“If you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know.”
Louis Armstrong, nicknamed “Satchmo,” “Pops” and, later, “Ambassador Satch,” was born on August 4, 1901, in New Orleans, Louisiana. Armstrong had a difficult childhood. His father was a factory worker and abandoned the family soon after Louis’s birth; his mother, frequently left him with his maternal grandmother.Armstrong was obligated to leave school in the fifth grade to begin working. A Jewish family, the Karnofskys, gave young Armstrong a job collecting junk and delivering coal. They also encouraged him to sing and often invited him into their home for meals.
On New Year’s Eve in 1912, Armstrong fired his stepfather’s gun in the air during a New Year’s Eve celebration and was arrested on the spot. He was then sent to the Colored Waif’s Home for Boys. There, he received musical instruction on the cornet and fell in love with music. In 1914, the home released him, and he immediately began dreaming of a life making music. While he still had to work odd jobs selling newspapers and hauling coal to the city’s famed red-light district, Armstrong began earning a reputation as a fine blues player. One of the greatest cornet players in town, Joe “King” Oliver, began acting as a mentor to the young Armstrong, showing him pointers on the horn and occasionally using him as a sub.
While in New York, Armstrong cut dozens of records as a sideman, creating inspirational jazz with other greats such as Sidney Bechet, and backing numerous blues singers, namely Bessie Smith. Back in Chicago, OKeh Records decided to let Armstrong make his first records with a band under his own name: Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five. From 1925 to 1928, Armstrong made more than 60 records with the Hot Five and, later, the Hot Seven. Today, these are generally regarded as the most important and influential recordings in jazz history; on these records, Armstrong’s virtuoso brilliance helped transform jazz from an ensemble music to a soloist’s art.
By 1932, Armstrong had begun appearing in movies and made his first tour of England. While he was beloved by musicians, he was too wild for most critics, who gave him some of the most racist and harsh reviews of his career. Armstrong didn’t let the criticism stop him, however, and he returned an even bigger star when he began a longer tour throughout Europe in 1933. In a strange turn of events, it was during this tour that Armstrong’s career fell apart: Years of blowing high notes had taken a toll on Armstrong’s lips, and, following a fight with his manager, Johnny Collins—who already managed to get Armstrong into trouble with the American mob—he was left stranded overseas by Collins. Armstrong decided to take some time off soon after the incident, and spent much of 1934 relaxing in Europe and resting his lip.
Armstrong set a number of African-American “firsts.” In 1936, he became the first African-Amercican jazz musician to write an autobiography: Swing That Music. That same year, he became the first African-American to get featured billing in a major Hollywood movie with his turn in Pennies from Heaven, starring Bing Crosby. Additionally, he became the first African-American entertainer to host a nationally sponsored radio show in 1937, when he took over Rudy Vallee’s Fleischmann’s Yeast Show for 12 weeks.
Armstrong continued to appear in major films with the likes of Mae West, Martha Raye and Dick Powell. He was also a frequent presence on radio, and often broke box-office records at the height of what is now known as the “Swing Era.” Armstrong’s fully healed lip made its presence felt on some of the finest recordings of career, including “Swing That Music,” “Jubilee” and “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue.”
Armstrong died at his home in Queens, New York, on July 6, 1971.