Louis Daniel Armstrong (August 4, 19011 – July 6, 1971) (also known by the nickname Satchmo) was an African American jazz musician. Probably the most famous jazz musician of the 20th century, Armstrong was a charismatic, innovative performer whose musical skills and bright personality transformed jazz from a rough regional dance music into a popular art form.
Louis Armstrong's stage personality matched his flashy trumpet as captured in this photo by William P. Gottlieb. Armstrong is also known for his gravelly singing voice.
Armstrong first achieved fame as a trumpeter, but was also one of the most influential jazz singers, and towards the end of his career was best known as a vocalist.
Armstrong was born to a poor family in New Orleans, Louisiana. His youth was spent in poverty in a rough neighborhood of uptown New Orleans. He first learned to play cornet in the band of the New Orleans Home for Colored Waifs where he had been sent after firing a pistol into the air to celebrate at a New Year's Eve celebration. (This was illegal because the bullets would eventually land and people could be killed.) He followed the city's frequent brass band parades and listened to older musicians every chance he got, learning from Bunk Johnson, Buddy Petit, and above all "King" Joe Oliver, who acted as a mentor and almost a father figure to young Armstrong. Armstrong later played in the brass bands and riverboats of New Orleans, and first started 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. When Joe Oliver left town in 1919, Armstrong took Oliver's place in Kid Ory's band, regarded as the top hot jazz band in the city.
In 1922, Armstrong joined the exodus to Chicago, where he had been invited by Joe "King" Oliver to join his Creole Jazz Band. Oliver's band was the best and most influential hot jazz band in Chicago in the early 1920s, at a time when Chicago was the center of jazz. Armstrong made his first recordings, playing second cornet in Oliver's band (including taking some solos and breaks), in 1923.
Armstrong was happy working with Oliver, but his wife, pianist Lil Hardin Armstrong, urged him to seek more prominent billing. He and Oliver parted amicably in 1924 and Armstrong moved on to New York City to play with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, the top African American band of the day, at which point Armstrong switched to the trumpet to blend in better with the other musicians in his section. During this time, he also made many recordings on the side arranged by his old friend from New Orleans pianist Clarence Williams; these included small jazz band sides (some of the best pairing Armstrong with one of Armstrong's few rivals in fiery technique and ideas, Sidney Bechet) and a series of accompaniments for Blues singers.
He returned to Chicago in 1925 and began recording under his own name with his famous Hot Five and Hot Seven with such hits as "Potato Head Blues", "Muggles" (a reference to marijuana, for which Armstrong had a lifelong fondness), and "West End Blues" which music set the standard and the agenda for jazz for many years to come.
Armstrong returned to New York in 1929, then moved to Los Angeles in 1930, then toured Europe. After spending many years on the road, he settled permanently in Queens, New York in 1943. Although subject to the vicissitudes of Tin Pan Alley and the gangster-ridden music business, he continued to develop his playing.
During the subsequent thirty years, Armstrong played more than three hundred gigs a year. Most of his touring after the late 1940s was with a small stable group called the All Stars , which included Barney Bigard, Jack Teagarden, Earl Hines, Trummy Young , and Barrett Deems . During this period, he made many recordings and appeared in over thirty films.
Armstrong kept up his busy tour schedule until a few years before his death. While in his later years, he would sometimes play some of his numerous gigs by rote, but other times would enliven the most mundane gig with his vigorous playing, often to the astonishment of his band. He also toured Africa, Europe, and Asia under sponsorship of the US State Department with great success and become known as "Ambassador Satch".
Armstrong died of a heart attack in 1971 at age 69. He was interred in the Flushing Cemetery, Flushing, New York.
The nickname Satchmo or Satch is short for Satchelmouth (describing his embouchure). Early on he was also known as Dippermouth. These are all references to his large mouth. Friends and fellow musicians usually called him Pops, which is also how Armstrong usually addressed his friends and fellow musicians (except for Pops Foster, whom Armstrong always called "George").
The "Satchmo" nickname and Armstrong's warm Southern personality, combined with his natural love of entertaining and evoking a response from the audience, resulted in a public persona — the grin, the sweat, the handkerchief — that came to seem affected and even something of a racist caricature late in his career. He was also criticized for accepting the title of "King of The Zulus" (in the New Orleans African American community an honored role as head of leading black Carnival Krewe, but bewildering or offensive to outsiders with their traditional costume of grass-skirts and blackface makeup satirizing southern white attitudes) for Mardi Gras 1949.
The seeming racial insensitivity of Armstrong's King of the Zulus performance has sometimes been seen as part of a larger failing on Armstrong's part. Where some saw a gregarious and outgoing personality, others saw someone trying too hard to appeal to white audiences and essentially becoming a minstrel caricature. Some musicians criticized Armstrong for playing in front of segregated audiences, and for not taking a strong enough stand in the civil rights movement suggesting that he was an Uncle Tom. Billie Holiday countered, however, "of course Pops toms, but he toms with class."
Armstrong in fact was a major financial supporter of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights activists, but mostly preferred to work quietly behind the scenes, not mixing his politics with his work as an entertainer. The few exceptions made it more effective when he did speak out; Armstrong's criticism of President Eisenhower's, calling him "two-faced" and "gutless" due to his inaction during the conflict over school desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957 made national news. As a protest, Armstrong cancelled a planned tour of the Soviet Union on behalf of the State Department saying "The way they're treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell" and that he could not represent his government abroad when it was in conflict with its own people.
Armstrong was greatly concerned with his health and bodily functions. He made frequent use of laxatives as a means of controlling his weight, a practice he advocated both to personal acquaintances and in the diet plans he published under the title Lose Weight the Satchmo Way.
He was an extremely generous man, said to have given away almost as much money as he kept for himself.
In his early years, Armstrong was best known for his virtuosity with the cornet and trumpet. The greatest trumpet playing of his early years can be heard on his Hot Five and Hot Seven records. The improvisations which he made on these records of New Orleans jazz standards and popular songs of the day, to the present time stack up brilliantly alongside those of any other later jazz performer. The older generation of New Orleans jazz musicians often referred to their improvisations as "variating the melody"; Armstrong's improvisations were daring and sophisticated for the time while often subtle and melodic. He often essentially re-composed pop-tunes he played, making them more interesting. Armstrong's playing is filled with joyous, inspired original melodies, creative leaps, and subtle relaxed or driving rhythms. The genius of these creative passages is matched by Armstrong's playing technique, honed by constant practice, which extended the range, tone and capabilities of the trumpet. In these records, Armstrong almost single-handedly created the role of the jazz soloist, taking what was essentially a collective folk music and turning it into an art form with tremendous possibilities for individual expression.
Armstrong's work in the 1920s shows him playing at the outer limits of his abilities. The Hot 5 records, especially, often have minor flubs and missed notes, which do little to detract from listening enjoyment since the energy of the spontaneous performance comes through. By the mid 1930s Armstrong achieved a smooth assurance, knowing exactly what he could do and carrying out his ideas with perfectionism.
As his music progressed and popularity grew, his singing also became important. Armstrong was not the first to record scat singing, but he was masterful at it and helped popularize it. He had a hit with his playing and scat singing on "Heebie Jeebies", and sang out "I done forgot the words" in the middle of recording "I'm A Ding Dong Daddy From Dumas". Such records were hits and scat singing became a major part of his performances. Long before this, however, Armstrong was playing around with his vocals, shortening and lengthening phrases, interjecting improvisations, using his voice as creatively as his trumpet.
During his long career he played and sang with the most important instrumentalists and vocalists; among the many, singing brakeman Jimmie Rodgers, Bing Crosby, Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, Bessie Smith, and notably with Ella Fitzgerald. Armstrong recorded three albums with Fitzgerald: Ella & Louis, Ella & Louis again, and Porgy and Bess for Verve Records. His recordings Satch Plays Fats, all Fats Waller tunes, and Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy in the 1950s were perhaps the last of his great creative recordings, but even oddities like Disney Songs the Satchmo Way have their musical moments. For the most part, however, his later output was criticized as being overly simplistic or repetitive.
Armstrong had many hit records including "Stardust", "What a Wonderful World", "When the Saints Go Marchin' In", "Dream a Little Dream of Me", "Ain't Misbehavin'", and "Stompin' at the Savoy". "We Have All The Time In The World" featured on the soundtrack of the James Bond film On Her Majesty's Secret Service, and enjoyed renewed popularity in the UK in 1994 when it featured on a Guinness advert. It reached number 3 in the charts on being re-released.
In 1964 Armstrong knocked the Beatles off the top of the charts with "Hello, Dolly", and in 1968, he had one last popular hit with the highly sentimental pop song "What A Wonderful World". The song gained further currency in the popular consciousness when it was used in the 1987 movie Good Morning Vietnam, its subsequent rerelease topping the charts around the world. Saxophonist Kenny G used it to record a virtual duet with Armstrong in 1999. In 2002, the song was used by documentary film-maker Michael Moore in Bowling for Columbine, accompanying a segment illustrating military interventions by the United States around the world.
Armstrong enjoyed many types of music, from the most earthy blues to the syrupy sweet arrangements of Guy Lombardo, to Latin American folksongs, to classical symphonies and opera. Armstrong incorporated influences from all these sources into his performances, sometimes to the bewilderment of fans who wanted Armstrong to stay in convenient narrow categories. Armstrong was inducted into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an early influence. Some of his solos from the 1950s, such as the hard rocking version of "Saint Louis Blues" from the WC Handy album, show that the influence went in both directions.
The influence of Armstrong on the development of jazz is virtually immeasurable, but his irrepressible personality both as a performer, and later in his career as a public figure, was so strong that to some it overshadowed his contributions as a musician and singer.
As a virtuoso trumpet player, Armstrong had a unique tone and an extraordinary talent for melodic improvisation. Through his playing, the trumpet emerged as a solo instrument in jazz. He was a masterful accompanist and ensemble player in addition to his extraordinary skills as a soloist. With his innovations, he raised the bar musically for all who came after him.
Armstrong is considered to have essentially invented jazz singing. He had an extremely distinctive gravelly voice, which he deployed with great dexterity as an improviser, bending the lyrics and melody of a song for expressive purposes. He was also greatly skilled at scat singing, or wordless vocalizing. Before Armstrong, singers simply sang the song; after him, they were free to put their own stamp on it.
Armstrong appeared in more than a dozen Hollywood films, though few of particular note, usually playing a band leader or musician. He was the first African American to host a nationally broadcast radio show in the 1930s. He also made assorted television appearances, especially in the 1950s and 1960s, including appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
Many of Armstrong's recordings remain popular, and decades after his death a larger number of his recordings, from all years of his career, are in print than at any time in his life. His 1923 recordings with Joe King Oliver and his Creole Jazz Band continue to be listened to as documents of ensemble style New Orleans jazz. All too often, however, Armstrong recorded with stiff, standard orchestras leaving only his sublime trumpet playing as of interest. "Melancholy Blues," performed by Armstrong and his Hot Seven was included on the Voyager Golden Record sent into outer space to represent one of the greatest achievements of humanity.
Louis Armstrong has a record star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on 7601 Hollywood Blvd.
Armstrong set up a non-profit foundation for educating disadvantaged children in music, and deeded his house and substantial archives of writings, books, recordings, and memorabilia to go to Queens College, New York after the deaths of him and his wife Lucille. The Louis Armstrong archives have been available to music researchers, and his home in Corona, Queens opened to the public as a museum on 15 October, 2003.
- Armstrong said he was not sure exactly when he was born, but celebrated his birthday on July 4. He usually gave the year as 1900 when speaking in public (although he used 1901 on his Social Security and other papers filed with the government). Using Roman Catholic church documents from when his grandmother took him to be baptised, New Orleans music researcher Tad Jones established his birthday was August 4, 1901. With various other collaborative evidence, this date is now accepted by Armstrong scholars.
- Armstrong, Louis. Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans. ISBN 0306802767
- Armstrong, Louis and Thomas Brothers. Armstrong, in His Own Words: Selected Writings. ISBN 019514046X
- Cogswell, Michael. Armstrong: The Offstage Story. ISBN 1888054816
- Meckna, Michael. Satchmo: The Louis Armstrong Encyclopedia. ISBN 0313301379
Last updated: 10-19-2005 17:48:15