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Louis Armstrong

Louis Armstrong

Louis 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" trumpet and cornet player, Armstrong was a foundational influence in jazz, shifting the focus of the music from collective improvisation to solo performance. 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 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. He rarely publicly politicized his race, often to the dismay of fellow African-Americans, but took a well-publicized stand for desegregation during the Little Rock Crisis. His artistry and personality allowed him socially acceptable access to the upper echelons of American society that were highly restricted for a black man.FamilyOn March 19, 1918, Louis married Daisy Parker from Gretna, Louisiana. They adopted a 3-year-old boy, Clarence Armstrong, whose mother, Louis' 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' marriage to Parker failed quickly and they separated in 1923. She died shortly after the divorce.On February 4, 1924, Louis married Lil Hardin Armstrong, who was Oliver's pianist and had also divorced her first spouse only a few years earlier. His second wife was instrumental in developing his career, but in the late 1920s Hardin and Louis grew apart. They separated in 1931 and divorced in 1938, after which Louis married longtime girlfriend Alpha Smith. His marriage to his third wife lasted four years, and they divorced in 1942. Louis then married Lucille Wilson, a singer at the Cotton Club, to whom he was married until his death in 1971.Though Armstrong married four times and loved children, he had no legitimate offspring. However, in December 2012, 57-year-old Sharon Preston-Folta claimed to be his daughter, from a 1950s affair between Armstrong and Lucille "Sweets" Preston, a dancer at the Cotton Club.


Armstrong was a colorful character. His own biography vexes biographers and historians, because he had a habit of telling tales, particularly of his early childhood, when he was less scrutinized, and his embellishments of his history often lack consistency.He was not only an entertainer. Armstrong was a leading personality of the day who was so beloved by America that gave even the greatest African American performers little access beyond their public celebrity, that he was able to live privately a life of access and privilege accorded to few other African Americans.He tried to remain politically neutral, which gave him a large part of that access, but often alienated him from members of the black community who looked to him to use his prominence with white America to become more of an outspoken figure during the Civil Rights Era of U.S. history.


The nicknames Satchmo and Satch are short for Satchelmouth. Like many things in Armstrong's life, which was filled with colorful stories both real and imagined, many of his own telling, the nickname has many possible origins.The most common tale that biographers tell is the story of Armstrong as a young boy dancing for pennies in the streets of New Orleans, who would scoop up the coins off of the streets and stick them into his mouth to avoid having the bigger children steal them from him. Someone dubbed him "satchel mouth" for his mouth acting as a satchel. Another tale is that because of his large mouth, he was nicknamed "satchel mouth" which became shortened to Satchmo.Early on he was also known as Dipper, short for Dippermouth, a reference to the piece Dippermouth Blues. and something of a riff on his unusual embouchure.The nickname Pops came from Armstrong's own tendency to forget people's names and simply call them "pops" instead. The nickname was soon turned on Armstrong himself. It was used as the title of a 2010 biography of Armstrong by Terry Teachout.

Armstrong and race

Armstrong was largely accepted into white society, both on stage and off, a privilege reserved for very few African-American public figures, and usually those of either exceptional talent and fair skin tone. As his fame grew, so did his access to the finer things in life usually denied to a black man, even a famous one. His renown was such that he dined in the best restaurants and stayed in hotels usually exclusively for whites.It was a power and privilege that he enjoyed, although he was very careful not to flaunt it with fellow performers of color, and privately, he shared what access that he could with friends and fellow musicians.That still did not prevent members of the African-American community, particularly in the late 1950s to the early 1970s, from calling him an Uncle Tom, a black-on-black racial epithet for someone who kowtowed to white society at the expense of their own racial identity.He was criticized for accepting the title of "King of The Zulus" for Mardi Gras in 1949. In the New Orleans African-American community it is an honored role as the head of leading black Carnival Krewe, but bewildering or offensive to outsiders with their traditional costume of grass-skirts and blackface makeup satirizing southern white attitudes.Some musicians criticized Armstrong for playing in front of segregated audiences, and for not taking a strong enough stand in the civil rights movement.Billie Holiday countered, however, "Of course Pops toms, but he toms from the heart."The few exceptions made it more effective when he did speak out. Armstrong's criticism of President Eisenhower, calling him "two-faced" and "gutless" because of his inaction during the conflict over school desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957 made national news.As a protest, Armstrong canceled a planned tour of the Soviet Union on behalf of the State Department saying "The way they're treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell" and that he could not represent his government abroad when it was in conflict with its own people. Six days after Armstrong's comments, Eisenhower ordered Federal troops to Little Rock to escort students into the school.The FBI kept a file on Armstrong, for his outspokenness about integration.


When asked about his religion, Armstrong would answer that he was raised a Baptist, always wore a Star of David, and was friends with the Pope. Armstrong wore the Star of David in honor of the Karnofsky family, who took him in as a child and lent him the money to buy his first cornet. Louis Armstrong was, in fact, baptized as a Catholic at the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in New Orleans, and he met popes Pius XII and Paul VI, though there is no evidence that he considered himself Catholic. Armstrong seems to have been tolerant towards various religions, but also found humor in them.

Personal habits


Armstrong was also greatly concerned with his health and bodily functions. He made frequent use of laxatives as a means of controlling his weight, a practice he advocated both to personal acquaintances and in the diet plans he published under the title Lose Weight the Satchmo Way. Armstrong's laxative of preference in his younger days was Pluto Water, but he then became an enthusiastic convert when he discovered the herbal remedy Swiss Kriss. He would extol its virtues to anyone who would listen and pass out packets to everyone he encountered, including members of the British Royal Family. (Armstrong also appeared in humorous, albeit risqué, cards that he had printed to send out to friends; the cards bore a picture of him sitting on a toilet—as viewed through a keyhole—with the slogan "Satch says, 'Leave it all behind ya!'") The cards have sometimes been incorrectly described as ads for Swiss Kriss.In a live recording of "Baby, It's Cold Outside" with Velma Middleton, he changes the lyric from "Put another record on while I pour" to "Take some Swiss Kriss while I pour."

Love of food

The concern with his health and weight was balanced by his love of food, reflected in such songs as "Cheesecake", "Cornet Chop Suey," though "Struttin’ with Some Barbecue" was written about a fine-looking companion, not about food. He kept a strong connection throughout his life to the cooking of New Orleans, always signing his letters, "Red beans and ricely yours..."


Armstrong’s gregariousness extended to writing. On the road, he wrote constantly, sharing favorite themes of his life with correspondents around the world. He avidly typed or wrote on whatever stationery was at hand, recording instant takes on music, sex, food, childhood memories, his heavy "medicinal" marijuana use—and even his bowel movements, which he gleefully described. He had a fondness for lewd jokes and dirty limericks as well.

Social organizations

Louis Armstrong was not, as is often claimed, a Freemason. Although he is usually listed as being a member of Montgomery Lodge No. 18 (Prince Hall) in New York, no such lodge has ever existed. Armstrong states in his autobiography, however, that he was a member of the Knights of Pythias, which is not a Masonic group.Horn playing and early jazzIn his early years, Armstrong was best known for his virtuosity with the cornet and trumpet. The greatest trumpet playing of his early years can be heard on his Hot Five and Hot Seven records, as well as the Red Onion Jazz Babies. The improvisations he made on these records of New Orleans jazz standards and popular songs of the day are unsurpassed by later jazz performers. The older generation of New Orleans jazz musicians often referred to their improvisations as "variating the melody." Armstrong's improvisations were daring and sophisticated for the time, while often subtle and melodic.He often essentially re-composed pop-tunes he played, making them more interesting. Armstrong's playing is filled with joyous, inspired original melodies, creative leaps, and subtle relaxed or driving rhythms. The genius of these creative passages is matched by Armstrong's playing technique, honed by constant practice, which extended the range, tone and capabilities of the trumpet. In these records, Armstrong almost single-handedly created the role of the jazz soloist, taking what was essentially a collective folk music and turning it into an art form with tremendous possibilities for individual expression.Armstrong's work in the 1920s shows him playing at the outer limits of his abilities. The Hot Five records, especially, often have minor flubs and missed notes, which do little to detract from listening enjoyment since the energy of the spontaneous performance comes through. By the mid-1930s, Armstrong achieved a smooth assurance, knowing exactly what he could do and carrying out his ideas to perfection.He was one of the first artists to use recordings of his performances to improve himself. Armstrong was an avid audiophile. He had a large collection of recordings, including reel-to-reel tapes, which he took on the road with him in a trunk during his later career. He enjoyed listening to his own recordings, and comparing his performances musically. In the den of his home, he had the latest audio equipment and would sometimes rehearse and record along with his older recordings or the radio.

Vocal popularity

As his music progressed and popularity grew, his singing also became very important. Armstrong was not the first to record scat singing, but he was masterful at it and helped popularize it. He had a hit with his playing and scat singing on "Heebie Jeebies" when, according to some legends, the sheet music fell on the floor and he simply started singing nonsense syllables. Armstrong stated in his memoirs that this actually occurred. He also sang out "I done forgot the words" in the middle of recording "I'm A Ding Dong Daddy From Dumas."Such records were hits and scat singing became a major part of his performances. Long before this, however, Armstrong was playing around with his vocals, shortening and lengthening phrases, interjecting improvisations, using his voice as creatively as his trumpet.

Colleagues and followers

During his long career he played and sang with some of the most important instrumentalists and vocalists of the time; among them were Bing Crosby, Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, Earl Hines, the singing brakeman Jimmie Rodgers, Bessie Smith and perhaps most famously Ella Fitzgerald.His influence upon Bing Crosby is particularly important with regard to the subsequent development of popular music: Crosby admired and copied Armstrong, as is evident on many of his early recordings, notably "Just One More Chance" (1931). The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz describes Crosby's debt to Armstrong in precise detail, although it does not acknowledge Armstrong by name:
Crosby... was important in introducing into the mainstream of popular singing an Afro-American concept of song as a lyrical extension of speech... His techniques—easing the weight of the breath on the vocal cords, passing into a head voice at a low register, using forward production to aid distinct enunciation, singing on consonants (a practice of black singers), and making discreet use of appoggiaturas, mordents, and slurs to emphasize the text—were emulated by nearly all later popular singers.
Armstrong recorded two albums with Ella Fitzgerald: Ella and Louis, and Ella and Louis Again for Verve Records, with the sessions featuring the backing musicianship of the Oscar Peterson Trio and drummers Buddy Rich (on the first album), and Louie Bellson (on the second). Norman Granz then had the vision for Ella and Louis to record Porgy and Bess which is the most famous and critically acclaimed version of the Gerswhin brothers' masterpiece.His recordings for Columbia Records, Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy (1954) and Satch Plays Fats (all Fats Waller tunes) (1955) were both being considered masterpieces, as well as moderately well selling. In 1961 the All Stars participated in two albums - "The Great Summit" and "The Great Reunion" (now together as a single disc) with Duke Ellington. The albums feature many of Ellington's most famous compositions (as well as two exclusive cuts) with Duke sitting in on piano. His participation in Dave Brubeck's high-concept jazz musical The Real Ambassadors (1963) was critically acclaimed, and features "Summer Song," one of Armstrong's most hauntingly beautiful vocal efforts.In 1964 his recording of the song "Hello Dolly" went to number one. An album of the same title was quickly created around the song, and also shot to number one (knocking The Beatles off the top of the chart). The album sold very well for the rest of the year, quickly going "Gold" (500,000). His performance of "Hello Dolly" won for best male pop vocal performance at the 1964 Grammy Awards.1968 led to his final album, built around and named for the song What A Wonderful World. The song hit number one in the U.K. but failed to make an impact in the United States until the 1980s. It is now considered one of the greatest songs of all time, and by far the most popular song in the history of jazz music.

Hits and later career

Armstrong had many hit records including "Stardust", "What a Wonderful World", "When The Saints Go Marching In", "Dream a Little Dream of Me", "Ain't Misbehavin'", "You Rascal You", and "Stompin' at the Savoy". "We Have All the Time in the World" was featured on the soundtrack of the James Bond film On Her Majesty's Secret Service, and enjoyed renewed popularity in the UK in 1994 when it featured on a Guinness advert. It reached number 3 in the charts on being re-released.In 1964, Armstrong knocked The Beatles off the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart with "Hello, Dolly!", which gave the 63-year-old performer a U.S. record as the oldest artist to have a number one song. His 1964 song "Bout Time" was later featured in the film Bewitched.Armstrong performed in Italy at the 1968 Sanremo Music Festival where he sang "Mi Va di Cantare" alongside his friend, the Eritrean-born Italian singer Lara Saint Paul. In February 1968, he also appeared with Lara Saint Paul on the Italian RAI television channel where he performed "Grassa e Bella," a track he sang in Italian for the Italian market and C.D.I. label.In 1968, Armstrong scored one last popular hit in the United Kingdom with "What a Wonderful World", which topped the British charts for a month; however, the single did not chart at all in America. The song gained greater currency in the popular consciousness when it was used in the 1987 movie Good Morning, Vietnam, its subsequent re-release topping many charts around the world. Armstrong even appeared on the October 28, 1970, Johnny Cash Show, where he sang Nat King Cole's hit "Rambling Rose" and joined Cash to re-create his performance backing Jimmie Rodgers on "Blue Yodel No. 9".

Stylistic range

Armstrong enjoyed many types of music, from blues to the arrangements of Guy Lombardo, to Latin American folksongs, to classical symphonies and opera. Armstrong incorporated influences from all these sources into his performances, sometimes to the bewilderment of fans who wanted him to stay in convenient narrow categories. Armstrong was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an early influence. Some of his solos from the 1950s, such as the hard rocking version of "St. Louis Blues" from the WC Handy album, show that the influence went in both directions.Grammy AwardsArmstrong was posthumously awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1972 by the Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. This Special Merit Award is presented by vote of the Recording Academy's National Trustees to performers who, during their lifetimes, have made creative contributions of outstanding artistic significance to the field of recording.

Grammy Hall of Fame

Recordings of Armstrong were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, which is a special Grammy award established in 1973 to honor recordings that are at least twenty-five years old, and that have "qualitative or historical significance."

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame listed Armstrong's West End Blues on the list of 500 songs that shaped Rock and Roll.

Inductions and honors

In 1995, the U.S. Post Office issued a Louis Armstrong 32 cents commemorative postage stamp.


The influence of Armstrong on the development of jazz is virtually immeasurable. Yet, his irrepressible personality both as a performer, and as a public figure later in his career, was so strong that to some it sometimes overshadowed his contributions as a musician and singer.As a virtuoso trumpet player, Armstrong had a unique tone and an extraordinary talent for melodic improvisation. Through his playing, the trumpet emerged as a solo instrument in jazz and is used widely today. He was a masterful accompanist and ensemble player in addition to his extraordinary skills as a soloist. With his innovations, he raised the bar musically for all who came after him.Though Armstrong is widely recognized as a pioneer of scat singing, Ethel Waters precedes his scatting on record in the 1930s according to Gary Giddins and others. Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra are just two singers who were greatly indebted to him. Holiday said that she always wanted Bessie Smith's 'big' sound and Armstrong's feeling in her singing. Even special musicians like Duke Ellington have praised Armstrong through strong testimonials. Duke Ellington said, "If anybody was a master, it was Louis Armstrong." In 1950, Bing Crosby, the most successful vocalist of the first half of the 20th century, said, "He is the beginning and the end of music in America."On August 4, 2001, the centennial of Armstrong's birth, New Orleans's airport was renamed Louis Armstrong International Airport in his honor.In 2002, the Louis Armstrong's Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings (1925–1928) are preserved in the United States National Recording Registry, a registry of recordings selected yearly by the National Recording Preservation Board for preservation in the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress.The US Open tennis tournament's former main stadium was named Louis Armstrong Stadium in honor of Armstrong who had lived a few blocks from the site.Today, there are many bands worldwide dedicated to preserving and honoring the music and style of Satchmo, including the Louis Armstrong Society located in New Orleans, LA.


The house where Louis Armstrong lived for close to 28 years was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1977 and is now a museum. The Louis Armstrong House Museum, at 34-56 107th Street (between 34th and 37th Avenues) in Corona, Queens, presents concerts and educational programs, operates as a historic house museum and makes materials in its archives of writings, books, recordings and memorabilia available to the public for research. The museum is operated by the City University of New York's Queens College, following the dictates of Lucille Armstrong's will.The museum opened to the public on October 15, 2003. A new visitors center is planned.

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