He was one of the founding fathers of Jazz, an American art form, which became extremely popular and a household name. In the 1930s, he was the first African American to host a nationally broadcast radio show. He seemed to stay clear of racial tension as much as possible. With his popularity, class and stature, he was able to rise above such discrimination.
He was one of America’s most significant artists by the late 1930s, and had created a sensation in Europe with live performances and records. His music had had a major effect on “swing” and the big band sound.
His “scat” singing transformed vocal tradition. Musicians studied his recordings to hear what a horn could do. It has been said that Armstrong used his horn like a singer’s voice and used his voice like a musical instrument.
By the ’50s, he was an established international celebrity–an icon to musicians and lovers of jazz–and a genial, infectiously optimistic presence wherever he appeared. Almost four decades since his passing, a larger number of his recordings from all periods of his career remain popular and are more widely available than at any time during his lifetime.
August 4, 1901 – July 6, 1971
Mack The Knife – 1959
What A Wonderful World – 1968
With his generous mouth and wide infectious grin, people affectionately called Armstrong “Satchelmouth”, but during a 1932 trip to London this was abbreviated when a magazine editor greeted Armstrong with “Hello, Satchmo”. Armstrong liked the shortened moniker so much he used it as an album title.
Armstrong’s Personal Side
He liked to eat and easily became heavy. Often he was on a diet. He felt that the key to his weight-control to purge himself with various laxatives. His favorite was Pluto Water, a kind of liquid dynamite.
Although he was no stranger to racial prejudice himself, Armstrong rarely made public statements. In 1957, however, he publicly condemned the violence that swept Little Rock over school integration and how it was handled. “Do you dig me when I say, ‘I have a right to blow my top over injustice?’” he said. For this statement, Armstrong was called a firebrand in newspapers across the country.
The Man As A Musician
Before Louis, Jazz was an ensemble music where the cornet or trumpet played the lead and the clarinet and trombone would weave intricate lines around the melody. In practice this meant that you could have three different tunes played at the same time.
This polyphony in New Orleans Jazz was one of its great characteristics. The Original Dixieland Jazz Band from New Orleans, who were the first to record this new music, was very much an ensemble band.
Although Kid Ory’s Sunshine band was the first black ensemble to record, it was the two cornet band of Joe ‘King’ Oliver whose primitive acoustic recordings in 1923 were the defining sessions of New Orleans Jazz.
Armstrong’s style of playing beyond the bounds of an original melody (improvisation) was revolutionary for his time. As a pioneer, of this new style of playing, he laid out 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.
The older generation of New Orleans jazz musicians often referred to their improvisations as “variating the melody” but Armstrong’s improvisations, by comparison, were daring and sophisticated, yet subtle and melodic.
He would redefine “pop” tunes, making them more interesting. The genius of these creative passages was matched by Armstrong’s playing technique, honed by constant practice, which extended the range, tone and capabilities of the trumpet. Fellow musicians of his day would say he had great chops.
In the 1920s, Armstrong’s work shows him playing at the outer limits of his abilities. The Hot Five records, especially, often had minor flubs and missed notes, which did not detract from listening enjoyment since the energy of spontaneity comes through.
In 1926, he was a headliner on records and radio, and in jazz clubs, wowing audiences with the utter fearlessness and freedom of his groundbreaking trumpet solos.
By the mid 1930s Armstrong had achieved a smooth assurance, knowing exactly what he could do to carry out his ideas to perfection. His playing was filled with joyous, inspired original melodies, creative leaps, and subtle relaxed or driving rhythms.
Louis’ elastic timing which could leap ahead and behind of the beat, together with his inventive phrasing caused the entire Jazz world to marvel at this great soloist.
He was one of the first artists to use recordings of his performances to improve himself.
In the den of his home, he had the latest audio equipment and would sometimes rehearse and record along with his older recordings.
Armstrong’s singing also became very important as his music progressed and popularity grew. He 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” when, according to some legends, the sheet music fell on the floor and he simply started singing nonsense syllables. Armstrong stated in his memoirs that this actually occurred. He also 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.
In 1964, Armstrong became the oldest artist to ever hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart. He was 63 when his tune, HELLO, DOLLY topped the Billboard charts the week of May 9, 1964.
“Hello Dolly” was the hit that stopped the Beatles from monopolizing the top spot. They had three #1 songs in a row for 14 weeks but Louis stopped them from having 15 weeks on top.
His 1964 song “Bout Time” was later featured in the film Bewitched.
Early Years (1901 – 1924)
Armstrong was born in one of the poorest sections of New Orleans on Aug. 4, 1901. He was a prodigy, a hard-working kid who helped support his mother and sister by working every type of job there was, including going out on street corners at night to sing for coins. At age 7, Armstrong bought his first real horn–a cornet.
When he was 11 years old, juvenile court sent him to the Jones Home for Colored Waifs for firing a pistol on New Year’s Eve. While there, he had his first formal music lessons and played in the home’s brass band. After about 18 months he was released.
From then on, he largely supported himself as a musician, playing with pick-up bands and in small clubs with his mentor Joe “King” Oliver.
King Oliver was one of a handful of noted musicians in New Orleans–along with Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet and others–who were creating a distinctive and widely popular new band music out of blues and ragtime. Soon, sheet music publishers and record companies would make jazz a household name.
King Oliver is said to have begun music as a trombonist, and from about 1907 he played in brass bands, dance bands, and in various small groups in New Orleans bars and cabarets. In 1918 he moved to Chicago and in 1920 he began to lead his own band.
The early 1920s saw Armstrong’s popularity explode as he left New Orleans for Chicago to play with “King” Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band.
It was this band that was destined to achieve immortality, making its recording debut in 1923 on the Gennett label. Very highly regarded by the white Chicago musicians who nightly would make the pilgrimage down to the Lincoln Gardens, the band also provided the first exposure outside of New Orleans for the young Louis Armstrong.
Armstrong joined the band in 1922. Although the emphasis is on the ensemble playing, there are several instances where the various musicians are given a chance to solo.
Louis first solo was near the end of “Chimes Blues“, and instantly it became apparent that here was a musician with something new and special to offer.
There were 37 sides cut with King Oliver before Louis, encouraged by wife Lil, the pianist with the Oliver band, left to try his luck in New York with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra.
Henderson’s group was little more than a dance orchestra at the time. Armstrong impressed the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra with his improvisation and a new musical vocabulary.
During that time, the “Red Onion Jazz Babies” was an early supergroup of musicians that came together. The Red Onion Jazz Babies recording sessions were organized by promoter/composer/vocalist/theatrical producer/jazz pianist Clarence Williams and featured pianist Lil Hardin-Armstrong who had come east to be near her husband Louis who had just joined the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra the month before. The sessions are also famous for bringing Sidney Bechet and Louis Armstrong together for the first time on record.
Louis Armstrong (cornet) Charlie Irvis (trb) Sidney Bechet (cl, sop sax) Lil Hardin (p) Buddy Christian (bj) Alberta Hunter (vocals). Alberta was known as “Josephine Beatty” for this recording.
Now, throughout the 1920s a blues singer, Bessie Smith recorded with many of the great Jazz musicians of that era, including Louis Armstrong. Her rendition of “St. Louis Blues” with Armstrong is considered by most critics to be one of finest recordings of the 1920s
The Hot 5 and Hot 7 (1925 – 1928)
By 1925 Armstrong had attracted the attention of Okeh records, who invited him to cut a series of hot Jazz discs, which were aimed at the then described “Race” audience. Using a hand picked band of New Orleans musicians plus his wife, Lil, on piano, the Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five was born.
Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five was the most influential jazz band of the mid-’20s. Between 1925 and 1928 they recorded 43 tunes that we know about.
The records became classics, each number a gem. It is fair to say that the performances are not perfect. Nearly every track has a flaw, a fluffed note, a missed break. No matter, this was real Jazz at the cutting edge, and Jazz has never been a perfect art.
In 1927 Armstrong’s band was expanded to become the Hot Seven for 12 recording sessions. This is how it all happened.
Louis Armstrong and his Hot Seven was a jazz studio group organized to make a series of recordings for Okeh Records in Chicago, Illinois in May 1927. Some of the personnel had also recorded with Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five, including Johnny Dodds (clarinet), Lil Armstrong (piano), Johnny St. Cyr (banjo and guitar). These musicians were augmented by Johnny Dodds’s brother, Baby Dodds (drums), Pete Briggs (tuba), and John Thomas (trombone, replacing Armstrong’s usual trombonist Kid Ory, then touring with King Oliver). Briggs and Thomas were at the time working with Armstrong’s performing group, the Sunset Stompers.
In five sessions between May 7 and May 14, 1927, the group recorded at least 12 sides, including “Willie the Weeper,” “Wild Man Blues,” “Twelfth Street Rag,” “Potato Head Blues” (celebrated for Armstrong’s stop-time solo), and “West End Blues”.
One day in 1927 in the poolroom at Chicago’s Musicians’ Union on State & 39th in New York City, Armstrong met Earl Hines. Hines was 21, Armstrong 24. They played together at the Union piano. Armstrong was astounded by Hines’s avant-garde “trumpet-style” piano-playing.
Armstrong and Hines became good friends, shared a car, and Armstrong joined Hines in Carroll Dickerson’s band at the Sunset Cafe. In 1927, this became Louis Armstrong’s expanded band, but under the musical direction of Hines.
Armstrong and Hines went on to record what are often regarded as some of the most important jazz records ever made, most famously their 1928 trumpet and piano duet “Weather Bird“
Stardom: Louis Armstrong On His Own (1929 – 1932)
In 1929, he returned to New York, where he performed at Connie’s Inn in Harlem and on Broadway in Connie’s Hot Chocolates, and made his first nationwide hit recordings.
On July 16, 1930, Armstrong played trumpet on a Country music recording of Jimmie Rodgers, with his wife Lil Hardin Armstrong on piano.
Swinging In the Thirties (1932 – 1942)
In 1931, Gerald Marks and Seymour Simons wrote “All of Me“, a very popular song and jazz standard that got lots of radio air play. Here’s Louis’ version of it.
The period 1932-1942 marks a plateau in Louis’ career, a decade when he embraced his career, his popularity, and most of all his musical groove. He was riding high.
Jazz was becoming a worldwide phenomenon and Armstrong was its leader, as was recorded in the November 1934 issue of Music: Le Magazine du Jazz (Brussels): “Armstrong arrives! Who is Armstrong? The true king of jazz. The only one who could convince those who doubt.”
Armstrong was experiencing an admirable smoothing out of his talents, a broadening of his support, and never once did he exhibit anything but the happiest enjoyment in his recordings.
Everyone seemed to know and love Louis. Not only was he finding acclaim in the popularity of his records, but was becoming one of America’s most recognizable personalities through his many appearances in short jazz films, full length features, and radio.
This prolific period began with a short, two-year association with Victor, and continued with an extended contract with Decca. RCA has collected their entire Armstrong catalog in a standout 4-disc set, which also assembles several sets of late 40’s work. Decca, however, has missed the point, following the admirable Columbia series of complete OKeh reissues with a haphazard mish-mosh of discs, hopelessly spotty and incomplete. The Classics label from Europe seems to have plugged the holes with a series of eight discs spanning 1928-42; unfortunately, they are more difficult to come by.
The War Years (1942 – 1946)
With the outbreak of World War II, the musicians’ union went on strike, leading to a nearly total cessation of recording. Armstrong’s recording career, too, was affected by this ban, with the exception of sporadic “V-Discs” for the troops overseas.
Following the war, however, he was ready to move to a fresh stage of his career.
Louis Armstrong and The All-Stars (1946 – 1956)
In 1947, Armstrong put together a small combo for a show at Town Hall in New York City; the concert was a howling success, leading the way for Louis to tour with the now-streamlined band he called his “All-Stars.” With sporadic changes in personnel, this arrangement suited him for the rest of his performing career.
In the studio, the All-Stars recorded scores of tunes, often re-recording the Hot classics from 25 years earlier, and re-rerecording them again when they changed labels.
By the ’50s, Armstrong was an established international celebrity–an icon to musicians and lovers of jazz–and a genial, infectiously optimistic presence wherever he appeared.
Pure Gold: Armstrong in the Fifties (1956 – 1963)
Armstrong did a lot of recording with Ella Fitzgerald. This started during the 1940s and carried through to the mid-1950s.
Twilight (1963 – 1971)
From the Bell Telephone Hour: The American Song, February 2, 1964. Basin Street Blues – Armstrong, Louis (Trumpet, Vocal); Moore, Russell “Big Chief” (Trombone); Darensbourg, Joe (Clarinet); Kyle, Billy (Piano); Shaw, Arvell (Bass); Barcelona, Danny (Drums)
Armstrong summarized his philosophy in the spoken introduction to his 1970 recording It’s A Wonderful World. “And all I’m saying is, see what a wonderful world it would be if only we would give it a chance. Love, baby, love. That’s the secret. Yeah.”
Armstrong was married four times. Later in life, his health began to fail, but he continued to play and record.
On July 6, 1971, he died in his sleep at his home in Queens, New York. His death was front-page news around the world, and more than 25,000 mourners filed past his coffin as he lay in state at the New York National Guard Armory.
Armstrong was posthumously awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1972 by the Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.
On August 4, 2001, the centennial of Armstrong’s birth, New Orleans’s airport was renamed Louis Armstrong International Airport in his honor.In 2002, the Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings (1925–1928) were preserved in the United States National Recording Registry, a registry of recordings selected yearly by the National Recording Preservation Board for preservation in the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress.
The house where Louis Armstrong lived in New York for close to 28 years…
…was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1977 and is now a museum. The Louis Armstrong House Museum in New York, at 34-56 107th Street, Corona, presents concerts and educational programs.
Operating as a historic house museum, it’s archives of writings, books, recordings and memorabilia makes materials available to the public for research. The museum is operated by the City University of New York’s Queens College, following the dictates of Lucille Armstrong’s will.
Lil Hardin was an accomplished jazz pianist, singer, bandleader and prolific composer.
She was also Louis Armstrong’s second wife. As a composer, she can count the following standards as her own, “Don’t Jive Me,” “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue,” “Just For A Thrill,” and “Bad Boy.”
Hardin performed and recorded well into the ’60s with many of jazz’s greatest names. When Louis Armstrong passed away in July of 1971, Hardin was devastated. Even though they had been divorced, Hardin took part in the funeral as if she were still family.
Roughly six weeks later, while performing at a televised memorial to Armstrong, Lil Hardin collapsed at the piano and died later that evening. She was 73 years old.