my chops off. Sure, pops, I like the ovation, but when I’m low, beat down, wonder if maybe I hadn’t of been better off staying home in New Orleans.”
Armstrong’s early years spent in New Orleans, were marked by extreme poverty and squalor, but he emerged able to recall them without self-pity and even with good humor.
“I was a Southern Doodle Dandy born on the Fourth of July, 1900,” said Daniel Louis Armstrong.1 “My mother Mary Ann–we called her Mayann–was living in a two-room shack in James Alley, in the Back O’ Town colored section of New Orleans. It was in a tough block, all them hustlers and their pimps and gamblers with their knives, between Gravier and Perdido Streets.”
Mr. Armstrong’s father, Willie Armstrong, who stoked furnaces in a turpentine factory, left Mrs. Armstrong when the boy was an infant. Leaving the child with his paternal grandmother, Mrs. Armstrong went to live in the Perdido-Liberty Street area, which was lined with prostitutes’ cribs.
“Whether my mother did any hustling I can’t say,” Mr. Armstrong said. “If she did, she kept it out of my sight.”
However, Louis, who rejoined his mother when he was 6 years old, recalled that for many years afterward there was always a “stepfather” on the premises and that before his mother “got religion and gave up men” around 1915, “I couldn’t keep track of the stepdaddies, there must have been a dozen or so, ’cause all I had to do was turn my back and a new pappy would appear.” Some of them, he added, “liked to beat on little Louis.”
However, Mr. Armstrong was always intensely fond of his mother, and he cared for her until her death in the early nineteen-forties.
Dippermouth, as he was called as a child, and his friends often sang for pennies on the streets. To help support his mother and a sister, Barbara, Louis delivered coal to prostitutes’ cribs and sold food plucked from hotel garbage cans.
The night of Dec. 31, 1913, Louis celebrated the New Year by running out on the street and firing a .38-caliber pistol that belonged to one of his “stepfathers.” He was arrested and sent to the Colored Waifs Home for Boys.
“Pops, it sure was the greatest thing that ever happened to me,” Mr. Armstrong said. “Me and music got married at the home.”
Played in Home’s Band
Peter Davis, an instructor at the home, taught Louis to play the bugle and the cornet. Soon the boy became a member of the home’s brass band, which played at socials, picnics and funerals for a small fee. Louis was in the fifth grade when he was released from the home after spending 18 months there. He had no other formal education.
The youth worked as a junkman and sold coal, while grabbing every chance he could to play cornet in honky-tonk bands. The great jazz cornetist Joe (King) Oliver befriended him, gave him a cornet and tutored him.
“I was foolin’ around with some tough ones,” Mr. Armstrong recalled in 1969. “Get paid a little money, and a beeline for one of them gambling houses. Two hours, man, and I was a broke cat, broker than the Ten Commandments. Needed money so bad I even tried pimping, but my first client got jealous of me and we got to fussing about it and she stabbed me in the shoulder. Them was wild times.”
In 1918, Mr. Armstrong married a 21-year-old prostitute named Daisy Parker. Since Daisy “wouldn’t give up her line of work,” Mr. Armstrong said, the marriage was both stormy and short-lived.
The same year he was married, Mr. Armstrong joined the Kid Ory band, replacing King Oliver, who had moved to Chicago. In the next three years he marched with Papa Celestin’s brass band and worked on the riverboat Sidney with Fate Marable’s band. Dave Jones, a mellophone player with the Marable band, gave him his first lessons in reading music.
By then Mr. Armstrong’s fame was spreading among New Orleans musicians, many of whom were moving to Chicago. In 1922 King Oliver sent for his protege. Mr. Armstrong became second cornetist in Mr. Oliver’s by then famous Creole Jazz Band. The two-cornet team had one of the most formidably brilliant attacks ever heard in a jazz group. Mr. Armstrong’s first recordings were made with the Oliver band in 1923.
The pianist in the band was Lilian Hardin, whom Mr. Armstrong married in 1924. Miss Hardin had had training as a classical musician, and she gave him some formal musical education.
Mrs. Armstrong, convinced that as long as her husband stayed in the Oliver band he would remain in the shadow of his popular mentor, persuaded him to leave the band in 1924 to play first cornet at the Dreamland Cafe. The same year he joined Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra at the Roseland Ballroom in New York.
For the first time, Mr. Armstrong found himself in the company of musicians of an entirely different stripe from those he had known in New Orleans and Chicago who, like himself, had fought their way up out of the back alleys and were largely unschooled in music. From these men, many of whom had conservatory educations, he learned considerable musical discipline.
Moving back to Chicago in 1925, Mr. Armstrong again played at the Dreamland Cafe, where his wife, Lil, had her own band, and with Erskine Tate’s “symphonic jazz” orchestra at the Vendome Theater. It was at that point that he gave up the cornet for the trumpet.
“I was hired to play them hot choruses when the curtain went up,” Mr. Armstrong recalled. “They put a spotlight on me. Used to hit 40 or 50 high C’s–go wild, screamin’ on my horn. I was crazy, Pops, plain nuts.”
Billed as ‘World’s Greatest’
During his second Chicago period, Mr. Armstrong doubled in Carroll Dickerson’s Sunset Cabaret orchestra, with billing as the “World’s Greatest Trumpeter.” The proprietor of the Sunset was Joe Glaser, who became Mr. Armstrong’s personal manager and acted in that capacity for the rest of his life. Mr. Glaser died on June 6, 1969.
In that Chicago period, Mr. Armstrong began to make records under his own name, the first being “My Heart,” recorded Nov. 12, 1925. Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five (and later Hot Seven) recorded, over a three-year span, a series of jazz classics, with Earl (Fatha) Hines on the piano. These records earned Mr. Armstrong a worldwide reputation, and by 1929, when he returned to New York, he had become an idol in the jazz world.
While playing at Connie’s Inn in Harlem, Mr. Armstrong also appeared on Broadway in the all- Negro review “Hot Chocolates,” in which he introduced Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin,'” his first popular-song hit. (He later appeared as Bottom in “Swingin’ the Dream,” a short-lived travesty on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Over the years he appeared in many movies, including “Pennies From Heaven,” “A Song Is Born,” “The Glenn Miller Story” and “High Society.”)
For several years, Mr. Armstrong “fronted” big bands assembled for him by others. By 1932, the year he was divorced from Lil Hardin Armstrong, he had become so popular in Europe, via recordings, that he finally agreed to tour the Continent.
It was while he was starring at the London Palladium that Mr. Armstrong acquired the nickname Satchmo. A London music magazine editor inadvertently invented the name by garbling an earlier nickname, Satchelmouth.
One for the King
While he was in London, Mr. Armstrong demonstrated memorably that he had little use for the niceties of diplomatic protocol.
During a command performance for King George V, Mr. Armstrong ignored the rule that performers are not supposed to refer to members of the Royal Family while playing before them and announced on the brink of a hot trumpet break, “This one’s for you, Rex.”
(Many years later in 1956, Satchmo played before King George’s granddaughter, Princess Margaret. “We’re really gonna lay this one on for the Princess,” he grinned, and launched into “Mahogany Hall Stomp,” a sort of jazz elegy to a New Orleans bordello. The Princess loved it.)
One of Mr. Armstrong’s pre-World War II European tours lasted 18 months. Over the years his tours took him, to the Middle East and the Far East, to Africa and to South America. In Accra, Ghana, 100,000 natives went into a frenzied demonstration when he started to blow his horn, and in Leopoldville, tribesmen painted themselves ochre and violet and carried him into the city stadium on a canvas throne.
His 1960 African tour was denounced by the Moscow radio as a “capitalist distraction,” which made Mr. Armstrong laugh.
“I feel at home in Africa,” he said during the tour. “I’m African-descended down to the bone, and I dig the friendly ways these people go about things. I got quite a bit of African blood in me from my grandmammy on my mammy’s side and from my grandpappy on my pappy’s side.”
Played With Big Bands
Before the war, Mr. Armstrong worked with several big bands, including the Guy Lombardo orchestra, concentrating on New Orleans standards such as “Muskrat Ramble” and “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In” and on novelties such as “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead, You Rascal You.” He did duets with Ella Fitzgerald and he accompanied Bessie Smith.
After 1947 he usually performed as leader of a sextet, working with such musicians as Jack Teagarden, Earl Hines, Joe Bushkin and Cozy Cole. He was a favorite at all the jazz festivals, in this country and abroad.
Mr. Armstrong lost track of the number of recordings he made, but it has been estimated there as many as 1,500. Dozens have become collectors’ items.
The jolly Mr. Armstrong was quite inured to his fame as a jazz immortal. Not too many years ago, he was interviewed backstage by a disk jockey who began with the announcement, “And now we bring you a man who came all the way from New Orleans, the Crescent City, to become a Living American Legend.” The Living American Legend, who was changing his clothes, dropped his trousers and began the interviews with the observation, “Tee hee!”
“Tee hee” was part of a uniquely Armstrong vocabulary, which included Satchmo-coined words such as “commercified” and “humanitarily.” In his speech he arbitrarily inserted hyphens in the middle of words (“ar-tis-try” and “en-ta-TAIN-uh”) and, unable to remember names too well, peppered his conversations with friends and interviews with salutations such as “Daddy” and “Pops.”
Despite the hard life he led–traveling most of the time, sleeping too little, living out of suitcases, eating and drinking too much or not enough–Mr. Armstrong, even into his 60’s, was still going strong. His chest was broad and powerful, and his 5-foot-8-inch frame carried a weight that varied between 170 and 230 pounds.
He was, however, keenly aware of his health. “I’m one of them hy-po-CHON-dree-acs,” he would say with a delighted laugh. He was afraid of germs and always carried his trumpet mouthpiece in a carefully folded handkerchief in his back pocket. He liked to talk at length about his physic, a herbal mixture called Swiss Kriss, while at the same time he recounted how unwisely he sometimes ate, especially when his favorite food, New Orleans-style red beans and rice, was set before him.
Although in latter years he suffered from a kidney ailment, Mr. Armstrong’s greatest worry was chronic leukoplakia of the lips, what amounted to a tough corn that resulted from blowing his horn. He used a special, imported salve to soothe his lips.
“If you don’t look out for your chops and pipes,” he said, “you can’t blow the horn and sing. Anything that’ll get in my way doin’ that, out it goes. That trumpet comes first, before everything, even my wife. Got to be that way. I love Lucille, man, but she understands about me and my music.”
He was referring to the former Lucille Wilson, whom he married in 1942.
He loved all forms of music. When asked what he thought of the country-and-Western and folk music so favored by the young, he replied, “Pops, music is music. All music is folk music. I ain’t never heard no horse sing a song.”
Some Negro militants criticized Mr. Armstrong for his earthy speech and his habit of rolling his eyes and flashing his toothy grin while performing. They said he was using stereotyped characteristics of the happy-go-lucky Negro and playing the Uncle Tom. Mr. Armstrong ignored the charges.
Comment on Selma
Nevertheless, Mr. Armstrong, on learning in 1965 that the police in Selma, Ala., had taken violent action against freedom-marching Negroes in that city, told an interviewer:
“They would beat Jesus if he was black and marched. Maybe I’m not in the front line, but I support them with my donations. My life is in my music. They would beat me on the mouth if I marched, and without my mouth I wouldn’t be able to blow my horn.”
For many years, Mr. Armstrong refused to perform in New Orleans, his hometown, because of segregation there. He did not return until 1965, after passage of the Civil Rights Act. On that occasion he triumphantly played with an integrated band in the city’s Jazz Museum.
Reflecting on his more than 50 years as a musician, Armstrong said, “There ain’t going to be no more cats in this music game that long.”
There was no doubt that he was the most durable of the great jazzmen, nor that millions of people held him in great affection. His fellow musicians, many of whom were influenced by his artistry, looked upon him with awe.
Miles Davis, a contemporary jazz star, has asserted that “you can’t play anything on a horn that Louis hasn’t played.” Teddy Wilson, who played piano with Mr. Armstrong in 1933, has called him “the greatest jazz musician that’s ever been.”
And Leonard Feather, the eminent jazz critic and author of “The Encyclopedia of Jazz,” wrote of Mr. Armstrong:
“It is difficult. . .to see in correct perspective Armstrong’s contribution as the first vital jazz soloist to attain worldwide influence as trumpeter, singer, entertainer, dynamic show business personality and strong force in stimulating interest in jazz.
“His style, melodically and harmonically simple by the standards of later jazz trends, achieved in his early records an unprecedented warmth and beauty. His singing, lacking most of the traditional vocal qualities accepted outside the jazz world, had a rhythmic intensity and guttural charm that induced literally thousands of other vocalists to imitate him, just at countless trumpeters through the years reflected the impact of his style.
“By 1960, Armstrong, set in his ways, improvised comparatively little; but he retained vocally and instrumentally many of the qualities that had established him, even though entertainment values, but his own admission, meant more to him than the reaction of a minority of musicians and specialists.”
As for Mr. Armstrong, it was pleasing his listeners that really mattered.
“There’s three generations Satchmo has witnessed,” he said, “the old cats, their children and their children’s children, and they still all walk up and say, ‘Ol’ Satch, how do you do!’ I love my audience and they love me and we just have one good time whenever I get up on the stage. It’s such a lovely pleasure.”