Louis Daniel Armstrong
August 4, 1901 – July 6, 1971
Louis Daniel Armstrong was born in the Storyville neighborhood of New Orleans, Louisiana the first of Mary Ann Albert’s and Willie Armstrong’s two children. Mary Anne was the grandchild of people who had been enslaved and had moved to New Orleans from the country to work as a domestic servant. Willie was a turpentine factory worker who abandoned Mary Ann for another woman shortly after Armstrong’s birth.
Being only fifteen years old Mary Anne left Armstrong in the care of his father’s mother, Josephine Armstrong, who lived in the rough low-income Jane Alley neighborhood nicknamed “The Battlefield.” Mary Anne returned to the Storyville neighborhood where it’s suspected though unconfirmed that she supported herself in part through prostitution. Two years later, the couple reconciled and had a second child, Beatrice, but Willie left Mary Anne again.
Neither parent had been much of a presence in young Armstrong’s life. But it was at this point that Mary Anne re-established a relationship with her son, forming a family unit with her two children. Living with his mother was somewhat unstable as she sometimes disappeared without notice and boyfriends were in and out of the house, some of whom were abusive towards Armstrong. Despite her shortcomings, Armstrong loved and respected his mother because she did what she could to provide for him and his sister while his father chose to be absent.
With the family in need of money, he began working at the age of seven and dropped out of school in the fifth grade to work full-time. One of his earliest jobs was running errands and performing odd jobs for the Karnofskys, a Jewish family that operated a peddling business. The family was nice to Armstrong, providing him with extra food and a small loan which allowed him to buy a cornet.
By the age of 11-years-old, Armstrong had developed an interest in music and was earning spare change and honing his craft by singing and playing a toy horn on the street. His big wide smile resulted in the nickname “Satchelmouth” which was shortened to “Satchmo”. On New Year’s Eve 1913, Armstrong was arrested and charged with disturbing the peace after firing a gun in the air. He was sentenced to 18-months at the Colored Waif’s Home for Boys, a reform school.
It wasn’t the best situation but spending time at the reform school allowed him to avoid prison and brought him into contact with male role models who would have a positive impact on his life. Captain Jones and his wife operated the detention center as an alternative for Black boys who might otherwise be sent to adult prisons. Peter Davis was the school’s music director and recognized and nurtured young Armstrong’s talent. Armstong thrived within the environment’s structure and discipline, becoming heavily involved with the choir and band where he played different instruments.
Following his release, Armstrong found a day job and spent his evenings focused on music. Listening to and befriending musicians, he created a playing style of his own. In exchange for cornet lessons, he ran errands for Joe “King” Oliver who sometimes helped him find gigs. Armstrong played clubs, events, and on riverboats around New Orleans as well as up and down the Mississippi River. At 18-years-old, he met and married his first wife, Daisy Parker, a prostitute who also worked the club scene. The marriage ended in divorce after about three years and a year after the divorce he moved to Chicago and joined Oliver’s band.
The rest of the 1920s would see Armstrong moving back and forth between Chicago and New York City to play in different bands and perform on live recordings. Notable projects included records where Armstrong played on Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith songs. This period would also mark several changes that helped to propel Armstrong’s career.
After moving to Chicago, Armstrong met and married Lil Hardin, a classically trained jazz pianist who helped to promote Armstrong. When previously playing as a member of bands Armstrong had to fit in where the band leaders allowed which restrained him to a degree. Stepping out on his own would allow him to create a name for himself, fronting bands while standing out as an individual. In a major shift, Armstrong moved from the cornet to trumpet and was now billed as a solo musician on the club circuit.
Another move was forming a studio band that recorded several songs, some of which became very popular and allowed Armstrong to build a presence outside of Chicago and New York. After years of only playing instruments, he began singing on records bringing songs alive with his distinctive raspy voice. His unconventional singing voice and style would influence other jazz legends and pop singers. This was a bit of a triumph as during a previous stint with Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra he’d been barred from singing as his vocal tone and manner of speech were considered unsophisticated by the other band members.
Despite his popularity in the 1920s, Louis Armstrong struggled to find work during the Great Depression which prompted a move to Los Angeles where he continued to work as a musician but also made his movie debut playing himself. But his time in LA was cut short following an arrest and conviction for possession of marijuana. He got off rather lightly with a suspended sentence which allowed him to return to Chicago. Over the years Armstrong would appear in several other films becoming the first Black American to star in a Hollywood film.
With Armstrong frequently moving around the country while Lil chose to remain in Chicago, their marriage fell apart though they didn’t divorce until 1938. During that same year, Armstrong married his girlfriend of several years, Alpha Smith. But four years later that marriage also ended in divorce after which Armstrong married his fourth and final wife whom he’d begun dating shortly after his marriage to his third wife. Messy.
Armstrong toured America and Europe extensively beginning in the 1920s which continued well into the 1940s. He performed as a part of and later became the leader of big bands until they declined in popularity. In the late 1940s, Armstrong scaled back and put together Louis Armstrong and the All-Stars, a six-piece ensemble that primarily focused on New Orleans style jazz.
During the 1930s when Armstrong’s profile was soaring he’d been held in high regard by musicians who admired his experimental and energetic playing style. But critics gave negative reviews of his music and performances which they viewed through an often racist lens as being too untamed.
Yet, as new jazz styles and musicians emerged at the same time Armstrong was returning to more traditional forms, he came to be regarded as stagnant and stale. His permanent grin and on-stage demeanor combined with avoiding discussions or comments on racism led to some referring to him as an out-of-touch “Uncle Tom”. Ironically, during this period Armstrong received positive reviews. Publicly, he took the negativity in stride as he saw himself as an entertainer and his stage persona as part of the performance.
Things came to a head in 1957 while Armstrong and his ensemble were on a tour of Japan and Africa on behalf of the US State Department. Armstrong and other musicians were being used to generate positive press for America abroad, particularly in communist countries. It was a blatant PR move that misrepresented the reality of America’s many internal problems, especially with regards to race.
But back in Arkansas, the Little Rock Nine saga was unfolding. Black students were attempting to integrate a high school in the face of threatening local opposition, segregationist state government, and indifferent federal government. Angered by the events in Little Rock, Armstrong canceled the Soviet Union leg of the tour and returned to America. Back in the States, Armstrong finally spoke out against racial discrimination by sharing some of his own experiences in the South, voicing his support for the Little Rock Nine, and calling out President Eisenhower and the governor of Arkansas.
The backlash was swift though short-lived. His songs were pulled by radio stations and some other Black entertainers abandoned him in fear that he was being too direct and would negatively affect Black people. This was another instance in a pattern throughout Armstrong’s career of being alternatingly viewed as doing too much or not doing enough. Things died down when the National Guard was sent to provide a safe escort for the Little Rock Nine which some felt finally happened in part because of Armstrong’s public criticisms.
While on tour in 1959, Armstrong suffered a heart attack in Italy which forced him to temporarily take a break from his demanding schedule. Forgoing rest, he resumed performing a few weeks later ignoring advice from his doctors. In 1960, he went on a three-month tour of Africa that was organized by the US State Department. His heart issues continued and he developed kidney complications during the late 1960s which once again forced him to take a break.
He returned to performing in 1970 but suffered a second heart attack in early 1971. After only two months of rest, he was able to practice and play but wasn’t yet strong enough to tour or perform. The day for a return to public performances never came as he passed away at the home he had shared with his wife since 1943 in Queens, New York on July 6, 1971.
Following his death, Armstrong’s body lay in state and was viewed by tens of thousands of people with the funeral being broadcast across the country. His legacy included amazing performances that wielded tremendous influence in music. He is also notable for being the oldest American musician to have a number one song with his release of “Hello, Dolly!” in 1963 which knocked The Beatles out of the top spot. “What a Wonderful World” had been recorded in 1967 and was an international hit but was bombed in America due to poor promotion. It became one of his signature songs when it was re-released 16-years after his death.
- Andrews, Evan. 2018. “9 Things You May Not Know About Louis Armstrong.” History.com. A&E Television Networks. August 22, 2018. https://www.history.com/news/9-things-you-may-not-know-about-louis-armstrong.
- Biography.com Editors. 2021. “Louis Armstrong.” Biography.com. A&E Networks Television. January 29, 2021. https://www.biography.com/musician/louis-armstrong.
- Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. 2021. “Louis Armstrong.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. March 2, 2021. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Louis-Armstrong.
- Daniels, Patricia. 2020. “Biography of Louis Armstrong, Master Trumpeter and Entertainer.” ThoughtCo. August 31, 2020. https://www.thoughtco.com/louis-armstrong-1779822.
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