Mr. Louis Armstrong
louis armstrong

Louis Armstrong was born the grandson of enslaved people in the third ward Battlefield area of Storyville, New Orleans, August 4, 1901. He was born poor, died rich and hurt nobody along the way. Although he had a voice in the world in a time of segregation in the South, he rarely mentioned his color. His artistry overwhelmed prejudice and he spoke on equal terms with kings and presidents. King George V of England personally gave Armstrong the Selmer trumpet. He died July 6, 1971 at the age of 69 in Queens, New York City.

Louis Armstrong had a huge stage presence, playing his horn with deliberate clarity, wiping his brow with a large white handkerchief and smiling the enormous smile which won him the nickname satchel mouth, shortened to Satchmo.

Technically he was the greatest innovator in the jazz idiom. His innovations are not startling now, they are the norms by which jazz is defined. It was Armstrong who separated himself from the band and bravely stood out front to play the first lead solos, he was the first to sing scat wordless sounds in his inimitable voice, which sounded like wet gravel. He came to fame early in the history of jazz music and continued the development of popular music all his life, always with great skill and dedication to perfection. He once blew 200 perfect top C notes one after another to defeat all comers in his mastery of his instrument.

He grew up listening to the sounds of Joe King Oliver and running errands. He was virtually taken into the Karnofsky family of Lithuanian Jews. At seven years of age he learned that discrimination was not only leveled against black folks, the jewish people were reviled too. Armstrong wore a Star of David pendant all his life and the Karnofsky name was honored by a foundation which takes in and refurbishes unwanted instruments to get them into the hands of kids who might not otherwise get a chance to play. The unhappy memories of the daily injustices a young black musician faced on the road stayed with Armstrong all his life, as his later piano player Marty Napolean recalled.

In his youth, Armstrong had a several custodial spells in the Colored Waifs Home, one for discharging a firearm on New Years Eve. It was in the home that he started to seriously learn about music and play the cornet in the band under the instruction of Professor Peter Davis. It was there that his playing was first noticed and once he was released at the age of 14, he began to play in the bars and legal brothels in the Storyville district under the wing of bass drummer Black Benny Williams. Street marching bands were also popular and Armstrong was noticed here too.

Armstrong’s career started to accelerate when Joe Oliver joined the exodus of jazz men from New Orleans in 1919. Armstrong stepped into his place in the Kid Ory band and played with the Tuxedo Brass band at society events. Kid Ory played trombone in the tailgate style, running a line of rhythm under the trumpet and cornet.

In 1922, Armstrong followed Joe Oliver to Chicago which was a boom town offering good wages in factories; people had money to spend on fun and music. A sideman in Chicago could earn $40 a week, instead of $2 a gig in New Orleans. For the first time, Armstrong made enough to support himself from music alone. He had his own apartment with its own bathroom.

Competition was fierce but Armstrong won all the cutting contests and played with Joe Oliver who was King of jazz when Chicago was the center of jazz. Armstrong started to record and met Hoagy Carmichael through his friend and fellow musician Bix Beiderbeck.

Armstrong’s second wife Lil Hardin pushed him musically and commercially to the point where he left Joe Oliver and joined the Fletcher Henderson band in New York City, changing from cornet to trumpet to fit the style of his new band. Now Armstrong got the recognition he deserved as a musician and also began telling stories and singing.

The tight style of the Fletcher Henderson band constricted Louis. One of his later pianists Billy Kyle recounted that he was a better player in a quintet than in the confines of a Big Band. His Big Band recordings are lackluster, the sparkle and brilliance of his improvisations were hampered by the size of the band and the necessity of arrangements. So he returned to Chicago to play with his pianist wife, Kid Ory the tailgate trombonist, clarinet and banjo but no drums in his Hot Five and later Hot Seven bands. These were very fine recordings. He was known for a relaxed style of band leading perhaps because of his penchant for marijuana at the time. In 1926 they recorded Heebie Jeebies which made them the most popular jazz band in America.

During the time after his return to Chicago Armstrong made some of his best recordings arranged by New Orleans pianist Clarence Williams.  Armstrong played with clarinetist Sidney Bechet, the only player who could come close to him in expressive energy and skill. The recordings are under the name of Williams Blue Five. He also collaborated with pianist Earl ”Fatha” Hines and they became fast friends. Hines was musical director of The Louis Armstrong Stompers after the break up with his pianist wife.

Clarence Williams Blue Five. Everybody loves my baby

Back in New York City in 1929, Armstrong sang and played Ain’t Misbehavin in a musical review Hot Chocolates and worked at Connie’s, which was the rival to the Cotton Club in Harlem. The new ribbon microphone came in and gave a special warmth to his recordings and singing around this time. The technical limitations of early recordings did not favor horn players, particularly losing the tonal quality of Bix. They reproduced the clarinet still poorly, but more faithfully.

As the Great Depression began to bite, clubs closed and dates dried up, so Armstrong moved to California to play the New Cotton Club in Los Angeles. This move put him touch with the Hollywood gliteratti while the newly invented radio sent his music into homes across the nation. Then began his film career. His enormous cheerful stage presence translated easily to film and as sound had been introduced, his music added excellence to the films he appeared in, almost as a cameo role.

Armstrong had his financial troubles and hired Joe Glaser a tough manager and former Chicago ‘friend’ of Al Capone to sort them out. He toured extensively but his troubles followed him so he decided on a European tour.

For thirty years Armstrong played, sang appeared in films and never changed his style or his smile. This was the greatest jazzman.