Louis Armstrong

Louis Armstrong at the Aquarium in New York, July 1946, from LC
Louis Armstrong was born in New Orleans in 1901 at the same time a radical new form of music was being born. The origins of Jazz were found in the black Creole culture of New Orleans that blended upper class European styles east of Canal Street with lower class blues and work songs played west of Canal Street. It was played in the Basin Street dance halls during the heyday of the Storyville red light district 1898-1917. Jelly Roll Morton was one of these Storyville musicians who transformed the French quadrille and Spanish flamenco into New Orleans jazz songs such as Tiger Rag. It was influenced by the rhythmic patrol songs, two-step marches, and cakewalk dances that evolved from the minstrel show and slave ring shouts by the 1880s, from the syncopated rags popularized at the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 and produced by Scott Joplin in Sedalia KA such as the "Maple Leaf Rag" in 1899, and from the "belly-rubbing" dances that emerged after 1910 such as the turkey trot and bunny hug. Victor recorded a series of dance records by the Society Orchestra of James Reese Europe that were part of the dance craze created by Vernon and Irene Castle in 1913. James Europe recruited black musicicans for the army band sent to Europe with Pershing's AEF that became the 369th U. S. Infantry Jazz Band and recorded 24 records for Pathe in 1919. By this time, the first jazz records had been recorded by the all-white Original Dixieland Jass Band starting with their successful "Livery Stable Blues" for Victor in Feb. 1917. Jazz was adopted as the musical expression of an exhuberant urban culture that emerged in America after World War I, a rhythmic, syncopated, physical music that represented the prosperity and energy of the "Roaring Twenties."

Louis Armstrong at the Aquarium in New York, July 1946, from LC
Jazz was not only the celebration of an emerging secular culture, it was also the sound of alienation. Gene Santoro has noted that in the bell of Armstrong's horn was "the sound of a new, all-American culture being forged from the stuff of the social sidelines Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray first pointed out a half-century ago that it is also the sound of self-assertion, a musical realization of the double consciousness W.E.B. Du Bois posited for African-Americans. Within this compound of power and pain, a racial revisitation of, the master-slave encounter in Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, Du Bois explained that African-Americans were inevitably alienated, stood both inside and outside mainstream American culture and its norms, prescriptions, hopes, dreams. Such alienation, Du Bois pointed out, could cripple black Americans by forcing them to internalize mainstream cultural values that held them to be less than human, but it could also liberate the brightest of them. The Talented Tenth, as he called this group, could act on their perceptions of the contradictions between the high ideals grounding basic American cultural myths (for example, that society believed 'all men are created equal,' as the Declaration of Independence puts it) and gritty daily reality, where blacks were not exactly welcomed into concert halls, schools, restaurants or the front of buses."

Louis Armstrong (4th from left) in King Oliver's Chicago band 1922
According to Stanley Crouch, he was influenced from an early age by the black community of New Orleans: "He grew up at the bottom, hustling and hustling, trying to bring something home to eat, sometimes searching garbage cans for food that might still be suitable for supper. The spirit of Armstrong's world, however, was not dominated by the deprivation of poverty and the dangers of wild living. What struck him most, as his memoir, Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans, attests, was the ceremonial vigor of the people. Ranging from almost European pale to jet black, the Negroes of New Orleans had many social clubs, parades and picnics. With rags, blues, snippets from opera, church music and whatever else, a wide breadth of rhythm and tune was created to accompany or stimulate every kind of human involvement. Before becoming an instrumentalist, Armstrong the child was either dancing for pennies or singing for his supper with a strolling quartet of other kids who wandered New Orleans freshening up the subtropical evening with some sweetly harmonized notes. He had some knucklehead in his soul too. While a genial fountain of joy, Armstrong was a street boy, and he had a dirty mouth. It was his shooting off a pistol on New Year's Eve that got him thrown into the Colored Waifs' Home, an institution bent on refining ruffians. It was there that young Louis first put his lips to the mouthpiece of a cornet. Like any American boy, no matter his point of social origin, he had his dreams. At night he used to lie in bed, hearing the masterly Freddie Keppard out in the streets blowing that golden horn, and hope that he too would someday have command of a clarion sound. The sound developed very quickly, and he was soon known around New Orleans as formidable. The places he played and the people he knew were sweet and innocent at one end of the spectrum and rough at the other. He played picnics for young Negro girls, Mississippi riverboats on which the white people had never seen Negroes in tuxedos before, and dives where the customers cut and shot one another. One time he witnessed two women fighting to the death with knives. Out of those experiences, everything from pomp to humor to erotic charisma to grief to majesty to the profoundly gruesome and monumentally spiritual worked its way into his tone. He became a beacon of American feeling."

Jack Teagarden, Dick Carey, Louis Armstrong , Bobby Hackett, Peanuts Hucko, Bob Haggart, and Sid Catlett, at the concert at Town Hall in NY, July 1947, from LC
Stanley Crouch emphasized the emergence of his distinctive solo style: "From 1920 on, he was hell on two feet if somebody was in the mood to challenge him. Musicians then were wont to have "cutting sessions"--battles of imagination and stamina. Fairly soon, young Armstrong was left alone. He also did a little pimping but got out of the game when one of his girls stabbed him. With a trout sandwich among his effects, Armstrong took a train to Chicago in 1922, where he joined his mentor Joe Oliver, and the revolution took place in full form. King Oliver and his Creole Jazz Band, featuring the dark young powerhouse with the large mouth, brought out the people and all the musicians, black and white, who wanted to know how it was truly done. The most impressive white musician of his time, Bix Beiderbecke, jumped up and went glassy-eyed the first time he heard Armstrong. When he was called to New York City in 1924 by the big-time bandleader Fletcher Henderson, Armstrong looked exactly like what he was, a young man who was not to be fooled around with and might slap the taste out of your mouth if you went too far. His improvisations set the city on its head. The stiff rhythms of the time were slashed away by his combination of the percussive and the soaring. He soon returned to Chicago, perfected what he was doing and made one record after another that reordered American music, such as "Potato Head Blues" and "I'm a Ding Dong Daddy." Needing more space for his improvised line, Armstrong rejected the contrapuntal New Orleans front line of clarinet, trumpet and trombone in favor of the single, featured horn, which soon became the convention. His combination of virtuosity, strength and passion was unprecedented. No one in Western music--not even Bach--has ever set the innovative pace on an instrument, then stood up to sing and converted the vocalists. Pops. Sweet Papa Dip. Satchmo."

Armstrong House & Archives
Armstrong's most prolific period was 1925-1928 when he recorded over 60 songs, including his most influential sessions with the Hot Five and Hot Seven bands. He moved to New York and spent more time singing and and working in clubs with small bands. He developed his own style of jazz singing, or scat singing, with improvisation and vocal rhythm. In 1942 he married his fourth wife, Lucille Wilson, a singer at the Cotton Club, and in 1943 moved into the house in Queens that has become the Armstrong Archives. In 1947 he formed his All-Stars band that toured the world and he became the much-loved "Ambassador of Jazz." He appeared in more that 30 films from 1931 to 1969, including Pennies from Heaven in 1936 with Bing Crosby, and Hello Dolly in 1969, with its title song of "Hello Dolly" that he recorded in 1964 and sold over two million copies, topping the Beatles in that year's charts. He recorded his last hit, "What a Wonderful World" in 1968 that was used in the 1988 film Good Morning, Vietnam, and reached number 11 on the charts. In 1971 he suffered a heart attack and died on July 6 at his home in New York.


revised 3/24/03 by Schoenherr