American trumpeter, composer, singer and occasional actor louis Armstrong was born August 4, 1901 in New Orleans, Louisiana. He spent his youth in a rough neighborhood known as the Battlefield, which was part of the Storyville legal prostitution district. His father, William Armstrong, abandoned the family when Louis was an infant. His mother, Mary “Mayann” Albert left Louis and his younger sister, Beatrice Armstrong Collins in the care of his grandmother, Josephine Armstrong, and at times his uncle Isaac. At five, he moved back to live with his mother, her relatives and a parade of “stepfathers”. He attended the Fisk School for Boys, where he most likely had early exposure to music. He brought in some money by selling newspapers, delivering coal, singing on the streets at night, and also by finding discarded food and selling it to restaurants, but it was not enough to keep his mother from prostitution. He hung out in dance halls close to home, where he observed everything from licentious dancing to the quadrille. For extra money he also hauled coal to Storyville, and listened to the bands playing in the brothels and dance halls, especially Pete Lala’s, where Joe “King” Oliver performed as well as other famous musicians who would drop in to jam.
After dropping out of the Fisk School at age eleven, Armstrong joined a quartet of boys who sang in the streets for money. He also started to get into trouble. Cornet player Bunk Johnson said he taught Armstrong (then 11) to play by ear at Dago Tony’s Tonk in New Orleans. He also worked for a Lithuanian-Jewish immigrant family, the Karnofskys, who had a junk-hauling business and gave him odd jobs. The influence of Karnofsky is remembered in New Orleans by the Karnofsky Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to accepting donated musical instruments to put them into the hands of an eager child who could not otherwise take part in a wonderful learning experience.
Armstrong developed his cornet playing skills by playing in the band of the New Orleans Home for Colored Waifs, where he had been sent multiple times for general delinquency, most notably for firing his stepfather’s pistol into the air at a New Year’s Eve celebration . Professor Peter Davis (who frequently appeared at the home at the request of its administrator, Captain Joseph Jones) instilled discipline in and provided musical training to the otherwise self-taught Armstrong. Eventually, Davis made Armstrong the band leader. The home band played around New Orleans and the thirteen-year-old Louis began to draw attention by his cornet playing, starting him on a musical career. At fourteen he was released from the home, living again with his father and new stepmother, Gertrude, and then back with his mother. Armstrong got his first dance hall job at Henry Ponce’s, where Black Benny became his protector and guide. He hauled coal by day and played his cornet at night.
He played in the city’s frequent brass band parades and listened to older musicians every chance he got, learning from Bunk Johnson, Buddy Petit, Kid Ory, and above all, Joe “King” Oliver, who acted as a mentor and father figure to the young musician. Later, he played in brass bands and riverboats of New Orleans, and began traveling with the well-regarded band of Fate Marable, which toured on a steamboat up and down the Mississippi River. He described his time with Marable as “going to the University,” since it gave him a much wider experience working with written arrangements. In 1919, Joe Oliver resigned from Kid Ory’s band; Armstrong replaced him. He also became second trumpet for the Tuxedo Brass Band. Throughout his riverboat experience, Armstrong’s musicianship began to mature and expand. At twenty, he could read music and started playing extended trumpet solos, one of the first jazz men to do this, injecting his own personality and style into his solo turns. He had learned how to create a unique sound and also started using singing and patter in his performances.
In 1922, Armstrong went to Chicago, after being invited by his mentor, Joe “King” Oliver, to join his Creole Jazz Band. Oliver’s band was among the most influential jazz bands in Chicago in the early 1920s, at a time when Chicago was the center of the jazz universe. Armstrong lived luxuriously in Chicago, in his own apartment with his own private bath (his first). Excited as he was to be in Chicago, he began his career-long pastime of writing nostalgic letters to friends in New Orleans. Unusually, Armstrong could blow two hundred high Cs in a row. As his reputation grew, he was challenged to instrumental “cutting contests” by hornmen trying to displace him. Armstrong made his first recordings on the Gennett and Okeh labels (jazz records were starting to boom across the country), including taking some solos and breaks, while playing second cornet in Oliver’s band in 1923. At this time, he met Hoagy Carmichael (with whom he would collaborate later) who was introduced by friend Bix Beiderbecke, who now had his own Chicago band.
Armstrong enjoyed working with Oliver, but Louis’ second wife, pianist Lil Hardin Armstrong, urged him to seek more prominent billing and develop his newer style away from the influence of Oliver. Lil had her husband play classical music in church concerts to broaden his skill and improve his solo play and she prodded him into wearing more stylish attire to make him look sharp and to better offset his growing girth. Lil’s influence eventually undermined Armstrong’s relationship with his mentor, especially concerning his salary and additional moneys that Oliver held back from Armstrong and other band members. Armstrong and Oliver parted amicably in 1924. Shortly afterward, Armstrong received an invitation to go to New York City to play with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, the top African-American band of the time. Armstrong switched to the trumpet to blend in better with the other musicians in his section. His influence upon Henderson’s tenor sax soloist, Coleman Hawkins, can be judged by listening to the records made by the band during this period.
Armstrong quickly adapted to the more tightly controlled style of Henderson, playing trumpet and even experimenting with the trombone. The other members quickly took up Armstrong’s emotional, expressive pulse. Soon his act included singing and telling tales of New Orleans characters, especially preachers. The Henderson Orchestra was playing in prominent venues for white-only patrons, including the famed Roseland Ballroom, featuring the arrangements of Don Redman. Duke Ellington’s orchestra would go to Roseland to catch Armstrong’s performances and young horn men around town tried in vain to outplay him, splitting their lips in their attempts. Armstrong made many recordings on the side, arranged by an old friend from New Orleans, pianist Clarence Williams; including small jazz band sides with the Williams Blue Five (some of the most memorable pairing Armstrong with one of Armstrong’s few rivals in fiery technique and ideas, Sidney Bechet) and a series of accompaniments with blues singers, including Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, and Alberta Hunter.
Armstrong returned to Chicago in 1925. He was content in New York but conceded that the Henderson Orchestra was limiting his artistic growth. In publicity, much to his chagrin, she billed him as “the World’s Greatest Trumpet Player”. At first, he was actually a member of the Lil Hardin Armstrong Band and working for his wife. He began recording under his own name for Okeh with his famous Hot Five and Hot Seven groups, producing hits such as “Potato Head Blues”, “Muggles” (a slang term for marijuana cigarettes: Armstrong used marijuana daily for much of his life and “West End Blues”, the music of which set the standard and the agenda for jazz for many years to come.
The group included Kid Ory (trombone), Johnny Dodds (clarinet), Johnny St. Cyr (banjo), wife Lil on piano, and usually no drummer. Armstrong’s band leading style was easygoing. Among the most notable of the Hot Five and Seven records were “Cornet Chop Suey,” “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue,” “Hotter Than that” and “Potato Head Blues,”, all featuring highly creative solos by Armstrong. His recordings soon after with pianist Earl “Fatha” Hines (most famously their 1928 “Weather Bird” duet) and Armstrong’s trumpet introduction to and solo in “West End Blues” remain some of the most famous and influential improvisations in jazz history. Armstrong’s style included a heavy dose of effervescent jive, such as “whip that thing, Miss Lil” and “Mr. Johnny Dodds, Aw, do that clarinet, boy!” Armstrong also played with Erskine Tate’s Little Symphony, at the Vendome Theatre. They furnished music for silent movies and live shows, including jazz versions of classical music, such as “Madame Butterfly”, which gave Armstrong experience with longer forms of music and with hosting before a large audience. He began to scat sing (improvised vocal jazz using nonsensical words) and was among the first to record it, on the Hot Five recording “Heebie Jeebies” in 1926. After separating from Lil, Armstrong started to play at the Sunset Café for Al Capone’s associate Joe Glaser in the Carroll Dickerson Orchestra, with Earl Hines on piano, which was soon renamed Louis Armstrong and his Stompers. Hines and Armstrong became fast friends and successful collaborators.Armstrong returned to New York, in 1929, where he played in the pit orchestra of the successful musical Hot Chocolate, an all-black revue written by Andy Razaf and pianist/composer Fats Waller. He also made a cameo appearance as a vocalist, regularly stealing the show with his rendition of “Ain’t Misbehavin'”,
Armstrong then worked at Connie’s Inn in Harlem, chief rival to the Cotton Club, a venue for elaborately staged floor shows, and a front for gangster Dutch Schultz. Armstrong also had considerable success with vocal recordings, including versions of famous songs composed by his old friend Hoagy Carmichael. His 1930s recordings took full advantage of the new RCA ribbon microphone, introduced in 1931, which imparted a characteristic warmth to vocals and immediately became an intrinsic part of the ‘crooning’ sound of artists like Bing Crosby, such as His famous interpretation of Carmichael’s “Stardust” And his radical re-working of Sidney Arodin and Carmichael’s “Lazy River”.
As with his trumpet playing, Armstrong’s vocal innovations served as a foundation stone for the art of jazz vocal interpretation. The uniquely gravelly coloration of his voice became a musical archetype that was much imitated and endlessly impersonated. His scat singing style was enriched by his matchless experience as a trumpet soloist. His resonant, velvety lower-register tone and bubbling cadences on sides such as “Lazy River” exerted a huge influence On singers such as Bing Crosby.The Great Depression of the early 1930s was especially hard on the jazz scene. The Cotton Club closed in 1936 after a long downward spiral, and many musicians stopped playing altogether as club dates evaporated. Bix Beiderbecke died and Fletcher Henderson’s band broke up. King Oliver made a few records but otherwise struggled. Sidney Bechet became a tailor, later moving to Paris and Kid Ory returned to New Orleans and raised chickens.
In 1930 Armstrong moved to Los Angeles to seek new opportunities. He played at the New Cotton Club in Los Angeles with Lionel Hampton on drums. The band drew the Hollywood crowd, which could still afford a lavish night life, while radio broadcasts from the club connected with younger audiences at home. Bing Crosby and many other celebrities were regulars at the club. In 1931, Armstrong appeared in his first movie, Ex-Flame and was also convicted of marijuana possession but received a suspended sentence. He returned to Chicago in late 1931 and played in bands more in the Guy Lombardo vein and he recorded more standards. When the mob insisted that he leave, Armstrong visited New Orleans, had a hero’s welcome and saw old friends. He sponsored a local baseball team known as “Armstrong’s Secret Nine” and had a cigar named after him. Following a tour across America shadowed by the mob, Armstrong decided to go to Europe to escape.
After returning to the United States, he undertook several exhausting tours. However he had financial troubleS and Breach of contract violations plagued him. Finally, he hired Joe Glaser as his new manager, a tough mob-connected wheeler-dealer, who began to straighten out his legal mess, his mob troubles, and his debts. Armstrong also began to experience problems with his fingers and lips, which were aggravated by his unorthodox playing style. As a result, he branched out, developing his vocal style and making his first theatrical appearances. He appeared in movies again, including Pennies from Heaven. In 1937, Armstrong substituted for Rudy Vallee on the CBS radio network. In 1943 Armstrong settled permanently in Queens, New York with his fourth wife, Lucille. where he continued to develop his playing. He recorded Hoagy Carmichael’s Rockin’ Chair for Okeh Records.
During the subsequent 30 years, Armstrong played more than 300 gigs a year. Bookings for big bands tapered off during the 1940s due to changes in public tastes: ballrooms closed, and there was competition from television and from other types of music becoming more popular than big band music. However, a revival in the traditional jazz of the 1920s made it possible for Armstrong to consider a return to the small-group musical style of his youth. Following a highly successful small-group jazz concert at New York Town Hall on May 17, 1947, featuring Armstrong with trombonist/singer Jack Teagarden, Armstrong’s manager, Joe Glaser dissolved the Armstrong big band on August 13, 1947, and established a six-piece traditional jazz group featuring Armstrong with Teagarden, Earl Hines and other top swing and Dixieland musicians, most of whom were previously leaders of big bands. This group was called Louis Armstrong and His All Stars and included at various times Earl “Fatha” Hines, Barney Bigard, Edmond Hall, Jack Teagarden, Trummy Young, Arvell Shaw, Billy Kyle, Marty Napoleon, Big Sid Catlett, Cozy Cole, Tyree Glenn, Barrett Deems, Mort Herbert, Joe Darensbourg, Eddie Shu and the percussionist Danny Barcelona. Armstrong also made many recordings and appeared in over thirty films. He was the first jazz musician to appear on the cover of Time magazine, on February 21, 1949. In 1948, he participated in the Nice Jazz Festival, where Suzy Delair sang “C’est si bon”, by Henri Betti and André Hornez, for the first time in public.in 1950, Armstrong recorded the first American version of C’est si bon (Henri Betti, André Hornez, Jerry Seelen) and La Vie en rose (Louiguy, Édith Piaf, Mack David). He also toured Ghana and Nigeria, performing with Victor Olaiya during the Nigerian Civil war.
By the 1950s, Armstrong was a widely beloved American icon and cultural ambassador who commanded an international fanbase. However, a growing generation gap became apparent between him and the young jazz musicians who emerged in the postwar era such as Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and Sonny Rollins. The postwar generation regarded their music as abstract art and contempory players considered Armstrong’s vaudevillian style, half-musician and half-stage entertainer, outmoded. While touring Australia, 1954, he modified his anatomical references for the sake of the gentle ears of his host country, “Bebop?” he husked. “I just play music. Guys who invent terms like that are walking the streets with their instruments under their arms “. Sadly in 1959 Armstrong suffered a heart attack while touring Italy. In 1964, he recorded, “Hello, Dolly!”, a song by Jerry Herman, originally sung by Carol Channing. This remained on the Hot 100 for 22 weeks, and went to No. 1 making him, at 62 years, 9 months and 5 days, the oldest person have Number One hit. He also dislodged the Beatles from the No. 1 position they had occupied for 14 consecutive weeks with three different songs. Armstrong made his last recorded trumpet performances on his 1968 album Disney Songs the Satchmo Way.
Armstrong kept touring well into his 60s, even visiting part of the communist bloc in 1965. He also toured Africa, Europe, and Asia under the sponsorship of the US State Department with great success, earning the nickname “Ambassador Satch” and inspiring Dave Brubeck to compose his jazz musical The Real Ambassadors. By 1968, he was approaching 70 and his health finally began to give out. He suffered heart and kidney ailments that forced him to stop touring. Armstrong did not perform publicly at all in 1969 and spent most of the year recuperating at home. Meanwhile, his longtime manager Joe Glaser died. By the summer of 1970, Armstrong’s doctors pronounced him fit enough to resume live performances. He embarked on another world tour, but a heart attack forced him to take a break for two months.
Armstrong had nineteen “Top Ten” records including “Stardust”, “What a Wonderful World”, “When The Saints Go Marching In”, “Dream a Little Dream of Me”, “Ain’t Misbehavin'”, “You Rascal You”, and “Stompin’ at the Savoy”. “We Have All the Time in the World” was featured on the soundtrack of the James Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and His 1964 song “Bout Time” was later featured in the film Bewitched. Armstrong performed in Italy at the 1968 Sanremo Music Festival where he sang “Mi Va di Cantare” alongside his friend Lara Saint Paul. He also appeared with Lara Saint Paul on the Italian RAI television channel where he performed “Grassa e Bella,”. In 1968, Armstrong released “What a Wonderful World”, Which was also used twenty years later in the 1987 film Good Morning Vietnam In 1970 Armstrong appeared on the October 28, 1970, Johnny Cash Show, Singing Nat King Cole’s hit “Ramblin’ Rose” and joined Cash backing Jimmie Rodgers on “Blue Yodel No. 9”.
Armstrong appeared in more than a dozen Hollywood films, usually playing a bandleader or musician. His most familiar role was as the bandleader cum narrator in the 1956 musical, High Society, in which he sang the title song and performed a duet with Bing Crosby on “Now You Has Jazz”. In 1947, he played himself in the movie New Orleans opposite Billie Holiday, which chronicled the demise of the Storyville district and the ensuing exodus of musicians from New Orleans to Chicago. In the 1959 film, The Five Pennies (the story of the cornetist Red Nichols), Armstrong played himself as well as singing and playing several classic numbers. With Danny Kaye Armstrong performed a duet of “When the Saints Go Marching In” during which Kaye impersonated Armstrong. Armstrong also had a part in the film alongside James Stewart in The Glenn Miller Story in which Glenn (played by Stewart) jammed with Armstrong and a few other noted musicians of the time. In 1969, Armstrong had a cameo role in the film version of Hello, Dolly! as the bandleader, Louis, to which he sang the title song with actress Barbra Streisand. His solo recording of “Hello, Dolly!” is one of his most recognizable performances. In 1956 Armstrong played a bandleader in the television production “The Lord Don’t Play Favorites” on Producers’ Showcase.He was heard on such radio programs as The Story of Swing (1937) and This Is Jazz (1947), and made countless television appearances, during the 1950s and 1960s, including The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.
Armstrong appears as a minor fictionalized character in Harry Turtledove’s Southern Victory Series. When he and his band escape from a Nazi-like Confederacy, they enhance the insipid mainstream music of the North. A young Armstrong also appears as a minor fictionalized character in Patrick Neate’s 2001 novel Twelve Bar Blues, part of which is set in New Orleans, which won the Whitbread Book Awards. There is a scene in Stardust Memories (1980) in which Woody Allen is overwhelmed by a recording of Armstrong’s “Stardust” and experiences a nostalgic epiphany. Terry Teachout wrote a one-man play about Armstrong called Satchmo at the Waldorf that was premiered in 2011 in Orlando, Fla., and has since been produced by Shakespeare & Company, Long Wharf Theater, and the Wilma Theater. The production ran off Broadway in 2014. A fledgling musician named “Louis,” who is obsessed with Buddy Bolden, appears in two of David Fulmer’s Storyville novels: Chasing the Devil’s Tail and Jass.
Against his doctor’s advice, Armstrong played a two-week engagement in March 1971 at the Waldorf-Astoria’s Empire Room and had a heart attack. He was released from the hospital in May, and quickly resumed practicing his trumpet playing. Still hoping to get back on the road, Armstrong died of a heart attack in his sleep on July 6, 1971, a month before his 70th birthday while residing in Corona, Queens, New York City. He was interred in Flushing Cemetery, Flushing, in Queens, New York City. His honorary pallbearers included Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Pearl Bailey, Count Basie, Harry James, Frank Sinatra, Ed Sullivan, Earl Wilson, Alan King, Johnny Carson and David Frost. Peggy Lee sang The Lord’s Prayer at the services while Al Hibbler sang “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” and Fred Robbins, a long-time friend, gave the eulogy. Louis Armstrong was one of the most influential figures in jazz.