- Frank Tirro
A version of this article originally appeared in African American National Biography.
(4 Aug. 1901–6 Jul. 1971) ,
jazz trumpeter and singer, known universally as “Satchmo” and later as “Pops,” was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, the son of William Armstrong, a boiler stoker in a turpentine plant, and Mary Est “Mayann” Albert, a laundress. Abandoned by his father shortly after birth, Armstrong was raised by his paternal grandmother, Josephine, until he was returned to his mother's care at age five. Mother and son moved from Jane Alley, in a violence‐torn slum, to an only slightly better area, Franklyn and Perdido streets, where nearby cheap cabarets gave the boy his first introduction to the new kind of music, jazz, that was developing in New Orleans. Although Armstrong claims to have heard the early jazz cornetist Buddy Bolden when he was about age five, this incident may be apocryphal. As a child, he worked odd jobs, sang in a vocal quartet, and around 1911 bought a used cornet with his savings. He dropped out of school and got into trouble; in 1913 he was placed in the New Orleans Colored Waifs' Home for Boys, where Peter Davis, the music instructor, gave Armstrong his first formal music instruction. He left the home in June 1914. Although he was remanded to the custody of his father, he soon went to live with his mother and younger sister, Beatrice, whom Armstrong affectionately called “Mama Lucy.”
As a teenager, Armstrong played street parades, associated with the older musicians, and held various jobs, including delivering coal with a mule‐drawn coal wagon. In his second autobiography, My Life in New Orleans, he relates the importance of these years in his development, particularly the influence of King Oliver :At that time I did not know the other great musicians such as Jelly Roll Morton , Freddy Keppard , … and Eddy Atkins. All of them had left New Orleans long before the red‐light district was closed by the Navy and the law . Of course I met most of them in later years, but Papa Joe Oliver, God bless him, was my man. I often did errands for Stella Oliver, his wife, and Joe would give me lessons for my pay. I could not have asked for anything I wanted more. It was my ambition to play as he did. I still think that if it had not been for Joe Oliver jazz would not be what it is today. (99)
In 1918 Armstrong married Daisy Parker and began his life as a professional musician. Between November 1918 and August 1922 he played cornet at Tom Anderson's club as well as in the Tuxedo Brass Band, in Fate Marable 's band on Mississippi River excursion paddle‐wheel steamers, and incidentally in several New Orleans cabarets. His musical associates during these years were Oliver, Warren “Baby” Dodds , Johnny Dodds , Johnny St. Cyr , Honore Dutrey , George “Pops” Foster , and Edward “Kid” Ory .
Armstrong's rise to prominence began with his move to Chicago in August 1922, when Oliver invited him to come to the Lincoln Garden's Cafe as second cornet in Oliver's Creole Jazz Band. This group defined jazz for the local Chicago musicians and stimulated the development of this music in profound ways. Armstrong's first recordings were made with Oliver in 1923 and 1924; “Riverside Blues,” “Snake Rag,” “Mabel's Dream,” “Chattanooga Stomp,” and “Dipper Mouth Blues” are some of the performances that preserve and display his early mature work.
In 1924 Armstrong divorced his first wife and that same year married the pianist in Oliver's band, Lillian Hardin ( Lil Armstrong ). She encouraged him to accept an invitation to play with the Fletcher Henderson orchestra at the Roseland Ballroom in New York City. Armstrong's impact on this prominent name band was phenomenal. His solo style brought to the East a tonal power, creative virtuosity, and rhythmic drive that had not been a regular aspect of the Henderson band's performance practice. Armstrong's influence on Henderson, himself an arranger and pianist, and two of his fellow band members, in particular, the arranger and saxophonist Don Redman and the saxophone virtuoso Coleman Hawkins , was partially responsible for the development of a new jazz idiom or style—swing. During his fourteen months with Henderson, Armstrong participated in more than twenty recording sessions and left memorable solos on “One of These Days,” “Copenhagen,” and “Everybody Loves My Baby,” on which he cut his first, brief, vocal chorus. While in New York, Armstrong also recorded with Clarence Williams 's Blue Five, a small combo that included the already famous saxophonist Sidney Bechet , and with the star blues singers Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith . With Henderson, Armstrong played trumpet, but in these small‐group sessions he returned to cornet. For another two years he continued to use both instruments but finally retired his cornet for the brighter, more‐focused sound of the trumpet.
Despite his growing stature among the jazz community, Armstrong was still but a sideman when he returned to Chicago in 1925. He immediately became the star of his wife's band at the Dreamland Cafe and soon joined Erskine Tate's orchestra at the Vendome Theater. In November 1925 he made his first recordings as a leader with a pickup group of old associates he called the “Hot Five”—his wife, Lil, on piano; Kid Ory on trombone; Johnny Dodds on clarinet; and St. Cyr on banjo. These recordings of the Hot Five and the Hot Seven (with the addition of bass and drums) are towering monuments of traditional jazz. “Cornet Chop,” “Gut Bucket Blues,” “Heebie Jeebies,” “Skid‐Dat‐De‐Dat,” “Big Butter and Egg Man,” “Struttin' with Some Barbecue,” “Hotter Than That,” and several others are numbered among the classics of this style, have entered the standard repertoire, and continue to be studied and performed regularly. In these recordings Armstrong established his eminence as a cornet and trumpet virtuoso and an unparalleled improviser, composer, and jazz vocalist. Melrose Brothers published notated transcriptions of some of his solos in 1927 immediately after the appearance of these recordings; these may be the first transcriptions from recorded performances ever published. The significance of this series of recordings is summarized by Gunther Schuller in his study Early Jazz:The smooth rhythms of the earlier improvisations give way to stronger, contrasting, harder swinging rhythms. Double‐time breaks abound. Melodic line and rhythm combine to produce more striking contours. This was, of course, the result not only of Armstrong's increasing technical skill, but also of his maturing musicality, which saw the jazz solo in terms not of a pop‐tune more or less embellished, but of a chord progression generating a maximum of creative originality…. His later solos all but ignored the original tune and started with only the chord changes given. (Schuller, 102–103) Armstrong's association with Earl “Fatha” Hines in 1927 led to another series of pathbreaking recordings in 1928, most notably “West End Blues,” with a reconstituted Hot Five, and “Weather Bird,” a trumpet and piano duet. In “West End Blues,” Armstrong not only achieves an unprecedented level of virtuosity but also displays the beginnings of motivic development in jazz solos. In “Weather Bird,” Hines and Armstrong partake in a rapid exchange of antecedent‐consequent improvised phrases that set a pattern for future jazz improvisers who “trade fours and twos.”
In 1929 Armstrong moved with his band from Chicago to New York for an engagement at Connie's Inn in Harlem. The floor show used a score by Fats Waller that became a Broadway success as Hot Chocolates and featured an onstage Armstrong trumpet solo on “Ain't Misbehavin'.” He also pursued many other endeavors, going into the recording studio to front his own band with Jack Teagarden and playing and singing in Luis Russell 's group, which also featured the Chicago banjoist and guitar player Eddie Condon. Armstrong's singing style was unique in American popular music, especially when it was first presented to listeners on a broad scale through recordings of the 1920s.
One of his first vocal accomplishments was to introduce an improvisatory vocal‐instrumental mode of singing called “scat singing” in his recordings of “Heebie Jeebies” and “Gully Low Blues” of 1926 and 1927, respectively. Although this method of singing nonsense syllables was common in New Orleans and had been used by others, it was Armstrong's recordings that were credited with the invention of this new device and that influenced hosts of later jazz singers. Contrasting with the classically oriented popular‐song vocalists of the day, with the shouting‐and‐dancing stage singers of ragtime and minstrelsy, and with the loud and lusty belters of the classic blues, Armstrong's natural technique brought a relaxed but exuberant jazz style and a gravelly personal tone to popular singing. His 1929 recordings of “I Can't Give You Anything but Love” and “Ain't Misbehavin'” achieved great popular success. Armstrong continued to sing throughout his career and reached a pinnacle of popular success in 1964 when his recording of “Hello Dolly” became the best‐selling record in America, moving to number one on the popular music charts.
From 1930 to the mid‐1940s Armstrong was usually featured with a big band. In 1935 he joined forces with Joe Glaser, a tough‐minded businessman who guided his career until 1969. Armstrong divorced Lil Hardin, marrying Alpha Smith in 1938. He later divorced her and was married a fourth and final time in 1942 to Lucille Wilson. He had no children with any of his wives. After World War II, Armstrong returned to performing with a small ensemble and played a concert in New York's Town Hall, with “Peanuts” Hucko (clarinet), Bobby Hackett (trumpet), Jack Teagarden (trombone), Dick Cary (piano), Bob Haggart (bass), and Big Sid Catlett (drums), that inaugurated a new phase in his career. After the success of this “formal concert,” Armstrong began to tour with a band labeled his “All Stars,” ensembles of approximately the same size but with varying personnel selected from the ranks of established, well‐known jazz musicians. Through Glaser's efforts, Armstrong and his All Stars became the highest‐paid jazz band in the world. They toured successfully, sparking a renewed interest in Armstrong's recordings and earning him a place on the cover of Time magazine on 21 February 1949.
Throughout his long career Armstrong, as trumpeter, remained the leading figure among classic jazz musicians and rode many waves of public and financial success, but his historical impact as a jazz instrumentalist lessened as new styles developed and younger musicians looked elsewhere for leadership. Still, his solo trumpet playing remained superlative while other phases of his career, such as singing, acting, writing, and enjoying the fruits of his celebrity, gained prominence as time passed. Between 1932 and 1965 he appeared in almost fifty motion pictures, including Rhapsody in Black and Blue (1932), Pennies from Heaven (1936), Every Day's a Holiday (1937), Doctor Rhythm (1938), Jam Session (1944), New Orleans (1946), The Strip (1951), High Society (1956), Satchmo the Great (1957), The Beat Generation (1959), When the Boys Meet the Girls (1965), and Hello, Dolly! (1969). Beginning with broadcasts in April 1937, he was the first black performer to be featured in a network radio series, and he appeared as a guest on dozens of television shows starting in the 1950s.
Often unjustly criticized for pandering to the racist attitudes that prevailed in the venues where he performed, Armstrong was, in fact, a significant leader in the struggle for racial equality in America. He was a black artist whose work blossomed contemporaneously with the other artistic and intellectual achievements of the Harlem Renaissance and an important personage who spoke publicly in protest and canceled a U.S. State Department tour in 1957 when Governor Orval Faubus of Arkansas refused to let black children attend a public school. Armstrong firmly believed in equal opportunity as a right and in personal merit as the only measure of worth, and he was one of the first black jazz musicians to perform and record with white musicians (Hoagy Carmichael, Tommy Dorsey, Jack Teagarden, Bud Freeman, and Bing Crosby, among others). His artistry was such that he became a role model not only for black musicians but also for numerous aspiring young white musicians, most notably Bix Beiderbecke, Jimmy McPartland, Bobby Hackett, and Gil Evans.
Informally he became known as an “Ambassador of Goodwill,” and Ambassador “Satch” toured Europe and Africa under the sponsorship of the Department of State during the 1950s. Armstrong amassed many honors in his lifetime—medals, stamps in his honor from foreign countries, invitations from royalty and heads of state, and critical awards such as the annual Down Beat Musicians Poll—but none seemed to hold greater significance for him than returning to his birthplace, New Orleans, in 1949 as King of the Zulus for the annual Mardi Gras celebration. Even though ill health plagued him in his last few years, Armstrong continued to work, appearing on television and playing an engagement at the Waldorf‐Astoria Hotel in New York City during the last year of his life. He died in his home in Corona, Queens, New York.
Louis Armstrong and but three or four others are preeminent in the history of jazz. His importance in the development of this art form has gained greater, almost universal recognition in the years since his death as scholars and musicians reevaluate his contributions as a soloist, composer, bandleader, and role model. The measure of his impact on the social history of twentieth‐century America also seems to be greater now as he gains recognition for his contributions to the Harlem Renaissance, for his actions as a thoughtful spokesperson for black Americans, as a significant writer of autobiography, as an entertainer of stature, and as a singer responsible for the development of major trends in American popular and jazz singing. His most accomplished biographer, Gary Giddins, wrote in Satchmo: Genius is the transforming agent. Nothing else can explain Louis Armstrong's ascendancy. He had no formal training, yet he alchemized the cabaret music of an outcast minority into an art that has expanded in ever‐widening orbits, with no sign of collapse (26).
The papers of Louis Armstrong are preserved in the Louis Armstrong Archive at Queens College of the City University of New York, and virtually all of his recordings, some oral history material, and other related documents are at the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey.
- Armstrong, Louis. Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans (1954).
- Armstrong, Louis. Swing That Music (1936).
- Collier, James Lincoln. Louis Armstrong: An American Genius (1983).
- Friedwald, Will. Jazz Singing: America's Great Voices from Bessie Smith to Bebop and Beyond (1990).
- Giddins, Gary. Satchmo (1988).
- Gourse, Leslie. Louis' Children: American Jazz Singers (1984).
- Jones, Max, and John Chilton. Louis: The Louis Armstrong Story 1900–1971 (1971; rev. ed., 1988).
- Schuller, Gunther. Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development (1968).
- Schuller, Gunther. The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz 1930–1945 (1989).
- New York Times, 7 July 1971.
- Westerberg, Hans. Boy from New Orleans: A Discography of Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong (1981)
- Armstrong, Lil
- Bechet, Sidney
- Bolden, Buddy
- Catlett, Big Sid
- Dodds, Baby
- Dodds, Johnny
- Dutrey, Honore
- Foster, Pops
- Hawkins, Coleman
- Henderson, Fletcher
- Hines, Earl “Fatha”
- Keppard, Freddie
- Marable, Fate
- Morton, Jelly Roll
- Oliver, King
- Ory, Kid
- Rainey, Ma
- Redman, Don
- Russell, Luis Carl
- Smith, Bessie
- St. Cyr, Johnny
- Waller, Fats
- Williams, Clarence