Armstrong (August 4, 1901 – July 6, 1971), nicknamed Satchmo or
Pops, was an American jazz trumpeter and singer from New Orleans, Louisiana.
Coming to prominence in the 1920s as an 'inventive' cornet and trumpet
player, Armstrong was a foundational influence in jazz, shifting the music's
focus from collective improvisation to solo performance. With his instantly
recognizable deep and distinctive gravelly voice, resembling the sound of a
trumpet, 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 greatly skilled at scat singing, vocalizing
using sounds and syllables instead of actual lyrics.
Renowned for his charismatic stage presence and voice almost as much as for
his trumpet-playing, Armstrong's influence extends well beyond jazz music,
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 severely
racially divided. It allowed him socially acceptable access to the upper
echelons of American society that were highly restricted for a person of
color. While he rarely publicly politicized his race, often to the dismay of
fellow African-Americans, he was privately a strong supporter of the Civil
Rights movement in America.
On March 19, 1918, Louis married Daisy Parker from Gretna, Louisiana. They
adopted a 3-year-old boy, Clarence Armstrong, whose mother, Louis's cousin
Flora, died soon after giving birth. Clarence Armstrong was mentally
disabled (the result of a head injury at an early age) and Louis would spend
the rest of his life taking care of him. Louis's marriage to Parker failed
quickly and they separated. She died shortly after the divorce.
Through all his riverboat experience Armstrong’s musicianship began to
mature and expand. At twenty, he could read music and he started to be
featured in extended trumpet solos, one of the first jazzmen to do this,
injecting his own personality and style into his solo turns. He had learned
how to create a unique sound and also started using singing and patter in
his performances. In 1922, Armstrong joined the exodus to Chicago, where he
had been invited by his mentor, Joe 'King' Oliver, to join his Creole Jazz
Band and where he could make a sufficient income so that he no longer needed
to supplement his music with day labor jobs. It was a boom time in Chicago
and though race relations were poor, the “Windy City” was teeming with jobs
for black people, who were making good wages in factories and had plenty to
spend on entertainment.
Oliver's band was the best and most influential hot jazz band in Chicago in
the early 1920s, at a time when Chicago was the center of the jazz universe.
Armstrong lived like a king in Chicago, in his own apartment with his own
private bath (his first). Excited as he was to be in Chicago, he began his
career-long pastime of writing nostalgic letters to friends in New Orleans.
As Armstrong’s reputation grew, he was challenged to “cutting contests” by
hornmen trying to displace the new phenom, who could blow two hundred high
C’s in a row. Armstrong made his first recordings on the Gennett and Okeh
labels (jazz records were starting to boom across the country), including
taking some solos and breaks, while playing second cornet in Oliver's band
in 1923. At this time, he met Hoagy Carmichael (with whom he would
collaborate later) who was introduced by friend Bix Beiderbecke, who now had
his own Chicago band.
Armstrong enjoyed working with Oliver, but Louis's second wife, pianist Lil
Hardin Armstrong, urged him to seek more prominent billing and develop his
newer style away from the influence of Oliver. Armstrong took the advice of
his wife and left Oliver's band. For a year Armstrong played in Fletcher
Henderson's band in New York on many recordings. After playing in New York,
Armstrong returned to Chicago, playing in large orchestras; there he created
his most important early recordings. Lil had her husband play classical
music in church concerts to broaden his skill and improve his solo play and
she prodded him into wearing more stylish attire to make him look sharp and
to better offset his growing girth. Lil’s influence eventually undermined
Armstrong’s relationship with his mentor, especially concerning his salary
and additional moneys that Oliver held back from Armstrong and other band
members. Armstrong and Oliver parted amicably in 1924. Shortly afterward,
Armstrong received an invitation to go to New York City to play with the
Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, the top African-American band of the day.
Armstrong switched to the trumpet to blend in better with the other
musicians in his section. His influence upon Henderson's tenor sax soloist,
Coleman Hawkins, can be judged by listening to the records made by the band
during this period.
Armstrong quickly adapted to the more tightly controlled style of Henderson,
playing trumpet and even experimenting with the trombone and the other
members quickly took up Armstrong’s emotional, expressive pulse. Soon his
act included singing and telling tales of New Orleans characters, especially
preachers. The Henderson Orchestra was playing in the best venues for
white-only patrons, including the famed Roseland Ballroom, featuring the
classy arrangements of Don Redman. Duke Ellington’s orchestra would go to
Roseland to catch Armstrong’s performances and young hornmen around town
tried in vain to outplay him, splitting their lips in their attempts.
During this time, Armstrong made many recordings on the side, arranged by an
old friend from New Orleans, pianist Clarence Williams; these included small
jazz band sides with the Williams Blue Five (some of the best pairing
Armstrong with one of Armstrong's few rivals in fiery technique and ideas,
Sidney Bechet) and a series of accompaniments with blues singers, including
Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, and Alberta Hunter.
Armstrong returned to Chicago in 1925 due mostly to the urging of his wife,
who wanted to pump up Armstrong’s career and income. He was content in New
York but later would concede that she was right and that the Henderson
Orchestra was limiting his artistic growth. In publicity, much to his
chagrin, she billed him as “the World’s Greatest Trumpet Player”. At first
he was actually a member of the Lil Hardin Armstrong Band and working for
his wife. He began recording under his own name for Okeh with his famous Hot
Five and Hot Seven groups, producing hits such as 'Potato Head Blues',
'Muggles', (a reference to marijuana, for which Armstrong had a lifelong
fondness), and 'West End Blues', the music of which set the standard and the
agenda for jazz for many years to come.
The group included Kid Ory (trombone), Johnny Dodds (clarinet), Johnny St.
Cyr (banjo), wife Lil on piano, and usually no drummer. Armstrong’s
bandleading style was easygoing, as St. Cyr noted, 'One felt so relaxed
working with him and he was very broad-minded ... always did his best to
feature each individual.' His recordings soon after with pianist Earl
'Fatha' Hines (most famously their 1928 Weatherbird duet) and Armstrong's
trumpet introduction to 'West End Blues' remain some of the most famous and
influential improvisations in jazz history. Armstrong was now free to
develop his personal style as he wished, which included a heavy dose of
effervescent jive, such as 'whip that thing, Miss Lil' and 'Mr. Johnny
Dodds, Aw, do that clarinet, boy!'
Armstrong also played with Erskine Tate’s Little Symphony, actually a
quintet, which played mostly at the Vendome Theatre. They furnished music
for silent movies and live shows, including jazz versions of classical
music, such as “Madame Butterfly,” which gave Armstrong experience with
longer forms of music and with hosting before a large audience. He began to
scat sing (improvised vocal jazz using non-sensical words) and was among the
first to record it, on 'Heebie Jeebies' in 1926. So popular was the
recording the group became the most famous jazz band in the USA even though
they as yet had not performed live to any great degree. Young musicians
across the country, black or white, were turned on by Armstrong’s new type
After separating from Lil, Armstrong started to play at the Sunset Café for
Al Capone's associate Joe Glaser in the Carroll Dickerson Orchestra, with
Earl Hines on piano, which was soon renamed Louis Armstrong and his
Stompers, though Hines was the music director and Glaser managed the
orchestra. Hines and Armstrong became fast friends as well as successful
Armstrong returned to New York, in 1929, where he played in the pit
orchestra of the successful musical Hot Chocolate, an all-black revue
written by Andy Razaf and pianist/composer Fats Waller. He also made a cameo
appearance as a vocalist, regularly stealing the show with his rendition of
'Ain't Misbehavin'', his version of the song becoming his biggest selling
record to date.
Armstrong started to work at Connie's Inn in Harlem, chief rival to the
Cotton Club, a venue for elaborately staged floor shows, and a front for
gangster Dutch Schultz. Armstrong also had considerable success with vocal
recordings, including versions of famous songs composed by his old friend
Hoagy Carmichael. His 1930s recordings took full advantage of the new RCA
ribbon microphone, introduced in 1931, which imparted a characteristic
warmth to vocals and immediately became an intrinsic part of the 'crooning'
sound of artists like Bing Crosby. Armstrong's famous interpretation of
Hoagy Carmichael's 'Stardust' became one of the most successful versions of
this song ever recorded, showcasing Armstrong's unique vocal sound and style
and his innovative approach to singing songs that had already become
Armstrong's radical re-working of Sidney Arodin and Carmichael's 'Lazy
River' (recorded in 1931) encapsulated many features of his groundbreaking
approach to melody and phrasing. The song begins with a brief trumpet solo,
then the main melody is stated by sobbing horns, memorably punctuated by
Armstrong's growling interjections at the end of each bar: 'Yeah!
...'Uh-huh' ...'Sure' ... 'Way down, way down.' In the first verse, he
ignores the notated melody entirely and sings as if playing a trumpet solo,
pitching most of the first line on a single note and using strongly
syncopated phrasing. In the second stanza he breaks into an almost fully
improvised melody, which then evolves into a classic passage of Armstrong
As with his trumpet playing, Armstrong's vocal innovations served as a
foundation stone for the art of jazz vocal interpretation. The uniquely
gritty coloration of his voice became a musical archetype that was much
imitated and endlessly impersonated. His scat singing style was enriched by
his matchless experience as a trumpet soloist. His resonant, velvety
lower-register tone and bubbling cadences on sides such as 'Lazy River'
exerted a huge influence on younger white singers such as Bing Crosby.
The Depression of the early Thirties was especially hard on the jazz scene.
The Cotton Club closed in 1936 after a long downward spiral and many
musicians stopped playing altogether as club dates evaporated. Bix
Beiderbecke died and Fletcher Henderson’s band broke up. King Oliver made a
few records but otherwise struggled. Sidney Bechet became a tailor and Kid
Ory returned to New Orleans and raised chickens. Armstrong moved to Los
Angeles in 1930 to seek new opportunities. He played at the New Cotton Club
in LA with Lionel Hampton on drums. The band drew the Hollywood crowd, which
could still afford a lavish night life, while radio broadcasts from the club
connected with younger audiences at home. Bing Crosby and many other
celebrities were regulars at the club. In 1931, Armstrong appeared in his
first movie, Ex-Flame. Armstrong was convicted of marijuana possession but
received a suspended sentence. He returned to Chicago in late 1931 and
played in bands more in the Guy Lombardo vein and he recorded more
standards. When the mob insisted that he get out of town, Armstrong visited
New Orleans, got a hero’s welcome and saw old friends. He sponsored a local
baseball team known as “Armstrong’s Secret Nine” and got a cigar named after
himself. But soon he was on the road again and after a tour across the
country shadowed by the mob, Armstrong decided to go to Europe to escape.
After returning to the States, he undertook several exhausting tours. His
agent Johnny Collins’ erratic behavior and his own spending ways left
Armstrong short of cash. Breach of contract violations plagued him. Finally,
he hired Joe Glaser as his new manager, a tough mob-connected
wheeler-dealer, who began to straighten out his legal mess, his mob
troubles, and his debts. Armstrong also began to experience problems with
his fingers and lips, which were aggravated by his unorthodox playing style.
As a result he branched out, developing his vocal style and making his first
theatrical appearances. He appeared in movies again, including Crosby's 1936
hit Pennies from Heaven. In 1937, Armstrong substituted for Rudy Vallee on
the CBS radio network and became the first African American to host a
sponsored, national broadcast. He finally divorced Lil in 1938 and married
longtime girlfriend Alpha.
After spending many years on the road, Armstrong settled permanently in
Queens, New York in 1943 in contentment with his fourth wife, Lucille.
Although subject to the vicissitudes of Tin Pan Alley and the
gangster-ridden music business, as well as anti-black prejudice, he
continued to develop his playing. He recorded Hoagy Carmichael's Rockin'
Chair for Okeh Records.
During the subsequent thirty years, Armstrong played more than three hundred
gigs a year. Bookings for big bands tapered off during the 1940s due to
changes in public tastes: ballrooms closed, and there was competition from
television and from other types of music becoming more popular than big band
music. It became impossible under such circumstances to support and finance
a 16-piece touring band.
The All Stars
Following a highly successful small-group jazz concert at New York Town Hall
on May 17, 1947, featuring Armstrong with trombonist/singer Jack Teagarden,
Armstrong's manager Joe Glaser dissolved the Armstrong big band on August
13, 1947 and established a six-piece small group featuring Armstrong with
(initially) Teagarden, Earl Hines and other top swing and dixieland
musicians, most of them ex-big band leaders. The new group was announced at
the opening of Billy Berg's Supper Club.
This group was called Louis Armstrong and his All Stars and included at
various times Earl 'Fatha' Hines, Barney Bigard, Edmond Hall, Jack
Teagarden, Trummy Young, Arvell Shaw, Billy Kyle, Marty Napoleon, Big Sid
Catlett, Cozy Cole, Tyree Glenn, Barrett Deems, Joe Darensbourg and the
Filipino-American percussionist, Danny Barcelona. During this period,
Armstrong made many recordings and appeared in over thirty films. He was the
first jazz musician to appear on the cover of Time Magazine on February 21,
In 1964, he recorded his biggest-selling record, 'Hello, Dolly!' The song
went to #1 on the pop chart, making Armstrong (age 63) the oldest person to
ever accomplish that feat. In the process, Armstrong dislodged The Beatles
from the #1 position they had occupied for 14 consecutive weeks with three
Armstrong kept up his busy tour schedule until a few years before his death
in 1971. In his later years he would sometimes play some of his numerous
gigs by rote, but other times would enliven the most mundane gig with his
vigorous playing, often to the astonishment of his band. He also toured
Africa, Europe, and Asia under sponsorship of the US State Department with
great success, earning the nickname 'Ambassador Satch.' While failing health
restricted his schedule in his last years, within those limitations he
continued playing until the day he died.
Armstrong died of a heart attack in his sleep on July 6, 1971, a month
before his 70th birthday, and 11 months after playing a famous show at the
Waldorf-Astoria's Empire Room. He was residing in Corona, Queens, New York
City, at the time of his death. He was interred in Flushing Cemetery,
Flushing, in Queens, New York City.
His honorary pallbearers included Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy
Gillespie, Pearl Bailey, Count Basie, Harry James, Frank Sinatra, Ed
Sullivan, Earl Wilson, Alan King, Johnny Carson and David Frost. 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