Louie Armstrong

Jun 8th, 2010 | By | Category: Arts & Entertainment
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louis armstrong1901 – 1971  Louis Armstrong, known to generations of adoring fans and admirers as “Satchmo,” was among the preeminent jazz musicians of all time.  His influence on this uniquely American — and predominantly African American — art form cannot be overestimated. Armstrong was able to use that influence and visibility to rise to the stature of informal ambassador between the Black musical community and listeners, and the broader global audience, including appearances in major motion pictures and television shows, the authorship of numerous magazine articles, memoirs, and two autobiographical books. The jazz world and American culture in general will stand indebted to his genius as a composer, instrumentalist, and vocalist forever.  He was one of the first true celebrities of the 20th century.


A New Form of Music Called Jazz

Armstrong was born in New Orleans in 1901 (despite appealing rumors that his birthdate was July 4, 1900). New Orleans, with its exotic sub-tropical climate and sultry Black and Creole cultures, was the cradle of the new form of music called jazz. Based on improvisational techniques, engaging rhythms, and foundations from African and slaves’ indigenous musical forms, it was a development that would revolutionize the world of music and art.

Armstrong’s early years were spent in a tough part of the city, under difficult domestic conditions. His father abandoned the family, and Armstrong spent his first five years in the care of his grandmother, Josephine. He worked from a very young age to help support his impoverished family, which exposed him to the broad range of music available in all corners of the city. He began singing on street corners and showed musical aptitude from the beginning. His first cornet and musical instruction came with a stay in the Colored Waif’s Home for Boys beginning in 1913, where he was sent for firing blank ammunition on New Year’s Eve. A predisposition for unconventional and sometimes unruly behavior would continue with the development of his revolutionary style and sound.  By the time of his release 18 months later, he was leader of the Waif’s Home Band.

A first significant professional affiliation was with Joe “King” Oliver, one of the more established leaders of the New Orleans jazz scene, who became a mentor to Armstrong. When Oliver relocated to Chicago, Armstrong replaced him in Kid Ory’s band, and subsequently worked the Mississippi riverboats under bandleader Fate Marable, gaining broad experience and exposure to many leading musicians. In 1918, he married a former prostitute named Daisy Parker.

In 1922, Armstrong was invited by King Oliver to join him in Chicago with his Creole Jazz Band, inaugurating a new stage in Satchmo’s career.  Changes occurred in his personal life too, as this marked his separation from Daisy. He married the pianist in the band, Lil Hardin, in 1924 (they would separate in 1931) and proceeded to New York City that year to play with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra. At this time he began a lifetime of recording with his own groups and others (including Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith), steadily improving his music and technique while gaining a broader audience. He made his first recordings as leader of his own group, Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five, in 1925. A Broadway appearance followed in 1929, and in 1930 he combined performances in California with film and radio appearances. The early 1930s saw the increasingly popular Armstrong on tour in Europe, with extended stays in Britain and a nearly full year in Paris in 1934.

He returned to the U.S. in 1935, and with the assistance of a devoted new manager, Joe Glaser, became a true international star performer in nightclubs, dance halls, film, radio, and theater. His development of pop songs as the basis for jazz improvisation accelerated his notoriety, as well as the increasingly broad acceptance of jazz as a form for general audiences. His infectious good will and happy disposition, marked by his trademark smile and unmistakable gravel voice, left audiences little choice but to be charmed by his art and charisma.

Worldwide Ambassador of Jazz

A short-lived marriage, this time to Alpha Smith, took place in 1938.  Following their divorce, Armstrong married Lucille Wilson (a dancer at New York’s famous Cotton Club, where his band performed regularly) in 1942. They would spend the rest of their lives together in the modest home they bought in a working class district of Queens. He performed in 1944 at the Metropolitan Opera House, in the first Esquire All American Jazz Concert; and in 1947 at Carnegie Hall. His musical efforts in the late 1940s focused on a group he formed called the All-Stars, comprised of exceptional players whose quality helped to revitalize mainstream jazz. More films and international tours followed in the 1950s and 1960s. “Ambassador Satch” was greeted by a crowd of over 100,000 in Accra, West Africa; other tours included Europe, Japan, South America, and Australia. His recording of “Hello Dolly” was number one on the Billboard charts. Commensurate with this increased visibility and prominence, he was one of the few (if not only) famous jazz musicians to speak out publicly against racial injustice, particularly incensed by continued public school segregation in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Health problems began to slow his pace and output, but he remained active through the years directly preceding his death.  In 1970, the Newport Jazz Festival honored Armstrong with a tribute featuring, among others, Mahalia Jackson and Dizzy Gillespie. There he celebrated his 70th birthday with a performance of his own.  He was in rehearsal for a much anticipated show at the time of his death.  Satchmo passed away in his sleep in his home in Corona, Queens in 1971.

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