I never tried to prove nothing. Just wanted to give a good show. My life has always been my music. It's always come first, but 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.
- Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong is jazz. He represents what the music is all about.
- Wynton Marsalis, Music and Artistic Director, Jazz at Lincoln Centre, New York
The Mississippi River is the largest river in North America. Where 'Ol' Man River' flows into the Gulf of Mexico lies the city of New Orleans. Sometimes known as the 'Big Easy', New Orleans was a cultural melting pot, being the meeting place of French-speaking creole culture, Southern US, and African American cultures. It became famous as the birthplace of jazz.
Probably the greatest jazz player to come out of New Orleans was Louis Armstrong (1901–1971). He made a name for himself with his cornet playing, but also played trumpet and clarinet, and in later years his distinctive gravel voice and scat singing put him at the forefront of jazz, setting the standard which others followed.
Louis Armstrong's name eventually became synonymous with jazz, both the big band type and the more lyrical songs. He is best remembered now for classics like 'All the Time in the World' and 'What a Wonderful World'.
The Early Years
Louis Daniel Armstrong, son of William Armstrong and Mary 'Mayann' Albert and grandson of slaves, was born into a poor family on 4 August, 1901, in the area of Storyville, a legalised red light district in the city of New Orleans, Louisiana. He was soon abandoned by his father, who would later re-enter his life briefly at sporadic intervals. Then his mother left him and his sister, Beatrice, with their grandmother, Josephine. The children were sometimes left in the care of their uncle Isaac. Five years after he was born, young Louis was back with his mother. So, not a settled childhood.
The city, at this time, was alive with music and the young boy grew up listening to the sounds of the seminal jazz trumpeters of the time such as Buddy Bolden, Bunk Johnson and above all Joe 'King' Oliver, who performed in the brothels and dance halls. It was Oliver that Louis would later consider as his mentor. Louis worked for a Lithuanian Jewish family, the Karnofskys, collecting junk and selling coal. They started him off on his life of music by purchasing his first cornet for him.
Incarceration, Structured Training and Joining Joe 'King' Oliver
On New Year's Eve, 1912, at the age of 11, the young Louis took his father's pistol and fired it into the air. He was arrested and put in the New Orleans Home for Colored Waifs. Here, while serving his term, he joined a band and began to receive structured training in music. Later, as a teenager, he began to play in brass bands in the city and toured on the Mississippi River on a steam boat with the band 'Fate Marable'. At the age of only 16, the young cornet player married Daisy Parker and the couple adopted a child, Armstrong's nephew, Clarence Armstrong, whose mother, Flora, had passed away soon after giving birth. In 1919, Joe 'King' Oliver quit his position in Kid Ory's band and left the city. Armstrong replaced him in the band, but soon received an invitation from Oliver, to join him in the 'Windy City' of Chicago.
Chicago and Marriage to Lillian Hardin
Oliver's was the best and also the most influential jazz band in Chicago, which was now the centre of the genre. In 1923, while he was with Oliver's band, Armstrong began to play the clarinet. He got work recording in small groups which supported a number of blues singers, including Bessie Smith and Albert Hunter.
It was during this time that he met Lillian Hardin, a female jazz pianist who was playing for Mae Brady's Orchestra. She had just divorced Jimmy Johnson. Hardin was taken by Armstrong, although she was not impressed with his dress sense: she thought he looked 'too country' for the Windy City. Soon, romance developed between the two and Hardin forced Louis not only to change his style of dress, but also his hair style, and made him look more fashionable. She then began to manage his career and at the same time helped him to divorce Daisy Parker. In 1924, Louis Armstrong and Lillian Hardin got married.
Lillian Hardin, by now, was beginning to recognise her husband's talent, though he was happy just to play alongside his idol. She began to persuade him to search for a more prominent billing and to develop a newer style and move away from Oliver and his influence. He finally took her advice and in September, 1924, moved to New York after accepting an offer from Fletcher Henderson and his band. This was the top African-American band at the time. It was at this time, that Louis Armstrong started to play the trumpet. He began to blend in a better way with the other musicians and soon adopted a controlled style. He also started to play the trombone and soon after that, took up singing, in which he told tales of New Orleans-based characters and especially preachers.
The Fletcher Henderson Orchestra began to play at venues that were for 'Whites Only', with some classy arrangements. This caused a stir and members of other Orchestras, such as Duke Ellington's, would go to the venues where the Henderson Orchestra was performing to watch Armstrong, who was at the time playing the horn. Some young horn-men, trying outplay him, would end up splitting their lips.
Armstrong met an old friend from New Orleans, Clarence Williams, who wrote some arrangements for him. Soon, Armstrong was involved in recording sessions taking place on the side, accompanying some 'Blues' singers, including Bessie Smith and Alberta Hunter. But his wife urged him to return to Chicago, as she wanted to progress his career, even though he was content with where he was. In 1925, he gave in and returned to Chicago.
The Hot Five and Separation
Upon returning to the 'Windy City', Armstrong began to play for his wife's band, the Lil Hardin Armstrong Band. He also set up his own band, Hot Five, playing under the name of 'Okeh' and started to produce hits such as 'Potato Head Blues' and 'West End Blues'. The band consisted of Kid Ory (trombone), Johnny Dodds (clarinet), Johnny St Cyr (banjo), Lillian Hardin (piano) and Armstrong himself. As if that weren't enough, he played with Erskine Tate's Little Symphony, a quintet that mostly appeared at the Vendome Theatre and also produced music for silent movies. This gave Armstrong experience in longer forms of music and of performing in front of a larger audience. It was at this time that he started 'scat singing', improvised jazz singing with nonsensical words, used to great effect when he recorded 'Heebie Jeebies' in 1926. This recording was so popular that the band were the most famous in the country and young musicians across the nation, both black and white, were inspired by Armstrong and his new style of jazz.
As the decade ended, Armstrong and his wife slowly began to drift apart. Armstrong formed a new 'Hot Five,' with Earl 'Fatha' Hines on piano instead of Lillian Hardin. Meanwhile, Hardin formed her own band with Freddie Keppard, a cornet player. Armstrong had begun seeing another woman, Alpha Smith. In 1931, Hardin and Armstrong finally separated. Armstrong did not want a divorce, but Hardin insisted, and eventually the couple divorced.
'I felt sorry for Louis,' said Hardin, years later as she recalled this, 'but he had two-timed me and so I gave him a divorce just to teach him a lesson and I sued him too.'
Working for Al Capone's Associate and the Return to New York
After separating from Hardin, Armstrong played at the Sunset Cafe, owned by his manager, Joe Glaser, rumoured to be an associate of the notorious gangster, Al Capone. He played in the Carroll Dickerson Orchestra with Earl Hines on piano. Hines and Armstrong became good friends and soon the orchestra was renamed 'Louis Armstrong and his Stompers', with Hines as the Musical Director. The two went on to become successful collaborators. But this was not to last long – in 1929, Armstrong returned to New York.
New York, Working for the 'Rival of the Cotton Club' and the Depression
The moment he returned to New York, he started to work in the pit orchestra of the very successful Broadway show, 'Hot Chocolate,' by Andy Rafaz and the well-known, popular jazz pianist and composer, Fats Waller. He also began to make appearances as a vocalist. One of his renditions from this time is 'Ain't Misbehavin'' which is considered to be his biggest selling record.
While he was in the Harlem area of the city, Armstrong worked at Connie's Inn, a rival to the famous 'Cotton Club'. In both these clubs, black performers played in elaborate stage shows to entertain a white audience. Connie's Inn was rumoured to be a front for the notorious gangster, Dutch Schultz.
As the 1920s came to an end, the Wall Street Stock Market crashed and the Great Depression set in, engulfing Western industrialised countries for 12 years. But as the 1930s decade began, Armstrong was already beginning to have some success with vocal recording. Some of the songs were composed by his friend, Hoagy Carmichael, himself a pianist, composer, bandleader, singer and actor. Armstrong came out with his interpretation of his friend's composition, 'Stardust', which went on to be one of the most successful versions recorded. He also reworked some of the other compositions such as 'Lazy River,' which was co-composed by Carmichael and Sidney Arodin. Armstrong's singing style, which included 'scat singing', was unique and innovative. It set a founding stone for jazz vocal interpretation and influenced singers such as Bing Crosby.
New Opportunities and the Nickname 'Satchmo'
By the early 1930s, the effect of the Wall Street Crash was beginning to bite and everyone was hit. Clubs such as 'The Cotton Club' closed, forcing many players to stop performing. Some, such as Sidney Bechet and Kid Ory, changed their profession; indeed, Ory returned to New Orleans and took up chicken farming. The Fletcher Henderson band broke up and Joe 'King' Oliver struggled, though he had produced some recordings. Armstrong, however, decided to seek new opportunities and moved to the West Coast – Los Angeles.
He joined the 'New Cotton Club'. The band drew crowds who could afford lavish nights and it did not bother them that there were 'live broadcasts' from the club. The club itself attracted many celebrities; singers such as Bing Crosby were regulars there. In 1930, Armstrong made an appearance in his first movie, 'Ex Flame', as himself. The movie was directed by Victor Halperin. It was during this time that Armstrong was arrested and convicted of possession of marijuana. He was soon freed with a suspended sentence.
Next, Armstrong tried returning to Chicago. Once again, he played in bands and recorded more music. But he was no longer welcome in the city. He returned to New Orleans, where he received a hero's welcome. He visited his old friends, sponsored a baseball team known as 'Louis Armstrong's Secret Nine' and named a cigar after himself. But then he decided to tour the country and was soon followed by a mob of admirers. In order to escape this, he decided to tour Europe. It was during the tour that a music magazine editor, who was unable to read his own notes, wrote the word 'Satchmo,' short for 'Satchelmouth,' in an article and from then he became known by this nickname. Another nickname was 'Pops'.
Armstrong's tours proved exhausting, but a bigger problem was his tendency to spend money, leading him to be constantly short of cash. Worse still, he began to experience problems with his lips, aggravated by his style of playing, and with his fingers. As a result, he decided to branch out by developing his vocal style, making theatrical appearances and working in movies again.
In 1937, he replaced Rudy Vallee on the CBS Radio Network and became the first African-American to host a sponsored national broadcast. A year later, as his divorce to Lil Hardin finally came through, he married Alpha Smith but soon divorced her.
Settling in Queens, and 'Louis Armstrong and his All Stars'
For a long time, Armstrong had been 'on the road', during which time he married for the fourth time and settled permanently in the Queens area of New York. It was at this time that he recorded Hoagy Carmichael's 'Rockin' Chair' for Okeh Records.
As the 1940s began, people's taste changed away from big band music and ballrooms began to close. There was competition from television and music of other genres was becoming more popular. It became impossible to finance a big touring band. But Armstrong managed to perform successfully at a Town Hall in the City on 17 May, 1947 with a 16-piece band. Later that year, a slightly smaller group was formed, 'Louis Armstrong and his All Stars', featuring Earl Hines, Barney Bigard, Edmond Hall, Jack Teagarden, Trummy Young, Arvell Shaw, Billy Kyle, Marty Napoleon, Big Sid Catlett, Cozy Cole, Tyree Glen, Barrett Deems and percussionist Danny Barcelona. But not all played a permanent part in the band. During this time, Armstrong appeared in countless movies and in 1949, he became the first jazz musician to appear on the cover of 'Time Magazine'.
Throughout the 1950s, Armstrong frequently fronted with many orchestras and did his best with increasingly tepid pop material provided by his manager. Sometimes he would record with and make appearances with the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby and Louis Jordan. He would occasionally go on to record some songs, such as 'Mack the Knife' and 'A Kiss to Build a Dream On', as well being on the radio and appearing in movies.
'Hello Dolly' Dislodges the Beatles from the Top
The 1960s was a decade where, once again, the old performers were being swept aside by the new. One of the new groups consisted of just four men - the Beatles. The band had been formed in the English city of Liverpool. Their popularity was such that wherever they went, the crowd, the fans, would follow them in their thousands. Their fame soon spread to the United States and at one point, their songs topped the US Billboard Hot 100 for 14 weeks.
At the request of his manager, in December 1963, Armstrong recorded a demo version of Jerry Harman's 'Hello Dolly,' which had been previously sung by Carol Channing, who starred as 'Dolly Gallagher Levi' in the original Broadway Production. Armstrong's version was used to promote the show, which opened at St James's Theatre, New York on 16 January, 1964. The Broadway production soon became a huge success and Kapp Records decided to release Armstrong's demo version as a single. It was an instant success, reaching Number 1 in the US Billboard Hot 100, dislodging The Beatles from the top. This became his biggest hit and was in the charts for nine weeks. It was soon followed by the release of an album with the same title. The following year, Armstrong received a Grammy Award for best vocal performance for this song. There have been many cover versions of this song but none have been as popular as the version by Louis Armstrong.
In 1969, singer Barbara Streisand teamed up with the famous artist to sing 'Hello Dolly' as a duet for the movie version of the show.
'We Have All the Time in the World'
As the 1960s came to an end, Armstrong's health was deteriorating, but he kept on touring, taking in Africa, Asia and Europe. He was sponsored by the US State Department, which earned him another nickname: 'Ambassador Satch'.
It was at this time that one of the most popular, romantic songs to be recorded for a 'James Bond' movie was written and composed. 'We Have All The Time In the World', written by Hal David and composed by John Barry, was recorded for the movie On Her Majesty's Secret Service with Armstrong and Barry working together for the first and last time. The movie was released on 18 December, 1969. In the UK, the song didn't make it into the charts, despite its worldwide popularity. It was only much later, in 1994, that the song was brought again to the attention of the public by a Guinness advertisement. The song was then released again as a single and reached 3rd position in the charts.
On 6 July, 1971, less than a month before his 70th birthday, Louis Armstrong passed away in his sleep at his home in Corona. The cause of death was heart attack. The pallbearers at the funeral included Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Pearl Bailey, Frank Sinatra, Harry James, Earl Wilson, Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby, Alan King, Johnny Carson and David Frost. Singer Peggy Lee sang the Lord's Prayer, while Al Hibler sang 'Nobody Knows the Trouble I've seen' and Armstrong's long-time friend Fred Robbins praised him in a speech. The burial took place at Flushing Cemetery, Queens, New York.
In 2001, the New Orleans Airport was re-named 'Louis Armstrong International Airport'.
The house that he lived in on 35 – 56 107th Street, Corona, Queens, New York, has been converted into a museum in his memory and holds collections of photographs, sound recordings, letters, instruments, manuscripts and various other artefacts as well as educational programmes and memorabilia.
Armstrong may have passed away but his music lives on: in recent years there have been many albums released, such as 'The Best of Louis Armstrong,' and 'Louis Armstrong: The Ultimate Collection'.