Through the Life of Louis Armstrong
December 20, 2017
Music of Black Americans- Final Paper
Louis Armstrong is one of the most
prominent musicians, and remains one of the most influential artists in jazz
and swing music. He was known as an honorable man who truly had a passion for
music. “One of his most remarkable feats was his frequent conquest of the
popular marker with recordings that thinly disguised authentic jazz with
Armstrong’s contagious humor” (“Louis Armstrong”). Armstrong’s music was far more advanced than
other musicians at the time, whether he was compared with other soloists, or
even with orchestras (“Jazz”). His legacy was also said to have
regional folk music into an international art form through the virtuosity of
his playing as the first great jazz soloist and through the force of his
charismatic personality, which disdained pretense, eschewed hypocrisy, honored
life, and projected a genuine confidence in music’s power to transcend cultural
and racial differences” (Anderson).
life, Louis Armstrong overcame social, racial, and socioeconomic barriers,
which propelled him toward success and allowed him to set new standards for
Armstrong was born in 1901 to his parents, Mary Albert and William Armstrong. His
father abandoned the family soon after Armstrong’s birth, however returned and
produced a second child, Beatrice, two years later (Anderson). During
his life, he claimed to have been born on July 4, 1990, however, after his
death, his birth certificate was discovered showing that he was born on August
4, 1901. While growing up in New Orleans, his family faced extreme poverty. As
a young boy, he worked odd jobs to make money and sang in a boys’ quartet (“Louis
Armstrong”). Some jobs consisted of selling newspapers, delivering coal, or
collecting junk during the day. He also stayed with his grandfather for most of
his childhood, while his mother was working as a domestic and part-time
prostitute. He began to absorb his surroundings hearing a mixture of
ragtime and blues pouring from surrounding honky-tonks, brothels, and saloons (Anderson).
In 1912, there was a turn of events,
and he was sent to the Colored Waifs Home as a juvenile delinquent (“Louis
Armstrong”). This happened because Armstrong fired his step-father’s pistol in
public, and got arrested due to it being a repeat offence. The home was a
military reform school, where Armstrong was provided with a daily routine,
regular meals, and was instructed on the cornet. He was also appointed leader
of the school band. In this home, he found his love for music, and was greatly
saddened to leave the home when he was released to his father’s custody after
18 months. Soon after that, his father deemed him too expensive to care for, so
he went back to live with his mother and sister. He got his first job as a
musician playing the blues for pimps and prostitutes at the local tavern (Anderson).
Because of racial barriers, he could not obtain a meaningful education, career,
or profession. He could not even get a white-collar job. He seemed to be
belittled to living his life out as a common laborer, poor without job
security, and cheated out of his proper pay (Collier).
In his teenage years, he decided to
learn more about music by listening to pioneer jazz artists of popularity at
the time (“Louis Armstrong”).
This included one of the most popular cornetists in New Orleans at the
time, King Oliver. When listening to this music, he developed in his talent very
quickly. During these important years in his life, he was not only able to
focus on music. He had to cope with family crises, and adopted his cousin,
Clarence, upon his mother’s death (Anderson). He was then held
responsible to care for Clarence, who had brain damage from a fall, for the
remainder of his life. Three years
later, in 1918, he had advanced so much in his musical talent, he replaced
Oliver in the Kid Ory band, and in the early 1920s he played a role in
Mississippi riverboat dance bands (“Louis Armstrong”).
For Armstrong, fame began to come to
its surface in 1922 when Oliver asked Armstrong to come to Chicago to play
second cornet in his band (“Louis Armstrong”). The band
included pronounced musicians such as Johnny and Baby Dodds. Also involved was
the pianist Lil Hardin, who later married Armstrong in 1924. Armstrong also
recorded his first solos while a member of the Oliver band, composing them on
his own, alongside his wife Lil Armstrong (“Louis Armstrong”).
Lil then encouraged him to quit
Oliver’s band to delve deeper into his fame and career. Some of his most important
early works were then created, such as the Armstrong Hot Five and Hot Seven
recordings during the years of 1925-28. He emerged as the first great jazz
soloist (“Louis Armstrong”). Armstrong continued from the cornet to
playing the trumpet, topping all the other musicians of the time.
By 1929, Armstrong was a famous
musician, especially after moving from Chicago to New York City, performing in
the theater review Hot Chocolates (“Louis Armstrong”). He then
toured in America and Europe as a trumpet soloist, accompanied by big bands.
For many years, starting in 1935, Luis Russell’s big band played as Louis
Armstrong’s band. Through this, he began a new style, “creating melodic
paraphrases and variations, as well as chord-change based improvisations on
these songs” (“Louis Armstrong”). Now, his trumpet range also
continued to broaden. He often sang without words or texts, and in doing so
popularized “scat”, a “universally comprehensible art form that needed no
translation” (“Jazz”). As more time passed, he also began to sing lyrics along
with most of his recordings, with a “gravel voice that was immediately
identifiable” (“Louis Armstrong).
Lil and Louis Armstrong later
divorced in 1931. Armstrong had four different marriages throughout his
lifetime. It is evident that Armstrong placed music above
all his relationships, even the relationships with his wives, because music was
the only form of stability that ever existed in his life. Having grown up with
the childhood that he had, nothing remained stable. His father kept leaving and
reentering his life, just to ultimately give up on him, and nothing was ever
secured. Armstrong’s first three wives did not understand the extent and
meaning of the relationship between Armstrong and his music. Lil tried her best
to relate to him, as she was a jazz musician herself, and even helped his
career grow and develop since she urged him to go solo. Even with that, in the
end his passion and dedication was too much for the marriage to withstand.
Armstrong’s lasting marriage
was with Lucille, his fourth wife. Lucille allowed herself to come second to
music, which none of his previous wives had done. Armstrong said about Lucille, “She’s
just a fine human being who knows what it takes to relax me and make me feel
good. The women who marry me must respect my program and way of life”
(Raeburn). Because of the dysfunctional relationship with his mother, his wives
were the most important female relationships in his life. Although having a
difficult history with women, female listeners could connect to the emotion and
feelings that Armstrong’s music gave off. For example, Billie Holiday looked up
to Armstrong and was influenced by his music, conclusively leading her to join
the jazz movement. Anyone that desired to be in Armstrong’s life had to respect
that music kept him disciplined, which ultimately led him to great success
1935 to the end of his life, Armstrong’s career began to be managed by Joe
Glaser. He was the one who hired Armstrong’s bands, guided his film career, and
coordinated his radio appearances (“Louis Armstrong”). Armstrong
became a strong influence on the swing era, which contradicted his previously
conservative style. “Armstrong matured into a major soloist and at the same
time developed – indeed single handedly invented – a compelling, propulsive,
rhythmic inflection in his playing that came to be called swing” (“Jazz”). By
continuing with his “swing-style” trumpet playing, influenced essentially all
jazz horn players (“Louis Armstrong”). The rhythm of his vocal style
was also impactful on artists such as Billie Holiday and Bing Crosby. Armstrong’s
influential music was also incorporated into the works of white musicians,
including the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, Red Nichols and his Five Pennies, and
even Bix Beiderbecke (“Jazz”).
Armstrong was also known as a
good-humored entertainer. He played a dramatic role in the film New Orleans in
1947, and performed in a Dixieland band (“Louis Armstrong”). Armstrong
formed the group called the Armstrong All-Stars, which was a group of older New
Orleans-style musicians, including trombonist Jack Teagarden (“Jazz”).
Throughout the rest of his career, Armstrong toured the world with changing
All-Stars sextets. Later in his career he was recognized for his nearly nonstop
touring schedule (“Louis Armstrong”). This was the time when he was
greatest in fame.
While Louis Armstrong was widely
respected, younger musicians of his race thought of him as old fashioned and
out-of-touch. He also decided to stop performing with the All-Stars because the
state of Louisiana prohibited integrated bands (Anderson). Throughout
his life, Armstrong recognized the racial barriers he was raced with when
building his career.
Jazz began with slaves as an
outlet for self-expression through dance and song, in a time when blackness was
aiming to be negated. Because jazz was created and promoted by black musicians,
it was the “black man’s music” and was even referred to as “devil’s music.”
Jazz as a genre has encountered racial conflict. Therefore, it has caused many jazz
musicians to have also encountered racial backlash throughout their careers,
and although extraordinary, Louis Armstrong is no exception. While in New
Orleans, one of Armstrong’s jobs was to play trumpet in an all-black jazz band
on a steamboat to a mainly white audience. This was not typical for the white
audience, because African American boys did not usually play music, but they allowed
it (“Louis Armstrong”). Through this, Armstrong became more aware of the
segregation that existed in the United States at the time, which is something
he would have to face in his music career for the rest of his life. An example
of this is Armstrong’s life being “cramped and covert.” He was not just free to
roam around his native city. There were many places that he could not go to
unless he already had business there. This included the “white brothel
district”, where no matter how dirty the restaurants, he could not eat, and no
matter how wretched, could not drink at white bars (Collier).
One particularly significant
racial obstacle was the bombing of a performance he was playing at in
Knoxville, Tennessee. The White Citizens Council was accused of the bombing,
who had priorly fought against the concert hall being used for integrated
audiences (Giddins, 126). This bombing was around the time of the civil rights
movement, and it was foreseen that Armstrong would take part in the protests
and marches to defend his people, however he did not. This led to him being labeled
as subservient to the white population. People wanted Armstrong to represent
them in the marches because he was such a notable figure for both black and
white audiences, which could have potentially gained support for the movement.
He did not want to join in big public demonstrations because of his love for
his music. He said, “My life is my music. They would beat me on the mouth if I
marched, and without my mouth I wouldn’t be able to blow my horn” which indicates
that he valued music over all else, even if it meant standing down in a cause
he truly did believe in (Schwartz).
his health began to deteriorate, he cut back on his trumpet playing, however he
could continue as a singer. At the age of 63 he was the oldest musician to have
a number one hit on the pop charts for six weeks. In 1971, Armstrong began to
suffer from heart disease and passed away in his home as “one of the most
widely-known and best-loved personalities in the world” (Anderson). The
Armstrong House located in Corona, Queens in New York City was opened as a
museum in 2003. Also after his death, he received multiple recognitions
including a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1972, a statue in New Orleans’
Louis Armstrong Park in 1980, a commemorative stamp in 1995, and was declared
one of Variety’s Top 100 Entertainers
of the Twentieth Century in 1999 (Anderson).
Louis Armstrong’s song “Hello, Dolly!”,
provides the listener with the experience of hearing his raw voice. The song
title was used as the name of a play, which was then made into a film starring
Barbara Streisand. This usage of African American music in white culture is
apparent. Louis Armstrong broke the barrier racism placed in front of him,
which allowed for his musical talents to be shared and appreciated by all
Americans. The song has more of a commercial rhythm, rather than just being
noted for musical depth. This led to the song being shared among a wider-spread
audience. This song reached the top hits, which allowed him to be among The
Beatles, peaking his popularity and fame.
his widely-appreciated song, “What a Wonderful World”, the common recognition
of the grit in his voice can be heard immediately. He has a rasp that cannot be
compared to any other musician. The song can be regarded as a sign of focusing
on the good in life and looking forward to the greater good, rather than pain
and strife one was facing in their life. This song was composed later in
Armstrong’s life, in the year of 1965. This song perfectly resembles his legacy
as being remembered for eternity. The song continues to be listened to by many,
and can even still be heard during the holidays in commercials. In the song,
Armstrong sings, “I hear babies cryin’, I watch them grow, They’ll learn much
more, than I’ll ever know.” This can be perceived as hope for future
generations. He sees the potential for knowledge to be passed down to the
children by the time they reach his age, so that they will have the opportunity
to learn much more than the people surrounding him at the time.
Louis Armstrong secured the survival
of jazz and led to its development into a “fine art” (“Louis Armstrong”).
“Armstrong taught the whole world about swing and had a profound effect on the
development of jazz that continues to be felt and heard” (“Jazz”). The nobility
of Armstrong can be seen when he was faced with criticism. Armstrong
brilliantly replied with,
“… coming out all
chesty, making faces, the jive with the audience clapping, aw, it’s all in fun.
People expect it of me; they know I’m there in the cause of happiness. What
you’re there for is to please the people. I mean the best way you can. Those
few moments belong to them” (Anderson).
He is not only remembered
for his musical talent, but his appeal to the American public. This appeal
surpasses trumpeting, since he was also a singer, writer, improviser, and even
a comedian. His works are well known to many, and continue to be recognized to
this day. Due to all of this, along with the obstacles he overcame in his life,
he serves as an inspiration to all Americans.
Gene H. “Armstrong, Louis Dippermouth; Papa Dip; Pops; Satchelmouth;
Satchmo.” Oxford Music Online, Oxford University
Press, 16 Oct. 2013.
Accessed 11 Dec. 2017
Collier, James Lincoln. Louis Armstrong: An American Genius. New York, Oxford
Press, 1985. Proquest,
Giddins, Gary. Satchmo: The Genius of Louis
Armstrong. New York: Da Capo, 2001. Print.
Academic, Encyclopedia Britannica, 7 Apr.
Accessed 11 Dec. 2017.
Armstrong.” Britannica Academic, Encyclopedia Britannica, 22
Mar. 2012. academic.eb.com.libdb.fairfield.edu/levels/collegiate/article/Louis-Armstrong/9548.
Accessed 11 Dec. 2017.
Louis Armstrong. “Hello,
Dolly!”, 1964, Apple Music
Louis Armstrong. “What a
Wonderful World”, 1965, Apple Music
Raeburn, Bruce. “Louis and Women.” The
Best of New Orleans. Gambit, 2001. Web. 11 Dec.
Schwartz, Ben. “What Louis Armstrong Really Thinks.” The
New Yorker. The New Yorker Media
Kit, 25 Feb. 2014.
Web. 11 Dec. 2017.