Louis Armstrong - Biography



"If anybody was Mr. 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." No less a jazz giant than Duke Ellington said this when he learned of Armstrong’s death in 1971. Louis Armstrong was the first genius of jazz, and while no one person can be credited with inventing this American art form, it would certainly sound completely different today without his influence.

A Legend Is Born
The great Armstrong, known as Satchmo to the public and Pops to insiders, is crucially important to the development of jazz in a number of ways. First and foremost, he was an electrifying trumpeter, although in the wake of his later pop successes this was too often forgotten. He was also the first great instrumental soloist in jazz, a man so far ahead of the musicians around him in the Twenties that he acted like a Johnny Appleseed of jazz, bringing joy and the gift of swing everywhere he went.. He was a masterful and widely influential vocal stylist, cited by the likes of Billie Holiday and Bing Crosby as the greatest. And as the most recognizable face of jazz for most of the 20th century, he became a worldwide goodwill ambassador for the music he loved. Put that all together, and it’s easy to recognize Louis Armstrong as one of the century’s greatest entertainers.

Throughout his life, he believed that July 4, 1900 was his birthday, but subsequent research provided the more accurate date of August 4, 1901. His early years in New Orleans were rough. His father abandoned the family not long after his birth, and at an early age, young Louis was working to support himself and his mother. He worked on a junk wagon, sold coal, and became part of a vocal group, singing on the street for coins. These activities, which brought him all over town, introduced Louis to the variety of music in New Orleans. He got his first cornet at the age of 11, helped by the Karnofsky family, who ran one of the junk hauling businesses for which he labored. Nurtured and supported by the Karnofskys, he almost felt like a member of the family and for the rest of his life wore a Star of David in their honor.

Making A Name In New Orleans
After firing a pistol in the air while celebrating New Year’s Eve for 1912, Armstrong was confined for 18 months in the New Orleans Home for Colored Waifs. Here the largely self-taught youngster developed his cornet playing in a disciplined atmosphere and was rewarded by eventually being named the leader of the Home’s band. When the band played in New Orleans, the now 13-year-old Armstrong began to attract attention. On his release from the Home in 1914, Armstrong did manual labor by day and played as much as he could at night, performing in brass bands, and listening to and learning from such stars as Kid Ory, Bunk Johnson, and, above all, Joe “King” Oliver.

In 1918, “King” Oliver, a member of Ory’s group, decided to make the move to Chicago, and recommended Armstrong to take his place. He did, initially playing second cornet, graduating to first cornet. He also spent three summers on a riverboat, as a member of the Fate Marable orchestra. Marable was a disciplinarian who insisted that everyone in his group read music. Armstrong later referred to his time on the riverboats as “going to the university,” since it gave him valuable experience working with written arrangements and with top-flight players like drummer Baby Dodds, trombonist Johnny Dodds, and bassist Pops Foster. It also brought him into contact with broader segments of society than he had been exposed to in New Orleans.

Off To New York
Armstrong had been offered work out of town but stated that “Wasn’t nobody going to get me to leave New Orleans but Papa Joe [Oliver].” In 1922, he got the call. Oliver was leading the Creole Jazz Band at Chicago’s Lincoln Gardens when Armstrong joined as second cornet. As Armstrong later recalled, “I fit right in there, sitting with Joe, because I had admired him so, y’know?” Armstrong did his first recordings for the Gennett label in April 1923 with the Oliver group (collected with more Gennett and Paramount material from 1923 and 1924 on Louis Armstrong and Joe Oliver [Milestone]). While the cornetist was seemingly content to play in the Oliver band, saying that “I had hit the big time ... All of my boyhood dreams had come true at last,” he was urged to further develop his skills and secure more prominent booking (and the money that comes with it) by Lil Hardin, the pianist in the group who became Mrs. Louis Armstrong at the beginning of 1924. Later that year, Armstrong and Oliver split up, and Louis left Chicago for New York and a job with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra.

Henderson and his men, including Coleman Hawkins on tenor saxophone and Don Redman on reeds, had a big reputation at the time, but they hadn’t yet learned how to deal with rhythm. The simple truth is that during the 13 months he was with the Henderson organization, Armstrong taught the group to swing. His phrasing, his clarity, and the immense sound of his horn were quickly influential, affecting the way arranger Redman wrote for the orchestra and bringing long-term changes in the way the soloists dealt with their material throughout the jazz world. During this New York sojourn, Armstrong also worked with a number of singers, providing memorable backing for Ma Rainey, Alberta Hunter, Sippie Wallace and Bessie Smith, among many others.

A Return To Chicago
Armstrong returned to Chicago late in 1925. Between November of that year and December 1928, Armstrong (switching permanently to trumpet in 1927) and his basic crew of Kid Ory, Johnny Dodds, Lil Armstrong, and banjoist Johnny St. Cyr, made a series of recordings that are among the most famous in jazz history. The Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, as these studio-only ensembles were named, combined New Orleans-style collective improvisation with the hottest of hot solos. Armstrong’s playing still thrills today. All the sides have been collected on the 4 disc set The Complete Hot Five & Hot Seven Recordings (2000 Columbia/Legacy). Among the glories of these sessions are such timeless classics as “Yes! I’m In the Barrel,” “Cornet Chop Suey,” “Muskrat Ramble,” “Skid-Dat-De-Dat,” “Hotter Than That,” and what might be the first scat vocal on record, “Heebie Jeebies,” which created quite a sensation at the time.

There weren’t many players at his level, but Armstrong found one in pianist Earl “Fatha” Hines. Their collaborations in a series of 1928 sessions include the justly celebrated “West End Blues” and what Armstrong biographer Gary Giddins describes as “the gold standard for off-the-cuff encounters,” their duet on “Weather Bird, ” one of eleven Armstrong entries in the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Armstrong was the star soloist with Luis Russell’s orchestra for half of 1930, then spent nine months in California leading the Les Hite Orchestra. An arrest for marijuana use did nothing to slow his career (he remained a life-long pot smoker). Lack of astute management did impede him though, leading to indifferent recordings with under-prepared groups. In 1932, by now an internationally known star, Armstrong escaped to Europe, where he toured.

Back In New York
Back in New York in 1935, he hired Joe Glaser as his manager. Glaser sorted out Armstrong’s various problems with the law, money, and organized crime, and put together a big band for Armstrong to work with, premiering in 1936. By then, physical issues, including lip and finger problems exacerbated by his wholly original playing style, began to have an impact on his performance, moving him more into vocal performances. Beginning with Pennies From Heaven (1936), he also worked in movies whenever he could, eventually appearing in more than a dozen major productions.

World War II put an end to the big band. Although Armstrong was reluctant to break up his group and put all his men out of work, he finally bowed to economic reality in mid 1947. Following a successful small group concert at Town Hall that spring, Glaser assembled the first edition of the All-Stars with Barney Bigard on clarinet, Jack Teagarden on trombone, Earl Hines at the piano, Arvell Shaw on bass, and Cozy Cole on drums. With numerous personnel changes over the years, Armstrong led the All-Stars for the rest of his life.

Freelancing Armstrong
Armstrong had exclusive contracts with Victor in the Thirties and again briefly in the Forties (The Complete RCA Victor Recordings [2001 RCA], and with Decca in the Fifties (with the complete studio All-Stars tracks released on a six-disc Mosaic set). After his Decca contract ended, he took the unusual step of freelancing for different labels. His informatively swinging Musical Autobiography, which intersperses live recordings of classic material with Satchmo’s reminiscences (originally on Decca, reissued 2001 Verve), the delicious Satch Plays Fats (Columbia 1955), a Porgy and Bess with Ella Fitzgerald (1957 Verve), and the marvelous collaboration with Duke Ellington that spanned two albums for Roulette in 1961 (Together for The First Time and The Great Reunion, reissued with alternate takes as The Great Summit [2000 Roulette]) are among the highlights of Armstrong’s career in the LP era.

And then the strangest thing happened. “Hello, Dolly,” a Broadway show tune, became an utterly improbable pop hit in the British Invasion year of 1964, making it all the way to the top and giving Armstrong his only official Billboard Number One. Too often, this worldwide smash and other pop hits like “What A Wonderful World” are what he’s associated with, instead of the ground-breaking trumpet work that lay decades in the past.

Unending Influence
Endless touring, including State Department sponsored performances in Europe, Africa, and Asia kept him and the music he loved in the spotlight, making the influence of his playing and singing a world-wide affair. Armstrong once said that “ the music ain't worth nothing if you can't lay it on the public. The main thing is to live for that audience, 'cause what you're there for is to please the people.” Although he sometimes caught flak from civil rights advocates for his stage persona and clowning, Armstrong took strong public stands when the occasion demanded it, commenting on violent police action in Selma, Alabama, in 1965 that “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."

Louis Armstrong died in his sleep, at home, on July 6, 1971. He hadn't developed much as an instrumentalist after 1930, and spent the rest of his career playing in the style he had established as a young man, refining his considerable gifts to a beguiling simplicity that was anything but simple. Musicians of all persuasions and styles knew his greatness. Pianist Teddy Wilson simply called him "the greatest jazz musician that's ever been." Miles Davis, never known to toss around praise, memorably stated “that you can't play anything on a horn that Louis hasn't played - even modern.” Wynton Marsalis calls him “the embodiment of jazz music.” Simply put, every jazz fan is a Louis Armstrong fan, whether he knows it or not.

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