Trying To Get To You

Friday, July 06, 2007

Louis Armstrong: The Founding Father

On this day thirty six years ago, Louis Armstrong, one of the fathers of American music and the absolute Founding Father of jazz, died at his home in Queens. The following is the obituary from the New York Times. It's a fascinating read, and it captures some of the dimension of his enormous impact and influence on American music. It's impossible to imagine any strain of American music without him.

(Thanks to Scott for emailing this.)

July 7, 1971
Louis Armstrong, Jazz Trumpeter and Singer, Dies
Louis Armstrong, the celebrated jazz trumpeter and singer, died in his sleep yesterday morning at his home in the Corona section of Queens. He had observed his 71st birthday Sunday.

Death was attributed to a heart attack. Mr. Armstrong had been at home since mid-June when he was discharged from Beth Israel Medical Center after 10 weeks of treatment for heart, liver and kidney disorders. He seemed in good health during an interview June 23, in which he played his trumpet and announced his intention to return to public performances.

President Nixon released this statement:
"Mrs. Nixon and I share the sorrow of millions of Americans at the death of Louis Armstrong. One of the architects of an American art form, a free and individual spirit, and an artist of worldwide fame, his great talents and magnificent spirit added richness and pleasure to all our lives."

Tributes to Mr. Armstrong also came from a number of leading musicians, including Duke Ellington, Gene Krupa, Benny Goodman, Al Hirt, Earl (Fatha) Hines, Tyree Glenn and Eddie Condon.

Mr. Ellington commented: "If anybody was Mr. Jazz it was Louis Armstrong. He was the epitome of jazz and always will be. He is what I call an American standard, an American original."

"He could play a trumpet like nobody else," Mr. Condon said, "then put it down and sing a song like no one else could."

Mr. Hines, who frequently said he had taken his piano style from Mr. Armstrong's trumpet style, remarked: "We were almost like brothers. I'm so heartbroken over this. The world has lost a champion."

In Washington, the State Department, noting that Mr. Armstrong had toured Africa, the Middle East and Latin America on its behalf, said:

"His memory will be enshrined in the archives of effective international communications. The Department of State, for which he traveled on tours to almost every corner of the globe, mourns the passing of this great American."

The entertainer's final appearance was last February, when he played a two-week engagement at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.

Last month, noting that his legs were weak from his hospitalization, he said, "I'm going back to work when my treaders get in as good shape as my chops."

A master showman known to millions as Satchmo, Mr. Armstrong lived by a simple credo. Putting it into words a couple of years ago, he said:

"I never tried to prove nothing, just always wanted to give a good show. My life has been my music, it's always come first, but the music ain't worth nothing if you can't lay it on the public. The main thing is to live for that audience, 'cause what you're there for is to please the people."

Mr. Armstrong was first and most importantly a jazz trumpet player without peer, a virtuoso soloist who was one of the most vivid and influential forces in the development of American music.

But he was also known to delighted millions around the world for his ebulliently sandpapery singing voice, his merry mangling of the English language and his great wide grand-piano keyboard of a smile.

Jazz music, probably the only art form ever wholly originated in America, and Louis Armstrong grew up together in New Orleans. It was in a seamy slum there that Mr. Armstrong learned to love and play jazz in the company of gamblers, pimps and prostitutes.

But in time he was to play his trumpet and sing in command performances before royalty and, through his numerous worldwide tours, to become known unofficially as "America's ambassador of goodwill."

Recognized for Role
Jazz experts, even the purists who criticized Mr. Armstrong for his mugging and showmanship, more often than not agreed that it was he, more than any other individual, who took the raw, gutsy Negro folk music of the New Orleans funeral parades and honky-tonks and built it into a unique art form.

Over the years, his life and his artistry changed radically. He left New Orleans for Chicago in the early nineteen-twenties, when he was still playing the cornet, and before 1930 made some of his most memorable recordings--with his Hot Five or Hot Seven groups.

Mr. Armstrong won his initial fame playing an endless grind of one-night stands. Under constant pressure to put on a show that made the customers tap their feet and cry for more, he did not hesitate to exploit a remarkable flair for showmanship. His mugging, his wisecracking and most of all his willingness to constantly repeat programs that had gone over well in the past won him the cheers of his audiences, along with the disapproving clucks of some of his fellow musicians and jazz specialists.

The criticism that he no longer improvised enough, innovated enough, mattered little to Mr. Armstrong. He dismissed the more "progressive" jazz approved of by some leading critics as "jujitsu music."

He did not mind being called "commercial" because he followed popular music trends, and he deliberately introduced into his repertory crowd-pleasers such as "Mack the Knife" and "Hello, Dolly!," which put his recordings on the bestseller charts when he was in his 60's.

Like 'Sandpaper Calling'
As his ability to play his horn exceptionally well waned with the years, Mr. Armstrong supplanted his trumpet solos with his singing voice. An almost phenomenal instrument in its own right, it has been compared to iron filings and to "a piece of sandpaper calling to its mate."

Just watching an Armstrong performance could be an exhilarating experience. The man radiated a jollity that was infectious. Onstage he would bend back his stocky frame, point his trumpet to the heavens joyfully blast out high C's. When he sang he fairly bubbled with pleasure. And as he swabbed away at the perspiration stirred up by his performing exertions, Satchmo grinned his famous toothy smile so incandescently that it seemed to light up the auditorium.

"I never did want to be no big star," Mr. Armstrong said in 1969, in an interview for this article. "It's been hard goddam work, man. Feel like I spent 20,000 years on the planes and railroads, like I blowed my chops off. Sure, pops, I like the ovation, but when I'm low, beat down, wonder if maybe I hadn't of been better off staying home in New Orleans."

Mr. Armstrong's early years spent in New Orleans, were marked by extreme poverty and squalor, but he emerged able to recall them without self-pity and even with good humor.

"I was a Southern Doodle Dandy born on the Fourth of July, 1900," said Daniel Louis Armstrong.1 "My mother Mary Ann--we called her Mayann--was living in a two-room shack in James Alley, in the Back O' Town colored section of New Orleans. It was in a tough block, all them hustlers and their pimps and gamblers with their knives, between Gravier and Perdido Streets."

Mr. Armstrong's father, Willie Armstrong, who stoked furnaces in a turpentine factory, left Mrs. Armstrong when the boy was an infant. Leaving the child with his paternal grandmother, Mrs. Armstrong went to live in the Perdido-Liberty Street area, which was lined with prostitutes' cribs.

"Whether my mother did any hustling I can't say," Mr. Armstrong said. "If she did, she kept it out of my sight."
However, Louis, who rejoined his mother when he was 6 years old, recalled that for many years afterward there was always a "stepfather" on the premises and that before his mother "got religion and gave up men" around 1915, "I couldn't keep track of the stepdaddies, there must have been a dozen or so, 'cause all I had to do was turn my back and a new pappy would appear." Some of them, he added, "liked to beat on little Louis."

However, Mr. Armstrong was always intensely fond of his mother, and he cared for her until her death in the early nineteen-forties.

Dippermouth, as he was called as a child, and his friends often sang for pennies on the streets. To help support his mother and a sister, Barbara, Louis delivered coal to prostitutes' cribs and sold food plucked from hotel garbage cans.

The night of Dec. 31, 1913, Louis celebrated the New Year by running out on the street and firing a .38-caliber pistol that belonged to one of his "stepfathers." He was arrested and sent to the Colored Waifs Home for Boys.

"Pops, it sure was the greatest thing that ever happened to me," Mr. Armstrong said. "Me and music got married at the home."

Played in Home's Band
Peter Davis, an instructor at the home, taught Louis to play the bugle and the cornet. Soon the boy became a member of the home's brass band, which played at socials, picnics and funerals for a small fee. Louis was in the fifth grade when he was released from the home after spending 18 months there. He had no other formal education.

The youth worked as a junkman and sold coal, while grabbing every chance he could to play cornet in honky-tonk bands. The great jazz cornetist Joe (King) Oliver befriended him, gave him a cornet and tutored him.

"I was foolin' around with some tough ones," Mr. Armstrong recalled in 1969. "Get paid a little money, and a beeline for one of them gambling houses. Two hours, man, and I was a broke cat, broker than the Ten Commandments. Needed money so bad I even tried pimping, but my first client got jealous of me and we got to fussing about it and she stabbed me in the shoulder. Them was wild times."

In 1918, Mr. Armstrong married a 21-year-old prostitute named Daisy Parker. Since Daisy "wouldn't give up her line of work," Mr. Armstrong said, the marriage was both stormy and short-lived.

The same year he was married, Mr. Armstrong joined the Kid Ory band, replacing King Oliver, who had moved to Chicago. In the next three years he marched with Papa Celestin's brass band and worked on the riverboat Sidney with Fate Marable's band. Dave Jones, a mellophone player with the Marable band, gave him his first lessons in reading music.

By then Mr. Armstrong's fame was spreading among New Orleans musicians, many of whom were moving to Chicago. In 1922 King Oliver sent for his protege. Mr. Armstrong became second cornetist in Mr. Oliver's by then famous Creole Jazz Band. The two-cornet team had one of the most formidably brilliant attacks ever heard in a jazz group. Mr. Armstrong's first recordings were made with the Oliver band in 1923.

The pianist in the band was Lilian Hardin, whom Mr. Armstrong married in 1924. Miss Hardin had had training as a classical musician, and she gave him some formal musical education.

Mrs. Armstrong, convinced that as long as her husband stayed in the Oliver band he would remain in the shadow of his popular mentor, persuaded him to leave the band in 1924 to play first cornet at the Dreamland Cafe. The same year he joined Fletcher Henderson's orchestra at the Roseland Ballroom in New York.

For the first time, Mr. Armstrong found himself in the company of musicians of an entirely different stripe from those he had known in New Orleans and Chicago who, like himself, had fought their way up out of the back alleys and were largely unschooled in music. From these men, many of whom had conservatory educations, he learned considerable musical discipline.

Moving back to Chicago in 1925, Mr. Armstrong again played at the Dreamland Cafe, where his wife, Lil, had her own band, and with Erskine Tate's "symphonic jazz" orchestra at the Vendome Theater. It was at that point that he gave up the cornet for the trumpet.

"I was hired to play them hot choruses when the curtain went up," Mr. Armstrong recalled. "They put a spotlight on me. Used to hit 40 or 50 high C's--go wild, screamin' on my horn. I was crazy, Pops, plain nuts."

Billed as 'World's Greatest'
During his second Chicago period, Mr. Armstrong doubled in Carroll Dickerson's Sunset Cabaret orchestra, with billing as the "World's Greatest Trumpeter." The proprietor of the Sunset was Joe Glaser, who became Mr. Armstrong's personal manager and acted in that capacity for the rest of his life. Mr. Glaser died on June 6, 1969.

In that Chicago period, Mr. Armstrong began to make records under his own name, the first being "My Heart," recorded Nov. 12, 1925. Louis Armstrong's Hot Five (and later Hot Seven) recorded, over a three-year span, a series of jazz classics, with Earl (Fatha) Hines on the piano. These records earned Mr. Armstrong a worldwide reputation, and by 1929, when he returned to New York, he had become an idol in the jazz world.

While playing at Connie's Inn in Harlem, Mr. Armstrong also appeared on Broadway in the all- Negro review "Hot Chocolates," in which he introduced Fats Waller's "Ain't Misbehavin,'" his first popular-song hit. (He later appeared as Bottom in "Swingin' the Dream," a short-lived travesty on "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Over the years he appeared in many movies, including "Pennies From Heaven," "A Song Is Born," "The Glenn Miller Story" and "High Society.")

For several years, Mr. Armstrong "fronted" big bands assembled for him by others. By 1932, the year he was divorced from Lil Hardin Armstrong, he had become so popular in Europe, via recordings, that he finally agreed to tour the Continent.

It was while he was starring at the London Palladium that Mr. Armstrong acquired the nickname Satchmo. A London music magazine editor inadvertently invented the name by garbling an earlier nickname, Satchelmouth.

One for the King
While he was in London, Mr. Armstrong demonstrated memorably that he had little use for the niceties of diplomatic protocol.

During a command performance for King George V, Mr. Armstrong ignored the rule that performers are not supposed to refer to members of the Royal Family while playing before them and announced on the brink of a hot trumpet break, "This one's for you, Rex."

(Many years later in 1956, Satchmo played before King George's granddaughter, Princess Margaret. "We're really gonna lay this one on for the Princess," he grinned, and launched into "Mahogany Hall Stomp," a sort of jazz elegy to a New Orleans bordello. The Princess loved it.)

One of Mr. Armstrong's pre-World War II European tours lasted 18 months. Over the years his tours took him, to the Middle East and the Far East, to Africa and to South America. In Accra, Ghana, 100,000 natives went into a frenzied demonstration when he started to blow his horn, and in Leopoldville, tribesmen painted themselves ochre and violet and carried him into the city stadium on a canvas throne.

His 1960 African tour was denounced by the Moscow radio as a "capitalist distraction," which made Mr. Armstrong laugh.
"I feel at home in Africa," he said during the tour. "I'm African-descended down to the bone, and I dig the friendly ways these people go about things. I got quite a bit of African blood in me from my grandmammy on my mammy's side and from my grandpappy on my pappy's side."

Played With Big Bands
Before the war, Mr. Armstrong worked with several big bands, including the Guy Lombardo orchestra, concentrating on New Orleans standards such as "Muskrat Ramble" and "When the Saints Go Marchin' In" and on novelties such as "I'll Be Glad When You're Dead, You Rascal You." He did duets with Ella Fitzgerald and he accompanied Bessie Smith.

After 1947 he usually performed as leader of a sextet, working with such musicians as Jack Teagarden, Earl Hines, Joe Bushkin and Cozy Cole. He was a favorite at all the jazz festivals, in this country and abroad.

Mr. Armstrong lost track of the number of recordings he made, but it has been estimated there as many as 1,500. Dozens have become collectors' items.

The jolly Mr. Armstrong was quite inured to his fame as a jazz immortal. Not too many years ago, he was interviewed backstage by a disk jockey who began with the announcement, "And now we bring you a man who came all the way from New Orleans, the Crescent City, to become a Living American Legend." The Living American Legend, who was changing his clothes, dropped his trousers and began the interviews with the observation, "Tee hee!"

"Tee hee" was part of a uniquely Armstrong vocabulary, which included Satchmo-coined words such as "commercified" and "humanitarily." In his speech he arbitrarily inserted hyphens in the middle of words ("ar-tis-try" and "en-ta-TAIN-uh") and, unable to remember names too well, peppered his conversations with friends and interviews with salutations such as "Daddy" and "Pops."

Despite the hard life he led--traveling most of the time, sleeping too little, living out of suitcases, eating and drinking too much or not enough--Mr. Armstrong, even into his 60's, was still going strong. His chest was broad and powerful, and his 5-foot-8-inch frame carried a weight that varied between 170 and 230 pounds.

He was, however, keenly aware of his health. "I'm one of them hy-po-CHON-dree-acs," he would say with a delighted laugh. He was afraid of germs and always carried his trumpet mouthpiece in a carefully folded handkerchief in his back pocket. He liked to talk at length about his physic, a herbal mixture called Swiss Kriss, while at the same time he recounted how unwisely he sometimes ate, especially when his favorite food, New Orleans-style red beans and rice, was set before him.

Although in latter years he suffered from a kidney ailment, Mr. Armstrong's greatest worry was chronic leukoplakia of the lips, what amounted to a tough corn that resulted form blowing his horn. He used a special, imported salve to soothe his lips.

"If you don't look out for your chops and pipes," he said, "you can't blow the horn and sing. Anything that'll get in my way doin' that, out it goes. That trumpet comes first, before everything, even my wife. Got to be that way. I love Lucille, man, but she understands about me and my music."

He was referring to the former Lucille Wilson, whom he married in 1942.
He loved all forms of music. When asked what he thought of the country-and-Western and folk music so favored by the young, he replied, "Pops, music is music. All music is folk music. I ain't never heard no horse sing a song."

Some Negro militants criticized Mr. Armstrong for his earthy speech and his habit of rolling his eyes and flashing his toothy grin while performing. They said he was using stereotyped characteristics of the happy-go-lucky Negro and playing the Uncle Tom. Mr. Armstrong ignored the charges.

Comment on Selma
Nevertheless, Mr. Armstrong, on learning in 1965 that the police in Selma, Ala., had taken violent action against freedom-marching Negroes in that city, told an interviewer:

"They would beat Jesus if he was black and marched. Maybe I'm not in the front line, but I support them with my donations. My life is in my music. They would beat me on the mouth if I marched, and without my mouth I wouldn't be able to blow my horn."

For many years, Mr. Armstrong refused to perform in New Orleans, his hometown, because of segregation there. He did not return until 1965, after passage of the Civil Rights Act. On that occasion he triumphantly played with an integrated band in the city's Jazz Museum.

Reflecting on his more than 50 years as a musician, Mr. Armstrong said, "There ain't going to be no more cats in this music game that long."

There was no doubt that he was the most durable of the great jazzmen, nor that millions of people held him in great affection. His fellow musicians, many of whom were influenced by his artistry, looked upon him with awe.

Miles Davis, a contemporary jazz star, has asserted that "you can't play anything on a horn that Louis hasn't played." Teddy Wilson, who played piano with Mr. Armstrong in 1933, has called him "the greatest jazz musician that's ever been."

And Leonard Feather, the eminent jazz critic and author of "The Encyclopedia of Jazz," wrote of Mr. Armstrong:
"It is difficult. . .to see in correct perspective Armstrong's contribution as the first vital jazz soloist to attain worldwide influence as trumpeter, singer, entertainer, dynamic show business personality and strong force in stimulating interest in jazz.

"His style, melodically and harmonically simple by the standards of later jazz trends, achieved in his early records an unprecedented warmth and beauty. His singing, lacking most of the traditional vocal qualities accepted outside the jazz world, had a rhythmic intensity and guttural charm that induced literally thousands of other vocalists to imitate him, just at countless trumpeters through the years reflected the impact of his style.

"By 1960, Armstrong, set in his ways, improvised comparatively little; but he retained vocally and instrumentally many of the qualities that had established him, even though entertainment values, but his own admission, meant more to him than the reaction of a minority of musicians and specialists."

As for Mr. Armstrong, it was pleasing his listeners that really mattered.
"There's three generations Satchmo has witnessed," he said, "the old cats, their children and their children's children, and they still all walk up and say, 'Ol' Satch, how do you do!' I love my audience and they love me and we just have one good time whenever I get up on the stage. It's such a lovely pleasure."

Mr. Armstrong is survived by his widow, the former Lucille Wilson, and by an adopted son, Clarence Hatfield of New York. He also leaves a sister, Mrs. Beatrice Collins of New Orleans and two half-brothers, Henry and William Armstrong, both of New Orleans. The Armstrongs' home in Corona was at 34-56 107th Street.

A funeral service will be held Friday at 1 P.M. at the Corona Congregational Church, 34th Avenue and 103d Street. Burial will be in the Flushing Cemetery.

The honorary pallbearers will include Governor Rockefeller, Mayor Lindsay, Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Guy Lombardo, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Pearl Bailey, Count Basie, Harry James, Frank Sinatra, Ed Sullivan, Earl Wilson, Alan King, Johnny Carson, David Frost, Merv Griffin, Dick Cavett and Bobby Hackett.

Mrs. Armstrong requested that flowers and cards be omitted and said those wishing to do so could send contributions in her husband's memory to the Kidney Research Foundation and to the Sickle Cell Anemia Foundation, which promotes research on a disease that mainly afflicts blacks.

1 According to Gary Giddins, the author of "Satchmo," Armstrong's birth certificate shows that he was in fact born on Aug. 4, 1901.

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Unknown said...

Thanks for this, Ben. I have one CD to recommend for people who grew up on rock and want to check out Armstrong: "Pops: The 1940s Small-Band Sides." It's more coherent than a best of, easier for modern ears than the 1920s Hot Fives/Hot Sevens, and less commercial than the "Hello Dolly" era recordings of the 1950s. By the end of "Mahogany Hall Stomp" you can hear the backbeat of rock just a few years away.

- Matt

Jack B. said...

my name aint my name for no reason. My first love for music came in the third grade, via an old, dusty All Stars record. i liked it so much, I named my dog Satchmo, and thusly, my internet identity too. Good posting, you got a link from me.