American trumpeter Louis Armstrong (1901-1971) was one of the most important creative forces in the early development and perpetuation of Jazz. Armstrong, nicknamed Satchmo, is renowned for his charismatic stage presence and voice almost as much as for his trumpet playing. He recorded hit songs for five decades and composed dozens of songs that have become jazz standards. With his superb comic timing and unabashed joy of life, Louis Armstrong also appeared in more than thirty films.
Louis Daniel Armstrong was born in New Orleans in the Storyville District known as ‘the Battlefield’ in 1901. He left school at the 5th grade to help support his family. He sang on street corners, sold newspapers and delivered coal. He went to the Colored Waif’s Home for shooting a gun to celebrate New Year’s Eve on 31 December 1912. He learned to play the bugle cornet and to read music from Peter Davis at the Waif’s Home. After 18 months, he left the Waif’s Home determined to become a musician. Armstrong first married Daisy Parker as his career as a musician developed. He followed his mentor, Joe ‘King’ Oliver, to Chicago to play in the Creole Jazz Band. While in Chicago, Armstrong networked with other jazz musicians, reconnecting with his friend, Bix Biederbecke, and made new contacts, which included Hoagy Carmichael and Lil Hardin. Lil was a graduate of Fisk University and an excellent pianist who could read, write and arrange music. She encouraged and enhanced Louis’ career, and they married in 1924. Armstrong became very popular and one of the genre’s most sought after trumpeters. He traveled a great deal and spent considerable time in Chicago and New York. He first moved to the Big Apple in 1924 to join Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra. Armstrong stayed in New York for a while but moved back to Chicago in October of 1925. He later went back to New York in 1929. During that time, some of the Jazz icon’s most important and successful work was accomplished with his Hot Fives and Hot Sevens Bands. He and Lil Hardin separated in 1931 and later divorced in 1938. After his divorce, Louis married Alpha Smith in 1938. While maintaining a vigorous work schedule, as well as living and travelling back and forth to Chicago and California, Armstrong moved back to New York in the late 1930s and later married Lucille Wilson in 1942.
Louis Armstrong was also an influential singer, with his instantly recognisable gravelly voice. Armstrong had nineteen Top Ten hits 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. He demonstrated great dexterity as an improviser, bending the lyrics and melody of a song for expressive purposes. He was also very skilled at scat singing. Armstrong appeared in more than a dozen Hollywood films, usually playing a bandleader or musician. In 1947, he played himself opposite Billie Holiday in the film New Orleans (Arthur Lubin, 1947), which chronicled the demise of the Storyville district and the ensuing exodus of musicians from New Orleans to Chicago. Armstrong also had a part in The Glenn Miller Story (Anthony Mann, 1954) in which Glenn (James Stewart) jammed with Armstrong and a few other noted musicians of the time. His most familiar role was as the bandleader cum narrator in the musical High Society (Charles Walters, 1956), in which he sang the title song and performed a duet with Bing Crosby. In The Five Pennies (Melville Shavelson, 1959), the story of the cornetist Red Nichols, Armstrong played himself as well as singing and playing several classic numbers. With leading actor Danny Kaye, Armstrong performed a duet of When the Saints Go Marching In, during which Kaye impersonated Armstrong. He also appeared in several European films, including the Italian-French musical Saluti e baci/The Road to Happiness (Maurice Labro, Giorgio Simonelli, 1953) with Georges Guétary, the German musical Die Nacht vor der Premiere/The Night before the Premiere (Georg Jacoby, 1959) with Marika Rökk, and the Danish musical Kærlighedens melodi/The melody of love (Bent Christensen, 1959) with Nina and Frederik. Armstrong’s influence extends well beyond jazz, and by the end of his career in the 1960s, he was widely regarded as a profound influence on popular music in general. 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. 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 extremely racially divided at the time. He rarely publicly politicised his race, often to the dismay of fellow African Americans, but Armstrong was the only Black Jazz musician to publicly speak out against school segregation in 1957 during the Little Rock crisis. His artistry and personality allowed him access to the upper echelons of American society, then highly restricted for black men. Despite his fame, he remained a humble man and lived a simple life in a working-class neighborhood. He remained married to Lucille Wilson until his death in 1971. He left his entire estate tohis beloved wife. Louis Armstrong wrote two autobiographies.
Sources: Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation, Wikipedia and IMDb.
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