[Louis Armstrong] was the only musician who ever lived, who can’t be replaced by someone.
If you don’t like Louis Armstrong, you don’t know how to love.
Armstrong is to music what Einstein is to physics and the Wright Brothers are to travel.
The otherworldly gift of music has always been one of the greatest virtues of a species all too often at war with itself. Malcolm X once said that African Americans did not land on Plymouth Rock but rather Plymouth Rock landed on them. It is a sentiment difficult to debate. But black Americans were not alone in the savagery inflicted upon them in the name of truth, justice and the American way. While Africans were cargoed to these shores the native peoples of the American continents faced the prospects of wholesale genocide in the name of something labeled as manifest destiny. Don McClean once sang his adios to American Pie after driving his Chevy to that dry levee, perhaps in wait of the fair maiden Dinah Shore whose America was asking us to call. The good old boys indulged in rounds of whiskey and rye lamenting an arguably better time in America for them but maybe not for some of the aforementioned peoples. It was not however the day that Mr. McClean died nor, fortunately for us was it the day that the music died. American Pie debuted in October 1971. But Louis Daniel Armstrong passed into eternity on July 6th of the same year and if the music didn’t die then, we can be pretty sure it never will.
Louis Armstrong was born on August 4th, 1901 to a 16-year-old Mary Albert and William Armstrong, in New Orleans. Because of course, if any kind of deity might have a hand in such deliveries, New Orleans would be the destination and a soul the likes of one to be alternatively referred to as Louis, Louie, Satchmo and Pops would be the package. He was by far the greatest trumpet player of his time and the well spring from where jazz as well as most American popular music would spring. His father very soon abandoned him and his young mother leaving Louis to be raised by the age of 5 with his grandmother in the tough “Battlefield” neighborhood of New Orleans. While selling coal in Storyville for the Karnofskys, a family of Lithuanian Jews, he heard spasm bands for the first time. Spasm bands were groups that made music using household objects. He also heard the sounds of jazz music coming from the brothels and the dance halls where King Oliver performed.
At an early age Louis was educated in the discrimination suffered not only by black Americans but also by anyone who was “the other”. The Karnofskys were the other as well, even though their complexion was much paler than Louis. The Armstrong Karnofsky relationship is complex when viewed through a contemporary lens. After all, Louis was a dark-skinned boy working at times 15 hours a day on a coal wagon for the purpose of securing profit for a white Jewish family. The use of children in these ways was all too common in those days and indeed, eventually such exploitation was outlawed. But Louis himself did not see things the same way. The Karnofsky family not only employed Louis but they welcomed him into their home, fed him, mentored him, comforted him and showed him a side of humanity all too missing in action for a seven-year-old black boy in New Orleans in 1908. Louis wore a Star of David pendant until the day he died.
Young Louis bounced around a lot. After borrowing his stepfather’s gun and firing it with blanks he was sent to the Colored Waifs Home where food and mattresses were scarce and corporal punishment was meted out regularly. Louis wrote in his memoirs that Morris Karnofsky advanced him salary to buy his first coronet. While serving his time at the Colored Waifs School he played in the band and was soon picked out for special consideration and tutoring on the instrument by Peter Davis. Upon his release he stayed for a short while with his father but was back sharing a one room flat with his mother and sister very soon after his father sired another daughter with his wife. But his talents caught the ears of Kid Ory. Soon he was earning a living as a dance hall player at an establishment run by an alleged gangster and graduating to the riverboat brass bands of the time before coming under the direction and tutelage of Fate Marable who insisted that all of his musicians sight read. Of course, Louis mastered this quickly.
By the time he was 21 he was playing in the Chicago Creole Jazz Band under the direction of Joe “King” Oliver and coming into contact with such jazz dignitaries as Bix Beiderbecke, Hoagy Carmichael and Lil Hardin whose band he later played in and who he also married.
His first recordings were with Oliver for Gennett Records in April of 1923. These recordings took place over two days in Richmond, Indiana under somewhat less than stellar conditions in an unsophisticated studio in a town that was known for significant Ku Klux Klan activity.
He married Lil Hardin after divorcing the first of his four wives, Daisy Parker who he wed at 17. Lil encouraged him to broaden his style and repertoire by playing in churches and performing classical music. At her encouragement in 1924 he left Chicago for New York where he joined Fletcher Henderson’s band, the top African American band of the time. He also switched from coronet to trumpet in order to fit in better with the other players in his section. It was during this period that he recorded with such legendary artists as Stanley Bichet, Alberta Hunter, Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. He also experiments with the trombone.
In 1925 he returns to Chicago with Lil as part of the Lil Hardin Armstrong Band and she bills him as “ The World’s Greatest Trumpet Player” a designation the humble musician did not enjoy. He also formed Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five with whom he recorded Potato Head Blues and Muggles. The Hot Five included Lil (piano), Kid Ory (trombone), Johnny Dodds (clarinet), and Johnny St. Cyr (banjo). They usually worked without a drummer. Starting in Nov. 1925.this combo produced 24 records. All of this by the time he was 24.
It is hard to imagine what the face of popular American music would have looked like without the influence of Louis Armstrong. He has been enshrined in most of the musical halls of fame including the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland as an early influence. Ironic then that in 1964 it was Louis’s recording of Hello Dolly that knocked The Beatles Can’t Buy Me Love from the number one spot on the US pop charts. Even more ironic when one considers that Louis really didn’t like the song that much. Such was Louis’s spirit that not an ounce of such displeasure is evident on the recording. All we hear is his pure joy making music. It was also the last song from a Broadway musical to reach the number one spot.
No less a jazz legend than Miles Davis once said, “ You can’t play anything on a horn that Louis hasn’t played”. Still, Miles and other Beboppers of the next generation of jazz were critical of Louis when it came to race relations. Many of them thought of him as an Uncle Tom. Miles wrote in his autobiography that he hated the way Louis would “clown” for his white audiences. Yet in 1957 when the Governor of Arkansas sent the national guard to block nine black students from entering Little Rock Central High Louis told a reporter that President Eisenhower had “no guts”. It wasn’t long before Eisenhower sent troops to escort the students to school. Such was the power of Louis words across a large cross section of racial America. He may not have been the front and center entertainment face of the civil rights movement of the 1960’s but he wasn’t ignorant or unsupportive of the movement. For nearly ten years he would not play in his native city of New Orleans because it would not allow integrated bands. If you don’t understand how much this must have hurt him and how significant a protest this was for him, give a listen to his recording of “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?” and get back to me.
The fact of the matter is that Louis Armstrong was more complicated than he might have seemed. He was good friends with many white artists, but he wasn’t blinded to the social standards that infected even those relationships. In Terry Teachout’s’ excellent play “ Satchmo at the Waldorf” Louis laments about his relationship with Bing Crosby which was respectful and warm…to a point. Satchmo takes a moment to let us all know that der Bingster never invited him over to his house for dinner. And it was such common aspects of social behavior that had the most meaning to Louis who never stopped being a man of the people. Despite his money and fame, he elected to live in a modest working-class home in Corona, Queens with his fourth and final wife Lucille from 1943 until his death in 1971. As he said in 1964: “We’re right out here with the rest of the colored folk and the Puerto Ricans and Italians and the Hebrew cats. We don’t need to move out to the suburbs to some big mansion with lots of servants and yardmen and things”
I’m not a musician and I will leave it to critics and musicologists to break down the technicalities of Louis’s effect on improvisation, composition, tonality etc. that float high above my own earth-bound understandings. But I grasp how a body can shake and how a set of jaws ,lungs, tongues, teeth and air can conspire to make souls experience their humanity in the most religious of manners, even for the atheists among us. I understand in the most inarticulate of ways how this happens and seek no technical explanation that might devour the joy of its mystery.
In such times when the common man is vilified and joy is at a premium and tariffed to its core, the life of Louis Armstrong reminds us that criticism can still be constructive, and joy can always be right around the corner for the price of a song, if we can only remember the trees of green and the red roses and the babies who cry and grow and learn much more than we’ll ever know. Thank you, Louis, for reminding us of what a wonderful world this can be. Happy 118th birthday Pops. We need you now more than ever.
The Louis Armstrong House Museum
34-56 107th St.
Corona, NY 11368
718 478 8274