Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music

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ARMSTRONG, Louis

(b 4 August 1901, New Orleans LA; d 6 July 1971, NYC) Cornet, trumpet; singer, leader; aka 'Dippermouth', then 'Satchmo' (from 'Satchelmouth'), also 'Pops'. He gave a birth date of 4 July 1900, but probably didn't know when he was born; a baptismal certificate was finally discovered in a white parish where his mother probably worked as a servant. He was the first and still perhaps greatest solo star in jazz, one of the most influential musicians in the history of popular music and one of the best-known, best-loved entertainers in the world.

He grew up in utter poverty, but was ingenious at thinking of ways to make a little money. Like BIllie Holiday a few years later, Louis was incarcerated when he was a child not once but twice. In 1910 a fire destroyed a block of old buildings in New Orleans; Louis and several other boys were arrested while trying to salvage brass fittings from the the ruins (they were not treated severely). More importantly, he was sent to the Colored Waifs' Home after firing a pistol in the air in 1912, where he learned to play cornet. He subsequently worked at odd jobs and in various bands; married his first wife '18, replaced King Oliver in Kid Ory's band early '19, joined Fate Marable's riverboat band a few weeks later, returned to New Orleans '21. He joined Oliver in Chicago on second cornet '22 and that band made the first great jazz records '23; he married the band's pianist '24 (Lillian Hardin, b 3 February 1898, Memphis TN; d 27 August 1971, Chicago) and she encouraged him to leave Oliver. With the Fletcher Henderson band in New York for a year he influenced it profoundly, but also recorded with Sidney Bechet and others in small groups directed by Clarence Williams (the Blue Five, Red Onion Jazz Babies), and accompanied singers Bessie Smith, 'Chippie' Hill, Ma Rainey and others (Jimmie Rodgers in '30): all these records are of great historical interest, the best record we have of what the music may have sounded like in the taverns and brothels of New Orleans.

With his wife's band in Chicago '25, he then began making the records known as the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, with small groups assembled for the studio only. The Hot Five inclluded Ory, Johnny Dodds and Johnny St Cyr on banjo, as well as Louis and his wife; they cut 33 sides in about two years from November '25. Now matured as an artist, he abandoned the collective improvisation of the New Orleans style, doing it all himself: other musicians were astonished at his complete mastery, demonstrating all the self-expression possible in jazz. He had a clear, accurate, beautiful tone, and was the first to improvise freely in the lower registers of the instrument; his technical skill allowed him to place notes as he wished, bending a note or placing emphasis within it, and playing around the beat: he could swing the entire group himself. As an improvising melodist he went further than anyone until then in recomposing a song. He did not invent the stop-time chorus (in which the band played one beat in one or two bars, leaving the soloist to do as he wished) but was first to take the fullest advantage of that freedom; his solos were perfectly constructed yet obviously improvised in their ebullience, and he sang the same way: he seemed to have invented scat singing, he did that too with such freedom. Among the Hot Five's best recordings: 'Cornet Chop Suey', 'Heebie Jeebies' (for scat singing), 'Struttin' With Some Barbecue', 'Big Butter And Egg Man' (with vocal by May Alix), 'Hotter Than That' (for a fine series of solo choruses). During the Hot Five series he switched from cornet to the brighter trumpet; the Hot Seven began to record, adding Pete Briggs on tuba, Baby Dodds on drums and John Thomas (1902-71) for Ory on trombone. 'Wild Man Blues', 'Gully Low Blues', 'Potato Head Blues' are mostly solos, the last famous for its stop-time chorus. 'Chicago Breakdown' was made by Louis Armstrong and his Stompers, a group he worked with in a Chicago cafe, eleven players including Earl Hines on piano. The Savoy Ballroom Five made 18 sides '28 with no New Orleans players except drummer Zutty Singleton (b 14 May 1898, Bunkie LA; d 14 July 1975 NYC) but included Hines, one of the few musicians Armstrong ever worked with who was his equal: 'West End Blues' was famous for its perfect architecture, containing basic elements identifying popular music for decades, including a declamatory intro (actually made of phrases he had invented while accompanying blues singers), a statement of the theme and a series of solos on it backed harmonically by the other members of the band. Its wordless vocal inflluenced many, including Billie Holiday. 'Weather Bird' was a classic duet with Hines, a musical triumph in every possible way.

Armstrong fronted larger bands beginning '28, directed by Luis Russell, Carroll Dickerson (1898-1951), Les Hite (1903-62), Zilner Randolph (b 1899; d 2 February 1994 Chicago). In his prime at the end of the silent film era he was primarily a singer and theatre entertainer, seen as a star by audiences caring little about jazz itself. He often played more than 100 consecutive high notes at the end of hackneyed show-stoppers such as 'Shine' or 'Tiger Rag', but also made beautiful records: 'Stardust', 'Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea', 'The Peanut Vendor', many more. Always suffering from insecurity due to racial prejudice and the extreme poverty of his youth, Armstrong was managed at first by Tommy Rockwell, recording director of the Fives and Sevens, but then by Johnny Collins, a small-time gangster; sometimes booked 365 nights a year, he had never acquired a proper embouchure and began to suffer chronic lip problems. He went to Europe '33, was idolized there and rested; not content with stealing from Armstrong, Collins abandoned him in London without a passport. On return to the USA he put his affairs in the hands of Joe Glaser (d '69), an old acquaintance from Chicago, who built a booking empire on the strength of their handshake: Glaser was a ruthless businessman and no music lover, but at least understood the value of the property he controlled, even travelling with the band in the early years. Armstrong had no more worries, and began appearing in better films (Pennies From Heaven '36; over 50 films altogether included New Orleans '46 and High Society '56). (Glaser made a lot of money out of Armstrong, but contrary to some accounts, did not leave Armstrong much in his will, because Glaser himself had been taken over by mobsters and had little of his own to give.) Armstrong's big bands were often no more than backing groups and jazz fans were disappointed by the emphasis on entertainment, but Louis was grateful to his public and always gave full measure; he said that his favourite band was Guy Lombardo's, his point being that Lombardo's 'sweet' band was reliable and musically impeccable. He made charming pop records, recording with Bing Crosby, the Mills Brothers and others; had hits (e.g. 'Blueberry Hill' '49 with Gordon Jenkins). He continued to innovate long after '30, too good a musician to stop: a '38 broadcast aircheck with Fats Waller, Bud Freeman, Al Casey, Jack Teagarden, and George Wettling on drums is priceless for his singing of the introduction to 'Jeepers Creepers' alone.

Finally the big-band era was over. In May '47 Armstrong played Town Hall NYC with Teagarden, Bob Haggart, Peanuts Hucko, Sid Catlett, Bobby Hackett and others; the new small-group format was a critical and public success and much cheaper to keep on the road: for the rest of his life he led he led the sextet Louis Armstrong and his All-Stars. He had always played contemporary material, but was now criticized for playing pop songs, mugging, clowning, mopping his face with a white handkerchief; but he presented the personality his audience wanted. At first the All-Stars included Hines, Teagarden and Barney Bigard; it is a great shame that this group ('48-52) made only a handful of commercial recordings while Louis recorded for Decca with Jenkins etc; the personnel changed and was not always first-rate, especially in later years. Good albums include Satchmo At Symphony Hall '51 on Decca (MCA), Plays W. C. Handy '54 and Satch Plays Fats '55 on Columbia. The band mid-'50s included Bigard, Trummy Young on trombone, Billy Kyle on piano, Arvell Shaw (b 15 September 1923, St Louis; d 5 December 2002) on bass; Barrett Deems on drums (d 15 Sept. '98 aged 85, Chicago); later and until the end Danny Barcelona on drums (b 23 July 1929, Waipahu, Hawaii; d 1 April 2007). Velma Middleton sang and did the splits. Joe Muranyi (b 14 January 1928; d 20 April 2002) had studied with lennie Tristano, and played clarinet in the All-Stars from 1967 until the end.

Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography ('56-7, produced by Milt Gabler for Decca) was a four-LP set, a relaxed attempt to capture the All-Stars at their best, booked for a change into the studio as though into a club, instead of coming in exhausted from gigs. Ambassador Satch '56 on Columbia was recorded on European tour, with Edmond Hall for Bigard and sans Middleton: Armstrong became an American ambassador of good will, touring amid adulation nearly every country in the world, often sponsored by the US State Department. He was criticized as an Uncle Tom, but as Billie Holiday said, 'Pops toms from the heart,' or as Dizzy Gillespie put it, Louis Armstrong 'wouldn't let racism dim the joy of his life.' Then he exploded on September 18 1957 at the sight on TV of black children being spat on when Arkansas Gov. Faubus used the state's National Guard to prevent integration of schools, and abandoned talk about a tour of the USSR. He was on tour in Grand Forks ND when a local reporter got the scoop of his life: 'Because of the way they are treating my people ... the government can go to hell'; he accused President Eisenhower of having 'no guts', allowing Faubus (a 'plowboy') to run the country, and his sensational words helped force the federal government to uphold the law. (In fact his actual words were unprintable; the reporter and Armstrong had to collaborate on toned-down quotes.)

He continued to have hit singles: 'Blueberry Hill' charted when reissued '56 (because Fats Domino was having a hit with the song), 'Mack The Knife' same year; 'Hello, Dolly!' made no. 1 '64; he later became famous for the goopy 'What A Wonderful World', co-written by Bob Thiele, now used (or imitated) on TV adverts. He began by defining jazz, pointing out its direction, and no singer or player of consequence failed to acknowledge a debt to Pops, yet at the end of his life many fans were surprised to read in obituaries that the world-famous entertainer was also one of the most important innovators in music.

There was a six-CD compilation of all the recordings with Clarence Williams, Sidney Bechet and a great many blues singers on Affinity, now out of print. All 65 of Louis's recordings with the Fletcher Henderson band were on three CDs from an Oracle label, transferred by John R.T. Davies; there is a good selection of 26 of them on Bellaphon. It took Columbia until 2002 to make decent transfers of the Complete Hot Five & Hot Seven Recordings, and the four-CD set was absolutely complete, with two of Lil Armstrong's tracks that were Hot Fives in all but name, but the transfers by Davies on the British JSP label were just as good. The Complete RCA Victor Recordings is a four-CD set collecting tracks from '32-3 and '46-7, including the legendary Town Hall concert. Mosaic have compiled The Complete Decca Studio Recordings Of Louis Armstrong And The All Stars '50-58 on eight LPs or six CDs, including the Gabler set mentioned above. He often recorded with other artists (Dave Brubeck, Duke Ellington, Dukes of Dixieland); the albums with Ella Fitzgerald on Verve are magic pop ballad singing. Publications include Swing That Music '36 (ghost-written autobiography); Satchmo: My Life In New Orleans '55; an interview from Time-Life '61 published '71 as Louis Armstrong: A Self Portrait; pioneering biography Louis '71 by John Chilton and Max Jones, Satchmo '98 by Gary Giddins. Giddins makes the point that Armstrong was more than an important musical innovator and a superb entertainer, but a very good man: one of the greatest Americans of his century. Pops was a new biography by Terry Teachout in 2009, a very good book which (remarkably, for a jazz book) became a best-seller. Armstrong was also a letter writer, and never minded being interviewed: Louis Armstrong, in His Own Words '99 edited by Thomas Brothers is fascinating. When Louis's widow Lucille died, she left their house to New York City; Queen's College inherited a meticulously collected library of tapes etc maintained by Louis for decades.