The musical career of Louis Armstrong before the Second World War Essay

The musical career of Louis Armstrong before the Second World War
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“He was the only musician who ever lived, who can’t be replaced by someone.”

-Bing Crosby

“You can’t play anything on a horn that Louis hasn’t played.”

– Miles Davis

“He was born poor, died rich, and never hurt anyone along the way.”

– Duke Ellington

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His name was Louis Armstrong and Jazz was this man’s middle name. He brought creativity into the world of music. He was a musical icon, He defended and helped the lives of his fellowmen and brought a deeper meaning to life. His contributions to music stood for ages and ages. He was a legend.

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Born with the name of “Armstrong, Louis “Satchmo” he was a U.S. Jazz musician renowned as a virtuoso trumpeter and singer. A master of improvisation, he was one of the most important figures in the early history of jazz. Satchmo grew up in New Orleans, moved to Chicago in 1922, and by the 1930’s was internationally famous. In later life he played at concerts around the world as goodwill ambassador for the U.S. State Department” [1]

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That was just a brief description of his extraordinary life and his contributions to the music industry.

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“Louis himself believed that he was born on July 4th, 1900 and that date is still found in many jazz histories and reference books. In the mid-1980s, Armstrong expert Tad Jones discovered in the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in New Orleans a baptismal certificate that indicates compellingly that Louis was actually born on August 4th, 1901. At the Louis Armstrong House ; Archives, we began our centennial celebration on July 4th, 2000 and ended on August 4th, 2001.” [2]

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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 of Uptown New Orleans, known as “Back of Town”, as his father, William Armstrong (1881–1922), abandoned the family when Louis was an infant, and took up with another woman. His mother, Mary Albert Armstrong (1886–1942), 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 his first exposure to Creole music. He brought in a little money as a paperboy and also by finding discarded food and selling it to restaurants but it wasn’t enough to keep his mother from prostitution. He hung out in dance halls particularly the “Funky Butt” which was the closest to his home, where he observed everything from licentious dancing to the quadrille. He hauled coal to Storyville, the famed red-light district, and listened to the bands playing in the brothels and dance halls, especially Pete Lala’s where Joe “King” Oliver performed and other famous musicians would drop in to jam.

It was clearly seen that he grew in a place where music gave a huge impact into his life.

Armstrong grew up at the bottom of the social ladder, in a highly segregated city, but one which lived in a constant fervor of music, which was generally called “ragtime”, and not yet “jazz”. Despite the hard early days, Armstrong seldom looked back at his youth as the worst of times but instead drew inspiration from it, “Every time I close my eyes blowing that trumpet of mine—I look right in the heart of good old New Orleans…It has given me something to live for.” [3]

Louis Armstrong met the love of his life in that same state of Louisiana. He was very much in love.

“On March 19, 1918, Louis married Daisy Parker from Gretna, Louisiana. They adopted a 3-year-old boy, Clarence Armstrong, whose mother, Louis’s cousin Flora, died soon after giving birth. Clarence Armstrong was mentally disabled (result of a head injury at an early age) and Louis would spend the rest of his life taking care of him”[4]

 

Unfortunately, Armstrong’s marriage to Daisy Parker ended up in separation. She died shortly after that.

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Since then, he decided to work on his craft and dwell himself into music.

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“Through his riverboat experiences, Armstrong’s musicianship began to mature. At twenty, he could now read music and he started to be featured in extended trumpet solos, one of the first jazzmen to do this, injecting his own personality and style into his solo turns. He had learned how to create a unique sound and also started using singing and patter in his performances.” [5]

He was so certain that he wanted to be great and will do anything to bring his music into life. He started to validate his talents with other musicians.

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In the year 1922, Armstrong went to Chicago, his mentor; Joe “King” Oliver invited him to join his Creole Jazz Band, also, to make a sufficient income so that he would no longer have to supplement his music with day labor jobs. It was a boom time in Chicago and though race relations were poor, the “Windy City” was swarming with jobs for Blacks, who were making good remuneration in factories and had a lot to spend on amusement.

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“Oliver’s band was the best and most influential hot jazz band in Chicago in the early 1920s, at a time when Chicago was the center of the jazz universe. Armstrong lived like a king in Chicago, in his own apartment with his own private bath (his first). Excited as he was to be in Chicago, he began his career-long pastime of writing nostalgic letters to friends in New Orleans. As Armstrong’s reputation grew, he was challenged to “cutting contests” by hornmen trying to displace the new phenom, who could blow two hundred high C’s in a row.” [6]

 

After his disastrous first marriage, he decided to find love again. And he did. He got married again.

 

Louis Armstrong’s second wife, Lil Hardin Armstrong, a pianist, urged him to stay away from Oliver and find a more stable job and a better career with his talents. Lil had Louis play classical music in church concerts to improve his solo play and to broaden his skill. With this, it affected Armstrong’s relationship with his mentor, Oliver. It held him back from him and the band members. Armstrong formally separated Oliver in 1924 and he was invited to go to New York City to play with the famous African-American band the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra. Armstrong changed into becoming a trumpet player to blend better with other musicians in that band.

 

“Armstrong quickly adapted to the more tightly controlled style of Henderson, playing trumpet and even experimenting with the trombone, and the other members quickly took up Armstrong’s emotional, expressive pulse. Soon his act included singing and telling tales of New Orleans characters, especially preachers.” [7]

 

 

“Armstrong returned to Chicago in 1925 due mostly to the urging of his wife, who wanted to pump up Armstrong’s career and income. He was content in New York but later would concede that she was right and that the Henderson Orchestra was limiting his artistic growth. In publicity, much to his chagrin, she billed him as “the World’s Greatest Trumpet Player”. At first he was actually a member of the Lil Hardin Armstrong Band and working for his wife.” [8]

 

When he felt controlled by Lil, they got separated. After that, Louis started playing at the Sunset Café for Al Capone associate Joe Glaser in the Caroll Dickerson Orchestra. Earl Hines was a member of the band. He was amazed with Armstrong. He joined him and the group was renamed Louis Armstrong and his Stompers. They became flourishing collaborators.

 

“Armstrong returned to New York, in 1929, where he played in the pit orchestra of the successful musical Hot Chocolate, an all-black revue written by Andy Razaf and pianist/composer Fats Waller. He also made a cameo appearance as a vocalist, regularly stealing the show with his rendition of “Ain’t Misbehavin'”, his version of the song becoming his biggest selling record to date.” [9]

 

Aside from being musically talented, Louis Armstrong has a very strong personal belief. He stood by his people and used his influence.

 

“Armstrong, in fact, was a major financial supporter of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights activists, but mostly preferred to work quietly behind the scenes, not mixing his politics with his work as an entertainer. The few exceptions made it more effective when he did speak out; Armstrong’s criticism of President Eisenhower, calling him “two-faced” and “gutless” because of his inaction during the conflict over school desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957 made national news. As a protest, Armstrong canceled a planned tour of the Soviet Union on behalf of the State Department saying “The way they’re treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell” and that he could not represent his government abroad when it was in conflict with its own people.” [10]

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“The way they’re treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell.” – Louis Armstrong (New York Times, September 19, 1957)

 

“The FBI kept a file on Armstrong, for his outspokenness about integration.”[11]

 

Although his obvious love of music and other people, Armstrong never experienced becoming a father. He loved and was fond of children. He entertained them and encouraged aspiring young musicians in his neighborhood.

 

 

“Armstrong’s gregariousness extended to writing. On the road, he wrote constantly. Many of the favorite themes of his life he shared with correspondents around the world. He avidly typed or wrote on whatever stationery was at hand, instant takes on music, sex, food, childhood memories, his heavy “medicinal” marijuana use, and even his bowel movements, which were gleefully described.”[12]

 

He was a funny man and made jokes and some dirty humor too.

 

 

“The Brick House was one of the toughest joints I ever played in … Guys would drink and fight one another like circle saws. Bottles would come flying over the bandstand like crazy and there was lots of plain common shooting and cutting. But somehow all that jive didn’t faze me at all. I was so happy to have some place to blow my horn.” – Louis Armstrong

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Just like any other musician, he dearly loved music. He loved all types of music. To him, it gives him strength, it gives him hope. It nourishes his whole being. Listening to music helped him ease all the pain.

“Armstrong was an avid audiophile. He had a large collection of recordings, including reel-to-reel tapes which he took on the road with him in a trunk during his later career. He enjoyed listening to his own recordings, and comparing his performances musically. In the den of his home, he had the latest audio equipment and would sometimes rehearse and record along with his older recordings or the radio. “[13]

With all his achievement and contribution not only into music, but also to his people, like any other star, his light had to faint.

“Louis Armstrong died of a heart attack on July 6, 1971, at age 69, 11 months” [14]

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“After playing a famous show at the Waldorf Astoria’s Empire Room. Shortly before his death he stated, “I think I had a beautiful life. I didn’t wish for anything that I couldn’t get and I got pretty near everything I wanted because I worked for it.”[15]

 

He was at his neighborhood in Corona, New York City when it was his time to bid farewell.

 

 

 

 

“Some of you young folks been saying to me, “Hey Pops, what you mean ‘What a wonderful world’? How about all them wars all over the place? You call them wonderful? And how about hunger and pollution? That aint so wonderful either.” Well how about listening to old Pops for a minute. Seems to me, it aint the world that’s so bad but what we’re doin’ to it. And all I’m saying is, see, what a wonderful world it would be if only we’d give it a chance. Love baby, love. That’s the secret, yeah. If lots more of us loved each other, we’d solve lots more problems. And then this world would be better. That’s wha’ ol’ Pops keeps saying.” – Louis Armstrong

– Spoken intro to “What a Wonderful World” (1970 version)

 

 

 

WORKS CITED

 

– Armstrong, Louis. Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans. ISBN 0-306-80276-7

– Armstrong, Louis and Thomas Brothers. Armstrong, in His Own Words: Selected

Writings. ISBN 0-19-514046-X

– Bergreen, Laurence. “Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life”. ISBN 0-553-06768-0

– Brothers, Thomas “Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans” ISBN 0-393-06109

– Jones Max and John Chilton. Louis Armstrong Story. ISBN 0-306-803240

– Cogswell, Michael. Armstrong: The Offstage Story. ISBN 1-888054-81-6

– Meckna, Michael. Satchmo: The Louis Armstrong Encyclopedia. ISBN 0-313-

30137-9

– Elie, Lolis Eric. A Letter from New Orleans. Originally printed in Gourmet.

Reprinted in Best Food Writing 2006, Edited by Holly Hughes, ISBN 1-56924-

287-9

 

[1] Armstrong, Louis “Satchmo”, The New Webster’s International Encyclopedia: the new illustrated home reference guide/ edited by Michael Harkave, 1996 Ed. by Trident Press Int’l, p. 69.
[2] Satchmo by Gary Giddins, Da Capo Press, Date Published: 1998
[3] Bergreen, Laurence (1997). Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life. New York: Broadway Books, p.6.
[4] “Satchuated” Gary Giddins, Village Voice April 16 – 22, 2003, retrieved 10/17/2007
[5] Bergreen, Laurence (1997). Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life. New York: Broadway Books, p. 170.
[6] Bergreen, Laurence (1997). Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life. New York: Broadway Books, p. 199.
[7] Bergreen, Laurence (1997). Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life. New York: Broadway Books, p. 247.
[8] Bergreen, Laurence (1997). Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life. New York: Broadway Books, p. 260.
[9] Hale, James (editor of Jazzhouse.org), Danny Barcelona (1929-2007), Drums, Armstrong All-Star, The Last Post, 2007, retrieved on: July 4, 2007
[10] “Louis Armstrong, Barring Soviet Tour, Denounces Eisenhower and Gov. Faubus”, New York Times, September 19, 1957. Retrieved on 2007-08-30.  See also, from 23 September 2007, *David Margolick, The Day Louis Armstrong Made Noise
[11] Bergreen, Laurence (1997). Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life. New York: Broadway Books, p. 472.
[12] Bergreen, Laurence (1997). Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life. New York: Broadway Books, p.4.
[13] Michael Cogswell, Louis Armstrong: The Offstage Story of Satchmo, Collector’s Press, Portland Oregon, 2003, ISBN 1-88805481-6, pp.66-68
[14] Meckna, Michael; Satchmo, The Louis Armstrong Encyclopedia, Greenwood Press, Connecticut & London, 2004
[15] Bergreen, Laurence (1997). Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life. New York: Broadway Books, p. 491