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Louis Armstrong

Louis Daniel Armstrong (August 4, 1901 - July 6, 1971), also known by the nickname Satchmo, was an African American jazz trumpeter, singer, and entertainer. Armstrong was an innovative performer whose musical skills and bright personality transformed jazz from barrelhouse dance music into a popular art form.

The nickname Satchmo or Satch is short for Satchelmouth. Early on he was also known as Dippermouth. These are all references to his large mouth. Friends and fellow musicians usually called him Pops, which is also how Armstrong usually addressed his friends and fellow musicians (except for Pops Foster[?], whom Armstrong always called "George").

Table of contents

Armstrong's Birthday Armstrong said he wasn't sure exactly when he was born, but celebrated his birthday on the 4th of July (American Independence Day). Armstrong usually gave the year as 1900 when speaking in public (although he used 1901 on his Social Security and other papers filed with the government). Armstrong's birthdate of August 4 1901 was rediscovered by New Orleans music researcher Tad Jones[?] from Roman Catholic church documents from when his grandmother took him to be baptised. With various other collaborative evidence, this date is now accepted by Armstrong scholars.

Armstrong was born to a poor family in New Orleans. At his death he was regarded as one of the most important musicians of the 20th century. In a tribute to Armstrong, Bing Crosby said: "He was the only musician who ever lived, who can't be replaced by someone." Miles Davis said, "You can't play anything on a horn that Louis hasn't played." Duke Ellington said: " He was born poor, died rich, and never hurt anyone along the way."

What he did

His accomplishments can be considered under three headings:

  • His virtuoso playing skills included a markedly unique tone and an extraordinary talent for melodic improvisation. A side effect of his talent was the emergence of the trumpet as a solo instrument in jazz. He started his career on cornet (a somewhat trumpetlike instrument, pitched the same, but more tightly coiled hence shorter overall, popular with New Orleans musicians), but switched to the trumpet while with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra to match the instrument played by the other musicians in his section. He was a masterful accompanist and 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.
  • His singing. First, there is the distinct, gravelly voice, but here too he exhibited his skill as an improviser with his ability to bend the lyrics and melody of a song to suit the needs of his performance, including his skill at scat singing, or wordless vocalizing. Before Armstrong, singers simply sang the song; after him, they were free to put their own stamp on it.
  • His irrepressible personality, both as a performer, and later in his career as a public figure. His personality was so strong that to some it overshadowed his contributions as a musician and singer. As an actor he had a number of supporting roles in Hollywood films, and was the first African American to host a nationally broadcast radio show.

His life

Armstrong's youth was spent in poverty in a rough neighborhood of uptown New Orleans. He first learned to play cornet in the band of the New Orleans Home for Colored Waifs where he had been sent after firing a pistol at a New Year's Eve[?] celebration. He followed brass band parades and listened to older musicians every chance he got, learning from Bunk Johnson, Buddy Petit[?], and above all "King" Joe Oliver, who acted as a mentor and almost a father figure to 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 orchestrations. When Joe Oliver left town in 1919, Armstrong took Oliver's place in Kid Ory's band, regarded as the top hot jazz band in the city.

In 1922 Armstrong joined the exodus to Chicago, where he had been invited by Joe "King" Oliver to join his Creole Jazz Band. Oliver's band was the best and most influential hot jazz band in Chicago in the early 1920s, at a time when Chicago was the center of jazz. Their 1923 recordings continue to be listened to as doccuments of ensemble style New Orleans jazz.

Armstrong was happy working with Oliver, but his wife, pianist Lil Hardin Armstrong, argued that he should seek more prominent billing. He and Oliver parted amicably in 1924 and Armstrong moved on to New York City to play with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, the top African American band of the day, and also made many recordings on the side arranged by his old friend from New Orleans pianist Clarence Williams. He returned to Chicago in 1925 and began recording under his own name with his famous Hot Five[?] and Hot Seven[?] with such hits as "Potato Head Blues[?]", "Muggles" (a reference to marijuana, a lifelong enthusiasm for Armstrong), and "West End Blues[?]" which music set the standard and the agenda for jazz for many years to come. "Melancholy Blues," performed by Armstrong and his Hot Seven was included on the Voyager Golden Record sent into outer space to represent the greatest achievements of humanity.

Armstrong returned to New York in 1929, then moved to Los Angeles in 1930, then toured Europe. He spent years on the road touring before he settled permanently in Queens, New York in 1943.

All too often, however, Armstrong was recorded with stiff, standard orchestras leaving only his sublime trumpet playing as of interest. He continued to develop as a live performer, however, and had great popularity in night clubs[?].

All the while, the world could watch the flowering of jazz genius unlike any other. Although subject to the vicissitudes of Tin Pan Alley and the gangster-ridden music business, he continued to develop his appeal. He continued to tour for the next 30 years on a gruelling 300+ days a year on one-night stands. He also appeared in over 30 films.

Most of his touring after the late 1940s was with a small stable group called the All Stars[?], which included Barney Bigard, Jack Teagarden, Earl Hines[?], Trummy Young[?], and Barrett Deems[?]. He also continued an active recording career.

Louis Armstrong died on July 6, 1971 and was interred in the Flushing Cemetery, Flushing, Queens, New York.

Louis Armstrong has a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 7601 Hollywood Blvd.

His music

In his early years, Armstrong was best known for his virtuosity with the trumpet, but as his music progressed and popularity grew, his singing became more important.

Armstrong was not the first to record scat singing, but he was masterfull at it and helped popularize it. He had a hit with his playing and scat singing on "Heebie Jeebies[?]", and sang out "I done forgot the words" in the middle of recording "I'm A Ding Dong Daddy From Dumas". Such records were hits and scat singing became a major part of his performances. Long before this, however, Armstrong was playing around with his vocals, shortening and lengthening phrases, interjecting improvisations, using his voice as creatively as his trumpet.

Armstrong enjoyed many types of music, from the most earthy blues to the syrupy sweet arrangements of Guy Lombardo, to Latin American folksongs, to Classical symphonies and Opera. Armstrong incorporated influences from all these sources into his performances, sometimes to the bewilderment of fans who wanted Armstrong to stay in convenient narrow categories.

In his career he played and sang with the most important instrumentalists and vocalists; among the many, singing brakeman Jimmie Rodgers, Bing Crosby, Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, Bessie Smith, and notably with Ella Fitzgerald.

Armstrong recorded three albums with Fitzgerald: Ella & Louis, Ella & Louis again, and Porgy & Bess[?] for Norman Granz's Verve records[?].

His recordings, Satch Plays Fats, all Fats Waller tunes, and Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy in the 1950s were perhaps the last of his great creative recordings, but even oddities like Disney Songs the Satchmo Way have their musical moments.

He toured the world under sponsorship of the US State Department to great success in Africa, Europe, and Asia. In the end he was revered world wide as "Ambassador Satch" and had an international success with tunes like "Stardust", "What a Wonderful World", "When the Saints Go Marchin' In", "Dream a Little Dream of Me", "Ain't Misbehavin'", and "Stompin' at the Savoy". He briefly knocked the Beatles off the top of the hits charts with "Hello, Dolly". He kept up a busy tour schedule until a few years before his death. While in his later years he would sometimes play some of his numerous gigs mechanically, other times he would enliven the most mundane gig with a flurry of new notes to the astonishment of his band.

In 1968, Armstrong had one last popular hit with the highly sentimental "What A Wonderful World". The song gained further currency in the popular consciousness with its use on the 1987 movie Good Morning Vietnam[?], its subsequent rerelease topping the charts around the world and, indeed, is probably what he is currently best known for amongst the general public. He is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an early influence. Some of his solos from the 50s, such as the hard rocking version of "Saint Louis Blues" from the W. C. Handy album, show that the influence went in both directions.

Was Louis Armstrong an Uncle Tom?

The Satchmo nickname and Armstrong's warm Southern personality, combined with his natural love of entertaining and evoking a response from the audience, resulted in a public persona -- the grin, the sweat, the handkerchief -- that came to seem affected and even something of a racist caricature late in his career. He was also criticized for accepting the title of "King of The Zulus" (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 Mardi Gras 1949. Here is some of what can be said on this subject:

  1. Entertainers of all races smile, laugh, make fun of themselves, and do silly things to endear themselves to audiences, great talents and small. Armstrong saw no conflict between being a serious musican and being a popular entertainer.
  2. He was a black entertainer born in the US South in 1901.
  3. Many of Armstrong's mannerisms and facial expressions were traditional with West African entertainers.
  4. Although he was decidedly non-political, despite having the State Department as a booker, Armstrong spoke out at the time of the Little Rock school crisis in 1957: "Do you dig me when I'm saying I have the right to blow my top over injustice?" On another occasion, after President Eisenhower blamed "extremists on both sides", Armstrong told reporters, "The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell! The President has no guts!" Few entertainers, black or white, expressed opinions on this explosive issue, and Armstrong was denounced as a radical for speaking his mind.
  5. Miles Davis, whose disdain for Armstrong's persona and his musical opinions was as great as his admiration for his trumpet artistry, and who often performed with his back to the audience, distancing himself as much as possible from the role of musician as entertainer, was asked if Armstrong was an Uncle Tom, replied (quoting Billie Holiday), "When Louis Armstrong Toms, he Toms from the heart."

Quotations

  • "All music is folk music. I ain't never heard a horse sing a song." -- Louis Armstrong
  • "The Brick House was one of the toughest joints I ever played in ... Guys would drink and fight one another like circle saws. Bottles would come flying over the bandstand like crazy and there was lots of plain common shooting and cutting. But somehow all that jive didn't faze me at all. I was so happy to have some place to blow my horn." From Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans (1954)

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