Louis Armstrong Time magazinr

A Tribute to Satchmo

At the turn of the 20th Century, music in America was dramatically changing. No longer were tunes from German pianist Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) or American Harvard music professor / pianist, John Knowels Paine (1839-1906) the spark that ignited the fire of a new and rambunctious generation of music loving Americans.

A younger generation of musically repressed "foot tappers" and "finger poppers" were in search of a new sound, a sound that would be more in tune to their environment, their culture and their emotions. Little did they know that their yearning for musical innovation would create a nouveau genre of music that would inject a new found "swag" in hundreds of thousands of teenagers and young adults from around the world who were now replacing Chopin for Ragtime.

From Ragtime music that was born in the streets of New Orleans and Saint Louis, evolved a new sound that triggered millions of future Bebops, Bohemians and Beatniks worldwide to begin snapping their fingers and nodding their head.

That nouveau sound that captivated the minds and hearts of youths at the turn of the 20th century in cities like New Orleans, London, New York, Berlin, Stockholm and Chicago is called Jazz Music and the love of Jazz is what ignited the soul of a young man from New Orleans, Louisiana who played a trumpet like no one else did before him. This is the story of Louis Armstrong, a musical genius that is known simply to his fans worldwide as "Satchmo".

A Musical Genius from Storyville

For the most part it seems as though genius, as defined and expressed in art, literature and music is a gift from God which enables the individual who has been “touched” by genius to express their talent in such a way that it leaves the majority of those who have been exposed to this special gift, speechless and in awe.
For example, when an audience hears Mozart’s “The marriage of Figaro”, not only do they hear the sounds of string and wood united in exhilarating melodies but somehow magically, the audience by virtue of being “touched” by the genius of Mozart are able to “see” the musical notes as they float effortlessly in the air and dance on top of the very musical instruments that gave them life.

Every now and then such a musician and composer is born that inspires an audience to see and feel in three dimensions. Europe gave the world Amadeus Mozart and New Orleans, Louisiana returning the favor gave the world Louis Daniel Armstrong aka “Satchmo”.

Born August 4, 1901 in the Storyville District of New Orleans, Louisiana, Louis Armstrong was a jazz trumpeter and singer that changed how the world clapped their hands and tapped their feet to jazz music. Skyrocketing to celebrity status as a jazz performer in the 1920s as an innovative cornet and trumpet player, Satchmo was a major influence on jazz worldwide, shifting the music's focus from collective improvisation to solo performers.

With his trademark and instantly recognized gravelly voice, Armstrong was also an influential singer, demonstrating great dexterity as a musical improviser as he often “reshaped” the lyrics and the melody of a song in order to create a totally different sound. He was also greatly skilled at scat singing, or vocalizing using syllables instead of actual lyrics.

young Louis Armstrong

Born to poverty, Louis Armstrong as a young man often found himself in minor trouble with the law. His father was a common laborer who had abandoned Louis and his mother not long after Louis’ birth. His mother was a part-time prostitute who on more than one occasion gave young Louis to her mother and her brother to raise him.

At the beginning of 1913, 12-year-old Louis Armstrong was a young hoodlum in training, however an arrest for firing a borrowed pistol into the air to celebrate New Year’s 1913 was about to positively alter his life and forever emancipate him from the poverty that had so far overshadowed his young life in New Orleans.
Sent by the judicial system to the New Orleans Colored Waifs' Home for Boys for illegally discharging a firearm, Armstrong fell under the influence of Peter Davis, the home’s musical instructor. Davis instantly recognized the talent in the young man and he taught him singing, percussion and finally, the trumpet.
Released from the boy’s home when he was 14, Armstrong worked at any honest job that would provide food for his empty stomach. At night, he frequented juke joints that dotted the Storyville District, listening to the jazz bands that were just coming into prominence. His favorite musician was Joe “King” Oliver with the Kid Ory Band. Oliver took a liking to the friendly, earnest young man and became his mentor as Peter Davis had done a few years before. By the age of 17, Armstrong and his horn sat with several of the numerous bands that played New Orleans.

By 1919, Armstrong was an accomplished trumpeter, and with nothing holding him back but opportunity, he moved to St. Louis to join Fate Marable’s band. It was an exciting time for young Louis because Marable’s band played on paddlewheelers owned by the Streckfus Mississippi Boat Lines. The young musician spent most of his time playing the river and playing to appreciative riverboat passengers. This is where Louis Armstrong honed his skills as an entertainer.

As Louis Armstrong was making a name for himself in the world of jazz music, playing on paddlewheelers floating down the Mississippi River, his former mentor, King Oliver, left Kid Ory’s band and formed his own ensemble. After Oliver moved to Chicago, Louis returned to New Orleans and replaced him in Kid Ory’s Band. However, three years later, with speakeasies booming in the Windy City, Oliver sent for Armstrong to join his Creole Jazz Band. It was there that Armstrong fell in love with, and married, Lillian Hardin, Oliver’s pianist.
By the middle 1920s, Louis Armstrong had formed a band called the “Hot Five” and cut his first record for Okeh label in 1925, including the famous rendition of “St. Louis Blues” with Bessie Smith. The Hot Five, later to be renamed the Hot Seven, played together as a studio band for three years. During this timeframe Armstrong played in other bands.

King Olivers Creole Jazz Band in Chicago in 1923

By 1929, Louis Armstrong had become a world renowned jazz star. He began his own performance group which was named “Louis Armstrong and the Stompers”. Armstrong also toured with the show “Hot Chocolates”. But small bands were on their way out. It was the 1930s and swing was in vogue. That meant bands had to be larger. Armstrong moved to Los Angeles and organized a group called Louis Armstrong and his Sebastian New Cotton Club Orchestra. But because he was unwilling to settle in one place, he and his wife Lillian Hardin decided to separate and divorced.

Armstrong then traveled to Chicago where he organized a touring band. Their first stop was New Orleans. Armstrong’s touring band was a great success. Not only did he extensively tour the United States, but Europe as well. When he returned in 1935, he hired Joe Glaser as his manager. A position that Glazer retained up until Armstrong’s death in 1971.

By the end of World War II, swing music was on its way out and bands, again, became smaller. At a Town Hall concert in New York, he introduced the six piece group that he would use off and on for the rest of his life; the group was called “The All Stars” and they complimented his style and sound perfectly.
In the 1950s, Louis Armstrong teamed up with vocalists Bing Crosby, Louis Jordan, Gary Crosby and Ella Fitzgerald. While working with music arranger Oscar Peterson, Armstrong took to the opportunity to record his first major hit which featured his famous throaty voice, simply entitled, “Mack the Knife”.
Armstrong’s recordings of “Hello, Dolly” and “What a Wonderful World” are two of his signature songs that still can be heard playing anytime throughout the world.

The physical stress from years of traveling and playing late night gigs began to take its toll on Louis Armstrong’s health in the late 1960s and on July 6, 1971 a month before his 70th birthday, Louis Armstrong died from a heart attack at his home in Queens, New York.

His honorary pallbearers included then New York Governor, Nelson Rockefeller, New York 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.

Louis Armstrong was posthumously awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1972 by the Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. On August 4, 2001, the centennial of Armstrong's birth, New Orleans's airport was renamed Louis Armstrong International Airport in his honor.

In remembrance of their favorite son, Louis Armstrong, New Orleans built and designed the Louis Armstrong Park which is a 32-acre park located in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans, Louisiana, just across Rampart Street from the French Quarter. Created to honor and commemorate Armstrong’s many musical and humanitarian achievements, the park is home to the New Orleans Municipal Auditorium, the Mahalia Jackson Theater of the Performing Arts and Congo Square.

In closing, it’s my sincere wish that aspiring trumpeters who call Louisiana home, make the time every once in a while to listen to a recording of Satchmo’s horn and if by the end of the song if that young musician is not motivated to softly say, “Oh yeah” then maybe they should find another profession.

Satchmo, may you find your “wonderful world” playing your horn in heaven, I think that you and Gabriel would make a nice horn duet. “Oh Yeah”.

Gregory Boyce

Gregory Boyce

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