Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Louis Armstrong

Louis Armstrong often stated in interviews that he was born on July 4, 1900. It wasn't until more than a decade after his death, that the real birth date of August 4, 1901 was discovered after careful examination of baptismal records in New Orleans. His birth was recorded as "out-of-wedlock black child"

Louis Daniel Armstrong was born into a very poor family in New Orleans, Louisiana and was the grandson of a slave. His father abandoned the family when Louis was an infant and his mother left him and his sister in the care of their grandmother or an uncle for periods of time. He attended the Fisk school, but often hung out at nearby clubs and dance halls to listen to the music. He earned some money by delivering papers, hauling coal and other odd jobs. He dropped out of school at age 11 and joined up with three other boys in similar straits to sing for money on the streets. He learned to play the cornet and bought his first one with money he received from a Jewish immigrant family named Karnofsky. The Karnofsky's owned a junk hauling business. Louis did odd jobs for them and the family took him in as practically one of their own. They nurtured and fed him. Armstrong always wore a "Star of David" on his lapel as a symbol of gratitude to the family for the rest of his life.

Armstrong often got in trouble as a youth and was sent to The New Orleans Home for Colored Waifs - most notably for general delinquency. It was while there, that he began to really develop his cornet playing. His first real music instructor was Professor Peter Davis. Davis eventually made Armstrong the band leader for The Home's band. The band was well known in the city in part due to the obvious talent of its' young leader.

After his release from The Home, at age 14, he lived briefly with his father, then his mother and then back on the streets. He got his first real gig as a musician at a dance hall. He hauled coal by day and played cornet at night.

Armstrong's first marriage was to Daisy Parker on March 19, 1918, The marriage didn't last long and she died not long after they divorced. They had adopted the mentally disabled 3 year old son of Armstrong's cousin. Armstrong, took care of the boy the rest of his life.

In 1919, he replaced King Oliver in Kid Ory's band and was soon promoted to first cornet. He also played first trumpet for a jazz society brass band and did a lot of work as a riverboat musician. He learned to read music and found his own unique styling and sound for his solo work. In 1922, Armstrong was invited by his mentor, King Oliver, to come to Chicago, so he joined a growing migration of New Orleans musicians who headed north. Race relations were not good in Chicago, but there was a lot of work for black people and they had money to spend on entertainment. Armstrong would not have to supplement his income with a day labour job up north. Jazz music ruled in Chicago at the time and Armstrong lived like a king for the first time in his life!

Armstrong did his first recordings in Chicago. Although a successful musician with Oliver's band, Louis' second wife, pianist Lil Hardin Armstrong encouraged him to branch out on his own and develop his style further. She got him to play more classical pieces while in church and to spruce up his attire to make him look more professional. He played with Fletcher Henderson for a year and also travelled to New York to work in various clubs and on recordings.

Louis Armstrong had also been working on his singing and patter to include with the musical act. He worked on numerous recordings in the Chicago area and for a time was actually a part of his wife's band. After they separated, Louis worked in a band with Earl Hines on piano, for Joe Glaser - an associate of Al Capone.

In 1929, he returned to New York and worked in the pit orchestra for the all black revue "Hot Chocolate". Armstrong often stole the show with his cameo performance of "Ain't Misbehavin'" - which also became one of his most successful recordings. His recordings of "Stardust" and "Lazy River" were also big hits.

During the depression of the 1930's, a lot of jazz clubs were forced to close. Armstrong moved to L.A. for a time and also returned to New Orleans before travelling to Europe. he did several tours when he returned to the states, but also ran into financial troubles. He hired Joe Glaser as his manager to straighten things out. Louis was also experiencing some problems with his fingers and his lips due to his unorthodox style, so he continued to develop his singing and ventured into movies with an appearance in "Pennies From Heaven" (1936).

In 1937, Louis became the first black performer to host a sponsored, national radio show. He also finally divorced second wife Lil and married long time girlfriend Alpha. By 1943, he had permanently settled in Queens, New York and was touring with a small group of musicians and playing about 300 gigs/year. "The All Stars", as they were collectively known, toured North America, Europe, Asia and Africa. Various recordings for Okeh Records were also doing very well and there were more movie appearances.

By the 1960's, failing health was slowing his schedule, but he continued to perform and record till the day he died. The nickname "Satchmo" was short for satchelmouth. Melody Makers magazine editor Percy Brooks gave him the name in 1931 and it stuck. The nickname "pops" was also a common name greeting among the jazz community and his friends. He was sometimes criticized for not taking a stronger stand in the civil rights movement, but instead chose to contribute financially behind the scenes to people like Martin Luther King Jr. and others. He preferred to keep his politics separate from his entertainment career.

Bing Crosby was greatly inspired by Armstrong and they even recorded together with songs like "Gone Fishin'". Armstrong recorded with jazz greats; Bessie Smith, Lionel Hampton, Duke Ellington and the amazing Ella Fitzgerald among others.

Louis and Ella were a wonderful combination. Their collaborations were classics and produced hits that included: "Summertime"; "Moonlight in Vermont"; They Can't Take That Away From Me"; "A Foggy Day"; "Dream A Little Dream Of Me"; "April In Paris"; and my two favourites - "Stars Fell On Alabama" and "Cheek To Cheek".

Louis Armstrong had a hit record with "Hello Dolly" in 1964 at age 63, He actually knocked The Beatles out of the top spot on the charts! Some of his other hits included: "Basin Street Blues"; "When It's Sleepy Time Down South"; "When You're Smiling"; "Jeepers Creepers"; "Making Whoopee"; "On The Sunny Side Of The Street"; "You Rascal You"; "Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans"; "La Vie En Rose"; "A Kiss To Build A Dream On" and the now classic "What A Wonderful World".

His music has been featured in movies such as "Sleepless In Seattle" (1993) and "Good Morning Vietnam" (1987). The later resulted in the song "What A Wonderful World" becoming a hit all over again and helped introduce a whole new generation to the talented performer.

Louis Armstrong died just after suffering a heart attack on July 6, 1971. "His honorary pallbearers included Governor Rockefeller, Mayor Lindsay, Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Guy Lombardo, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Pearl Bailey, Count Basie, Harry James, Frank Sinatra, Ed Sullivan, Earl Wilson, Alan King, Johnny Carson, David Frost, Merv Griffin, Dick Cavett and Bobby Hackett.

Peggy Lee sang The Lord's Prayer at the services while Al Hibbler sang Nobody Knows The Trouble I've Seen and Fred Robbins, a long time friend, gave the eulogy."

Armstrong was honored with a U.S. postage stamp in 1995. The New Orleans Airport was renamed "Louis Armstrong International" on August 4, 2001. He has won numerous awards and been inducted into several prestigious music halls of fame.

An aunt of mine was lucky enough to see Armstrong live in concert during one of his tours in the late 1950's here in Winnipeg. She told me it was one of the most memorable performances she ever saw. I never really realized just how versatile and talented he was until about 20 some years ago. Luckily for me and countless other fans, he has left us a timeless legacy of musical selections to enjoy for generations to come.


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