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Back to the Louis Armstrong Room

louis armstrong

Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong helped take jazz music from its two-beat New Orleans beginnings to a smoother, more sophisticated music that focused on the contribution of the individual soloist. He also served as the public face of jazz to most of the general public, a role that has never been completely filled by anyone since.


Armstrong was born on August 4, 1901 in the Storyville district of New Orleans. There he was exposed to the wide variety of cultures and musical styles that coexisted in the city at that time. He might never have become a musician but for the fact that he was remanded to a correction home for boys known as the "colored waifs home", where he learned to play cornet in the home's brass band. Following his release he continued to play and became known to two of the city's most influential musicians--Bunk Johnson and Joe "King" Oliver. Oliver was Louis' idol, and also became a father figure to the young musician. Louis became a well-known trumpet player around New Orleans, making a name for himself with the Fate Marable Orchestra.


In the summer of 1922 Joe Oliver sent Louis a telegram from Chicago asking him to come and play in Oliver's highly successful band. Chicago was now the center of the jazz universe, the place to be. Armstrong played with Oliver's band at the Lincoln Gardens Cafe. While playing there he also met pianist Lil Hardin, who was to become his second wife.


By 1924 it was clear that Louis would become the heir apparent to Oliver's crown as the premiere jazz trumpet player. He left Oliver's band and went to New York to play with Fletcher Henderson's band. Though Louis made an impression in New York, he didn't remain there long, returning the next year to embark on an ambitious recording project that took the jazz world by storm.


Returning to Chicago, Louis began recording sessions with his group the Hot Five (later the Hot Seven). These recordings, made between 1925 and 1929, made Armstrong a household word and the greatest jazz musician of the time. His solos on these recordings are still listened to with awe today by jazz musicians and fans alike.


During the 1930s, Armstrong toured England and Europe as well as appearing in such films as Cabin In the Sky and Pennies From Heaven. These film appearances did little for his reputation as a serious jazz musician, but they did break ground by featuring a black performer in popular films. Armstrong was leading a full orchestra by this time, and the swing era was underway. Louis was not a swing performer, but managed to keep busy, even though work was becoming harder to find as he was seen as something of an anachronism.


By the end of World War II, bebop had become the dominant style of jazz, and Louis wasn't interested in going in that direction. He considered himself an entertainer, which was the very opposite of the way serious bebop artists considered their work. In 1947 he formed the All Stars band, a small ensemble that allowed him to play much as he had with the Hot Five and Hot Seven groups. The All Stars were very popular and continued to play and tour through the forties and fifties.


By the mid-fifties, the critics and many jazz musicians had pretty much dismissed Louis as belonging to a bygone era and not keeping up with the times. Though his music was no longer cutting edge nor changing all the time, there was little reason for him to do so other than to be fashionable. He appeared in the film High Society, with Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Grace Kelly, in 1956 along with the All Stars. He also played a highly successful European tour, and was generally doing as well career-wise as he had ever done.


The U.S. government decided to make him an "ambassador of goodwill", sending him to Ghana and other African states to play. He was to make a tour of the Soviet Union in 1957, but that didn't happen because Louis did something that surprised a great many people. He had always been thought of as something of an "Uncle Tom" because he never really used his influential position to speak out against racism. Now he spoke up when a black girl in Little Rock, Arkansas was refused entry to her local school because of her skin color. He told a reporter that President Eisenhower was a hypocrite and that he was sick to be a goodwill ambassador for a country that was in conflict with its own people. There was a great deal of controversy, but Louis stood by his statement.


In 1959, Louis suffered a heart attack while on tour in Italy. He had been on the road for 300 days a year for the better part of 40 years, and his body was tired. As the 1960s and its pop music revolution came around, Louis was again seen as irrelevant, as indeed were all jazz musicians. He continued to record and tour, working with artists such as Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, and Dave Brubeck.


In 1964, Armstrong's rendition of "Hello Dolly" hit number one on the charts, pushing the Beatles off the number one spot they had occupied for some time. Louis became the oldest man to hold the number one spot on the U.S. pop music charts, and was also the last jazz musician to do so. He rode out the sixties in on a string of performances in which he barely played the trumpet, mostly singing and talking to the audience between numbers. By 1970, his health had declined to the point where he could not play at all, and could only walk a few steps at a time. He passed away on July 6, 1971 of a massive heart attack. His funeral in New York attracted a crowd of 25,000. A traditional funeral march was performed in his honor in his hometown of New Orleans




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