Louis Armstrong (August 4, 1901 – July 6, 1971), nicknamed Satchmo or Pops, was an American jazz trumpeter, singer, and an influential figure in jazz music.
With his instantly recognizable gravelly voice, Armstrong was also an influential singer, demonstrating great dexterity as an improviser, bending the lyrics and melody of a song for expressive purposes.
He was also skilled at scat singing (vocalizing using sounds and syllables instead of actual lyrics). Armstrong’s influence extends well beyond jazz music, and by the end of his career in the 1960s, he was widely regarded as a profound influence on popular music in general.
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 severely racially divided.
He rarely publicly politicized his race, often to the dismay of fellow African-Americans, but took a well-publicized stand for desegregation during the Little Rock Crisis.
Armstrong was born into a very poor family in New Orleans, Louisiana, the grandson of slaves.
He spent his youth in poverty, in a rough neighborhood, known as “the Battlefield”, which was part of the Storyville legal prostitution district. H
is father, William Armstrong (1881–1922), abandoned the family when Louis was an infant and took up with another woman.
His mother, Mary “Mayann” Albert (1886–1927), then left Louis and his younger sister Beatrice Armstrong Collins (1903–1987) in the care of his grandmother, Josephine Armstrong, and at times, his Uncle Isaac.
At five, he moved back to live with his mother and her relatives, and saw his father only in parades. He attended the Fisk School for Boys, where he likely had early exposure to music.
He brought in some money as a paperboy and also by finding discarded food and selling it to restaurants, but it was not enough to keep his mother from prostitution.
He hung out in dance halls close to home, where he observed everything from licentious dancing to the quadrille.
Armstrong was a frequent in Home for Colored Waifs.
However, his longest stay there was when he fired his stepfather’s pistol into the air during a New Year Eve celebration.
It was here that he developed a serious passion for playing cornet.
Professor Peter Davis, who was his mentor there, instilled discipline and gave musical training to Armstrong, which eventually saw him becoming a bandleader.
It was at this time that Armstrong got his first dance hall job at Henry Ponce.
He also played in brass band parades and riverboats in the city and listened to the songs of older musicians whenever he got a chance.
He also worked with Fate Marable, which travelled in a steamboat up and down the Mississippi river.
He explained his time with Marable as ‘going to the university’ as it gave him a much wider understanding of working with written arrangements.
In 1922, he was invited by his mentor Joe King Oliver to join Creole jazz Band in Chicago.
It was a place where Louis could make sufficient money so that he need not do any other job to earn his living.
Oliver’s band was among the best and most influential jazz bands in Chicago in early 1920’s.
After joining Oliver’s band, Armstrong led a royal life in Chicago, living in an apartment of his own. He made his first recordings on Gennett and Okeh labels including breaks and solos, while playing second cornet in Oliver’s band in 1923.
During this time, he met Hoagy Carmichael.
In 1924, he married Lillian Harden, who was a pianist in the Oliver band.
In 1942, he married Lucille Wilson who was a dancer at the Cotton Club.
They bought a home in Queens in Corona where they lived for the rest of their lives.
In 1947, he played a dramatic role in ‘New Orleans’ in which he also performed in a Dixieland band.
In the same year, he formed a band including all other jazz greats who revitalized jazz music.
In spring 1971, he suffered another heart attack. Unable to recover, Armstrong died July 6, 1971.
More than 25,000 mourners visited the body of Louis Armstrong as it lay in state and his funeral was televised nationally.