“The memory of things gone is important to a jazz musician. Things like old folks singing in the moonlight in the back yard on a hot night or something said long ago.”
-- Louis Armstrong
The influence of Louis Armstrong (1901-1971) on the quintessentially American idiom of jazz was enormous. With the rhythmic swing of his horn playing and his free-wheeling vocal style he helped take jazz from a music of collective improvisation to one of virtuoso solos, developing with his distinctive, gravelly voice the scat singing that eventually wound its way into today’s rap. Armstrong is the only musician to have recorded hits across five decades; his roster of Grammy-winners ranging from 1925’s St. Louis Blues to 1967’s What a Wonderful World.
Over his long career Armstrong worked with many, many jazz and blues greats like Bix Beiderbecke, Hoagy Carmichael, Fats Waller, Bessie Smith, Ella Fitzgerald, Alberta Hunter, Ma Rainey, Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines and Nat King Cole. Crossing into popular culture as the decades wore on, Armstrong appeared in a number of Hollywood movies, including High Society and Pennies From Heaven, both with Bing Crosby, and Hello, Dolly with Barbra Streisand.
Writer and researcher Ricky Riccardi of the Louis Armstrong House Museum has said, “There wouldn’t be a Frank Sinatra, Jimi Hendrix, Billie Holiday, Beatles, Chuck Berry, Louis Jordan or Ray Charles without Louis Armstrong. And if you need one figure to sum up music, race, culture and innovation….it’s Louis Armstrong”.
LIFE AND MUSIC
Louis Armstrong was born to a 16-year-old mother in New Orleans on August 4, 1901 (not July 4, 1900, as he loved to tell). His father abandoned them and by age 7 he was doing odd jobs for a local Jewish family, the Karnoffskys, who treated him kindly and helped him buy his first horn, a cornet from a pawn shop. He wore a Star of David for the rest of his life in their honor.
A 5th grade dropout, Armstrong sang with other boys in the streets outside New Orleans honky tonk clubs. For a minor infraction he was sentenced to 2 years detention at the Colored Waif’s Home, where he joined the Home band. By age 18 he was playing in Fate Marable’s New Orleans Band on the riverboat circuit. He called this his University; in these years he learned to read music and follow written arrangements.
Armstrong’s music developed exponentially in the 1920s. He began his extended trumpet solos and also nourished his distinctive singing style, using his voice almost as creatively as his horn. Moving to a prosperous Chicago in 1922, Armstrong joined King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band and began recording, making his first real money. Two years later he went to New York to play with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, the top African American band of the time. He became a key part of the flourishing Harlem scene alongside musicians like Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington. Poet Langston Hughes, known as the voice of the Harlem Renaissance, later wrote of Armstrong, “[he is] almost the whole story of orchestral jazz in America.”
Louis Armstrong, too, was a writer. Throughout his life he maintained diaries and penned letters and musings in his favorite green ink. He kept extensive reel-to-reel recordings of meetings and dinner parties and other gatherings and he maintained numerous scrapbooks, often filled with the collages he would make from newspaper and magazine photos. He also wrote music, composing more than 50 songs, some now jazz standards.
By the 1950s, Armstrong was an international star of popular culture, and he continued to tour and record almost to the end of his life. He loved all kinds of music, from Latin classics to opera to Guy Lombardo, and brought all kinds of influences to his unique style, once saying, “All music is folk music. I ain’t never heard a horse sing a song”. In 1964, aged 62, his recording of Hello, Dolly knocked the Beatles out of #1 on the Billboard charts, making him the oldest musician ever with a #1 hit.
RACE AND POLITICS
Later jazz greats like Miles Davis and Charlie Parker sometimes looked askance at Armstrong’s performing style, seeing echoes of minstrel shows. Jet magazine once called him an ‘Uncle Tom’. They likely didn’t stop to think of the barriers Louis Armstrong had overcome, from his poverty-stricken childhood in the Jim Crow South to his early recording career in the era of ‘race’ records and endemic corruption or his decades of travel in an intensely segregated countryside. And Armstrong wore his politics quietly. “I don’t get involved in politics”, he once said; “I just blow my horn”. But he did famously speak out during the Little Rock desegregation crisis, telling a reporter, “The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell” and offering a few choice words for John Foster Dulles, who had just asked Armstrong to go to Russia as an American goodwill ambassador.
Armstrong signed his name to the bottom of ithe reporter's story, adding, “Solid”. The article went nationwide and an outcry ensued. There were boycotts and show cancellations threatened, but Armstrong was backed up by public figures like Jackie Robinson, Eartha Kitt, Lena Horne and Marian Anderson. The next night Armstrong closed his performance with The Star Spangled Banner. And when several days later President Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne to Arkansas to escort the nine young black students into the Little Rock school, Armstrong wired the President, “If you decide to walk into the schools with the little colored kids, take me along, Daddy. God bless you.”
LOUIS ARMSTRONG HOUSE MUSEUM
Armstrong died in 1971 in Queens, in the house in Corona that had been his home base since early in his marriage to his fourth and last wife, Lucille Wilson Armstrong. Lucile, a New York native, met Armstrong when they both worked at the famed Cotton Club in 1939. Soon after their 1942 marriage Lucille bought the house in Corona despite her husband’s resistance, a house he came to love and which they shared for the rest of their lives. After Armstrong died Lucile lobbied successfully to have the National Tennis Center stadium named in his honor and to have their house declared a national landmark; on her death Lucile left the house and the very extensive Armstrong archives to Queens College, who opened it as a Museum in 2003. It is soon to be accompanied by a $23m Education Center.
Selmer is an old and distinguished name in both brass and woodwind instruments. Henri Selmer, a graduate of the Conservatoire de Paris, began making clarinets and their parts in the 1880s. The business grew in the opening decades of the 20th century, through both the acquisition of other instrument makers and innovations the Selmers developed. In 1933 they introduced the ‘balanced action’ trumpet models, sometimes known as ‘Armstrong trumpets’. Selmer trumpets bore serial numbers; the ‘Selmer Register’ runs from the early 1930s to the late 1970s.
Louis Armstrong had played a Selmer trumpet as early as 1932. The Armstrong Selmer trumpet in the collection of the National Museum of African American History is a 1946 model. The present trumpet, like the Museum’s, is one of just a handful inscribed with the musician’s name.
THE DONIN FAMILY
Armstrong first went to Los Angeles in 1930, where his manager Tommy Rockwell believed he could find an audience beyond ‘race records’ and where he might break into movies. Armstrong played many dates at Culver City’s Cotton Club, an unauthorized version of the famous New York nightclub. The success of the movie industry brought audiences, even in these depression years; there Bing Crosby became a fan. Later Crosby would remark, “[Armstrong] is the beginning and end of music in America”.
As the big band era began to fade in the late 1940s, renewed interest arose in 1920s style smaller ensembles, and Armstrong formed ‘Louis Armstrong and His All Stars’. It was probably with this group that Abe and Francis Donin first heard Armstrong, and over time the fans became great personal friends with Louis and Lucille, socializing after shows or on dark days. In 1953 Louis presented the present trumpet to the Donin’s oldest son, Duke. His habit was to use a horn for about 5 years and then give it away. The family friendship remained strong for decades, attested to by signed photos and programs in the family collection and many recorded conversations on Armstrong’s reel-to-reel tapes.
“When I pick up that horn, that’s all. The world’s behind me, and I don’t feel no different about that horn now than I did when I was playing in New Orleans. That’s my living and my life. I love them notes. That’s why I try to make them right.”
-- Louis Armstrong