Jazz Legend Louis Armstrong

Photograph of Louis Armstrong playing the trumpet. He is wearing a blue suit with a stylish tie and a white handkerchief in his pocket. Armstrong is captured in mid-performance, cheeks puffed out as he plays, with a joyful expression on his face against a plain yellow background.
Louis Armstrong, 1947

People called the neighborhood “The Battlefield.” A nickname earned from all the violence. It was into this environment that on August 4, 1901, Louis Armstrong was born to a mother who lived on a block in the center of this area of New Orleans, Louisiana.

For Louis, struggle marked many of his early years. He experienced much poverty, at times walking around barefoot because a pair of shoes was too expensive. And then, of course, there was racism, including one incident in which Louis and his friends were shot at while swimming in a pond.

There were joys, though, too, to living in New Orleans. One of the most significant was music. New Orleans was arguably the city of music in America at the time. And an enthralled young Louis wanted to perform. Unable to purchase instruments, he began singing at around ten years old and performing with a group on the streets.

He and the group showed talent, and listeners showed the kids appreciation with a bit of money after a performance. About what he earned, Louis said, “I would make a bee line for home and dump my share into mama’s lap.” That money helped support his mother and sister and allowed Louis to buy some things for himself.

Life went through an important change for Louis when he was thirteen. One night, he took a gun loaded with blanks from a man his mother was dating. Out with his friends, he fired the gun to scare someone firing at him. Louis was arrested and sent to a reform school. The school, run by a former Army captain, focused on rules and discipline. But while the days were hard, the goal was to help the kids. One of the activities offered was a band.

Louis was invited to join the band after the instructor heard him sing. He was given a cornet, and in this band, Louis thrived. Looking back in later years, he would remark on this experience,

“I do believe that my whole success goes back to that time I was arrested as a wayward boy at the age of thirteen. Because then I had to quit running around and began to learn something. Most of all, I began to learn music.”

After returning home from the reform school, Louis attempted to earn a living by working in the neighborhood, shoveling and selling coal. But he was small, and doing physical labor that paid on work completed didn’t amount to much in income. And Louis wanted to focus more on music.

In 1918, another important shift came in Louis’s life: he joined Fate Marable’s orchestra, playing on riverboats along the Mississippi River. “What a thrill that was!” Louis would say about being chosen for the position.

Next came Chicago, where he moved in 1922 to grow his career further. Here, he had financial stability and ample time to practice. His skills improved, and soon, more opportunities came to be. Louis was now in high demand. As one biographer wrote about Louis’s voice and audience appeal,

“Audiences especially delighted in Armstrong’s singing. He did not have a pretty voice. In fact, he rasped. But he had an uncanny knack for landing squarely in the middle of every note, and his vocal style was lit with the same spontaneity that shone through his trumpet solos.”

Louis continued to grow in his career, becoming known worldwide and winning many awards. He was so special that a fellow musician remarked, “Louis Armstrong’s station in the history of jazz is unimpeachable. If it weren’t for him, there wouldn’t be any of us.”

Louis passed away on July 6, 1971.

Notes

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To cite: “Jazz Legend Louis Armstrong.” Published by Historical Snapshots, https://historicalsnaps.com/2023/12/06/jazz-legend-louis-armstrong/

Sources

  • “Daniel Louis (Satchmo) Armstrong.” The Black Perspective in Music, vol. 1, no. 2, 1973, pp. 197–197. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1214468. Accessed 5 Dec. 2023.

  • Hobson, Vic. Creating the Jazz Solo: Louis Armstrong and Barbershop Harmony. United States, University Press of Mississippi, 2018.

  • “Louis Armstrong.” National Portrait Gallery. https://npg.si.edu/object/npg_NPG.94.43

  • “Louis Armstrong: A Cultural Legacy.” National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. https://npg.si.edu/exh/armstrong/

  • Monroe, Bill. “Louis Armstrong, a Tribute.” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association, vol. 12, no. 4, 1971, pp. 366–67. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4231218. Accessed 5 Dec. 2023.

  • Tanenhaus, Sam. Louis Armstrong. United States, Melrose Square Publishing Company, 1989.