The following is an article from the book Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Plunges into Music.
Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong is best remembered for his gravelly voice, for his intrepid trumpet, and for introducing the world to jazz. Get to know the man Wynton Marsalis calls "the embodiment of jazz music."
THE FOUNDING FATHER OF JAZZ
Louis Armstrong is called one of, if not the, most influential artist in the history of jazz music. He basically invented the now-ubiquitous feature of jazz, the improvised solo; was one of the first 'scat' singers; is one of the most recognized cornet and trumpet players -and singers; and his recordings of songs like "April in Paris," "Pennies From Heaven," and "Mack the Knife" remain hugely popular today. As jazz trumpeter Max Kaminsky wrote, Louis Armstrong was "the heir of all that had gone before -and the father of all that was to come."
BORN IN THE BATTLEFIELD
Armstrong was born on August 4, 1901, in a rough section of New Orleans known as the Battlefield, where the toe-tapping sounds of dance halls, brothels, honky-tonks, and even funerals surrounded and inspired him. When he was just six years old, Louis joined three other boys who were singing on street corners for tips, and a few years later, he bought himself an old cornet from a pawnshop. He also started hanging around with local musicians like Joe "King" Oliver and Bunk Johnson.
In 1913 Louis' life changed dramatically when, on New Year's Eve, he fired a gun into the air in celebration. He was arrested and sent to reform school. There he met Peter Davis, the man in charge of the school's music program. Davis gave him a bugle and his first formal music training. He also put Louis in the school's band and eventually made him the group's leader. When 13-year-old Louis emerged from the reform school, he was a polished musician.
A NEW KIND OF MUSIC
Armstrong went home to his mother and sister (his father had left the family when Louis was a baby) and got jobs delivering coal and newspapers in New Orleans to earn money for his family. But he always found time for music and often sat in with a popular local blues group called Kid Ory's Band, which featured Joe Oliver, one of the local musicians Armstrong admired (and one of the city's best cornet players). Oliver mentored the youngster for several years, but it was a relationship that the New Orleans establishment frowned upon. In those days, jazz was controversial, and the mainstream population considered many early jazz musicians to be unsavory characters. Most came from dangerous neighborhood like the Battlefield, and most were African American.
Oliver left New Orleans for Chicago after white police officers arrested him when a fight broke out at a bar where he was playing. Believing the arrest was racially motivated, Oliver decided to leave the South for good. This left a gap in Kid Ory's Band. Armstrong took over the cornet.
DOWN HOME CHICAGO
Meanwhile, Joe Oliver found huge success in Chicago. His King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band played a regular gig at the Lincoln Gardens, the Windy's City's most famous dance hall. Oliver's influence would prove tremendous …both on jazz (his recordings introduced many white musicians to the genre often considered exclusively "black") and on Louis Armstrong, who said that Oliver "did more for young musicians …than anyone I know of." In 1922 Oliver offered Armstrong a job with the Creole Jazz Band. The pay: $52 a week. Armstrong couldn't pass up an opportunity to reunite with his mentor and earn some decent money. He left for Chicago right away.
He became tremendously popular very quickly, as Chicago had never seen or heard anyone like Louis Armstrong. Joe Oliver let his protege have what they called "cutting contests" with other horn blowers in which one cornet player tried to outblow the others. The contests were great publicity for the band, especially since Armstrong could defeat the best Chicago had to offer. The electrifying sounds of his cornet also made him a standout in Oliver's band, and the group's growing popularity led to their first record in 1923. The songs included "Just Gone," "Canal Street Blues," and "I'm Going Away To Wear You Off My Mind," classics that marked the beginning of modern jazz.
In 1924 Armstrong received an offer from Fletcher Henderson, one of Harlem's most famous bandleaders. He invited Armstrong to join his orchestra, which played regularly at the Roseland Ballroom, a famous all-white dance hall in New York City. Armstrong's cornet didn't blend well with Henderson's sound, though, so before moving to New York, he traded up to the cornet's louder, brighter-sounding cousin …the trumpet.
STEPPING OUT OF THE ORCHESTRA
One in New York, Armstrong brought his unique "New Orleans style" to Henderson's group. But Armstrong wasn't satisfied just to play: he wanted to sing, too. Each Thursday night at the Roseland, vaudeville acts competed in an amateur night for prizes. Armstrong and his trumpet showed up one Thursday evening and belted out a show-stopping version of "Everybody Loves My Baby, But My Baby Don't Love Nobody But Me." The delighted audience awarded him first place. From then on, Armstrong sang and played in Henderson's orchestra at the Roseland every week. Word of his talent quickly spread throughout New York, and he even backed up greats like Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey on their early recordings. (Later in his career, Armstrong sang nearly as much as he played. Two reasons: his high-pressure trumpet playing style was damaging his cheeks, and he could make more money as a singer.)
GETTING THE HEEBIE JEEBIES
In 1925 Armstrong found his way back to Chicago, where he joined a studio band at Okeh Records. Very few jazz recordings were made at the time, but the music was popular and the company saw the potential market for jazz records. The studio band featured Armstrong on trumpet and vocals, his wife Lil Armstrong on piano, Kid Ory on trombone, Johnny Dodds on clarinet, and Johnny St. Cyr on banjo. They were called the Hot Five, and with Armstrong as their leader, their music delivered the definitive sounds of jazz and scat singing. Scat was a style Armstrong had picked up as a kid on the streets of New Orleans; as an adult, he popularized the style and was the first to record it. The Hot Five tune "Heebie Jeebies" was the first recording to include scat singing, and it became one of the band's biggest hits.
In 1927 the Hot Five turned into the Hot Seven with the addition of Pete Briggs on tuba and Baby Dodds (Johnny's brother) on drums. Their recordings continued to be top sellers.
Armstrong went to London in 1932, and on arrival at the Howard Hotel, was met by an English journalist who called him "Satchmo," a distorted version of "Satchelmouth," the nickname Armstrong had gotten years before for the way his cheeks grew (like overstuffed satchels) when he blew his horn. "Satchmo" became Armstrong's favorite nickname and eventually caught on with the public.
Throughout the 1940s and '50s, new kinds of music emerged -bebop and rock 'n' roll- and the big bands and jazz music that was popular during World War II started to fade from public view. But Armstrong and his new band (called Louis Armstrong and the All Stars) continued to play it, traveling to Africa, Europe, South America, and Asia. The U.S. State Department even sponsored several of these tours, engaging Armstrong as an informal ambassador who introduced jazz, a distinctly American art form, to the rest of the world.
PUTTIN' ON THE HITS
For the next three decades, Louis Armstrong racked up some of the biggest hits in musical history. As late as 1964, he made it to Billboard's top spot -which the Beatles had held for 14 weeks- with his version of "Hello Dolly." And in 1967 he released what would become one of the most recognizable numbers of his long career, "What a Wonderful World."
By the fall of 1968, Armstrong' health was failing, but despite a doctor's warning to take it easy, he continued to perform live. On July 6, 1971, it caught up to him when, the night after performing at the Waldorf Astoria's Empire Room in New York, he suffered a heart attack and died. He was buried in New York's Flushing cemetery. In 1999 Time magazine included him on their list of the 100 most important people -period- of the 20th century. (And in 2001 the main airport in New Orleans was renamed the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport.)
The article above was reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges into Music.
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