Louis Armstrong nicknamed “Satchmo,” “Pops” and, later, “Ambassador Satch,” was born in New Orleans, Louisiana on August 4, 1901. He was raised by his mother Mayann in a neighborhood so dangerous it was called “The Battlefield.” He only had a fifth-grade education, dropping out of school early to go to work. An early job working for the Jewish Karnofsky family allowed Armstrong to make enough money to purchase his first cornet.
Arrested and sent to the Colored Waif’s Home for Boys on New Year’s Eve 1912. There, under the tutelage of Peter Davis, he learned how to properly play the cornet, eventually becoming the leader of the Waif’s Home Brass Band. Released from the Waif’s Home in 1914, Armstrong set his sights on becoming a professional musician. Mentored by the city’s top cornetist, Joe “King” Oliver, Armstrong soon became one of the most in-demand cornetists in town, eventually working steadily on Mississippi riverboats.
King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band
Fame beckoned in 1922 when Oliver, then leading a band in Chicago, sent for Armstrong to play second cornet. Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band was the apex of the early, contrapuntal New Orleans ensemble style, and it included outstanding musicians such as the brothers Johnny and Baby Dodds and pianist Lil Hardin, who married Armstrong in 1924. The young Armstrong became popular through his ingenious ensemble lead and second cornet lines, his cornet duet passages (called “breaks”) with Oliver, and his solos. He recorded his first solos as a member of the Oliver band in such pieces as “Chimes Blues” and “Tears,” which Lil and Louis Armstrong composed.
Encouraged by his wife, Armstrong quit Oliver’s band to seek further fame. He played for a year in New York City in Fletcher Henderson’s band and on many recordings with others before returning to Chicago and playing in large orchestras. There he created his most important early works, the Armstrong Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings of 1925–28, on which he emerged as the first great jazz soloist. By then the New Orleans ensemble style, which allowed few solo opportunities, could no longer contain his explosive creativity. He retained vestiges of the style in such masterpieces as “Hotter than That,” “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue,” “Wild Man Blues,” and “Potato Head Blues” but largely abandoned it while accompanied by pianist Earl Hines (“West End Blues” and “Weather Bird”). By that time Armstrong was playing trumpet, and his technique was superior to that of all competitors. Altogether, his immensely compelling swing; his brilliant technique; his sophisticated, daring sense of harmony; his ever-mobile, expressive attack, timbre, and inflections; his gift for creating vital melodies; his dramatic, often complex sense of solo design; and his outsized musical energy and genius made these recordings major innovations in jazz.
Armstrong’s popularity continued to grow in Chicago throughout the decade, as he began playing other venues, including the Sunset Café and the Savoy Ballroom. A young pianist from Pittsburgh, Earl Hines, assimilated Armstrong’s ideas into his piano playing.
Together, Armstrong and Hines formed a potent team and made some of the greatest recordings in jazz history in 1928, including their virtuoso duet, “Weather Bird,” and “West End Blues.”
The latter performance is one of Armstrong’s best known works, opening with a stunning cadenza that features equal helpings of opera and the blues; with its release, “West End Blues” proved to the world that the genre of fun, danceable jazz music was also capable of producing high art.
Armstrong was a famous musician by 1929, when he moved from Chicago to New York City and performed in the theatre review Hot Chocolates. He toured America and Europe as a trumpet soloist accompanied by big bands; for several years beginning in 1935, Luis Russell’s big band served as the Louis Armstrong band. During this time he abandoned the often blues-based original material of his earlier years for a remarkably fine choice of popular songs by such noted composers as Hoagy Carmichael, Irving Berlin, and Duke Ellington. With his new repertoire came a new, simplified style: he created melodic paraphrases and variations as well as chord-change-based improvisations on these songs. His trumpet range continued to expand, as demonstrated in the high-note showpieces in his repertoire. His beautiful tone and gift for structuring bravura solos with brilliant high-note climaxes led to such masterworks as “That’s My Home,” “Body and Soul,” and “Star Dust.” One of the inventors of scat singing, he began to sing lyrics on most of his recordings, varying melodies or decorating with scat phrases in a gravel voice that was immediately identifiable. Although he sang such humorous songs as “Hobo, You Can’t Ride This Train,” he also sang many standard songs, often with an intensity and creativity that equaled those of his trumpet playing.
From 1935 to the end of his life, Armstrong’s career was managed by Joe Glaser, who hired Armstrong’s bands and guided his film career (beginning with Pennies from Heaven, 1936) and radio appearances. Though his own bands usually played in a more conservative style, Armstrong was the dominant influence on the swing era, when most trumpeters attempted to emulate his inclination to dramatic structure, melody, or technical virtuosity. Trombonists, too, appropriated Armstrong’s phrasing, and saxophonists as different as Coleman Hawkins and Bud Freeman modeled their styles on different aspects of Armstrong’s. Above all else, his swing-style trumpet playing influenced virtually all jazz horn players who followed him, and the swing and rhythmic suppleness of his vocal style were important influences on singers from Billie Holiday to Bing Crosby.
By the mid-’40s, the Swing Era was winding down and the era of big bands was almost over. Seeing “the writing on the wall,” Armstrong scaled down to a smaller six-piece combo, the All Stars; personnel would frequently change, but this would be the group Armstrong would perform live with until the end of his career.
Members of the group, at one time or another, included Jack Teagarden, Earl Hines, Sid Catlett, Barney Bigard, Trummy Young, Edmond Hall, Billy Kyle and Tyree Glenn, among other jazz legends.
Armstrong continued recording for Decca in the late 1940s and early ’50s, creating a string of popular hits, including “Blueberry Hill,” “That Lucky Old Sun,” “La Vie En Rose,” “A Kiss to Build a Dream On” and “I Get Ideas.”
Armstrong signed with Columbia Records in the mid-’50s, and soon cut some of the finest albums of his career for producer George Avakian, including Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy and Satch Plays Fats. It was also for Columbia that Armstrong scored one of the biggest hits of his career: His jazz transformation of Kurt Weill’s “Mack the Knife.”
During the mid-’50s, Armstrong’s popularity overseas skyrocketed. This led some to alter his long-time nickname, Satchmo, to “Ambassador Satch.”
He performed all over the world in the 1950s and ’60s, including throughout Europe, Africa and Asia. Legendary CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow followed Armstrong with a camera crew on some of his worldwide excursions, turning the resulting footage into a theatrical documentary, Satchmo the Great, released in 1957.
Bebop, a new form of jazz, had blossomed in the 1940s. Featuring young geniuses such as Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, the younger generation of musicians saw themselves as artists, not as entertainers.
They saw Armstrong’s stage persona and music as old-fashioned and criticized him in the press. Armstrong fought back, but for many young jazz fans, he was regarded as an out-of-date performer with his best days behind him.
The civil rights movement was growing stronger with each passing year, with more protests, marches and speeches from African Americans wanting equal rights. To many young jazz listeners at the time, Armstrong’s ever-smiling demeanor seemed like it was from a bygone era, and the trumpeter’s refusal to comment on politics for many years only furthered perceptions that he was out of touch.
Little Rock Nine
These views changed in 1957, when Armstrong saw the Little Rock Central High School integration crisis on television. Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus sent in the National Guard to prevent the Little Rock Nine — nine African-American students — from entering the public school.
When Armstrong saw this — as well as white protesters hurling invective at the students — he blew his top to the press, telling a reporter that President Dwight D. Eisenhower had “no guts” for letting Faubus run the country, and stating, “The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell.”
Armstrong’s words made front-page news around the world. Though he had finally spoken out after years of remaining publicly silent, he received criticism at the time from both black and white public figures.
Not a single jazz musician who had previously criticized him took his side — but today, this is seen as one of the bravest, most definitive moments of Armstrong’s life.
Armstrong’s four marriages never produced any children, and because he and wife Lucille Wilson had actively tried for years to no avail, many believed him to be sterile, incapable of having children.
However, controversy regarding Armstrong’s fatherhood struck in 1954, when a girlfriend that the musician had dated on the side, Lucille “Sweets” Preston, claimed she was pregnant with his child. Preston gave birth to a daughter, Sharon Preston, in 1955.
Shortly thereafter, Armstrong bragged about the child to his manager, Joe Glaser, in a letter that would later be published in the book Louis Armstrong In His Own Words (1999). Thereafter until his death in 1971, however, Armstrong never publicly addressed whether he was in fact Sharon’s father.
In recent years, Armstrong’s alleged daughter, who now goes by the name Sharon Preston Folta, has publicized various letters between her and her father. The letters, dated as far back as 1968, prove that Armstrong had indeed always believed Sharon to be his daughter, and that he even paid for her education and home, among several other things, throughout his life. Perhaps most importantly, the letters also detail Armstrong’s fatherly love for Sharon.
While only a DNA test could officially prove whether a blood relationship does exist between Armstrong and Sharon — and one has never been conducted between the two — believers and skeptics can at least agree on one thing: Sharon’s uncanny resemblance to the jazz legend.
Armstrong continued a grueling touring schedule into the late ’50s, and it caught up with him in 1959, when he had a heart attack while traveling in Spoleto, Italy. The musician didn’t let the incident stop him, however, and after taking a few weeks off to recover, he was back on the road, performing 300 nights a year into the 1960s.
Armstrong was still a popular attraction around the world in 1963, but hadn’t made a record in two years. In December of that year, he was called into the studio to record the title number for a Broadway show that hadn’t opened yet: Hello, Dolly!
The record was released in 1964 and quickly climbed to the top of the pop music charts, hitting the No. 1 slot in May 1964, and knocking the Beatles off the top at the height of Beatlemania.
This newfound popularity introduced Armstrong to a new, younger audience, and he continued making both successful records and concert appearances for the rest of the decade, even cracking the “Iron Curtain” with a tour of Communist countries such as East Berlin and Czechoslovakia in 1965.
What a Wonderful World
In 1967, Armstrong recorded a new ballad, “What a Wonderful World.” Different from most of his recordings of the era, the song features no trumpet and places Armstrong’s gravelly voice in the middle of a bed of strings and angelic voices.
Armstrong sang his heart out on the number, thinking of his home in Queens as he did so, but “What a Wonderful World” received little promotion in the United States.
The tune did, however, become a No. 1 hit around the world, including in England and South Africa, and eventually became one of Armstrong’s most-beloved songs after it was used in the 1986 Robin Williams film Good Morning, Vietnam.
By 1968, Armstrong’s grueling lifestyle had finally caught up with him. Heart and kidney problems forced him to stop performing in 1969. That same year, his longtime manager, Joe Glaser, passed away. Armstrong spent much of that year at home, but managed to continue practicing the trumpet daily.
By the summer of 1970, Armstrong was allowed to perform publicly again and play the trumpet. After a successful engagement in Las Vegas, Armstrong began taking engagements around the world, including in London and Washington, D.C. and New York (he performed for two weeks at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria). However, a heart attack two days after the Waldorf gig sidelined him for two months.
Armstrong returned home in May 1971, and though he soon resumed playing again and promised to perform in public once more, he died in his sleep on July 6, 1971, at his home in Queens, New York.
Since his death, Armstrong’s stature has only continued to grow. In the 1980s and ’90s, younger African-American jazz musicians like Wynton Marsalis, Jon Faddis and Nicholas Payton began speaking about Armstrong’s importance, both as a musician and a human being.
A series of new biographies on Armstrong made his role as a civil rights pioneer abundantly clear and, subsequently, argued for an embrace of his entire career’s output, not just the revolutionary recordings from the 1920s.
Armstrong’s home in Corona, Queens was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1977; today, the house is home to the Louis Armstrong House Museum, which annually receives thousands of visitors from all over the world.
One of the most important figures in 20th century music, Armstrong’s innovations as a trumpeter and vocalist are widely recognized today, and will continue to be for decades to come.