Louis Armstrong Biography for Bio.com

Perhaps my most highly read piece on Louis Armstrong is one that has never carried my name: the "official" Louis Armstrong biography found on Bio.com. These days, if you Google "Louis Armstrong," you'll get Wikipedia first but immediately following is Bio.com and the Louis Armstrong House Museum and I'm proud to be affiliated with both. Also on Bio are a number of videos featuring yours truly discussing various aspects of Pops. For my loyal blog readers or for someone who stumbles across this blog looking for some biographical information on Louis, here's the unedited version of what I originally sent them. Enjoy!


Louis Armstrong, nicknamed Satchmo, was born on August 4, 1901, in New Orleans, Louisiana. An all-star virtuoso, he came to prominence in the 1920s, influencing countless musicians with both his daring trumpet style and unique vocals. His charismatic stage presence impressed not only the jazz world but all of popular music.
Early Life
Louis Armstrong was born on August 4, 1901, in New Orleans, Louisiana, in a section so poor, it was nicknamed “The Battlefield.” Armstrong had a difficult childhood. His father was a factory worker and abandoned the family soon after Louis' birth. His mother, who often turned to prostitution, frequently left him with his maternal grandmother. Armstrong himself had to leave school in the fifth grade to begin working. A Jewish family, the Karnofsky’s, gave young Armstrong a job collecting junk and delivering coal. They also encouraged him to sing and often invited him into their home for meals. On New Year’s Eve 1912, Armstrong fired his stepfather’s gun in the air during a New Year's Eve celebration and was arrested on the spot and sent to the Colored Waif’s Home for Boys. There he received musical instruction on the cornet and fell in love with music. In 1914, the home released him, and he immediately began dreaming of a life making music. He still had to work odd jobs selling newspapers and hauling coal to the city's famed red-light district, but he also began getting a reputation as a fine blues player. One of the greatest cornet players in town, Joe “King” Oliver, began acting as a mentor to young Armstrong, showing him pointers on the horn and occasionally using him as a sub.
Armstrong grew up fast by the end of his teens. In 1918, he married Daisy Parker, a prostitute, commencing a stormy union marked by many arguments and acts of violence. During this time, Armstrong adopted a three-year-old boy named Clarence. The boy's mother, Armstrong's cousin, had died in childbirth. Clarence, who had become mentally disabled from a head injury he had suffered at an early age, was taken care of by Armstrong his entire life. Meanwhile, Armstrong’s reputation as a musician continued to grow. In 1918, he replaced Oliver in Kid Ory’s band, then the most popular band in New Orleans. He soon was able to stop working manual labor jobs and concentrated full-time on his cornet, playing parties, dances, funeral marches and at local honky-tonk’s. Beginning in 1919, Armstrong spent his summers playing on riverboats in a band led by Fate Marable. It was on the riverboat that Armstrong honed his music reading skills and eventually had his first encounters with other jazz legends such as Bix Beiderbecke and Jack Teagarden.
Armstrong was content to remain in New Orleans but in the summer of 1922, he received a call from King Oliver to come to Chicago and join his Creole Jazz Band on second cornet. Armstrong accepted and soon took Chicago by storm with his remarkably firery playing and with the dazzling two-cornet breaks he shared with Oliver. Armstrong made his first recordings with Oliver on April 5, 1923 and took his first recorded solo that day on “Chimes Blues.”
Armstrong soon began dating the female pianist in the band, Lillian Hardin. After they married in 1924, Hardin made it clear that she felt Oliver was holding him back. She pushed him to cut ties with his mentor and join Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra, the top African-American dance band in New York City. Armstrong joined Henderson in the fall of 1924 and immediately made his presence felt with a series of solos that introduced the concept of swing to the band. Armstrong had a great influence on Henderson and his arranger Don Redman, each of whom began integrating Armstrong’s swinging vocabulary into their arrangements, transforming Henderson’s band into what is generally regarded as the first jazz big band.
However, Armstrong’s southern background didn’t mesh well with the more urban, Northern mentality of Henderson’s other musicians, who sometimes gave Armstrong a hard time over his wardrobe and the way he talked. Henderson also forbid Armstrong from singing, fearing his rough way of vocalizing to be too coarse for the sophisticated audiences at the Roseland Ballroom. Unhappy, Armstrong left Henderson in 1925 to go back to Chicago, where he began playing with his wife Lil’s band at the Dreamland Café.
While in New York, Armstrong cut dozens of records as a sideman, creating inspirational jazz with other greats such as Sidney Bechet, and backing numerous blues singers, namely Bessie Smith. Back in Chicago, OKeh Records decided to let Armstrong make his first records with a band under his own name, Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five. From 1925 to 1928, Armstrong made over 60 records with the Hot Five, and later, the Hot Seven. Today, these are generally regarded as the most important and influential recordings in jazz history. On these records, Armstrong’s virtuoso brilliance helped transform jazz from an ensemble music to a soloist’s art. His stop-time solos on numbers like “Cornet Chop Suey” and “Potato Head Blues” changed jazz history, featuring daring rhythmic choices, swinging phrasing and incredible high notes. He also began singing on these recordings, popularizing wordless scat singing with his hugely popular vocal on 1926’s “Heebie Jeebies.”
The Hot Five and Hot Seven were strictly recording groups. He performed nightly in this period with Erskine Tate’s orchestra at the Vendome Theater, often playing music for silent movies. It was with Tate when Armstrong finally switched from cornet to trumpet in 1926. Armstrong’s popularity continued to grow in Chicago throughout the decade, as he began playing other venues such as the Sunset Café and the Savoy Ballroom. A young pianist from Pittsburgh, Earl “Fatha” Hines, assimilated Armstrong’s ideas into his piano playing. Together, the two 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, opening with a stunning cadenza that featured equal helpings of opera and the blues, showing that this fun dance music could also be capable of producing high art.
In the summer of 1929, Armstrong headed to New York, where he had a role in a Broadway production of “Connie’s Hot Chocolates,” featuring the music of Fats Waller and Andy Razaf. Armstrong was featured nightly on “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” breaking up the crowds of white theatergoer’s nightly. That same year, he stopped recorded with small New Orleans-influenced groups such as the Hot Five and began recording larger ensembles. Instead of doing strictly jazz numbers, OKeh began allowing Armstrong to record popular songs of the day such as “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” “Star Dust” and “Body and Soul.” Armstrong’s daring vocal transformations of these songs completely changed the concept of popular singing in American popular music and had lasting effects on all singers who came after him, including Bing Crosby, Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald.
By 1932, Armstrong began appearing in movies and made his first tour of England. He was beloved by musicians but was too wild for most critics, who gave him some of the most racist and harsh reviews of his career. Armstrong didn’t let it stop him and instead returned an even bigger star in 1933 when he began a longer tour throughout Europe. However, during this tour, Armstrong’s career fell apart. Years of blowing high notes had taken a toll on his lips. His manager, Johnny Collins, who already managed to get Armstrong in trouble with the mob in America, had a fight with the trumpeter and left him stranded overseas. Armstrong decided to take some time off and spent much of 1934 relaxing in Europe and resting his lip.
When Armstrong returned to Chicago in 1935, he had no band, no engagements and no recording contract. His lips were still sore, there were still remnants of his mob troubles and with Lil, with whom he was estranged, was suing him. Armstrong turned to Joe Glaser for help. Glaser had mob ties of his own, having been close with Al Capone, but he always loved Armstrong from the time he met him while running the Sunset Café. Armstrong put his career in Glaser’s hands and asked him to make his troubles disappear. Glaser did and within a few months, Armstrong had a new big band and was recording for Decca Records.
During this period, Armstrong set a number of firsts for his race. In 1936, he became the first African-Amercican jazz musician to write an autobiography, “Swing That Music.” That same year, he became the first African-American to get featured billing in a major Hollywood movie with his turn in “Pennies from Heaven,” starring Bing Crosby. And in 1937, he became the first African-American entertainer to host a nationally sponsored radio show when he took over Rudy Vallee’s “Fleischmann’s Yeast Show” for 12 weeks. He continued appearing in major films with the likes of Mae West, Martha Raye and Dick Powell, he was a frequent presence on radio and he often broke box-office records at the height of what was now known as The Swing Era. And his fully healed lip made its presence felt on some of the finest records of career, including  “Swing That Music,” “Jubilee” and “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue.”
In 1938, Armstrong finally divorced Lil Hardin and married Alpha Smith, whom he had been dating for over a decade. Their marriage was not a happy one and they divorced in 1942. That same year, Armstrong married for the fourth—and final—time, wedding Lucille Wilson, a Cotton Club dancer. When Wilson tired of living out of a suitcase during endless strings of one-nighters, she convinced Armstrong to purchase a house at 34-56 107th Street in Corona, Queens. The Armstrong’s moved into the house in 1943 and lived there until the end their lives.
By the mid-40s, the Swing Era was winding down and the era of big bands was almost over. Armstrong saw the writing on the wall and scaled down to a smaller six-piece combo, the All Stars. Personnel would frequently change but this would be the group Armstrong would perform with during live performances until the end of his career. At one time or another, some of jazz’s finest musicians were members of the group, including Jack Teagarden, Earl “Fatha” Hines, Sid Catlett, Barney Bigard, Trummy Young, Edmond Hall, Billy Kyle and Tyree Glenn.
Armstrong continued recording for Decca in the late 1940s and early 1950s, having a string of popular hits such as “Blueberry Hill,” “That Lucky Old Sun,” “La Vie En Rose,” “A Kiss to Build a Dream On” and “I Get Ideas.” In the mid-50s, Armstrong switched to Columbia Records, where he 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 with his jazz transformation of Kurt Weill’s “Mack the Knife.”
During the mid-50s, Armstrong’s popularity overseas skyrocketed, leading him to be known as “Ambassador Satch.” He performed all over the world in the 1950s and 1960s, including all over 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.
Despite his popularity hitting new highs in the 1950s, Armstrong began losing his standing with two segments of his audience: modern jazz fans and young African-Americans. A new form of jazz blossomed in the 1940s, bebop. Featuring young geniuses such as Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, the younger generation of musicians saw themselves as artists and not 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 viewed as out-of-date with his best days behind him.
And after breaking down so many barriers for his race and being a hero to the African-American community for so many years, Armstrong began losing his standing with his own people in the 1950s. The struggle for Civil Rights was growing tenser with each passing year with more protests, marches and speeches from African-Americans wanting equal rights. Armstrong’s ever-smiling demeanor seemed like it was from a bygone era to the young generation. He also refused to comment on politics for many years.
That 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 nine African-American students from entering the school. When Armstrong saw this—and mob of white protesters hurling invective at the students—he blew his top to the press, telling a reporter that President Dwight Eisenhower had “no guts” for letting Faubus run the country and, “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, he received criticism at the time from both black and white public figures. Not a single jazz musician who criticized him took his side. Today, this is seen as one of the bravest, most definitive moments of Armstrong’s life.
Armstrong continued a grueling touring schedule into the late 50s, though it finally caught up with him when he had a heart attack in Spoleto, Italy in 1959. He didn’t let it stop him and after a few weeks off to recover, he was back on the road, performing 300 nights a year into the 1960s.
By 1963, Armstrong was still a popular attraction around the world but he hadn’t made a record in two years. That December, 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 climbed to the top of the pop music charts, hitting the number one slot in May 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 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.
In 1967, Armstrong recorded a new ballad, “What a Wonderful World,” different from most of his recordings of the era in that it featured no trumpet and placed 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 the record received little promotion in the United States. However, it became a number one hit around the world, including England and South Africa, and eventually became Armstrong’s most-lasting song after it was used in the 1986 film “Good Morning, Vietnam.”
By 1968, Armstrong’s grueling lifestyle 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 the year at home, but managed to continue practicing the trumpet daily. By the summer of 1970, he was allowed to perform in public again and play the trumpet. After a successful engagement in Las Vegas, Armstrong began to push it, taking engagements in London, Washington D. C. and a two-week stint at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria. A heart attack two days after the Waldorf gig sidelined him for two months. He returned home in May 1971 and though he soon resumed playing again and promised to perform in public once more, he passed away on July 6, 1971.
Since his death, Armstrong’s stature has only continued to grow. In the 1980s and 1990s, younger African-American jazz musicians such as Wynton Marsalis, Jon Faddis and Nicholas Payton began speaking about Armstrong’s importance as a musician and human being. A series of new biographies on Armstrong made his role as a Civil Rights pioneer abundantly clear and argued for an embrace of his entire career’s output, not just the revolutionary recordings from the 1920s. And his home in Corona, Queens was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1977, and today, as the Louis Armstrong House Museum, receives thousands of visitors from all over the world annually. Arguably the most important figure in 20th century music, Armstrong’s innovations as a trumpeter and vocalist are still being felt today.


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