Blacks in History: Jazz legend Louis Armstrong

The most important 20th century jazz musician, he was a one of a kind American original, first a cornet player he became a trumpet virtuoso and singer, whose innovations laid the foundation for modern jazz, and music. Louis Daniel Armstrong’s grandparents

The patriarch, William Armstrong, abandoned his family when Louis was an infant. Mary Albert Armstrong left Louis and his younger sister Beatrice Armstrong Collins, in the care of their grandmother, Josephine Armstrong and Uncle Isaac. At 5, Louis went to live with his mother, only seeing his father in parades. It was hard times – in capital letters.

But Armstrong said when he blew his trumpet, he closed his eyes, and looked right into the heart of good old New Orleans, which gave him something to live for. Leaving the school at eleven, Armstrong joined a boys streets quartet singing for money. Hanging out in dance halls he listened to the bands, especially Joe King Oliver, who became a mentor, and father figure. Louis started hauling coal in Storyville at an early age. Meeting the Karnofsky’s, a Russian Jewish immigrant family, who were junk dealers, they gave him odd jobs, nurtured, fed him, and gave him the money to buy his first coronet.

Armstrong wore a Star of David pendant for the rest of his life. Armstrong developed his early coronet style while playing in the New Orleans Home for Colored Waifs, band, while serving a long term for shooting his stepfather’s pistol on New Year Eve. Professor Peter Davis provided musical training to the otherwise self-taught Armstrong, became the band leader.

Armstrong’s first dance hall gig was with Henry Ponce, where Black Benny became his protector and guide. Playing in brass marching band he learned from Bunk Johnson, Buddy Petit, Kid Ory, and the Master Joe King Oliver. Later, he played on river boats with Fats Marable’s band, working with written arrangements.

Armstrong said it was like "going to the university,” because he worked with written arrangements. In 1919, Joe Oliver moved to Chicago leaving Kid Ory’s band, regarded as the best jazz group in New Orleans. Armstrong replaced his mentor playing second cornet, was promoted to first cornet, and he became second trumpet for the Tuxedo Brass Band, a society orchestra. Louis married Daisy Parker from Gretna, Louisiana on March 19, 1918.

The couple adopted a 3-yearold, named Clarence Armstrong. Louis’s cousin Flora, died soon after giving birth. Clarence was kicked in the head, which left him handicapped. Louis cared for him the rest of his life. Louis and Parker separated, and she died shortly after the divorce. Now twenty, Armstrong could read music and was coming into his own.

He began playing extended trumpet solos, becoming one of the first jazzmen to do so, injecting his personality and style and creating a unique new sound. He started using singing, again one of the first jazz men to do so. Armstrong joined the Chicago exodus in 1922. Joining "King" Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band ended his day jobs, and Chicago’s best and most influential jazz band. As Armstrong’s reputation grew, he could blow two hundred high C’s, in a row, which caused aspiring young horn men to challenge him to cutting contests, which he always won.

Armstrong made his first recordings in 1923 on the Gennett and Okeh labels, playing second cornet in Oliver’s band. Armstrong enjoyed working with Oliver, but his second wife, pianist Lil Hardin, urged him to develop a new style away from Oliver’s influence, having him play classical music in church concerts to broaden his skill and improve his solo playing, and to dress sharp. In 1924 Armstrong joined Fletcher Henderson’s New York Orchestra, termed the best band going, where he switched to the trumpet. Henderson’s Orchestra played in the best, whites-only venues, including the famed Rose Land Ballroom. Duke Ellington’s orchestra came to the Rose Land to see Armstrong.

During this time Armstrong recorded with Sidney Bechet, Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, and Alberta Hunter. Returning to Chicago in 1925 Armstrong began recording for Okeh Records under his own name with the Hot Five and Hot Seven. He recorded, Potato Head Blues, Muggies, and West End Blues, which set the standard and the agenda for all future jazz.

The players were Kid Ory trombone, Johnny Dodds , clarinet, Johnny St. Cry banjo, Lil played piano, and usually there was no drummer. His 1928 Weatherbird duet recordings with pianist Earl “Father” Hines are still among the most influential improvisations in jazz history including Armstrong’s trumpet introduction to West End Blues.

Armstrong played with Erskin Tate’s Little Symphony Orchestra actually a quintet at the Vendome Theater, furnishing music for silent movies and live shows, including jazz versions of classical music, such as Madame Butterfly.

He began scat singing (using nonsensical words and may have been th first to record it, on Heebie Jeebies in 1926 which was so popular they became America’s most famous jazz band even though they had not performed live. Separating from Lil, Armstrong played at the Sunset Cafe for Joe Glaser in Carroll Dickerson’s Orchestra, with Earl Hines on piano. It quickly became Louis Armstrong and his Stompers. Glaser managed the orchestra, was the music director and, he and Armstrong became life-long friends and successful collaborators.

In 1929, Armstrong returned to New York, to play in the pit orchestra of Hot Chocolate a successful an all-Black musical, 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 recorded version becoming his biggest selling to date.

He worked at Harlem’s Connie’s Inn which was second only to the Cotton Club. Armstrong’s highly successful singing versions of famous songs composed by his old friend Hoagy Carmichael, became one of the most successful ever recorded. His vocal innovations are the foundation upon which jazz vocal interpretation is built. Lazy River “exerted a huge influence on Bing Crosby. The Depression was hard on the Jazz scene.

The Cotton Club closed in 1936, many musicians stopped playing altogether as club dates evaporated. Armstrong moved to Los Angelesi n 1930, where he played at the New Cotton Club with Lionel Hampton on drums. The band drew in the Hollywood crowd. (AP)

______ Copyright 2008 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.  

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