Louis Armstrong (1901-1971): Trumpeter,Bandleader, Singer, Soloist, Comedian, Filmstar

By:  Michelle Inherst

  louis armstrong “Star Dust”. “La Vie en Rose”. “What a Wonderful World”. These songs bring to mind one of the most influential musical artists in jazz music: Louis Armstrong.

     Born August 4, 1901 in a poor section of New Orleans, a section of town known at that time as The Battlefield, Louis Armstrong became one of the most famous jazz musicians. His charismatic stage presence unique vocals, and fancy trumpet playing skyrocketed Armstrong to fame in the 1920’s. During his long lasting career, Louis Armstrong had a major influence on many other musicians with his unique style. During his 50 year career, Armstrong came to be known by different nicknames; Satchmo, Pops, and later on he was given the nickname Ambassador Satch.

     Not long after his birth on August 4, 1901, Louis Armstrong and his family were abandoned by his father, who was a factory worker. Armstrong’s mother often turned to prostitution so he spent a lot of time during his childhood with his maternal grandmother.  His mother eventually remarried.

     Due to the difficulty of his childhood and his family’s low income, Louis felt the need to leave school his fifth grade year to start working. The first job the young Armstrong held was working for a neighboring  Jewish family, the Karnofsky’s. His duties included delivering coal and collecting junk. The family Armstrong worked for frequently invited him into their home to enjoy a meal and they also encouraged him to sing.

     It was on New Year’s Eve 1912 that Louis Armstrong was immediately arrested for firing his stepfather’s gun into the air at a New Year’s Eve celebration.  This incident earned Young Armstrong a trip to the Colored Waif’s Home for Boys. It was during the time he spent here that he received musical instruction on the coronet. He also developed a love for music while living at the home. When he was finally released from the home in 1914, Louis dreamed of a life making music.

From there, Armstrong worked odd jobs; selling newspapers and delivering coal to the well known redlight district of New Orleans. This is when Armstrong’s reputation as a fine blues player began. He was discovered by Joe “King” Oliver, one of the greatest coronet players of that time. Armstrong became one of Oliver’s students. Armstrong received pointers on how to play the horn and occasionally was used as a sub during Oliver’s performances.

     In 1918, Louis Armstrong married his first wife, a prostitute named Miss Daisy. Their marriage was a difficult one, riddled with many arguments and acts of violence. During his marriage to Miss Daisy, Armstrong adopted his three year old nephew whose mother had died during childbirth. Clarence who was left mentally disabled from a brain injury, was taken care of by Louis for the rest of his life.

     In the same year he married, Armstrong’s reputation began to grow. He replaced ‘King’ Oliver in Kid Ory’s Band, the most popular band in New Orleans at the time. Shortly thereafter, , Armstrong gave up working the manual labor jobs so he could concentrate full time on playing his coronet. The gigs he played included; parties, dances, funeral marches, and performing at local honky- tonks-(small bars that typically host musical acts).

     Louis spent the summer of 1919 performing on riverboats with a band that was led by Fate Marble. Armstrong honed his musical reading skills during the time he spent on the riverboats. He also encountered other great jazz legends including, Bix Beiderbecke and Jack Teagarden.

     During the summer of 1922, Louis encountered an old friend, his former musical mentor, Joe ‘King’ Oliver. Oliver called Armstrong and invited him to join his Creole band in Chicago as second coronetist. Armstrong immediately accepted this position.  Together, Armstrong and Oliver took Chicago by storm. The pair recorded their first album together on April 15, 1923, an album that earned Louis his first solo with the song “Chimes Blues”. By this time Louis and his first wife had divorced and he began dating Lillian Harding, the band’s pianist. Armstrong and Hardin were married in 1924. That same year, Lillian had convinced Louis to cut ties with his former mentor because she believed the Oliver was only holding Louis back. She pushed Louis to join the top African American dance band in New York City at the time; the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra. Armstrong joined the band in the fall of that year and right away made his presence known with a series of solos that introduced the idea of swing. Louis greatly influenced Henderson and his musical arranger, Don Redman. It wasn’t long until Henderson and Redman adopted Armstrong’s swing into their own musical style, a change that made the band into what became known as the first jazz big band.

     Louis’ southern background clashed with the more urban, Northern way of thinking held by Henderson’s other musicians. At times the other band members gave Armstrong a rough time over the way he dressed and the way he talked. For the latter reason, Louis was forbidden to sing in Henderson’s band. They feared his gravelly voice was too rough for the more sophisticated audiences at the Rosebud Ballroom. After only a year, Armstrong left Henderson’s band in 1925 and returned to Chicago. There, he started performing in his wife’s band at the Dreamland Café.

Armstrong made many recordings while living in New York. These recordings included; inspirational jazz music with other jazz legends such as, Sidney Bechet. He also played backup music for countless blues singers like Bessie Smith.

     Upon returning to Chicago once more, Armstrong was able to cut his first recordings under his own name; Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five. He made these recordings with the Okeh record label. From 1925-1928, Louis Armstrong made more than sixty records with his Hot Five, a band that later became known as the Hot Seven. These albums today are looked upon as the most important and influential recordings in jazz history. It was in the realm of these recordings, Armstrong transformed jazz from an ensemble to a soloist’s art.

     Louis’ stop- time solos in songs such as “Coronet Chop Suey” and “Potato Head Blues” changed the history of jazz music. These recordings featured ‘daring rhythmic choices, swinging phrases, and incredibly high notes.’ (Louis Armstrong Biography: Singer, Trumpet Player) It was in these recordings that Louis began his singing career as well. He was noted for making scat (wordless singing) popular in his extremely well known vocalization in the 1926 song “Heebie Jeebies”.

     The only time Armstrong performed with his band The Hot Seven, (previously The Hot Five) were when he recorded music. During this time, Louis made nightly performances with Erskine Tate’s orchestra in the Verdome Theater. Often times, they played music for silent movies. It was in 1926 that Armstrong switched from playing coronet to the trumpet.

     Louis continued to gain popularity in Chicago during the 1920’s as he started performing other venues which included; the Sunset Café and Savoy Ballroom. Earl Hines, an up and coming pianist, took in and utilized Louis’ ideas into his piano playing.

     Armstrong and Hines made a powerful team. Together, they recorded some of the greatest music in 1928. These recordings included; “Weather Bird” and “West End Blues”. “West End Blues”, one of Louis’ best known recordings, showed the world that ‘fun, dance jazz’ had the capability of producing high art.

     In the summer of 1929, Armstrong went back to New York. There, he had a role in a Broadway production of Connie’s Hot Chocolates; a show that featured the music of Fate Waller and Andy Razaf. Every night, Louis was featured in the musical Ain’t Misbehavin’, in which he broke up the crowds of white theatergoers.

     In the same year, Armstrong made some recordings with some smaller ‘New Orleans influenced groups’ including his own Hot Five. He also started recording larger ensembles.  OKeh records allowed Armstrong to record songs that were more popular in that day, instead of recording only jazz music. Some of the songs Armstrong recorded in 1929 included; “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love”, “Star Dust”, and “Body and Soul”.

     Armstrong’s bold vocalizations completely changed the idea of popular singing in American pop music of that era. This daring transformation had lasting effects on other famous singers who followed Armstrong. These include; Bing Crosby, Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, and Ella Fitzgerald.

     Armstrong, who was better known as Satchmo by the year 1932, made cameo appearances in movies and toured England for the first time. Although beloved by most musicians, Louis was too rogue for the critics. He drew some of the most racist and harshest reviews of his career from his critics.

     Satchmo was completely unfazed by the harsh criticism. Instead he returned overseas an even bigger star when he began an even longer tour of Europe in the year 1933. During the course of the tour, Satchmo’s career fell apart in an unexpected turn of events. The many years of playing high notes on his trumpet had taken a toll on Armstrong’s lips. Armstrong had a strong disagreement with his manager, Johnny Collins- who had already gotten him into trouble with the American Mafia and Armstrong was left stranded in Europe. After the disagreement, Satchmo decided to take some time off from performing and spent most of 1934 in Europe for some much needed rest and relaxation.

     Upon returning to Chicago, once again, Armstrong came upon some more troubles. He returned to a life with no band, no engagements, and no recording contracts. He found he still had troubles with the American Mafia. To add to his troubles, Armstrong’s wife Lil had decided to sue him as well and soon after, the two decided to part ways. 

     Louis Armstrong decided to turn to a long time friend Joe Glaser, the owner and manager of the Sunset Café. Armstrong entrusted Glaser, who had ties with the mafia as well as being a good friend of Al Capone. Louis asked his friend to make his troubles go away. Glaser not only came through, he aided Armstrong in getting a new band and it wasn’t long before Armstrong, along with his new big band, was back to recording songs with Decca Records.

     Louis Armstrong had been able to do certain things that no other African American had ever done before. In 1936, Armstrong became the first African American jazz musician to write his own autobiography. His autobiography was called Swing That Music. He was the first African American to receive top billing in the major Hollywood movie Pennies From Heaven; a movie that also starred singer/ actor, Bing Crosby. Louis also was the first African American entertainer to host a nationally sponsored radio show in 1937, when he took the place of Rudy Vallee in his show Fleischmann’s Yeast Show for twelve weeks.

      Over time, Armstrong made appearances in major films with celebrities like; Mae West, Martha Raye, and Dick Powell. He also often made his presence known on the radio. Armstrong frequently shattered the box office at the pinnacle of what became known as the “swing era.” When his lip finally healed, Armstrong was able to record some of his finest music, including; “Swing That Music”, “Jubilee” and “Struttin with Some Barbecue”.

     In 1938, Louis Armstrong and his wife Lil finally divorced. Not long after his divorce from second wife Lil, Armstrong married Alpha Smith. By this time, Armstrong and Smith had been dating for more than 10 years. His marriage to Smith was a very unhappy one and after only 4 years, the two divorced in 1942. Louis remarried for the fourth and final time that same year. His last wife, Lucille Wilson, was a dancer at the Cotton Club.

     When Armstrong’s wife grew tired of travelling and show biz, she convinced him to buy a house in Corona, Queens, New York. Louis and Lucille Armstrong settled in to their new home in 1943. It was there that they would live out the remainder of their married lives.

     With the era of swing music and big bands drawing to a close by the mid 1940’s, Louis Armstrong decide to cut down the size of his band to only six members. The band was renamed the All Stars. Band members came and went, but the All Stars was the band Armstrong performed live shows with the remainder of his musical career. During this time, members of the band included; Jack Teagarden, Earl Hines,  Sid Catlett, Barney Bigard, Trummy Young, Edmond Hall, Billy Kyle, and Tyree Glenn,  as well as other great jazz musicians.

     During the 1940’s and 50’s, Louis continued making popular recordings with Decca Records.  These hits included songs like; “Blueberry Hill”, “That Lucky Old Sun”,  “La Vie en Rose”,  “A Kiss to Build On”, and “I Get Ideas”.

   Although Armstrong recorded many great hits with OKeh and Decca Records; it was sometime in the mid 1950’s Louis decided to sign on with Columbia Records with whom he created some of his best music during his long lived career. With the help of his producer George Avakian, Armstrong made Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy and Satch Plays Fats; two of the albums Armstrong made while recording under their label. While with Columbia, Armstrong recorded one of his biggest hit songs; his rendition of “Mack the Knife”.

      It was during this time period that Armstrong’s popularity soared overseas. Some people were led to change Armstrong’s well known nickname from Satchmo to Ambassador Satch.

     Louis traveled and performed abroad in the 1950’s and 60’s. He gave performances in countries in the continents of Europe, Africa, and Asia. Edward R. Murrow, well known newsman for CBS, followed Armstrong with a live camera crew during some of Armstrong’s overseas tour. Murrow then used some of the footage to create a theatrical documentary. The documentary, Satchmo the Great, was released in 1957.

     In the 1950’s Armstrong’s popularity reached new heights. He broke down so many barriers for African Americans and became a hero within his community for many years. Despite all this, the Great Satchmo began to lose standing among modern jazz fans and the young African American community.  This decline in his standing was due to the rise of another genre of music in the 1940’s. This new style of music, known as bebop, featured a younger generation of jazz musician who viewed themselves as artists, rather than entertainers. These young “artists” including; Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis; among others, criticized Armstrong in the media. They viewed his ‘stage persona and music as old fashioned.’ Louis retaliated, but still, younger jazz fans considered him to be an outdated entertainer with his ‘best days behind him.’

     The civil rights movement grew in intensity with each year that passed. It intensified with more protests, marches, and speeches from African Americans who wanted equal rights. To many young jazz fans at that time, Armstrong’s pleasant demeanor seemed to be from a bygone time period. He refused to comment on politics for many years. His silence placed Armstrong, in the eyes of the younger jazz fans, out of touch.

     This perception of the younger generation changed when, in 1957, Armstrong saw the news on television regarding the integration crisis at the Little Rock Central High School. The Arkansas governor at the time sent in the National Guard to prevent a group of African American students- known only as the Little Rock Nine- from entering the public school. When Louis Armstrong saw this and heard the white protestors yelling obscenities at the African American students, he lost his temper. Armstrong told the press, that the president had ‘no guts’ for letting the Arkansas governor run the country. He was also quoted as saying, “The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell.”

     These strong words from Armstrong made top news all around the world. Even though Armstrong voiced his opinion after remaining silent for many years, he still drew criticism from black and white public figures. Not one single jazz musician, who had previously criticized Armstrong, took his side. To this day, this is seen as one of the ‘bravest, most definitive moments’ in his life.

     Armstrong never had any children during any of his four marriages. He and his wife Lucille had tried for many years to conceive children, but with no success. Because of this, many believed Armstrong to be sterile.

     Armstrong’s fatherhood became the topic of controversy in 1954. Lucille “Sweets” Preston, a girlfriend the entertainer had secretly dated claimed she was pregnant with Armstrong’s child. In 1955, her daughter; Sharon Preston was born. Shortly after Sharon’s birth, Louis bragged about her to his manager, Glaser in a letter that was later published in the book Louis Armstrong in His Own Word. (1999). But Armstrong never did talk publicly until his death in 1971, about whether he was Sharon’s father or not.

     More recently, Sharon (who now goes by Sharon Preston Folta) made public numerous letters she and Louis had written to each other. These letters that date as far back as 1968, indicate that Armstrong truly believed Sharon to be his daughter. The letters also showed that he had a fatherly love for her. He had paid for her education, her home, and numerous other things during his lifetime. Although the controversy still continues over his fatherhood, DNA testing was never done to prove their relationship.

    louis armstrong Louis continued the rough schedule of his tour in the latter part of the 1950’s.This grueling schedule finally took its toll on him in 1959. Armstrong suffered a heart attack while on tour in Spoleto, Italy. Undaunted, Armstrong only took a few weeks to rest and recover. He returned to performing 300 nights a year all the way into the 1960’s.

     Although Armstrong was still a popular entertainer all over the world in 1963, he had not made any records in two years. It wasn’t until December 1963 that Armstrong returned to Columbia Studio to record the title song for the musical, Hello Dolly! before its opening night on Broadway.  This record, released earlier the following year, quickly topped the popular music charts, reaching #1 in May 1964. It knocked the Beatles out of the chart topping #1 spot during the height of Beatlemania.

     This newly acquired popularity gained Armstrong a newer, younger audience. Louis continued to release albums and make concert appearances for the remainder of the 1960’s. Armstrong even ‘cracked’ the Iron Curtain with performances in Communist countries such as East Berlin and Czechoslovakia in 1965.

     Armstrong’s newest ballad, “What a Wonderful World” was recorded and released in 1967 It differed from most of his recordings of that time in that it did not feature any trumpets. His gravelly voice was placed in the midst of “a bed of strings and angelic voices”.  He thought of his home in Queens, New York as he sang his heart out on the recording. “What a Wonderful World” did not receive much promotion in the United States. However, it did become a #1 hit all around the world in countries like England and South Africa. Eventually it became Louis Armstrong’s most memorable song after being played in the 1986 movie Good Morning Vietnam.

     Armstrong’s grueling lifestyle eventually caught up with him once again in 1968. Louis was faced with heart and kidney problems which forced him to give up performing in 1969. His longtime manager and friend, Joe Glaser, had also passed that same year. Armstrong had stayed at his home in Queens for most of 1969. During this time at home, Armstrong continued practicing his trumpet every day.

     In the summer, Armstrong was able to give public and begin playing his trumpet again. After a successful public gig in Las Vegas, Armstrong once again began performing around the world. He gave performances in London, Washington D. C., and New York.  He spent two weeks at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria giving live performances. Two days after the performances in Waldorf, Armstrong suffered yet another heart attack which put his career on hold for the next two months.

     In May 1971, Armstrong returned to his home. He did resume playing his trumpet again and promised to give one more public performance. However, before he was able to give this once last performance, Armstrong died peacefully in his sleep the night of July 6, 1971 at his home in Queens.

     Since his passing in July 1971, Armstrong’s legacy has continued to grow. In the 1980’s and 90’s, African American jazz musicians Wynton Marsalis and Nicholas Peyton, and numerous others spoke publicly about Armstrong’s legacy and influence; a musician and as a human being.

     New biographies that have been written about Louis Armstrong clarified his role as a civil right pioneer. This series of biographies argued for “an embrace of his career’s output, not just his revolutionary recordings from the 1920’s.”

     Louis Armstrong’s home in Corona, Queens, New York was officially named a National Historical Landmark in 1977. To this day, his house is known as the Louis Armstrong House Museum. Thousands of tourists come from all over the world to visit the Museum every year.

     Armstrong was, and still is one of the most notable public figures of the 20th century. His new ideas as a trumpeter and singer are widely recognized today and will be for years to come.


Works Cited

Schuller, Gunther. Jazz. www.britannica.com. Encyclopedia Britannica. 26 April 2018

A& E Television Networks. www.biography.com/people/louisarmstrong. Biography. com Website. 18 January 2018