Louis Armstrong (1901–1971)

“We don’t play this next tune too slow, and we don’t play it too fast,” said Louis Armstrong, live and in person. “We just play it kind of half-fast.” That may have been an old pun even then (1954), but I guffawed loudly, much to my father’s dismay. It was the first time I’d heard it. I was just 16 and in a celebratory mood, for our family was in New York on our first trip east, ever, and I had managed to nag my father into taking me to Basin Street East. I was, you see, a newly minted jazz fan.

I might have preferred seeing someone cooler, like Miles Davis, but Dad could not stand modern jazz. He liked Satchmo though. How not? Armstrong was funny, engaging, and sang in a gravelly voice and rolled his eyes.

Davis, the trumpeter who fathered the “Birth of the Cool,” did not go for such shenanigans. “Those talk shows would take a black man on television back then only if he grinned, became a clown, like Louis Armstrong did,” he says in his autobiography.

But Armstrong was more than a clown—just as jazz has turned out to be more than raucous, exuberant music. Today, it is the United States’ native art form, loved and revered throughout the world, and it is Armstrong’s gifts with the cornet and trumpet that, more than anything else, transformed the gutbucket sounds of New Orleans into something that—while it can still be raucous—can also run deep.

Wynton Marsalis, one of today’s trumpet masters and the creative director of Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York, says that Armstrong invented a new style of playing. “He created the coherent solo, fused the sound of the blues with the American popular song, extended the range of the trumpet,” Marsalis says. “Louis Armstrong created the melodic and rhythmic vocabulary that all the big bands wrote out of. And all the musicians imitated him.”

Or tried to. Most trumpeters rarely played higher than high C, but Armstrong would soar even higher, to F, and he did so with a big, robust sound. But as with Mozart, there was more to him than technical bravura. According to Marsalis: “His sound had a light in it. That’s the only way I can describe it. You can’t practice to get that. It’s a spiritual presence.”

Armstrong was born with the 20th century, or so he always thought—July 4, 1900, he claimed. Actually, it was on the less mythic day of August 4, 1901, in New Orleans. He was raised by his single mother, along with his sister, in a rented room in black Storyville, the section of the red-light district for African Americans (separate but equal).

Jazz is Americas native art form, and musician Louis Armstrong, born in 1900, helped make it a phenomenon of the 20th century.

Jazz is America’s native art form, and musician Louis Armstrong, born in 1900, helped make it a phenomenon of the 20th century. (Library of Congress)

There was a dancehall near his mother’s room called Funky Butt Hall. On Saturday nights, Armstrong and other kids would peek through the cracks in the walls at the sweating dancers who “got down to the floor and wiggled,” he remembered, to the sensual, bluesy music. This was part of the musical smorgasbord he was exposed to in his youth—blues, ragtime, brass band parades, spirituals, and so on.

When Armstrong was 11, he dropped out of school and began to drift into trouble. On New Year’s Day in 1913, he was arrested for firing a pistol in the streets and sent to the Colored Waif’s Home for an indeterminate time.

Despondent at first, he asked to join the home’s marching band, and the director, Peter Davis, had him try the tambourine, then the alto horn and bugle, and finally the cornet. That was it! He soon developed what an older musician called a “good solid tone” and became an important fixture in the band.

Leaving the waif’s home a year and a half later, thanks to his good behavior and musical talent, Armstrong began performing at night in Storyville honky-tonks. The customers and proprietors were rough—“a notorious group,” Armstrong recalled—with names like Cheeky Black, Roughhouse Camel, Cocaine Buddy, and Mary Meat Market. Armstrong too had nicknames, among them “Dippermouth” and “Satchelmouth.” The latter, shortened to “Satchmo,” stayed with him his whole life.

At the age of 18, he came to the attention of Joseph “King” Oliver—“the top cornet in New Orleans, the first big musician in my life and still... the best I ever met,” Armstrong said later. Oliver was then playing with trombonist Kid Ory at Pete Lala’s, and when it closed at midnight, he would come and listen to Louis.

Oliver admired the boy’s big, warm tone, liked his eagerness to learn, let him substitute for him in the band he led with Ory, and one day handed him a battered cornet. “I prized that horn,” Armstrong said later. It was more than a horn of course; it pointed to a way out of the slums.

The king left New Orleans in 1918 for Chicago and a gig with his new Creole Jazz Band at the Lincoln Gardens Café on the South Side. Meanwhile, his protégé started going up and down the Mississippi River as far as St. Paul and back every summer, playing for dancers on steamboats with Fate Marable’s Band. Marable was a disciplinarian and insisted that his young cornetist learn to read music.

Next stop, Chicago, in 1922, for the King had sent word that he wanted Louis to join his band there at the Lincoln Gardens. “I was so happy I did not know what to do,” Armstrong said later. “I had hit the big time.”

The band was a huge hit, and on April 5, 1923, it traveled to Indiana to make its first records for the Gennett Record Co. The band sounds crisp and tightly knit, doing mostly ensemble work in the New Orleans mode. However, on one tune, “Chimes Blues,” Armstrong takes his first recorded solo. It is brief but very fluid and swinging and full of warmth.

In 1924, Armstrong reluctantly left the Creole Jazz Band at the urging of his new wife, Lil Hardin, who had been the band’s pianist. He had an offer from a larger orchestra in New York and felt that was the place to be.

It was Fletcher Henderson’s, which had a steady gig at the Roseland Ballroom. The size of the city, and of the orchestra itself, made him nervous at first. “Then, suddenly, Louis Armstrong bursts forth, as if from another universe, boldly pointing the way to the future,” jazz historian Geoffrey C. Ward says. “He is simultaneously hotter than anyone else and more relaxed, pushing or retarding the beat whenever it suits his purposes, sustaining end-of-phrase tones instead of biting them off as the New Yorkers did, soaring above the sometimes plodding ensemble, always unmistakably himself and always related to the blues, no matter the tune or tempo.”

Meanwhile, Lil, back in Chicago, began to suspect that Louis might be enjoying himself too much. She was leading her own band at Dreamland and talked the owner into making him a $75-a-week offer. She sent a telegram to her husband with news of the offer and the date she was expecting him—period.

Louis came. He subsequently found jobs with several other bands, but maybe the most momentous thing that happened to him was the forming of his own.

In 1925, Richard M. Jones, Okeh’s producer of “race records” (i.e., music for blacks), thought it was time that Armstrong made some recordings under his own name. So on November 12, Louis and a pickup band he called his Hot Five gathered at the Okeh studio in Chicago and recorded the first 3 of 65 sides.

This was to be a recording band only, and it is worth interjecting here how important it was that the recording industry developed contemporaneously with jazz. (The Victrola had been introduced in 1901.) Jazz was largely a performed and improvised music, and it is sobering to think how much of it would have been lost without recordings.

The Hot Five’s personnel would change over the years, but Armstrong’s first group comprised musicians he had played with before—pianist Lil, clarinetist Johnny Dodds, trombonist Kid Ory, and banjoist Johnny St. Cyr. Their first side was “Gut Bucket Blues,” with Armstrong’s spoken introduction to each musician’s playing, beginning with the banjo: “Oh play that thing, Mr. St. Cyr lawd—you know you can do it—everybody from New Orleans can really do that thing! Hi, hi.”

“Gut Bucket” served a practical purpose via hokum. But many of the sides recorded by the various avatars of the Hot Five (later the Hot Seven) went way beyond that. On February 26, 1926, the Hot Five met again to record six more sides. On the liner notes of his reissue on Columbia of the first Hot Five sessions, producer George Avakian said:

Louis wasted no time in breaking new ground. He promptly introduced “scat singing” on the band’s first runaway best seller, “Heebie Jeebies.” No one before Armstrong had ever created as daring and effective a device for a jazz soloist as the “stop chorus” (“Cornet Chop Suey”), or built a tune so completely on breaks as “Skid-Dat-De-Dat,” in which he also used his voice as an instrument for the first time.

“Breaks” in jazz occur where the entire band abruptly stops playing except the soloist, and “scat singing” is when the singer improvises nonsense syllables instead of the “real” lyrics.

An even more astonishing performance occurred on June 28, 1928, after Lil Armstrong had been replaced by the great Earl Hines as the band’s pianist (as she had been replaced by another woman as Louis’s love interest). The song was “West End Blues,” written by King Oliver.

It opens with an incredible, unaccompanied cadenza, a kind of fanfare. Marsalis, who illustrates his remarks with his own horn in Ken Burns’s documentary Jazz, demonstrates some fanfares (including the one from Beethoven’s Leonore overture) and finally comes to “West End Blues.”

“That’s like another whole concept of a fanfare,” Marsalis says, “and Armstrong goes into two different times, and he uses the same—boop-a-doo, boop-a-doo, boop-a-doo—arpeggio, then he uses all those chromatic notes and the sound of the blues—it’s like everything is in there, but it’s so natural, it sounds very simple. But let me tell you, it’s hard to get that D too, and when you hear him play it, the brilliance of it!”

A reflective ensemble chorus follows, then a funereal trombone solo, then a low-register clarinet solo while Armstrong vocalizes a wordless, wistful obbligato behind it, as moving as anything he ever sang. Hines adds an almost classical piano chorus before Armstrong breaks into a radiant solo, beginning with a single note held without apparent effort for four measures. “West End Blues” is, Ward says, “one of the most sublime recordings in the history of music.”

Some believe that the high point of Armstrong’s artistic career came in the 1920s with the Hot Five and Hot Seven (and to some degree, the Savoy Ballroom Seven) recordings. These were all small groups, based on the New Orleans frontline of a trumpet, trombone, clarinet and a rhythm section of a piano, bass (originally tuba), and drums. It is much easier to do ensemble improvising with such a group as compared with a big band, where the musicians need at least a chart to play together at all. The fact that Armstrong came back to the so-called “Dixieland” lineup later in life with his “All-Stars” (the band my dad and I saw at Basin Street East in the 1950s) speaks volumes about where his heart was.

This essay tries to focus on Armstrong’s music and is somewhat stingy as regards biographical data; there is plenty of that on the Web. Despite Armstrong’s role as a game changer, jazz itself is the overriding subject here, for this music is a peculiarly American phenomenon of the 20th century, and its history is full of many geniuses like Armstrong (e.g., Charlie Parker). People like me who would rather listen to the music than pore over a printed biography might try getting the best of both by looking into the album called Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography of Louis Armstrong (in my collection, four LP vinyl records). Each track is a recreation of something Armstrong originally recorded in the 1920s and 1930s, preceded by Louis himself telling something about the history of each number. For example, before a tune he wrote with New Orleans legend Jell Roll Morton, Armstrong says:

Here’s one record the fans still seem to be really fond of. I made it originally with the Johnny Dodds Black Bottom Stompers in April 1927, with Earl Hines, Johnny, and Baby Dodds—“Wild Man Blues.” When we played the Sunset Café in Chicago, this tune went so long, until I’d go out in the kitchen to get a sandwich and a cup of coffee and come back and play my solo, and then Hines would go back in the kitchen and eat an order of meatballs and spaghetti and a cup of coffee, and we’d all meet back at the bandstand and swing out the last eight bars.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Armstrong became a much-loved public figure, despite some civil rights advocates who called him an “Uncle Tom.” “I love Pops,” said the singer Billie Holiday. “He Toms from the heart.” True, he did not believe in hating people just because they were different from himself, even Russians, which may be why the U.S. State Department chose him in 1956 to be the country’s goodwill ambassador-at-large. He and his All-Stars had been a huge success in the new country of Ghana, and they were poised to go to the Soviet Union when something stopped him.

Brown v. Public Schools had become law here at home, and TV sets were showing angry, hate-filled white mobs jeering and spitting at black children trying to enroll in Southern schools. Satchmo was enraged. He told a reporter that President Eisenhower had “no guts” and Gov. Faubus of Arkansas was an “uneducated plowboy.” “The way they’re treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell,” he said.

However—when Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne to insure that black children got to and from school safely, Armstrong sent this telegram to the president: “IF YOU DECIDE TO WALK INTO THE SCHOOLS WITH THE LITTLE COLORED KIDS, TAKE ME ALONG DADDY. GOD BLESS YOU.”

Armstrong had already been serving as an unofficial ambassador to Europe since his first overseas tour in 1932. In 1956, the same year as his Ghana trip, a scene in the popular movie High Society makes a pointed reference to his internationalism. In it, Bing Crosby sings Cole Porter’s “Now You Has Jazz” with Armstrong’s All-Stars. The last vocal chorus is a duet between Bing and Satchmo, both speaking and singing:

Satch: Well, arrivederci! And as for France?
Bing: Oh, I know you’ve been there, Big Daddy.
Satch: Yes, believe it or not.
Bing: Oh, I do believe, I do indeed!

Why, there’s even a rue Armstrong in Paris.

But soon Armstrong’s world began to shrink. His final years were fraught with pain. One cause was that his “chops” were not in good shape; his lip had become prone to splitting and liable to infection. He had suffered a heart attack in Italy in 1959 and acute heart failure in New York in 1968. When he was released from the hospital in 1969, he was forbidden to play his horn. Back at the house in Queens with his fourth wife, Lucille, he carried his silenced instrument with him constantly. He was hospitalized again, survived two more heart attacks, and insisted on being taken home. He died in his sleep on July 6, 1971.

At home. The home Lucille had found in 1943 to surprise him with when he came back from a six-month tour of one-nighters. He was elated with the narrow, three-story house in a working-class neighborhood in Queens, New York, the permanent home he had longed for since he was a boy on the streets of New Orleans.

When I first heard the song “That’s My Home” near the end of his Musical Autobiography, I was sure it must have been about that house in Queens, but probably not, since he first recorded it in 1932. Nevertheless, Arvell Shaw, the bass player I saw with Armstrong in the 1950s, says he would hear something special when his boss sang that song, and “so help me I’d have to fight back the tears.”

But what was it Louis clung to after doctors told him he had to stop playing his trumpet? “I fell in love with that horn, and it fell in love with me,” he once said, according to the late writer and editor Gilbert Millstein in the booklet that came with the Autobiography: “When I pick up that horn, that’s all.... Can’t take that away from me. If I’m in the gutter, I still got enough strength to blow in the ceiling. I mean, you got to live with that horn. That’s why I married four times. The chicks didn’t live with the horn. They got too carried away, all but the last, and forget everything about the horn. I don’t.”

The Muse is possessive.

—William Zander

References and Discography

Armstrong, Louis. “... and His Hot Five.” The Louis Armstrong Story. Vol. 1. The Golden Era Ser. Three 45 rpm EP records with liner notes by George Avakian. Columbia, 1951. 4 vols.

Armstrong, Louis.... and His Hot Five & Hot Seven, 1926–1928. Giants of Jazz Ser. Italian-issued audiocassette. Sarabandas srl, 1984.

Armstrong, Louis.... with King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band. Jazz Archives Ser. Ten-inch 331/3 rpm LP record with liner notes by Orrin Keepnews. Riverside, n.d. (orig. Gennett,1923).

Armstrong, Louis. Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography of Louis Armstrong. Four 12-inch 331/3 rpm LP records and booklet with profile by Louis Untermeyer and appreciation by Gilbert Millstein. MCA, 1980, re-issue of 1959 Decca album.

Burns, Ken and Geoffrey C. Ward. Jazz: A History of America’s Music. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.

Crosby, Bing and Louis Armstrong, acc. by Armstrong’s All-Stars, “Now You Has Jazz” by Cole Porter. High Society. Twelve-inch 331/3 rpm LP record of MGM film’s music, all by Porter. Capitol, 1956.

Davis, Miles, with Quincy Troupe. Miles: The Autobiography. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989.

Dodds, Johnny. The King of New Orleans Clarinets. Vol. 1. Ten-inch 331/3 LP record with liner notes by Eugene Williams. Brunswick, 1950.

Jazz. Vol. 3, “New Orleans.” Twelve-inch 331/3 LP record with introduction by Frederic Ramsey, Jr. Folkways, 1953.

Jazz. Vol. 5, “Chicago No. 1.” Twelve-inch 331/3 LP record with introduction by Frederic Ramsey, Jr. Folkways, 1951.

Marsalis, Wynton, in Episode 3: “Our Language.” Jazz, a documentary film in 10 episodes. Produced and directed by Ken Burns. PBS January 10, 2001.