Armstrong, Louis

Louis Daniel Armstrong, popularly known as Satchmo (the nickname Satchmo or Satch is short for Satchelmouth, but musicians called him Pops) was born on 4 July 1900 in New Orleans, USA. New Orleans is the birthplace of American jazz. His parents were poor and his grandparents had been slaves. As “Dippermouth” (his first nickname) he made his money as a street singer in the notorious Storyville district. He celebrated New Year’s Eve when he was 13 by firing a .38 pistol that belonged to one of his “stepfathers”, and he was subsequently sent to the Colored Waifs’ Home for Boys (a reform school).

In 1918, Armstrong married his first wife, a local woman named Daisy Parker, a prostitute. This marriage would be short-lived and three more marriages would follow – a jazz pianist Lillian Hardin in 1924, who gave him some formal musical education before they separated; Alpha Smith in 1938; and a showgirl, Lucille Wilson, in 1942.

At the reform school he tried to play several instruments until he settled on the cornet, a good instrument for a crowded bandstand, but switched to the longer trumpet when he became primarily a soloist. He found his voice in the cornet, and became the leader of the school band. After being released at the age of fourteen, he started working – he sold papers, unloaded boats, and sold coal from a cart. When he was 18 he played in the brass bands and riverboats of New Orleans but in 1922 he went to Chicago to play second cornet with his mentor Joe “King” Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band. This band brought New Orleans style jazz to the attention of a wide public for the first time.

He loved his new role, and the Armstrong-Oliver recordings of 1923 were the first jazz that most of the world had ever heard. The time that he spent with Fletcher Henderson’s big band in New York City in 1924, developed his music beyond the traditional New Orleans style. He soon made the change to the trumpet as it had a brighter sound and flashier appearance. At this stage Armstrong already was a star in his own right and could not be contained in someone else’s band any longer, so he and Oliver split up amicably and Armstrong went to New York City. The band he established in Chicago in 1925 had the image and personality of Armstrong. With his phenomenal tone (the distinct, gravelly voice), instrumental range, stamina, and the spectacular gift for melodic variations, he was able to turn jazz from ensemble style music to a solo art.

He recorded famously with his Hot Five and Hot Seven with such hits as Potato Head Blues and West End Blues, which music became jazz landmarks for many years to come. He continued to develop as a live performer and was very popular in nightclubs. During his first European tour in 1933, he dedicated a special performance to King George VI with This one’s for you, Rex! He continued to tour for the next 30 years on a gruelling 300 odd days a year playing mostly once only at most venues. He also appeared in more than thirty films. Most of this touring was with a stable group called the All Stars, but he also continued an active recording career.

Under the sponsorship of the US State Department, Armstrong toured the world to great success, particularly in Africa and China. His contagious humour and flamboyant style made him the ideal “Ambassador Satch” for American music. His classics include “Star Dust”, “What a Wonderful World”, “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In”, “Dream a Little Dream of Me”, “Ain’t Misbehavin'”, “Stompin’ at the Savoy” and “Hello, Dolly”. “West End Blues”, “Weather Bird”, “Tight Like This”, “Hotter than That”, and “S.O.L. Blues”. Among his best-selling records were “Mack the Knife” and “C’est si bon”. In 1968, he had one last popular hit with the highly sentimental “What A Wonderful World”. He died of a heart attack on 6 July 1971 in New York City.