Louis Daniel Armstrong (August 4, 1901 – July 6, 1971), nicknamed Satchmo, Satch, and Pops, was an American trumpeter, composer, singer and occasional actor who was one of the most influential figures in jazz. His career spanned five decades, from the 1920s to the 1960s, and different eras in the history of jazz. In 2017, he was inducted into the Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame.
Armstrong was born and raised in New Orleans. Coming to prominence in the 1920s as an “inventive” trumpet and cornet player, Armstrong was a foundational influence in jazz, shifting the focus of the music from collective improvisation to solo performance. Around 1922, he followed his mentor, Joe “King” Oliver, to Chicago to play in the Creole Jazz Band. In the Windy City, he networked with other jazz musicians, reconnecting with his friend, Bix Biederbecke, and made new contacts, which included Hoagy Carmichael and Lil Hardin. He earned a reputation at “cutting contests”, and moved to New York in order to join Fletcher Henderson’s band.
With his instantly recognizable gravelly voice, Armstrong was also an influential singer, demonstrating great dexterity as an improviser, bending the lyrics and melody of a song for expressive purposes. He was also very skilled at scat singing. Armstrong is renowned for his charismatic stage presence and voice almost as much as for his trumpet playing. Armstrong’s influence extends well beyond jazz, and by the end of his career in the 1960s, he was widely regarded as a profound influence on popular music in general. Armstrong was one of the first truly popular African-American entertainers to “cross over”, whose skin color was secondary to his music in an America that was extremely racially divided at the time. He rarely publicly politicized his race, often to the dismay of fellow African Americans, but took a well-publicized stand for desegregation in the Little Rock crisis. His artistry and personality allowed him access to the upper echelons of American society, then highly restricted for black men.
Armstrong often stated that he was born on July 4, 1900. Although he died in 1971, it was not until the mid-1980s that his true birth date, August 4, 1901, was discovered by the researcher Tad Jones through the examination of baptismal records. At least three other biographies treat the July 4th birth date as a myth.
Armstrong was born in New Orleans on August 4, 1901 to Mary Albert and William Armstrong. Mary Albert hailed from Boutte, Louisiana, and gave birth while she was around sixteen years of age at their home on Jane Alley, between Perdido and Poydras streets. William Armstrong abandoned the family shortly after Louis was born. About two years later, William sired a daughter, Beatrice “Mama Lucy” Armstrong, who was reared by Mary Albert. Josephine, Louis’ maternal grandmother, raised him until he was about five, after which he returned to Mary Albert. He spent his youth in poverty, in a rough neighborhood known as the Battlefield. At the age of six he began attending the Fisk School for Boys, where he acquired literacy and gained early exposure to music. Schools were racially segregated in New Orleans. Fisk was located in his neighborhood and enrolled African-American children. During his school years, he continued to bring in money delivering coal and other odd jobs working for the Karnoffskys, a family of Lithuanian Jews. He sold coal for a nickel per bucket, in many cases, to the brothels in Storyville. Making the rounds with the Karnoffsky family while delivering coal exposed Louis to music by spasm bands, and the house musicians playing at brothels and dance halls. This last type of venue included Pete Lala’s, where Joe “King” Oliver performed, as did other famous musicians who would drop in to jam.
The Karnoffskys took him in and treated him like family; knowing he lived without a father, they fed and nurtured him. He later wrote a memoir of his relationship with the Karnoffskys, Louis Armstrong + the Jewish Family in New Orleans, La., the Year of 1907. In it he described his discovery that this family was also subject to discrimination by “other white folks” who felt that they were better than Jews: “I was only seven years old but I could easily see the ungodly treatment that the White Folks were handing the poor Jewish family whom I worked for.” Armstrong wore a Star of David pendant for the rest of his life and wrote about what he learned from them: “how to live—real life and determination.” His first music gig may have been at the side of the Karnoffsky’s junk wagon. To distinguish them from other hawkers, Louis tried playing a tin horn instead of ringing a bell as a means of attracting the attention of potential customers. Morris Karnoffsky advanced young Louis $2 toward the purchase of a $5 cornet from a pawn shop, then cleaned and oiled it. In general, the family encouraged Louis’ musical pursuits.
Armstrong dropped out of school during fifth grade, at age eleven. At around the same time, Mary Albert moved to a one-room house on Perdido Street with Louis, her daughter Lucy, and her common-law husband, Tom Lee. They lived next door to Mary Albert’s brother Ike and his two sons. Armstrong joined a quartet of boys who sang in the streets for money. He also started to get into trouble. Cornet player Bunk Johnson said he taught Armstrong (then 11) to play by ear at Dago Tony’s Tonk in New Orleans, although in his later years Armstrong gave the credit to Oliver. Armstrong hardly looked back at his youth as the worst of times but drew inspiration from it instead: “Every time I close my eyes blowing that trumpet of mine—I look right in the heart of good old New Orleans… It has given me something to live for.”
He hung out in dance halls close to home, where he observed everything from licentious dancing to the quadrille.
Armstrong was arrested on December 31, 1912 for firing a .38 revolver in the air. He had gone to sing on the streets for money, and had taken his stepfather’s handgun, without permission. The round fired was a blank. Armstrong was held overnight at the New Orleans Juvenile Court. The following day, Armstrong was sentenced to detention at the Colored Waif’s Home. Lodgings and meals there were “spartan”, as there were no mattresses and they many times ate just bread and molasses. Captain Joseph Jones, the overseer, ran the home like a military camp and sometimes employed severe corporal punishment.
At the Colored Waif’s home, Armstrong developed his cornet playing skills by playing in the band with other residents. Professor Peter Davis (who frequently appeared at the home at the request of Captain Jones) instilled discipline in and provided musical training to the otherwise self-taught Armstrong. Eventually, Davis made Armstrong the band leader. The home band played around New Orleans and the thirteen-year-old Louis began to draw attention for his cornet playing, including from Kid Ory, starting him on a musical career.
On June 14, 1914, Armstrong was released into the custody of his father and his new stepmother, Gertrude. He lived in this household, with two stepbrothers, for several months. When Gertrude gave birth to a daughter, however, Louis’ father no longer welcomed him, so he returned to live with his birth mother, Mary Albert. The house was so cramped that he had to sleep in the same bed with his mother and sister. His mother still lived in the same part of the Battleground neighborhood, which left him exposed to old temptations. But Armstrong continued to seek work as a musician until he found his first dance hall job at Henry Ponce’s, a club owner with ties to organized crime. Armstrong met the six-foot-six drummer Black Benny, who became his protector and guide.
Armstrong played in brass band parades in New Orleans. He also took the opportunity to take in the music of local musicians, such as Kid Ory, and also his idol, “King” Oliver.
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