Louis Armstrong is one of the most beloved figures in American history. Known for his memorable and instantly discernible trademark vocal delivery, he also captivated audiences with his jovial, highly animated personality, and virtuosic attack on the trumpet.
Cultural icons such as Frank Sinatra, Miles Davis, and Bing Crosby have sung Armstrong’s praises over the years, each propounding the enormous influence his career has had on their own music and that of countless other artists. As one of the first African American performers to successfully engage on a large scale with white and international audiences, Louis Armstrong became one of music’s first crossover superstars, and one of the art form’s most influential figures.
Louis Armstrong was born in August of 1901 in New Orleans. He grew up largely without a father, and dealt with poverty and discrimination throughout his youth. He was taken in as a boy by a Jewish family, the Karnoffskys, whose kindness would have an enduring impact on the young Armstrong. The Karnoffskys allowed him to work for them, and they helped him purchase his very first horn. Armstrong would sport a Star of David for the rest of his life to show his appreciation for the family.
The transition from amateur to professional musician for Armstrong occurred primarily during his time playing in riverboat brass bands in his native New Orleans. It was here that Armstrong developed a deeper understanding of musical arrangement and learned to sight read.
Apart from his journeys up and down the Mississippi River, Louis Armstrong would not depart from his native New Orleans until 1922. When he finally did leave, it was to join his mentor, cornetist Joe “King” Oliver, in his Chicago Creole Jazz Band. Not long prior, Armstrong had replaced King Oliver in Kid Ory’s brass band when the latter struck out on his own. King Oliver’s band was one of the most prominent in the Chicago area, and was a driving force in the introduction of counterpoint as a primary component of jazz music. The success of the band allowed Armstrong to forgo his day jobs and focus on music full-time. It was with this group that Armstrong would make his first recordings, setting into motion a recording career which would alter the course of popular music forever.
While Louis Armstrong may be best remembered by many for his signature vocal delivery, he first made his name as one of jazz’s foremost trumpet soloists. Nicknamed Satchmo, or Satch (short for Satchelmouth, a long-standing nickname with conflicting, unconfirmed origins.) His powerful and distinctive tone made him stand out, cutting through any mix, even when playing with large ensembles. The ease with which he navigated the upper register of the trumpet allowed him to produce notes that many had not previously thought possible. Louis Armstrong’s masterful improvisational abilities and early penchant for reharmonization greatly informed jazz as we now know it, lending credence to the form as a means of artistic expression rather than simply as a form of entertainment.
In the mid-1920s, Louis Armstrong parted with King Oliver on friendly terms, and ventured to New York City where he would perform with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra. He would soon return to Chicago, and it was here he would strike out on his own and make his first recordings as a bandleader with his Hot Five, and later, Hot Seven groups. It was from this material that much of Armstrong’s musical influence on the jazz form was taken, and it has been said that Armstrong was responsible for the establishment of the very vocabulary by which jazz improvisation has since been informed.
Along with his many prominent gifts as a performer, Armstrong was also a highly capable composer. The trumpeter earned a reputation for his masterful adaptations of existing works, including those of King Oliver, which appeared on his 1960 album, Satchmo Plays King Oliver. Armstrong did write dozens of songs of his own throughout his career, however, many of which would go on to become standards in the genre.
In the 1930s, Armstrong began to develop a reputation as a vocalist, pioneering the vocal jazz form through his own idiosyncrasies. With his interpretations, Armstrong deployed a gruff, throaty warble, with immense power and projection. Now-classic Armstrong recordings like “Stardust,” “Lazy River,” and “Hotter Than That” – co-written with Armstrong’s wife at the time, Lil – would often deviate from their pre-written melodies entirely, allotting Armstrong room to improvise with his voice much in the way he might on his trumpet.
Recordings such as these were crucial in the development of now widely utilized vocal style of scat-singing, and his ad-libbed lyrical improvisations were a precursor to the now extremely common practice of ad-libbing vocals in hip-hop. Perhaps the most widely recognized instance of Armstrong’s innovations in scat-singing is his 1926 recording of Boyd Atkins’ “Heebie Jeebies.” Legend has it that Armstrong dropped the lyric sheet while the recording was in progress. With no reference point, he is said to have begun stringing together syllables off the cuff, thus popularizing the scat style by sheer happenstance.
Louis Armstrong’s influence in vocal jazz is equally as profound, if not more so, than that of his vocal influence in pop music. This is due to a number of factors, not the least of which is the immeasurable impact that Armstrong’s music had on two of the most significant vocalists in the history of the genre: Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, both of whom collaborated with the trumpeter a number of times. Billie Holiday even acknowledged that many of the defining characteristics of her own vocal style had been modeled directly after those of Satchmo.
Louis Armstrong became an intensely prolific entertainer, performing over 300 live dates a year for three decades. It was also in the 1930s, following a move to Los Angeles, that he began his involvement in the film industry. Louis Armstrong would star in several films over the course of his career, making substantial connections along the way.
A willingness to compromise with conventional entertainment standards of the day gave Armstrong access to audiences who otherwise may otherwise have never been exposed to black music. As such, Armstrong became, to many, a figurehead of jazz and of black music in general, particularly to those not intimately familiar with the styles.
Louis Armstrong was at the forefront of integration in entertainment, playing on one of the first integrated recordings cut in the United States, “Knockin’ a Jug.” In the same year, he sang in the very first integrated vocal duet in US history, “Rockin’ Chair,” with Hoagy Carmichael.
In 1937, Louis Armstrong was tapped by the CBS Radio Network to fill in for Rudy Vallee, becoming the first African American to serve as host for a national, sponsored radio broadcast. Collaborations with stars of the day such as Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Danny Kaye further endeared him to white audiences, and expanded his reach within the industry.
Louis Armstrong had become an American icon by the time he began his final 20 years of life, a period which would become one of the most commercially successful of his career. However, the emergence of younger jazz artists like Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and Dizzy Gillespie created a divide in jazz music. While these emerging artists were attempting to push the genre forward with the musical innovations of bebop, Armstrong was seen by some, particularly the artists in question, as resting on his laurels, acquiescing to the demands of a white audience, and tarnishing his legacy by way of his continued embrace of easy-listening music. Some also felt that his vaudevillian, happy-go-lucky stage persona turned a cheek to the suffering of his people, an assumption arguably corroborated by Armstrong’s reluctance to comment on political matters. Armstrong himself once stated, “I don’t get involved in politics. I just blow my horn.”
However, in 1957 Louis Armstrong uncharacteristically criticized President Dwight D. Eisenhower, calling him “two-faced” and asserting that he had “no guts.” This was due to the latter’s failure to act when Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus prevented nine African American students from attending the segregated Little Rock Central High School. The students, who came to be known as the Little Rock Nine, were physically denied entry to the school when Faubus deployed the National Guard to “preserve the peace.”
At this time, Louis Armstrong was set to embark on a tour of the Soviet Union in representation of the State Department, but canceled the tour in protest. Eisenhower eventually ordered the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School, and the Little Rock Nine were granted entry. Armstrong’s outspokenness on the atrocities facing African Americans during this time reestablished a faith in him which had previously diminished in the eyes of some.
Those who probe Louis Armstrong’s expansive catalog will, in fact, find a number of references to race relations at the time, veiled or otherwise. With lines such as “Ain’t got a friend, my only sin is in my skin. What did I do to be so black and blue?” – Armstrong’s rendition of Fats Waller’s “Black and Blue” is one of the most well known Satch tunes that speaks directly to the experience of being black in America.
Louis Armstrong’s star continued to rise late in his career, in spite of lingering health issues. In 1963, Armstrong, at his manager’s request, recorded a demo track of the song “Hello, Dolly!” from the musical of the same name. The track was released commercially, and became Armstrong’s most successful single. The song reached number one in 1964, dislodging The Beatles from the position and bringing the group’s 14-week, 3-song chart-topping reign to its conclusion. Hoping to capitalize on the song’s success, Armstrong’s manager quickly arranged for the production and release of an album of the same name. The resulting album would achieve gold status, and the 63 year old Armstrong became the oldest artist to hit number one on the pop song charts. The 1969 film adaptation of Hello, Dolly!, starring Barbara Streisand, featured Armstrong in a role as the leader of an orchestra. The film would be the last to feature an appearance from Armstrong.
Despite continued appearances and performances, Louis Armstrong’s health began a steady decline in the late 1960’s. By 1970, he had been sidelined for a number of months following a heart attack, and was also tending to a number of additional ailments. Louis Armstrong – or Pops, as he was often affectionately called – died on August 4th, 1971 in New York City. He was 69 years old.
The legacy of Louis Armstrong is so all-encompassing that it nearly defies summation with words. Before reaching the age of 30, Armstrong had already drastically changed the course of at least two styles of music, and was only beginning his ascent to stardom at this time. Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings were selected in 2002 for preservation in the United States National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress for their immense historical and cultural significance.
Following Armstrong’s passing in 1971, Duke Ellington – himself widely considered to be one of the all-time most important figures in the shaping of jazz music – said of Armstrong “If anybody was a master, it was Louis Armstrong. He was and will continue to be the embodiment of jazz.”
But perhaps Louis Armstrong himself put it best when he said, “When I pick up that horn, that’s all. The world’s behind me, and I don’t feel no different about that horn now than I did when I was playing in New Orleans. That’s my living and my life. I love them notes. That’s why I try to make them right.”
Louis Armstrong was no mere performing artist, but a world unto himself. The multitude of ways in which he affected several highly influential, and often conflicting, corners of the American cultural landscape is a feat of which most could not even conceive, let alone set about accomplishing.
If Armstrong’s legacy were to be summed up by way of a single song, one might argue that the most appropriate candidate would be a late career addition to his astonishing 19 “Top 10” charting records, “What a Wonderful World.” The tune, which has become something of a signature song for the pioneer, seems to radiate the joy and enthusiasm displayed by Satchmo himself throughout his lengthy and influential tenure at the forefront of American music. In considering the wealth of material left behind by Armstrong for study by generations of artists and listeners, one just may be compelled to entertain the idea that, perhaps, it is a wonderful world after all.
Louis Armstrong | Biography And Best Songs article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2021
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