Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Armstrong, Louis

The work of trumpeter and vocalist Louis Armstrong both summed up the achievements of New Orleans style jazz and pointed the way to the later evolution of the music as a solo-oriented art form. His historical importance was matched by his popular appeal – a rare combination in the jazz art form, which is often suspicious of commercial success – and his career is bookmarked by the great "West End Blues" of 1928, at one end, which changed the course of jazz with its flamboyance and virtuosity, and (at the other end), by his hit records “Hello Dolly” and “What a Wonderful World,” which charmed a mass audience with their charisma and emotional directness. Critic Leslie Gourse entitled her book on jazz singers Louis’ Children, but the term could just as easily be applied to all later jazz musicians, who bask in legacy and often work in the shadow of this towering figure from the art form’s earliest days.

                                        Louis Armstrong, photo by Herb Snitzer

Armstrong usually claimed that his birthday was the Fourth of July, 1900 – a grand symbolic date to celebrate the arrival of this important figure at the dawn of the American Century. However, he used 1901 on his Social Security application and other formal documents. Research by Tad Jones and Gary Giddins led to the discovery of Armstrong’s baptismal records which established the more prosaic birthday of August 4, 1901.

Armstrong suffered the stigma of being the illegitimate child of a prostitute, raised in the abject poverty of turn-of-the-century New Orleans. His father William Armstrong left the family when Louis was still an infant, and his mother Mary Armstrong was often absent as well, with the child falling into the care of his grandmother or uncle. He briefly attended the Fisk School for Boys, but left when he was eleven. He earned money singing in the streets with a quartet of youngsters and working odd jobs. Arrested for firing a pistol as part of a New Year’s Eve celebration, Armstrong was placed in the New Orleans Home for Waifs. Armstrong benefited from the disciplined and structured environment in this setting, but perhaps even more by the musical training he received at the hands of Professor Peter Davis. Armstrong was soon gaining attention for his cornet playing, and soaking up the sounds of New Orleans jazz.

Armstrong was excited by the playing of cornetist Buddy Bolden, a quasi-legendary figure who never recorded but is often credited as the first musician to perform New Orleans style jazz. The youngster also admired and learned from Bunk Johnson, Kid Ory, Buddy Petit and especially the great Joe ‘King’ Oliver. When Oliver left New Orleans in 1919 to try his luck up north, Armstrong took his place in Kid Ory’s ensemble. Armstrong also played on the riverboats, and served as second trumpet for the Tuxedo Brass Band. Around this time Armstrong married Daisy Parker, and the couple adopted Clarence Armstrong, the son of Louis’s cousin Flora who had died shortly after the boy’s birth. But the marriage did not last long, and Parker herself died soon after the divorce.

In 1922, Armstrong was invited to travel to Chicago and join ‘King’ Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band. This ensemble was the most celebrated jazz band in Chicago at the time, and the association gave Armstrong a platform for his later fame and success. Armstrong and Oliver gained attention for the counterpoint of their two cornets, but in time the younger player’s more assertive approach tended to outshine the work of his employer. On King Oliver’s classic recording of ”Dippermouth Blues", we see the stark contrast between the two stylists. The older Oliver stays true to the New Orleans tradition of blending in with the other instruments, and focusing on timbre and texture rather than varity of notes; but the younger Armstrong is chomping at the bit, anxious to demonstrate his virtuosity on the horn. His second wife, Lil Hardin Armstrong, who was also pianist with Oliver band, encouraged him to step out as a leader and develop his own style and sound as a jazz musician.

                     Louis Armstrong, photo by Herb Snitzer

Armstrong's later recordings as a leader, known as the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, gave him an opportunity to do just that. Armstrong shifted from cornet to trumpet in this period, and in a series monumental performances – such as “Potato Head Blues,” Struttin’ With Some Barbecue,” and the aforemention “West End Blues” -- he changed the shape of the jazz art form. Solos became more prominent, the rhythmic and melodic vocabulary of the music became more complex and varied, and the ethos of jazz shifted from an emphasis on the ensemble to a focus on the individual. When Armstrong encountered pianist Earl Hines, he had found another soloist who was interested in re-shaping the traditions of the music, and their duet on ”Weatherbird” stands out as another milestone recording from the late 1920s.

But Armstrong also made an equally powerful impact on jazz singing. His recording of ”Heebie Jeebies” is often cited as the birth of scat-singing. This is far from true -- vaudevillian ‘Gene Greene recorded a scat-type vocal back in 1909 – but no one exerted more influence on early jazz vocal styles than Armstrong. His phrasing as a singer captured the exciting syncopations of early jazz, but also stood out for the balance it offered between gritty roughness and sentimental tenderness.

These works – both instrumental and vocal -- from the late 1920s represent Armstrong’s key contributions to the evolution of the jazz art form. But his work from the early 1930s deserves to be much better known. Outstanding but seldom heard recordings form this period include “I’m a Ding Dong Daddy” from 1930, as well as “Shine,” “Lazy River,” “I Surrender Dear,” “Star Dust” and “Sweethearts on Parade” from 1931. Armstrong continued to build his fame and reputation, and even the Great Depression, and a conviction for marijuana possession (in 1931), failed to hurt his commercial prospects and popular appeal. Armstrong moved to Los Angeles at the start of the decade, where he lived briefly, and dazzled Hollywood just as he had earlier charmed New Orleans and Chicago.

As the decade progressed, however, Armstrong became increasingly focused on adapting to the standard big band sound of the ‘Swing Era.’ His recordings from this period are not without their merits, but this was a low point artistically for Armstrong. Yet Armstrong did not slacken his pace or stifle his ambitions. He often played as many as three hundred engagements during the course of a year. But this led to problems with his lip and fingers. His personal life was also turbulent in these years. For all his successes, Armstrong spent heavily and was often short of cash. His marriage to Lil ended in 1938 and he married his girlfriend Alpha, which also soon ended in divorce, before he settled down with his fourth and final wife Lucille.

Armstrong’s decision to return to the traditional New Orleans sound in the late 1940s was, in some degree, an ironic shift for the person who had done more than anyone to move jazz beyond the confines of this style. But his successful traditional jazz concert at Town Hall on May 17, 1947 showed that the public was receptive to this revivalist approach. Armstrong formed his All Stars, drawing on a changeable cast of older musicians, including Earl Hines, Jack Teagarden, Trummy Young, Edmond Hall, Barney Bigard and others who could authentically recreate the sounds and styles of the ‘Jazz Age.’

Armstrong had made the switch from fiery young artist to sedate elder statesman – a role which he would continue to occupy with aplomb for the rest of his life. But Armstrong was never too sedate, and his performances continued to attract new fans with his extroverted personality and consummate skills as an entertainer. Yet even Louis must have been surprised with the success of his recording of “Hello Dolly,” which reached number one on the pop charts, and even dislodged the Beatles – a remarkable achievement for a 63 year old performer in an era which was increasingly obsessed with the latest and newest young rock bands.

Armstrong died on July 6, 1971 at age 69, the victim of a heart attack. His funeral was an all-star event in its own right, and those in attendance included Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Johnny Carson, Ed Sullivan and Harry James. Armstrong’s last house is now a museum and historic landmark. Armstrong’s music and larger-than-life presence will no doubt still be remembered and honored at that late date.

Selected Bibliography

Armstrong, Louis. Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans. New York: New American Library. Books, 1954.

Armstrong, Louis. Swing That Music. New York: Da Capo Press. Originally published in 1936 (London and New York: Longmans, Green), 1933.

Bergreen, Laurence. Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life. New York: Broadway Books, 1998.

Berrett, J., ed. 1999. The Louis Armstrong Companion: Eight Decades of Commentary. New York: Schirmer Books.

Brothers, Thomas. Louis Armstrong: In His Own Words. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Collier, James L. 1983. Louis Armstrong: An American Genius. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.

Giddins, Gary Satchmo. New York: Da Capo Press, 1988.

Gioia, Ted. The History of Jazz. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Goffin, Robert. Horn of Plenty; The Story of Louis Armstrong. James F. Bezou, trans. New York: Allen, Towne & Heath, 1947.

Hadlock, Richard. Jazz Masters of the Twenties. New York: Da Capo Press, 1988.

Schuller, Gunther. Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Travis, Dempsey J. The Louis Armstrong Odyssey: From Jane Alley to America's Jazz Ambassador. Chicago: Urban Research Press, 1997.

Williams, Martin. Jazz Masters of New Orleans. New York: Da Capo Press, 1979.