Louis Armstrong, known as Ambassor Satch is considered the most important improviser in jazz. Armstrong was a trumpeter, bandleader, singer, soloist, film star and comedian. Considered one of the most influential artists in jazz history, Armstrong, also fondly known as “Satchmo” (which is short for “Satchelmouth,” taught the world to swing.
Louis Armstrong was born August 4, 1901, in New Orleans, Louisiana. However, Armstrong believed until the end of his days that he was born on the Fourth of July 1900. It was a baptismal certificate which finally confirmed his actual birth date as August 4, 1901. The baptismal card, signed by the Reverend J. M. Toohey, described Louis as “[black], illegitimus,” apparently because his father had by that time abandoned his mother. His mother, Mary Albert, whom everyone called Mayann, was just fifteen when he was born, and his father, William, known as Willie, was not yet twenty. Armstrong was their first child. His parents lived in a small, single-story dwelling at 723 Jane Alley–sometimes called Jane’s Alley, or James Alley. Immediately after his birth, Willie and Mayann Armstrong separated. From then on, Mayann became an outcast, even from her own people. She moved out of the house on Jane’s Alley, leaving her two small children with their grandmother, Josephine.
Armstrong’s grandmother cared for him lovingly. He recalled, “Ever since I was a baby I have had great love for my grandmother. She spent the best of her days raising me.” Occasionally he spent time in the house of his father’s brother, Isaac. At five, he moved back to live with his mother and her relatives, and saw his father only in parades.
Armstrong started working at a very young age to support his family, singing on street corners for pennies, working on a junk wagon, cleaning graves for tips, and selling coal. His travels around the city introduced him to all kinds of music, from the blues played in the Storyville honky tonks to the brass bands accompanying the New Orleans parades and funerals. A born musician, Armstrong had already demonstrated his singing talents on the streets of the city and eventually taught himself to play the cornet. He received his first formal music instruction in the Colored Waif’s Home for Boys, where he was allegedly confined for a year and a half as punishment for firing blanks into the air on New Year’s Eve.
As the young Armstrong began to perform with pick-up bands in small clubs and play funerals and parades around town, he captured the attention and respect of some of the older established musicians of New Orleans. Joe “King” Oliver, a member of Kid Ory’s band and one of the finest trumpet players around, became Armstrong’s mentor. When Oliver moved to Chicago, Armstrong took his place in Kid Ory’s band, a leading group in New Orleans at the time. A year later, he was hired to work on riverboats that traveled the Mississippi. This experience enabled him to play with many prominent jazz musicians and to further develop his skills. In 1922, Oliver invited Armstrong to Chicago to play second cornet in his Creole Jazz Band. As a member of Oliver’s band, Armstrong began his lifetime of touring and recording.
In 1924, he moved on to New York City to play with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra at the Roseland Ballroom. Armstrong continued his touring and recording activities with Henderson’s group and also made recordings with Sidney Bechet, Ma Rainey, and Bessie Smith. In 1925, Armstrong returned to Chicago and made his first recordings as a band leader with his Hot Five (and later his Hot Seven). From 1925 to 1928 he continued a rigorous schedule of performing and recording, which included Heebie Jeebies, the tune that introduced scat singing to a wide audience and West End Blues, one of the most famous recordings in early jazz. During this period, his playing steadily improved, and his traveling and recording activities introduced his music to more and more people.
In 1929, Armstrong returned to New York City and made his first Broadway appearance. His 1929 recording of Ain’t Misbehavin’ introduced the use of a pop song as material for jazz interpretation, helping set the stage for the popular acceptance of jazz that would follow. During the next year, he performed in several U.S. states, including California, where he made his first film and radio appearances. In 1931, he first recorded When It’s Sleepytime Down South, the tune that became his theme song. In 1932, he toured England for three months, and during the next few years, continued his extensive domestic and international tours, including a lengthy stay in Paris.
When Armstrong returned to the U.S. in 1935, Joe Glaser became his manager. Not only did Glaser free Armstrong from the managerial battles and legal difficulties of the past few years, he remained his manager for the duration of his career and helped transform Armstrong into an international star. Under Glaser’s management, Armstrong performed in films, on the radio, and in the best theaters, dance halls, and nightclubs. He worked with big bands, playing music of an increasingly commercial nature as well as small groups that showcased his singing of popular songs.
In 1942, Armstrong married Lucille Wilson, a dancer at the Cotton Club where his band had a running engagement. The following year, they purchased a home in Corona, Queens, where they lived for the rest of their lives. In 1947, Armstrong formed a small ensemble called the All-Stars, a group of extraordinary players whose success revitalized mainstream jazz. Throughout the 1950s and 60s, he continued to appear in popular films and made numerous international tours, earning him the title “Ambassador Satch.”
During a trip to West Africa, Armstrong was greeted by more than one hundred thousand people. In the early 1960’s, he continued to record, including two albums with Duke Ellington and the hit Hello Dolly, which reached number one on the Billboard charts. Armstrong performed regularly until recurring health problems gradually curtailed his trumpet playing and singing. Even in the last year of his life, he traveled to London twice, appeared on more than a dozen television shows, and performed at the Newport Jazz Festival to celebrate his 70th birthday. Up until a few days before his death, on July 6, 1971, he was setting up band rehearsals in preparation to perform for his beloved public.