New Orleans born trumpeter, cornet player, and vocalist Louis Armstrong brought joy and spontaneity to jazz and popular music.
Louis Armstrong was born on August 14, 1901 in New Orleans, Louisiana. He had his share of challenges growing up, to say the least. He was born in a neighborhood that was so dangerous it was known as “the battlefield.” His father abandoned the family just after Louis was born, leaving Louis’ mother Mary Ann to provide for Louis and his brother. Mary Ann had to do various jobs, including prostitution, to help make ends meet, and often left Louis in the care of his maternal grandmother. By the time he was in fifth grade, Louis had to leave school in order to start working.
During a New Year’s Eve party in 1912, Louis fired his step-fathers gun in the area as a way to celebrate, and he was immediately arrested. He was sent to an institution called The Colored Waif’s Home for Boys. It was here that Armstrong received his first musical instruction on the coronet, and he took to the instrument and to music right away. He left the Home for Boys in 1914 with a newfound love of music as well as a desire to become a musician.
Once he left the Home for Boys, Louis took different labor jobs during the day, but at night he began to look for work as a blues cornet player in the city’s many music venues. Soon he began to earn a reputation as gifted musician and it wasn’t long before he was discovered by one of the city’s most famous cornet players by the name of Joe “King” Oliver. Oliver acted as a mentor to the young Armstrong, showing him some of the finer points of the instrument as well as using him as a sub for some of Oliver’s gigs.
From this point, Louis’ reputation as a musician began to take off. In 1919, he replaced Oliver in Kid Ory’s band, which was the most popular band in New Orleans at the time. They played all over the city, everywhere from music halls to “Honky Tonks,” which were small bars that would host music acts. In the summer of 1922, Armstrong received a call from his old mentor to join Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band as the second coronet in Chicago. Armstrong made his first recorded music with the Creole Jazz Band, playing his first recorded solo on “Chimes Blues.”
Armstrong moved from the Creole Jazz Band, to New York where he played with pianist Fletcher Henderson’s band. Armstrong’s swinging, improvisational style helped transform Henderson’s band into what many believe to be the first Jazz Big Band. Unhappy in New York, Armstrong moved back to Chicago where he eventually recorded as leader for the first time, making albums with Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five (and later Hot Seven) between 1925 and 1928. These recordings were seminal moments in Jazz History, as they helped move jazz from strictly ensemble music to a soloist’s art. These records also helped popularize “scat” singing, as Armstrong sang vocals without any clear words on the 1926 piece “Heebie Jeebies.”
The Rise of Satch
Armstrong, who was also known as “Satch,” had become so popular by 1933 that he was able to embark on his first musical tour of Europe. It was in Europe though, that Satchmo hit the first real rough patch of his career. Years of playing high notes on the coronet and the trumpet had left Armstrong with severe lip pain which in turn caused Satchmo to get into a fight with his manager Johnny Collins. Collins, who had already managed to get his talented musician in trouble with the Mafia, decided to abandon Armstrong, leaving him high and dry in Europe. Armstrong took a year off in 1934, choosing to live in Europe while he recovered from the lip pain that hindered his playing.
Armstrong came back to Chicago in 1935 but he had no recording contract, no band and no engagements. Satchmo sought out Joe Glaser, hiring him to be his new manager. Within a few months, Glazer (who would be Satchmo’s manager for the rest of his life) had secured his new client with a band and a recording contract.
Satchmo went on to enjoy a great deal of success over the next several decades. Among his many accomplishments, he was the first African American Jazz musician to write his autobiography in 1936; he became the first African-American to have a featured role in a Hollywood film when he starred alongside Bing Crosby in Pennies from Heaven during the same year.
Some of Armstrong’s most iconic songs include Mack the Knife, What a Wonderful World, When the Saints go Marching in, and A Kiss to Build a Dream on. Armstrong died in his sleep at his home in Queens, New York on July 6, 1971.
Louis Armstrong Fun Facts
- Louis adopted his cousin’s son Clarence when she died giving birth to him in childhood. Clarence suffered a head injury at a young age, which left him mentally disabled. Louis took care of Clarence for his entire life.
- Satchmo didn’t start playing the trumpet until 1926 when he was with Erskine Tate’s band in Chicago. He switched to the trumpet so that his sound with blend in better with the other players.
- Louis got into some trouble with the Mafia in New York and Chicago. This was part of the reason for him to stay in Europe in 1934.
- He spoke out for Civil Rights publicly for the first time after he saw the Little Rock High School integration crisis. He said that President Eisenhower had “no guts” for his handling of the situation, and he added, “The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell.”