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Louis Armstrong
With dazzling virtuosity on the trumpet and an innovative singing style, Satchmo was the fountainhead of a thoroughly original American sound
By STANLEY CROUCH for Time Magazine
 


Pops. Sweet Papa Dip. Satchmo. He had perfect pitch and perfect rhythm. His improvised melodies and singing could be as lofty as a moon flight or as low-down as the blood drops of a street thug dying in the gutter. Like most of the great innovators in jazz, he was a small man. But the extent of his influence across jazz, across American music and around the world has such continuing stature that he is one of the few who can easily be mentioned with Stravinsky, Picasso and Joyce. His life was the embodiment of one who moves from rags to riches, from anonymity to internationally imitated innovator. Louis Daniel Armstrong supplied revolutionary language that took on such pervasiveness that it became commonplace, like the light bulb, the airplane, the telephone.

That is why Armstrong remains a deep force in our American expression. Not only do we hear him in those trumpet players who represent the present renaissance in jazz — Wynton Marsalis, Wallace Roney, Terence Blanchard, Roy Hargrove, Nicholas Payton — we can also detect his influence in certain rhythms that sweep from country-and-western music all the way over to the chanted doggerel of rap.

For many years it was thought that Armstrong was born in New Orleans on July 4, 1900, a perfect day for the man who wrote the musical Declaration of Independence for Americans of this century. But the estimable writer Gary Giddins discovered the birth certificate that proves Armstrong was born Aug. 4, 1901. 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.

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.

The melodic and rhythmic vistas Armstrong opened up solved the mind-body problem as the world witnessed how the brain and the muscles could work in perfect coordination on the aesthetic spot. Apollo and Dionysus met in the sweating container of a genius from New Orleans whose sensitivity and passion were epic in completely new terms. In his radical reinterpretations, Armstrong bent and twisted popular songs with his horn and his voice until they were shorn of sentimentality and elevated to serious art. He brought the change agent of swing to the world, the most revolutionary rhythm of his century. He learned how to dress and became a fashion plate. His slang was the lingua franca. Oh, he was something.

Louis Armstrong was so much, in fact, that the big bands sounded like him, their featured improvisers took direction from him, and every school of jazz since has had to address how he interpreted the basics of the idiom — swing, blues, ballads and Afro-Hispanic rhythms. While every jazz instrumentalist owes him an enormous debt, singers as different as Bing Crosby, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and Marvin Gaye have Armstrong in common as well. His freedom, his wit, his discipline, his bawdiness, his majesty and his irrepressible willingness to do battle with deep sorrow and the wages of death give his music a perpetual position in the wave of the future that is the station of all great art.

Armstrong traveled the world constantly. One example of his charming brashness revealed itself when he concertized before the King of England in 1932 and introduced a number by saying, "This one's for you, Rex: I'll Be Glad When You're Dead, You Rascal You." He had a great love for children, was always willing to help out fellow musicians and passed out laxatives to royalty and heads of state. However well he was received in Europe, the large public celebrations with which West Africans welcomed him during a tour in the late '50s were far more appropriate for this sequoia of 20th century music.

He usually accepted human life as it came, and he shaped it his way. But he didn't accept everything. By the middle '50s, Armstrong had been dismissed by younger Negro musicians as some sort of minstrel figure, an embarrassment, too jovial and hot in a time when cool disdain was the new order. He was, they said, holding Negroes back because he smiled too much and wasn't demanding a certain level of respect from white folks. But when Armstrong called out President Eisenhower for not standing behind those black children as school integration began in Little Rock, Ark., 40 years ago, there was not a peep heard from anyone else in the jazz world. His heroism remained singular. Such is the way of the truly great: they do what they do in conjunction or all by themselves. They get the job done. Louis Daniel Armstrong was that kind.

 

 

 

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Personal Information

Full name, Daniel Louis Armstrong; nickname, "Satchmo"; born July 4, 1900, in New Orleans, Louisiana; died July 6, 1971, on Long Island, New York; son of Willie (a turpentine worker) and Mary Ann (a domestic servant) Armstrong; married Daisy Parker (divorced, 1917); married Lil Hardin (a jazz pianist), February 5, 1924 (divorced, 1932); married Lucille Wilson (a singer), 1942.


Career

Worked odd jobs as a boy, including delivering milk and coal and selling newspapers and bananas; played the cornet with various bands in the New Orleans area, c. 1917-22; played with King Oliver's Original Creole Jazz Band, c. 1922-24; played trumpet with Fletcher Henderson in New York City, 1924; played trumpet independently and fronted his own bands, including the Hot Five and the Hot Seven, 1925-71; recording artist beginning in the early 1920s. Appeared in Broadway shows, including "Hot Chocolates" and "Swingin' the Dream"; appeared in motion pictures, including Pennies from Heaven, Columbia, 1936, Every Day's a Holiday, Paramount, 1937, Going Places, Warner, 1938, Dr. Rhythm, Paramount, 1938, Cabin in the Sky, MGM, 1943, Jam Session, Columbia, 1944, New Orleans, United Artists, 1947, The Strip, MGM, 1951, Glory Alley, MGM, 1952, The Glenn Miller Story, United Artists, 1954, High Society, MGM, 1957, The Five Pennies, Paramount, 1959, A Man Called Adam, Embassy, 1966, and Hello, Dolly, 1969.


Life's Work

Louis Armstrong is frequently regarded by critics as the greatest jazz performer ever. With both his trumpet and his rich, gravelly voice, he made famous such jazz and pop classics as "West End Blues," "When It's Sleepy Time Down South," "Hello, Dolly," and "What a Wonderful World." Armstrong's influence on the jazz artists who followed him was immense and far-reaching; for instance, according to George T. Simon in his book The Best of the Music Makers, fellow trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie affirmed that "if it weren't for Armstrong there would be no Dizzy Gillespie." Reviewer Whitney Balliett declared in the New Yorker that Armstrong "created the sort of super, almost celestial art that few men master; transcending both its means and its materials, it attained a disembodied beauty." Apparently, fans all over the world agreed with this assessment, for during his lifetime Armstrong made extremely successful tours to several countries, including some in Africa and behind the Iron Curtain.

Armstrong was born July 4, 1900, in a poor black neighborhood in New Orleans, Louisiana. His parents separated when he was five years old. His poverty has been described as a key factor in the discovery of his affinity for music, however, for he sang in the streets for pennies as a child. When Armstrong was 13 years old, he fired a pistol into the air to celebrate New Year's Eve and was punished by authorities by being sent to the Negro Waif's Home. This incident proved somewhat providential: the home had a bandmaster who took an interest in the youth and taught him to play the bugle. By the time of his release from the facility, Armstrong had graduated to the cornet and knew how to read music. Working odd jobs, he scrounged up the money to continue lessons with one of his musical idols, Joe "King" Oliver.

From 1917 to 1922, Armstrong played cornet for local New Orleans Dixieland jazz bands. He also tried his hand at writing songs, but was only partially rewarded--he saw his composition "I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate" published, but the company reportedly cheated him out of both payment and byline. Then Oliver, who led a successful band in Chicago, sent for Armstrong. As second cornetist for Oliver, the young jazzman made his first recordings. In 1924, Armstrong enjoyed a brief stint with bandleader and arranger Fletcher Henderson in New York City. By the time jazz pianist Lil Hardin, who would become the second of his three wives, persuaded Armstrong to work independently around 1925, he had switched from the cornet to the trumpet. During the next few years he made recordings fronting his own musicians; depending on the number assembled, they were known as the Hot Five or the Hot Seven. Around the same time, Armstrong is credited with the invention of the jazz technique of scat singing--legend has it that Armstrong dropped his sheet music during a recording session and had to substitute vocal improvisations until someone picked up the sheets for him. Also during this period, his experimentations led him to break free of the more rigid Dixieland style of jazz to pave the way for a more modern jazz genre.

But in 1930, Armstrong began taking yet a different direction with his career, performing with larger bands and recording more pop-sounding songs. Jazz purists fault him for this move, but others point out that he helped inspire the later swing sound. Nevertheless, Armstrong was still identified with jazz by the public, and on his extensive European tours was considered an "ambassador" of the genre. When he gave a concert in Ghana, he was considered a hero by its natives; he also performed a few times before the British royal family. It was in England that he won the nickname "Satchmo," a distortion of "satchelmouth," which described the extent to which his cheeks puffed out when he played the trumpet.

Armstrong also helped spread jazz's popularity throughout the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s by appearing in musical roles in several films, from Pennies from Heaven in 1936 to Hello, Dolly in 1969. He was probably included in the latter because his recording of the title song in 1964 sold over two million copies and momentarily displaced the then-phenomenal Beatles from the pop charts. Armstrong also made successful recordings of popular songs such as "Mack the Knife" and "Blueberry Hill" and, as late as 1968, scored a chart hit with the single "What a Wonderful World."

Armstrong filmed his guest appearance in Hello, Dolly in between visits to the hospital. For a brief period during 1970, he was forbidden to play his trumpet by his concerned doctor. Undaunted, he made a couple of purely vocal albums. Later in the year, Armstrong's physician lifted the ban on his instrument; he did a Las Vegas show with singer Pearl Bailey and played a benefit in London. After a few appearances in 1971, though, Armstrong suffered a heart attack in March and was hospitalized once again. He recovered sufficiently to be allowed to return to his home in May, but he died in his sleep on July 6, 1971.

Armstrong's fame and popularity, however, have continued long after his death. In 1975, a program dedicated to the jazz great's music by the New York Jazz Repertory Orchestra toured the Soviet Union as part of official cultural exchange between that country and the United States. A bust of Armstrong has been placed on the site of the Nice Jazz Festival in France. And one of his hit records even became a hit again during the late 1980s--"What a Wonderful World" was included on the soundtrack of the Robin Williams film Good Morning, Vietnam, received a great deal of airplay, and introduced Armstrong's music to a new generation of fans.

 

 

 

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