Louis Armstrong: a Biography
Many Americans enjoy sitting back, relaxing, and listening to the jazz and swing rhythms of one of the best musicians of the 20th century, Louis Armstrong. Louis Armstrong is easily recognized by simply listening to his infamous raspy voice and legendary, creative skill on the trumpet. All Armstrong had to do to play beautifully was to play one note. Louis Armstrong had a strong influence on music.
His forte in jazz, ragtime, and swing was solo performing and improvisation. First, his dedication to music influenced jazz music and then later all popular music.I chose Louis Armstrong because of his love for music as well as his charismatic attitude towards life. A question I want to investigate more thoroughly is how and why Louis Armstrong impacted jazz and popular music. Overview and Significance Even though he was commonly believed to be born on July 4, 1900, Louis Armstrong was born on August 4, 1901. Armstrong’s father, Willie Armstrong, and mother, Mary Ann Armstrong, separated soon after Louis Armstrong was born (Cogswell, 2003). This caused him to live with his sister, mother, and grandmother in the poorest section of New Orleans known as the “Battlefield” (Cogswell).
Armstrong, also known as “Satchmo” and “Satch” due to his embouchure, spent most of his time with his friends singing for nickels and pennies and listening to local bands play in bars and brothels (Cogswell). Armstrong expressed his interest and talent when he was young in his personal writings; “After blowing the tinhorn so long I wondered how would I do blowing a real horn, a cornet was what I had in mind. Sure enough, I saw a little cornet in a pawn shop window … I saved 50 cents a week and bought the horn. All dirty but was soon pretty to me.
After blowing into it a while I realized that I could play “Home Sweet Home” then here come the Blues. From then on, I was a mess and Tootin away” (Armstrong, 1999, p. 1). To attract customers for his Jewish employer, young Armstrong would play his tinhorn on the streets of New Orleans, a place bustling with music- the blues, ragtime, and a new, emerging music described as jazz (Wallace, 2007). On New Year’s Eve of 1913, Louis Armstrong made a mistake which turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to him. Armstrong was arrested for firing a gun into the air on as a celebration for the New Year (Cogswell, 003). As a consequence to shooting the pistol into the air, Armstrong was placed in the Colored Waif’s Home (Appell and Hemphill, 2006).
The waif’s home was run by Peter Davis, the brass bandleader who introduced the cornetto, Armstrong. Armstrong was a natural; he joined the brass band and soon became the leader of the band (Bergreen, 1997). After he was released from the Colored Waif’s Home in 1914, Louis Armstrong worked in a variety of jobs including funerals, picnics, and dances, and played in local bands (Cogswell, 2003). Then the famous Joe “King” Oliver, leader of the first great African American band to make records, befriended Armstrong and gave him stand-in slots at orchestras and other venues. Oliver became Armstrong’s mentor and sole musical influence (Cogswell). Oliver moved north to Chicago and Kid Ory, leader of the band the Brown Skinned Babies, offered Armstrong Oliver’s empty seat (Cogswell). Ory once said that after Armstrong joined them he, “…improved so fast it was amazing.
He had a wonderful ear and a wonderful memory. All you had to do was hum or whistle a new tune to him and he’d know it right away” (Boujut, 1998, p. 21). In 1918, Armstrong married Daisy Parker, a prostitute he met at a dance hall he played at on Saturday nights (Cogswell, 2003). The marriage ended four years later due to Parker beating Armstrong regularly (Collier, 1983). In 1919, after his experience with Kid Ory’s band, Armstrong received the opportunity to play in Fate Marable’s Kentucky Jazz Band, which performed on a Mississippi riverboat. The riverboat traveled the Mississippi River from New Orleans to St.
Louis (Collier).When Armstrong left the riverboat in 1921, he was established as a “professional musician who could meet the demands of any ordinary playing job” (Collier, 1983, p. 80). In 1922, Armstrong received an invitation from King Oliver to join his band, the Creole Jazz Band, in Chicago, Illinois (Armstrong, 1996). Lillian Hardin, the band’s pianist, immediately took an interest in Louis Armstrong and they married in 1924 (Cogswell. 2003). Armstrong eventually surpassed his mentor and with Lillian’s encouragement, moved to New York City to try his luck there (Collier, 1983).
In New York City, Armstrong joined Fletcher Henderson’s big band (Collier). In 1925, Armstrong lost interest in Henderson’s band. Armstrong went back to Chicago and organized a band (Cogswell, 2003). Armstrong and the band recorded one of the greatest series in the history of jazz (Appell and Hemphill, 2006). These Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings show his skill and experimentation with the trumpet. His playing on these records earned him his acclaim and popularity for solos that were virtuosic and joyfully melodic. The risks and liberties he took on the trumpet were exciting and unprecedented (Appell and Hemphill).
His vocals, featured on most records after 1925, are an extension of his trumpet playing in their rhythmic liveliness and are delivered in a unique throaty style. His husky voice became his recognizable trademark (Bergreen, 1997). He was also the inventor of scat singing (the random use in nonsense syllables), which originated after he dropped his sheet music while recording a song and could not remember the lyrics (Collier, 1983). Appearing in the Broadway theatrical revue Hot Chocolate, in 1929, he sang “Fats” Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” Armstrong’s first popular song hit (Cogswell, 2003).From this period, Armstrong mainly performed popular song material. His trumpet playing reached a peak around 1933 (Collier, 1983). His style became simpler, replacing the experimentation of his earlier years with a more mature approach that used every note to its greatest advantage (Appell and Hemphill, 2006).
In July of 1930, Armstrong traveled to California. Only after he had been in California for a few weeks, he was arrested at a nightclub for the possession of marijuana (Armstrong, 1999). Armstrong had a positive viewpoint toward marijuana stating, “ I smoked it a long time…And I found out one thing…
The first place it’s a thousand times better than whiskey… a friend a nice cheap drunk if you want to call it that…
Good (very good) for Asthma- Relaxes your nerves… Great for clearness… ” (Armstrong, 1999, p.
114). The sentence, six months, was suspended after three days. At this time, Lil Armstrong and Louis Armstrong grew apart, separated, and no longer worked together (Boujut, 1998). In 1932, the Hot Five split up (Bergreen, 1997). Armstrong remained in California and starred in Rhapsody in Black and Blue and You Rascal You. In April of 1934, Armstrong began touring Europe. He visited various countries including France, Belgium, Switzerland, and the Netherlands where he was welcomed with open arms (Bergreen, 1997).
In 1935 Armstrong formed a commercial-style big band with fifteen other musicians. For the next twelve years, he starred in various films and played with his new bands (Brown, 1993). While playing in his new big band, Armstrong’s material was becoming “pop,” rather than being blues or original instrumental compositions (Collier, 1983). His singing took on a more dominant role in his performances and recordings (Collier). Jazz critics find much of his output from the mid-1930’s forward to be of lesser regard than his original efforts in the 1920s. Armstrong continued to spread the appeal of jazz, like popular music, around the world as no one else could (Collier). While some of his swing recordings from the 1930s and 1940s provided many with the opportunity to enjoy him in an easier to relate to and popular manner, others see them as evidence of Armstrong selling out to popular music (Collier).
It was until 1947 when Armstrong abandoned the big band scene and returned to the small band format. Louis Armstrong joined a sextet jazz band called the All Star’s, which later became known as Louis Armstrong and His All Star’s (Cogswell, 2003). This small group, which consisted of Jack Teagarden, George Wettling, Bid Sid Catlett, Dick Cary, Peanuts Hucko, Bob Hagart, and himself, proved an immediate success and became the group that Armstrong played with until his death (Cogswell)… Armstrong played with Ed Hall and his band at the Carnegie Hall Concert in 1947 (Levin, 1947). Even though Armstrong was said to have peaked in the mid-1930s, he could still play like no one else. One audience member named Teddy Wilson described Armstrong as “If there is a native genius in jazz, this man is it” (Levin, 1947, para.
9). Michael Levin (1947) describes Armstrong’s playing as “trumpet playing with grace, sincerity, and emotion-packed tone” which describes Armstrong’s playing style as a whole, throughout his career (para. 8). Louis Armstrong was made America’s musical ambassador is 1955 (Bergreen, 1997). He traveled throughout the world on the United States’ behalf and even made an album titled, Ambassador Satch (Bergreen). All over the world he was respected and welcomed to perform nearly anywhere he chose. “Hello, Dolly,” Armstrong’s most well-known song was recorded in 1964.
It hit number one on the Billboard charts (Appell and Hemphill, 2006). “Hello, Dolly” was accompanied by one of the movies Armstrong starred in which it shared the same title. Two other films that Armstrong appeared during the 1960s were “Blueberry Hill” and “Mack the Knife” (Cogswell, 2003). In the heat of the Civil Rights Movement, Louis Armstrong was called “Uncle Tom” by blacks, referring to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Brown, 1993). African Americans blamed Armstrong for not using his fame to speak out against the unjust treatment of his race in the United States. They also said he was holding his race back because he did not demand respect from whites. And he smiled too much in public (Brown).
In Armstrong’s opinion, he did not understand what he was doing wrong. He had ignored prejudice because he was taught to respect people unless they had personally disrespected him (Brown). His trumpet and his music were his way out of struggling with prejudice, as Armstrong stated, “that horn, you see that horn? That horn ain’t prejudiced. A note’s a note in any language” (Wallace, 2007, p. 74). Louis Armstrong passed away on July 6, 1971. Armstrong’s home was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1977 (Cogswell, 2003).
Armstrong has the honor of school airports, stadiums and scholarships being named after him. As of now, Armstrong’s home in Queens, New York is a museum (Cogswell). Conclusion Louis Armstrong’s contributions to music will never be forgotten. His contributions to music impact areas such as instrumental technique, singing, rhythm, and improvisation. Louis Armstrong’s achievements started in New Orleans then moved to Chicago and New York City. What if Armstrong went to California sooner; would he have had any influence on music? Or would his impact be greater? His influence – not only on every trumpet player from Fats Navarro and Dizzy Gillespie to Miles Davis, Wynton Marsalis and beyond, but also on jazz, blues, and pop musicians across the musical spectrum – is not likely to be equaled in our lifetime.