“Louis Armstrong is jazz. He represents what the music is all about.”
Wynton Marsalis, Music and Artistic Director, Jazz at Lincoln Centre, New York.
There are two cities on the eastern coast of the United States of America that have connection with Louis Armstrong – New Orleans, in the south east, off the coast of Gulf of Mexico and New York, also known as “The Big Apple.”
The Mississippi River, which is the largest River in North America, originates at Lake Itasca, a small glacial lake in the Mid – Western state of Minnesota and terminates below the city of New Orleans in the Southern state of Louisiana and flows into the Gulf of Mexico. New Orleans is named after Philipe d’ Orleans, Regent of France and is well known for its French Creole Architecture as well as its cross cultural and multi linguistic heritage, as well as its cuisine. But it’s more famous for its music and is considered to be the birth place of jazz. In 2005 it was hit by the most devastating and deadly hurricane, Katrina. 1,836 people were killed when the deadly hurricane struck the city and more recently, the spillways of the Mississippi, in Louisiana, were opened as the river level had risen and threatened to flood not only New Orleans but also the city of Baton Rouge, situated several hundred miles North – West of New Orleans.
The City of New York, a population of over 8,000,000 people is considered to be the most populous city in the United States and one of the areas of the city is Corona, a borough of Queens. The habitants of this have included some famous names.
Jazz alto saxophonist – Cannonball Adderley.
Female jazz vocalist – Ella Fitzgerald
Jazz trumpeter – Dizzy Gillespie
Singer and actress – Lena Horne
Swing trumpeter – Clark Terry
But the one name that is conspicuous is “Louis Armstrong,” who lived there after moving from New Orleans until his death in 1971.
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 04 August, 1901, in the area of Storyville, a red light district, which was set up similar to the ones in Northern Germany and Holland, in the city of New Orleans, in the state of Louisiana. But was soon abandoned by his father, who would later re – enter his life at sporadic and brief intervals. 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, the young Louis was back with his mother. The city, at this time, was alive with music and the young boy started to grow up listening to the sounds of 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. But it was Joe “King” Oliver that Louis would consider as his mentor. However, he first obtained his first instrument when a Lithuanian Jewish family, the Karnofyskys, that he was working for, by collecting junk and selling coal, purchased it for him.
INCARCERATION, STRUCTURED TRAINING AND JOINING JOE “KING” OLIVER.
On New Year’s eve, 1912, at the age of at the age of eleven, the young Louis, took his father’s pistol and fired it onto the air. This led him to be arrested and put in New Orleans Home for the Coloured Waifs. Here, while serving his term, he joined a band and began to receive structured training and 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.” In 1919, Joe “King” Oliver, left Kid Ory’s band and left the city. He was replaced by Louis Armstrong, who soon 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 the meantime, he received an invitation from his predecessor, Joe “King” Oliver to join him in the windy city of Chicago.
CHICAGO AND MARRIAGE TO LILLIAN HARDIN.
Joe “King” Oliver’s was the best and also the most influential jazz band in the Chicago, which was now the centre of the genre. In 1923, while he was with Joe “King” Oliver’s band, Armstrong began to record as he played the Clarinet and this led him to record in small groups which supported a number of “Blues” singers, which included Bessie Smith and Albert Hunter. It was during this time that he met a female jazz pianist who was playing for “Mae Brady’s Orchestra,” Lillian Hardin, who had just divorced Jimmie Johnson. But Hardin was not impressed with Armstrong’s sense of dressing as she thought he looked “too country” for the “windy city.” Soon romance developed between the two and Hardin forced Louis to, not only change his dressing, but also his hair style and made him look more fashionable. She then began to manage his career and at the same time help 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 play alongside his idle. She began to persuade him to search 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 to play with 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 and 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, singing, which told tales of New Orleans based characters and especially preachers.
The Fletcher Henderson Orchestra began to play at venues that were for “Whites Only” and began to play some classy arrangements. This caused a stir and members of other Orchestras, such as Duke Ellington’s, would go to the venues where Henderson Orchestra was performing to watch Armstrong, who was at times, playing the horn. Some young hornmen, trying outplay him, would end up splitting their lips.
Armstrong soon met an old friend of his from New Orleans, Clarence Williams, who began to write some arrangements for him and this led to some recording taking place on the side and started to accompany some “Blues” singers, which include Bessie Smith and Alberta Hunter. But he soon began to be urged by his wife to return to Chicago as she wanted to progress his career, even though he was content with where he was. In 1925, he returned to Chicago.
THE HOT FIVE AND SEPERATION.
Upon returning to the “Windy City,” Armstrong began to play for his wife’s band, Lil Hardin Armstrong Band and soon set up his own Band, Hot Five, 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. Not only did he do this, but he also performed with Erskine Tate’s Little Symphony, which was a quintet that mostly played at the Vendome Theatre and also produced music for silent movies, which gave him the experience in longer form of music and also perform in front of a larger audience. It was at this time that he started “scat singing” (improvised vocal singing (jazz) with use of non – sensical words). He used this style of singing when he recorded “Heebie Jeebies” in 1926. This recording became so popular that it led to the band being the most famous in the country and young musicians, from across the country, both black and white, were turned on by Armstrong and his new style of jazz.
As the decade was coming to an end, Armstrong and his wife, slowly began to drift apart ad this enabled him to form a new “Hot Five,” which now included Earl “Fatha” Hines on the piano instead of Lillian Hardin., who formed her own band with Freddie Keppard, a coronet player. In 1931, Hardin and Armstrong, finally separated after Louis had begun seeing another woman, Alpha Smith, who threatened Armstrong for breach of a promise that he had made her. Armstrong, however, requested Hardin not to divorce him. But this was not to be. Later, she divorced him.
“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 RETURN TO NEW YORK.
After separating from Hardin, Armstrong began to play at the Sunset Cafe, owned by his manager, Joe Glaser, who was considered to be an associate of the notorious gangster, Al Capone (see Al Capone – American Gangster) and played in the Carroll Dickerson Orchestra with Earl Hines on the Piano. Hines and Armstrong became good friends and soon the orchestra was re – named “Louis Armstrong and his Stompers” as Hines became the Music Director and the two went onto become successful collaborators. But this was not to last long for, in 1929, Armstrong returned to New York.
NEW YORK AND WORKING FOR THE “RIVAL OF THE COTTON CLUB.”
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 and 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 sell record.
It was while he was in the Harlem area of the city that Armstrong began to work at Connie’s Inn, a rival to the famous “The Cotton Club,” which was a venue for the elaborate stage shows but was infact only a front for the notorious gangster, Dutch Schultz.
As the 1920’s came to an end, the Wall Street crashed and the great depression, that would soon start to engulf the western, industrialised countries for twelve years, set in. But as the 1930’s decade began, Armstrong was already beginning to feel success with vocal recording, some of which had been composed by his friend, Hoagy Carmichael, who himself was a pianist, composer, a bandleader, singer and an actor. It was also at this time that the RCA Ribbon Microphone was introduced into the market and this became an intrinsic part for many artists such Bing Crosby. It was at this time that Armstrong came out with his interpretation of his friend’s composition, “Stardust” which went onto become one of the most successful versions to be recorded and it was this style of singing and his unique style, as well as his innovative approach to singing songs, which set a standard. He also started to re – work on some of the other compositions such as “Lazy River,” which was composed by Sidney Arodin and Hoagy Carmichael. The re – working of this, included “Scat singing.”
Just like his style of playing the trumpet gained popularity, so did his style of singing and especially “Scat singing,” which, again set a founding stone for the jazz vocal interpretations and it was this that began to exert influence on singers such as Bing Crosby.
THE DEPRESSION AND THE MOVE TO LOS ANGELES AND NICK NAME “SATCHMO.”
By the early 1930’s, the effect of the Wall Street crash was beginning to bite and hit everyone (many have compared the 2008 world wide economic depression to this). Clubs, such as “The Cotton Club,” closed, forcing many to stop performing. Some, such as Sidney Bechet, changed their profession, some such as Kid 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” and with Lionel Hampton on the drums, the band drew crowds who could afford lavish nights and did not let them bother the fact that there were “live broadcasts” from the club. The clubs itself attracted many and celebrities, such as Bing Crosby, were regulars there. In 1930, Armstrong made an appearance in his first n 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 but soon was freed on suspended sentence and soon returned to Chicago. Here, once again, he played in bands and recorded more music. He was soon forced out and 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 and 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 name as it became one of his nicknames. The other was “Pops.”
RETURN AND PROBLEMS.
As soon as he returned, Armstrong began to tour and this proved to be exhausting. But it was his spending ways that led him to have short fall of cash and he was soon plagued with breaches of contracts. Far more, worse was that he began to experience problems with, not only his lips, which was aggravating his style of playing, but also with his fingers. As a result, he decided to branchout by developing his vocal style and making theatrical appearances and to work 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 THE 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 Queens area of New York. It was at this time, that he recorded Hoagy Carmichael's Rockin' Chair for Okeh Records.
As the 1940’s decade began, peoples taste also changed and ballrooms began to close, there was competition from Television and other genre music was also becoming more popular then the big bands and it became impossible to finance a big touring band. But Armstrong and his 16 piece band managed to perform successfully at a Town Hall in the City on 17 May, 1947. However, this was not to last long, for on 13 August, his manager dissolved the band and set up smaller one with Armstrong. 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 the percussionist, Danny Barcelona. The group was known as “Louis Armstrong and His Stars.” 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 next decade, Armstrong, frequently fronted with many orchestras and doing his best with increasingly tepid pop material that he was provided with by his manager and sometimes he would record with and make appearances with the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby and Louis Jordan. He would, occasionally go onto 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” DISLODGING THE BEATLES FROM THE TOP.
The sixties was a decade, where once again, the old performers were being swept aside by the new ones and 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, in their thousands, would follow them. Their fame, soon began to take effect in the United States and at one point, their songs took over the leadership in the US Billboard Hot 100 for fourteen 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 it was during this month that Kapp records, decided to release Armstrong’s demo version as a single. This soon became an instant success so much so that it reached number one 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 and was soon followed by the release of an album by the same title. The following year, Armstrong received a Grammy Award for best vocal performance for this song.
In 1969, singer Barbara Streisand teamed up with the famous artist to sing “Hello Dolly” as a duet for the movie “Hello Dolly.”
There have been many cover versions of this song but none have been as popular as the version by Louis Armstrong.
“WE HAVE ALL THE TIME IN THE WORLD.”
As the sixties was coming to an end, Armstrong’s health was also deteriorating but he kept on touring. He toured Africa, Asia and Europe and was sponsored by the US State Department, which earned him another nick name, “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,” giving Armstrong and Barry to work together for the first and last time. The movie was released on 18 December, 1969. But in the UK, the song was not registered in the charts despite its world wide popularity, until 1994 when it was used for Guinness beer Commercial. This was then released as a single and reached 3rd position in the charts.
When asked about his favourite song, John Barry mentioned this song.
Armstrong kept on touring as well as participating in some other concerts. His busy schedule of tours, with help from the state department, this included Africa, Europe and Asia and it was this that earned him another nick name, “Ambassador Satch,” In the meantime, his health began to deteriorate and it began to affect his schedules.
On 6 July, 1971, less than a month before his seventieth birthday, while asleep, Louis Armstrong passed away at his home in Corona. The cause of death was heart attack. The pallbearers at the funereal 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, Flushing, 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 several 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 as in the recent years there have been many albums, such as “The Best of Louis Armstrong,” and “Louis Armstrong: The Ultimate Collection” that have been released.