Who Was Louis Armstrong?
Louis Armstrong, nicknamed “Satchmo,” “Pops” and, later, “Ambassador Satch,” was born in 1901 in New Orleans, Louisiana. An all-star virtuoso, he came to prominence in the 1920s, influencing countless musicians with both his daring trumpet style and unique vocals.
Armstrong’s charismatic stage presence impressed not only the jazz world but all of popular music. He recorded several songs throughout his career, including he is known for songs like “Star Dust,” “La Vie En Rose” and “What a Wonderful World.” Armstrong died at his home in Queens, New York, on July 6, 1971.
Louis Armstrong was born on August 4, 1901, in New Orleans, Louisiana, in a section so poor that it was nicknamed “The Battlefield.”
Armstrong had a difficult childhood. His father was a factory worker and abandoned the family soon after Louis’s birth; his mother, who often turned to prostitution, frequently left him with his maternal grandmother. Armstrong was obligated to leave school in the fifth grade to begin working.
A local Jewish family, the Karnofskys, gave young Armstrong a job collecting junk and delivering coal. They also encouraged him to sing and often invited him into their home for meals.
On New Year’s Eve in 1912, Armstrong fired his stepfather’s gun in the air during a New Year’s Eve celebration and was arrested on the spot. He was then sent to the Colored Waif’s Home for Boys.
There, he received musical instruction on the cornet and fell in love with music. In 1914, the home released him, and he immediately began dreaming of a life making music.
While he still had to work odd jobs selling newspapers and hauling coal to the city’s famed red-light district, Armstrong began earning a reputation as a fine blues player. One of the greatest cornet players in town, Joe “King” Oliver, began acting as a mentor to the young Armstrong, showing him pointers on the horn and occasionally using him as a sub.
By the end of his teens, Armstrong had grown up fast. In 1918, he married Daisy Parker, a prostitute, commencing a stormy union marked by many arguments and acts of violence.
During this time, Armstrong adopted a three-year-old boy named Clarence. The boy’s mother, Armstrong’s cousin, had died in childbirth. Clarence, who had become mentally disabled from a head injury he had suffered at an early age, was taken care of by Armstrong his entire life.
Meanwhile, Armstrong’s reputation as a musician continued to grow: In 1918, he replaced Oliver in Kid Ory’s band, then the most popular band in New Orleans. He was soon able to stop working manual labor jobs and began concentrating full-time on his cornet, playing parties, dances, funeral marches and at local “honky-tonks”—a name for small bars that typically host musical musical acts.
Beginning in 1919, Armstrong spent his summers playing on riverboats with a band led by Fate Marable. It was on the riverboat that Armstrong honed his music reading skills and eventually had his first encounters with other jazz legends, including Bix Beiderbecke and Jack Teagarden.
Big Band Jazz
Though Armstrong was content to remain in New Orleans, in the summer of 1922, he received a call from King Oliver to come to Chicago and join his Creole Jazz Band on second cornet.
Armstrong accepted, and he was soon taking Chicago by storm with both his remarkably fiery playing and the dazzling two-cornet breaks that he shared with Oliver. He made his first recordings with Oliver on April 5, 1923; that day, he earned his first recorded solo on “Chimes Blues.”
Armstrong soon began dating the female pianist in the band, Lillian Hardin. After they married in 1924, Hardin made it clear that she felt Oliver was holding Armstrong back. She pushed her husband to cut ties with his mentor and join Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra, the top African-American dance band in New York City at the time.
Armstrong joined Henderson in the fall of 1924, and immediately made his presence felt with a series of solos that introduced the concept of swing music to the band. Armstrong had a great influence on Henderson and his arranger, Don Redman, both of whom began integrating Armstrong’s swinging vocabulary into their arrangements—transforming Henderson’s band into what is generally regarded as the first jazz big band.
However, Armstrong’s southern background didn’t mesh well with the more urban, Northern mentality of Henderson’s other musicians, who sometimes gave Armstrong a hard time over his wardrobe and the way he talked. Henderson also forbade Armstrong from singing, fearing that his rough way of vocalizing would be too coarse for the sophisticated audiences at the Roseland Ballroom.
Unhappy, Armstrong left Henderson in 1925 to return to Chicago, where he began playing with his wife Lil’s band at the Dreamland Café.
Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five
While in New York, Armstrong cut dozens of records as a sideman, creating inspirational jazz with other greats such as Sidney Bechet, and backing numerous blues singers, namely Bessie Smith.
Back in Chicago, OKeh Records decided to let Armstrong make his first records with a band under his own name: Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five. From 1925 to 1928, Armstrong made more than 60 records with the Hot Five and, later, the Hot Seven.
Today, these are generally regarded as the most important and influential recordings in jazz history; on these records, Armstrong’s virtuoso brilliance helped transform jazz from an ensemble music to a soloist’s art. His stop-time solos on numbers like “Cornet Chop Suey” and “Potato Head Blues” changed jazz history, featuring daring rhythmic choices, swinging phrasing and incredible high notes.
He also began singing on these recordings, popularizing wordless “scat singing” with his hugely popular vocal on 1926’s “Heebie Jeebies.”
The Hot Five and Hot Seven were strictly recording groups; Armstrong performed nightly during this period with Erskine Tate’s orchestra at the Vendome Theater, often playing music for silent movies. While performing with Tate in 1926, Armstrong finally switched from the cornet to the trumpet.
Armstrong’s popularity continued to grow in Chicago throughout the decade, as he began playing other venues, including the Sunset Café and the Savoy Ballroom. A young pianist from Pittsburgh, Earl Hines, assimilated Armstrong’s ideas into his piano playing.
Together, Armstrong and Hines formed a potent team and made some of the greatest recordings in jazz history in 1928, including their virtuoso duet, “Weather Bird,” and “West End Blues.” The latter performance is one of Armstrong’s best known works, opening with a stunning cadenza that features equal helpings of opera and the blues; with its release, “West End Blues” proved to the world that the musical genre of fun, dance jazz was also capable of producing high art.
In the summer of 1929, Armstrong headed to New York, where he had a role in a Broadway production of Connie’s Hot Chocolates, featuring the music of Fats Waller and Andy Razaf. Armstrong was featured nightly on Ain’t Misbehavin’, breaking up the crowds of white theatergoers nightly.
That same year, he recorded with small New Orleans-influenced groups, including the Hot Five, and began recording larger ensembles. Instead of doing strictly jazz numbers, OKeh began allowing Armstrong to record popular songs of the day, including “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” “Star Dust” and “Body and Soul.”
By 1932, Armstrong, who was now known as Satchmo, had begun appearing in movies and made his first tour of England. While he was beloved by musicians, he was too wild for most critics, who gave him some of the most racist and harsh reviews of his career.
Satchmo didn’t let the criticism stop him, however, and he returned an even bigger star when he began a longer tour throughout Europe in 1933. In a strange turn of events, it was during this tour that Armstrong’s career fell apart: Years of blowing high notes had taken a toll on Armstrong’s lips, and, following a fight with his manager Johnny Collins—who already managed to get Armstrong into trouble with the American Mafia—he was left stranded overseas by Collins.
Armstrong decided to take some time off soon after the incident, and spent much of 1934 relaxing in Europe and resting his lip.
When Armstrong returned to Chicago in 1935, he had no band, no engagements and no recording contract. His lips were still sore, and there were still remnants of his mob troubles and with Lil, who, following the couple’s split, was suing Armstrong.
He turned to Joe Glaser for help; Glaser had mob ties of his own, having been close with Al Capone, but he had loved Armstrong from the time he met him at the Sunset Café (Glaser had owned and managed the club).
Armstrong put his career in Glaser’s hands and asked him to make his troubles disappear. Glaser did just that; within a few months, Armstrong had a new big band and was recording for Decca Records.
During this period, Armstrong set a number of African-American “firsts.” In 1936, he became the first African-American jazz musician to write an autobiography: Swing That Music.
That same year, he became the first African-American to get featured billing in a major Hollywood movie with his turn in Pennies from Heaven, starring Bing Crosby. Additionally, he became the first African-American entertainer to host a nationally sponsored radio show in 1937, when he took over Rudy Vallee’s Fleischmann’s Yeast Show for 12 weeks.
Armstrong continued to appear in major films with the likes of Mae West, Martha Raye and Dick Powell. He was also a frequent presence on radio, and often broke box-office records at the height of what is now known as the “Swing Era.” Armstrong’s fully healed lip made its presence felt on some of the finest recordings of career, including “Swing That Music,” “Jubilee” and “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue.”
Marriages and Divorces
In 1938, Armstrong finally divorced Lil Hardin and married Alpha Smith, whom he had been dating for more than a decade. Their marriage was not a happy one, however, and they divorced in 1942. That same year, Armstrong married for the fourth—and final—time; he wed Lucille Wilson, a Cotton Club dancer.
When Wilson tired of living out of a suitcase during endless strings of one-nighters, she convinced Armstrong to purchase a house at 34-56 107th Street in Corona, Queens, New York. The Armstrongs moved into the home, where they would live for the rest of their lives, in 1943.
By the mid-’40s, the Swing Era was winding down and the era of big bands was almost over. Seeing “the writing on the wall,” Armstrong scaled down to a smaller six-piece combo, the All Stars; personnel would frequently change, but this would be the group Armstrong would perform live with until the end of his career.
Armstrong joined with Columbia Records in the mid-’50s, and soon cut some of the finest albums of his career for producer George Avakian, including Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy and Satch Plays Fats. It was also for Columbia that Armstrong scored one of the biggest hits of his career: His jazz transformation of Kurt Weill’s “Mack the Knife.”
During the mid-’50s, Armstrong’s popularity overseas skyrocketed. This led some to alter his long-time nickname, Satchmo, to “Ambassador Satch.”
He performed all over the world in the 1950s and ’60s, including throughout Europe, Africa and Asia. Legendary CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow followed Armstrong with a camera crew on some of his worldwide excursions, turning the resulting footage into a theatrical documentary, Satchmo the Great, released in 1957.
Though his popularity was hitting new highs in the 1950s, and despite breaking down so many barriers for his race and being a hero to the African-American community for so many years, Armstrong began losing his standing with two segments of his audience: Modern jazz fans and young African-Americans.
Bebop, a new form of jazz, had blossomed in the 1940s. Featuring young geniuses such as Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, the younger generation of musicians saw themselves as artists, not as entertainers.
They saw Armstrong’s stage persona and music as old-fashioned and criticized him in the press. Armstrong fought back, but for many young jazz fans, he was regarded as an out-of-date performer with his best days behind him.
The civil rights movement was growing tenser with each passing year, with more protests, marches and speeches from African Americans wanting equal rights. To many young jazz listeners at the time, Armstrong’s ever-smiling demeanor seemed like it was from a bygone era, and the trumpeter’s refusal to comment on politics for many years only furthered perceptions that he was out of touch.
Little Rock Nine
These views changed in 1957, when Armstrong saw the Little Rock Central High School integration crisis on television. Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus sent in the National Guard to prevent the Little Rock Nine—nine African-American students—from entering the public school.
When Armstrong saw this—as well as white protesters hurling invective at the students—he blew his top to the press, telling a reporter that President Dwight D. Eisenhower had “no guts” for letting Faubus run the country, and stating, “The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell.”
Armstrong’s words made front-page news around the world. Though he had finally spoken out after years of remaining publicly silent, he received criticism at the time from both black and white public figures. Not a single jazz musician who had previously criticized him took his side—but today, this is seen as one of the bravest, most definitive moments of Armstrong’s life.
Armstrong’s four marriages never produced any children, and because he and wife Lucille Wilson had actively tried for years to no avail, many believed him to be sterile, incapable of having children.
However, controversy regarding Armstrong’s fatherhood struck in 1954, when a girlfriend that the musician had dated on the side, Lucille “Sweets” Preston, claimed she was pregnant with his child. Preston gave birth to a daughter, Sharon Preston, in 1955.
Shortly thereafter, Armstrong bragged about the child to his manager, Joe Glaser, in a letter that would later be published in the book Louis Armstrong In His Own Words (1999). Thereafter until his death in 1971, however, Armstrong never publicly addressed whether he was in fact Sharon’s father.
Armstrong continued a grueling touring schedule into the late ’50s, and it caught up with him in 1959, when he had a heart attack while traveling in Spoleto, Italy. The musician didn’t let the incident stop him, however, and after taking a few weeks off to recover, he was back on the road, performing 300 nights a year into the 1960s.
Armstrong was still a popular attraction around the world in 1963, but hadn’t made a record in two years. In December of that year, he was called into the studio to record the title number for a Broadway show that hadn’t opened yet: Hello, Dolly!
The record was released in 1964 and quickly climbed to the top of the pop music charts, hitting the No. 1 slot in May 1964, and knocking the Beatles off the top at the height of Beatlemania.
This newfound popularity introduced Armstrong to a new, younger audience, and he continued making both successful records and concert appearances for the rest of the decade, even cracking the “Iron Curtain” with a tour of Communist countries such as East Berlin and Czechoslovakia in 1965.
By 1968, Armstrong’s grueling lifestyle had finally caught up with him. Heart and kidney problems forced him to stop performing in 1969. That same year, his longtime manager, Joe Glaser, passed away. Armstrong spent much of that year at home, but managed to continue practicing the trumpet daily.
By the summer of 1970, Armstrong was allowed to perform publicly again and play the trumpet. After a successful engagement in Las Vegas, Armstrong began taking engagements around the world, including in London and Washington, D.C. and New York (he performed for two weeks at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria. However, a heart attack two days after the Waldorf gig sidelined him for two months.
Armstrong returned home in May 1971, and though he soon resumed playing again and promised to perform in public once more, he died in his sleep on July 6, 1971, at his home in Queens, New York.
Since his death, Armstrong’s stature has only continued to grow. In the 1980s and ’90s, younger African-American jazz musicians like Wynton Marsalis, Jon Faddis and Nicholas Payton began speaking about Armstrong’s importance, both as a musician and a human being.
A series of new biographies on Armstrong made his role as a civil rights pioneer abundantly clear and, subsequently, argued for an embrace of his entire career’s output, not just the revolutionary recordings from the 1920s.
Armstrong’s home in Corona, Queens was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1977; today, the house is home to the Louis Armstrong House Museum, which annually receives thousands of visitors from all over the world.
One of the most important figures in 20th century music, Armstrong’s innovations as a trumpeter and vocalist are widely recognized today, and will continue to be for decades to come.