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Louis Armstrong

A Masterful Trumpet Player

By Patricia Daniels, Contributing Writer

Picture of American jazz musician and bandleader Louis Armstrong holding his trumpet.

Studio portrait of American jazz musician and bandleader Louis Armstrong grinning and holding his trumpet. (circa 1945)

(Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Who Was Louis Armstrong?

Born into poverty at the turn of the twentieth century, Louis Armstrong rose above humble origins to become a masterful trumpet player and beloved entertainer. He played a key role in the development of one of the early twentieth century's most important new styles of music -- jazz. Armstrong's inventiveness and improvisational techniques, along with his energetic, dazzling style have influenced generations of musicians. One of the first to perform scat-style singing, he is well-known also for his distinctive gravelly singing voice. Armstrong wrote two autobiographies and appeared in more than thirty films.

Dates: August 4, 1901* - July 6, 1971

Also Known As: Satchmo, Pops

Childhood in New Orleans

Louis Armstrong was born in New Orleans, Louisiana to sixteen-year-old Mayann Albert and her boyfriend Willie Armstrong. Only weeks after Louis' birth, Willie left Mayann and Louis was placed in the care of his grandmother, Josephine Armstrong.

Josephine brought in some money doing laundry for white families, but struggled to keep food on the table. Young Louis Armstrong had no toys, very few clothes, and went barefoot most of the time. Despite their hardships, Josephine made sure that her grandson attended school and church.

While Louis was living with his grandmother, his mother briefly reunited with Willie Armstrong and gave birth to a second child, Beatrice, in 1903. While Beatrice was still very young, Willie once again left Mayann.

Four years later, when Armstrong was six years old, he moved back in with his mother, who was then living in a tough neighborhood called Storyville. It became Louis’ job to look after his sister.

Working on the Streets

By the age of seven, Armstrong was looking for work wherever he could find it. He sold newspapers and vegetables and made a little money singing on the street with a group of friends. Each group member had a nickname; Louis Armstrong's was "Satchelmouth" (later shortened to "Satchmo"), a reference to his wide grin. Armstrong saved up enough money to buy a used cornet (a brass musical instrument similar to a trumpet), which he taught himself to play. He quit school at age eleven to concentrate on earning money for his family.

While performing on the street, Armstrong and his friends came into contact with local musicians, many of whom played in Storyville honky-tonks (bars with working-class patrons, often found in the South). Armstrong was befriended by one of the city's best known trumpeters, Bunk Johnson, who taught him songs and new techniques and allowed Louis to sit in with him during performances in the honky-tonks.

Armstrong managed to stay out of trouble until an incident on New Year's Eve 1912 changed the course of his life.

The Colored Waif's Home

During a New Year's Eve street celebration at the end of 1912, eleven-year-old Louis fired a pistol into the air. He was hauled off to the police station and spent the night in a cell. The next morning, a judge sentenced him to the Colored Waif's Home for an unspecified period of time.

The home, a reformatory for troubled black youths, was run by a former soldier, Captain Jones. Jones provided discipline as well as regular meals and daily classes, all of which had a positive effect on Armstrong. Eager to participate in the home's brass band, Armstrong was disappointed that he was not allowed to join right away. The band director surmised that a boy from Storyville who had fired a gun did not belong in his band.

Armstrong proved the director wrong as he worked his way up the ranks. He first sang in the choir and later was assigned to play various instruments, eventually taking over the cornet. Having demonstrated his willingness to work hard and act responsibly, young Louis Armstrong was made leader of the band. He reveled in this role.

In 1914, after eighteen months at the Colored Waif's Home, it was time for Armstrong to return home to his mother.

Becoming a Musician

Back home again, Armstrong worked delivering coal during the day and spent his nights in local dance halls listening to music. He became friends with Joe "King" Oliver, a leading cornet player, and ran errands for him in return for cornet lessons. Armstrong learned quickly and began to develop his own style. He filled in for Oliver at gigs and gained further experience playing in parades and funeral marches.

When the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, Armstrong was too young to participate, but the war did indirectly affect him. When several sailors stationed in New Orleans became victims of violent crime in the Storyville district, the secretary of the Navy shut the district down, including brothels and clubs. While a large number of New Orleans' musicians moved north, many relocating to Chicago, Armstrong stayed and soon found himself in demand as a cornet player.

By 1918, Armstrong had become well-known on the New Orleans music circuit, playing at numerous venues. That year, he met and married Daisy Parker, a prostitute who worked in one of the clubs he played in.

Leaving New Orleans

Impressed by Armstrong's natural talent, band conductor Fate Marable hired him to play in his riverboat band on excursions up and down the Mississippi River. Armstrong convinced Daisy that it was a good move for his career and she agreed to let him go.

Armstrong played on the riverboats for three years. The discipline and high standards that he was held to made him a better musician; he also learned to read music for the first time. Yet, chafing under Marable's strict rules, Armstrong grew restless. He yearned to strike out on his own and find his unique style. Armstrong quit the band in 1921 and returned to New Orleans. He and Daisy divorced that year.

Louis Armstrong Earns a Reputation

In 1922, a year after Armstrong quit the riverboats, King Oliver asked him to come to Chicago and join his Creole Jazz Band. Armstrong played second cornet and was careful not to outshine band leader Oliver. Through Oliver, Armstrong met the woman who became his second wife, Lil Hardin, who was a classically-trained jazz pianist from Memphis.

Lil recognized Armstrong's talent and thus urged him to break away from Oliver's band. After two years with Oliver, Armstrong quit the band and took a new job with another Chicago band, this time as first trumpet; however, he only stayed a few months.

Armstrong moved to New York City in 1924 at the invitation of bandleader Fletcher Henderson. (Lil did not accompany him, preferring to stay at her job in Chicago.) The band played mostly live gigs, but made recordings as well. They played backup for pioneering blues singers such as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, furthering Armstrong's growth as a performer.

Just fourteen months later, Armstrong moved back to Chicago at Lil's urging; Lil believed that Henderson held back Armstrong's creativity.

"The World's Greatest Trumpet Player"

Lil helped to promote Armstrong in Chicago clubs, billing him as "the world's greatest trumpet player." She and Armstrong formed a studio band, called Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five. The group recorded several popular records, many of which featured Armstrong's raspy singing.

On one of the most popular of the recordings, "Heebie Jeebies," Armstrong spontaneously launched into scat-singing, in which the singer replaces the actual lyrics with nonsense syllables that often mimic the sounds made by instruments. Armstrong did not invent the singing style, but helped to make it enormously popular.

During this time, Armstrong permanently switched from cornet to trumpet, preferring the brighter sound of the trumpet to the more mellow cornet.

The records gave Armstrong name recognition outside of Chicago. He returned to New York in 1929, but again, Lil did not want to leave Chicago. (They stayed married, but lived apart for many years before divorcing in 1938.)

In New York, Armstrong found a new venue for his talents; he was cast in a musical revue that featured the hit song "Ain't Misbehavin' " and Armstrong's accompanying trumpet solo. Armstrong displayed showmanship and charisma, gaining a greater following after the show.

The Great Depression

Because of the Great Depression, Armstrong, like many others, had trouble finding work. He decided to make a new start in Los Angeles, moving there in May 1930. Armstrong found work in clubs and continued to make records. He made his first film, Ex-Flame, appearing as himself in the movie in a small role. Armstrong gained more fans through this widespread exposure.

After an arrest for marijuana possession in November 1930, Armstrong received a suspended sentence and returned to Chicago. He stayed afloat during the Depression, touring the U.S. and Europe from 1931 to 1935.

Armstrong continued to tour throughout the 1930s and 1940s and appeared in a few more movies. He became well-known not only in the U.S., but in much of Europe as well, even playing a command performance for King George V of England in 1932.

Big Changes for Armstrong

In the late 1930s, band leaders such as Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman helped to propel jazz into the mainstream, ushering in the "swing music" era. The swing bands were large, consisting of about fifteen musicians. Although Armstrong preferred working with smaller, more intimate ensembles, he formed a large band in order to capitalize on the swing movement.

In 1938, Armstrong married longtime girlfriend Alpha Smith, but soon after the wedding began seeing Lucille Wilson, a dancer from the Cotton Club. Marriage number three ended in divorce in 1942 and Armstrong took Lucille as his fourth (and final) wife the same year.

While Armstrong toured, often playing at military bases and army hospitals during World War II, Lucille found them a house in Queens, New York (her hometown). After years of traveling and staying in hotel rooms, Armstrong finally had a permanent home.

Louis and the All-Stars

In the late 1940s, large bands were falling out of favor, deemed too expensive to maintain. Armstrong formed a six-piece group called Louis Armstrong and the All-Stars. The group debuted at New York's Town Hall in 1947, playing New Orleans style jazz to rave reviews.

Not everyone enjoyed Armstrong's somewhat "hammy" brand of entertainment. Many from the younger generation considered him a relic of the Old South and found his mugging and eye-rolling racially offensive. He was not taken seriously by young up-and-coming jazz musicians. Armstrong, however, saw his role as more than that of a musician -- he was an entertainer.

Continued Success and Controversy

Armstrong made eleven more movies in the 1950s. He toured Japan and Africa with the All-Stars and recorded his first singles.

Armstrong faced criticism in 1957 for speaking out against racial discrimination during the episode in Little Rock, Arkansas in which black students were heckled by whites while attempting to enter a newly integrated school. Some radio stations even refused to play his music. The controversy faded after Eisenhower sent federal troops to Little Rock to facilitate integration.

On tour in Italy in 1959, Armstrong suffered a massive heart attack. After a week in the hospital, he flew back home. Despite warnings from physicians, Armstrong returned to a busy schedule of live performances.

Number One at Last

After playing five decades without a number-one song, Armstrong finally made it to the top of the charts in 1964 with "Hello Dolly," the theme song for the Broadway play of the same name. The popular song knocked the Beatles from the top spot they had held for 14 consecutive weeks.

By the late 1960s, Armstrong was still able to perform, despite kidney and heart problems. In spring 1971, he suffered another heart attack. Unable to recover, Armstrong died July 6, 1971. More than 25,000 mourners visited the body of Louis Armstrong as it lay in state and his funeral was televised nationally.

* Throughout his life, Louis Armstrong claimed that his birth date was July 4, 1900, but documents found after his death confirmed the actual date to be August 4, 1901.

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