Louis Armstrong grew up on Liberty and Perdido Streets in the red light district of New Orleans, often recognized as the birth place of jazz. He was born on August 4, 1901 in the poorest section of New Orleans. Although they were never married, his mother, Mary Albert (Mayann), bore two children to William Armstrong. The other child, Beatrice, was a daughter who was born after Louis. Armstrong and his sister were raised by their grandmother until he was five years old.
By age seven, Armstrong had already begun to work. As a boy, his most memorable working experiences was working for the Karnofsky family, who helped him buy his first cornet. His first formal training in music, however, was not from the Karnofsky family. He received his first instructions while he was in the Colored Waif’s Home, administered by Captain Joseph Jones, an African American. Armstrong was placed in this reform school as a result of his actions on New Year’s Eve in 1913. On this date, Armstrong decided to fire a gun to celebrate the new year. While in the school, Armstrong was instructed by Peter Davis and became the leader of the home’s brass band.
After two years of living at the reform school, Armstrong was permitted to move back in with his mother and his sister. Upon returning, Armstrong formed a quartet with his friends. The group played on street corners placing a hat out for contributions from the passing audience. Although Armstrong grew up in a poor area, the rich musical traditions of the city compensated. He played at all the typical venues associated with the birth of jazz These include holiday parades, marching bands, traditional funeral marches, rowdy bars and night time cruises. The cruises served to bring his talents to other cities along the Mississippi. However, Armstrong did not officially leave New Orleans until his childhood role model, Joe Oliver, invited him to join a new band in Chicago.
In Chicago, Armstrong played with King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band. He made his first recording with them in 1923. At this point in time, sales of phonograph records were outselling sheet music. Therefore, his music could reach a larger audience. Armstrong made another recording in 1924. This time, however, it was with the Fletcher Henderson Band in New York. He stayed there for one year, but returned to Chicago in 1925. In 1926, he played with the Dickerson Orchestra in Chicago. The following year, Armstrong unintentionally created scat singing, which is singing without a text or imitating an instrument. In a recording studio in Chicago, he accidentally knocked the lyrics sheet off the music stand during a live recording session. He continued to sing, however, by scatting. This first recorded example of scat singing was the bestseller Heebie Jeebies. Later, he also recorded West End Blues, in which he imitated a clarinet.
he returned to New York in 1929, Armstrong realized that radio and records
had spread his reputation. Tommy Rockwell, a record company executive, helped
him find work at Connie’s Inn and other prestigious night clubs in Harlem.
During the 1930’s, Armstrong focused on his singing and his gift of comedy on stage. Working on Broadway helped him to broaden his skills as an entertainer. From being around wonderful actors, such as Bill Robinson, he learned a great deal. In 1930, Armstrong made his first appearance in film. He moved to California to play in Frank Sebastian’s New Cotton Club in Culver City. Two years later he traveled to Europe to do a tour there. When he arrived, many people knew of his work already. This was a result of the spread of records.
After returning from Europe, Armstrong met Joe Glaser. He decided to make him his new manager and the two remained associated for the duration of his life. During this time, Armstrong’s popularity increased because of his engaging personality. He often took the time to do interviews and photo shoots. As a popular performer, his appeal crossed racial lines. He was able to greatly expand the opportunities for other Black performers.
Armstrong’s success continued throughout the 40’s. In 1943, Esquire magazine held its first jazz poll of a series of jazz polls. In the poll, Armstrong was the winner in both trumpet and vocal categories. Esquire was also responsible for the first jazz concert ever held at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. On January 1944 Armstrong had a featured role in this concert. In 1947, Joe Glaser formed a small band called the All Stars, in which Armstrong was included. Because of the fact that the popularity of big bands was fading, Glaser thought that the creation of the All Stars would be a good adjustment. The official debut of the band took place at Billy Berg’s Club in Los Angeles on August 13, 1947. Glaser was right; the All Stars enjoyed much success. In all probability, this was the period in Armstrong’s life that brought him the most commercial success.
Throughout the 1950’s and 60’s Armstrong continued to perform. He also participated in movies and television programs. The wide spread viewing of movies further helped to broaden his fame. In 1954, he wrote a biography entitled Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans. During this time, he was also prominent in disputing racial controversies.
This biography written by Janell Alden and
edited and reformatted by Sean Glass