Unless you are a serious music fan or are of a relatively younger age, you may not have heard the music of Louis Armstrong, but you likely have heard of him by one of many names he was affectionately called; Satchelmouth, Satchmo, Satch, Dipper, King Menelik, or Pops. Although there was a lifelong debate as to whether he preferred his first name to be pronounced the conventional way; Louis, Lewis, or Louie, there was no mistaking the man behind the name. He was a true ambassador of music, ragtime, Jazz, entertainment, love, and life.
Louis, I’m going to call him Satchmo, was born in New Orleans on August 4, 1901, although he often stated that he was born on July 4, 1900. Satchmo died of a heart attack in his sleep on July 6, 1971, a month before his 70th birthday. Although he died in 1971, it was not until the mid-1980s that his true birth date was discovered by Tad Jones who was researching baptismal records at the time.
Satchmo was always known for his affectionate smile. In fact, it was extremely rare to ever see him that he was not smiling. Even today it is difficult to find any picture of him without a giant loving smile on his face. However, when you look back at his early life, it’s hard for us to understand just why he was always smiling. As you study his life, and all that he went through, it will make you understand how truly great, a person, this man turned out to be.
Satchmo had about as troubling and dysfunctional an up brining as possible. In and out of numerous homes, a boy’s school, a detention center where has was often abused, and being raised by no less than 8 different people attempting to be parental figures, he basically ran the streets of lower New Orleans, known as “The Battlefield,” trying to eke out a living any way he could. He did odd-jobs for one of his adopted families, he studied shipping management until being forced to quit because he could not afford the classes, he sold coal, he was in and out of school, he was arrested for shooting a blank from a pistol into the air, he worked as a bus-boy, and he also worked as a pimp, all by the age of just fifteen years old. But through all of this, he fell in love with music, and after being advanced the money to buy his first coronet, he began to teach himself how to play and performed with numerous other kids - street performers to master his craft. One time later when speaking to a writer penning a story on Satchmo, he spoke of these times and learning to play the coronet and trumpet: “He said about his youth, "Every time I close my eyes blowing that trumpet of mine—I look right in the heart of good old New Orleans ... It has given me something to live for.”
Due to this upbringing, and being surrounded by the seedy underworld most of his youth, Satchmo was surrounded by trouble and organized crime figures most of his youth and young adult life. But he kept that positive outlook, that smile, and let his music pull him out of “the gutter” you might say. Pretty soon he was the talk of the entire music industry, this young trumpet player with the unique improvisational skills, he could truly play a sweet horn, accentuate a beautiful sound, sing a little, but was always working to perform and loving the music. Soon he was being sought out by every entertainer or band of the time; Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Hoagy Carmichael, Bing Crosby, and Ella Fitzgerald, just to name a few. He did radio and television programs and even appeared in more than a dozen films like High Society, the Glenn Miller Story, and of course Hello Dolly. The list of activities, performances, bands, and accomplishments that Satchmo’s was a part of, are far too numerous to list here, but it is safe to say he was sought after by nearly everyone in entertainment and society. [see the end of this post for more on his legacy]
In his later years, Satchmo was regulated to more singing, than playing his horn. As a trumpet player, I can attest that the trumpet is a notoriously hard instrument on the lips, and Satchmo suffered from lip damage over much of his life due to his aggressive style of playing. During his 1930s European tour, he suffered an ulceration so severe that he had to stop playing entirely for a year. Eventually he took to using salves and creams on his lips and also cutting off scar tissue with a razor blade. Later in his career, it was suggested that he go to a doctor and receive proper treatment for his lips instead of relying on home remedies, but he felt he was too busy to make time for it until the final years of his life, by which point his health was failing and doctors considered surgery too risky.
He never felt that his race, nor race in general, was a factor in his life nor did he often get involved in racial issues or debates. He admittedly was touched by it and did take a stand on a few issues, but in general he felt that all people were equal and all should be treated as equals. He once said to a newspaper reporter, trying to goad him into a radical racial statement, that “People is just people – just trying to make a living to get by!” Undoubtedly a reference to his upbringing and the many lives he touched, and was touched by, in The Battlefield of New Orleans.
Against his doctor's advice, Armstrong played a two-week engagement in March 1971 at the Waldorf-Astoria's Empire Room. At the end of it, he was hospitalized for a heart attack. He was released from the hospital in May, and quickly resumed practicing his trumpet playing. Still hoping to get back on the road, Armstrong died of the afore mentioned heart attack, just two months later. He was residing in Corona, Queens, New York City, at the time of his death. His honorary pallbearers included Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Pearl Bailey, Count Basie, Harry James, Frank Sinatra, Ed Sullivan, Earl Wilson, Alan King, Johnny Carson and David Frost. Peggy Lee sang The Lord's Prayer at the services while Al Hibbler sang "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen" and Fred Robbins, a long-time friend, gave the eulogy.
On a personal note, my parents started me playing the trumpet very early in life, I seem to remember I was 6 years old, when I started. I became quite good by my parents’ standards 😊 and did relatively well performing in our band and our jazz/dance bands throughout school, but I was nowhere near great nor could I hold a candle to trumpeters like Satchmo. But I always looked up to him and tried to emulate his style and playing ability. Because of this, I always felt a closeness to him and revered him throughout his life, and even today some 40 years after he left us. One of my closest friends, Jim Sanders, from High School, and a good friend still today is often called “Satch,” although that likely occurred more while in school that it does today. But I am so glad to think of Jim as Satch because it brings back great memories of our friendship, our past performances in one of the states best jazz/dance bands, and of course it makes me think of Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong.
Satchmo had an endearing and infectious smile, a smile that will last forever, as will his music. Through what most of us would see as a horrible up bringing, through a depression in the 30’s, in the face of war, discrimination, and racial pressures, Satchmo stayed true to his positive views and left us with some of the greatest music. He also left us with that wonderful glowing personality and smile, but most importantly with the message that through it all and no matter what, if one lives their life always striving for better, with a positive outlook, one can overcome virtually any obstacle placed in from of them. Satchmo proved this throughout his life. I think it is fitting that most of today’s world, even though they likely have not heard Satchmo’s trumpet playing nor seen or heard his other performances, they most likely have heard his 1967 recording of “What a Wonderful World.” It would be his last hit recording, but Satchmo was this song, this was his life and the way he approached everything and everyone. Today we need more people like you Satchmo, Louis, and we thank you so much for your incredible life and personality. Most of all, we thank you for leaving your smile, and music, with us for all time.
If you have not heard “What a Wonderful World,” Here are two links to the song. I posted this previously but in light of this topic, it bears repeating. If you don’t know the song…The first link plays the song showing only the lyrics. The second link is a video of Satchmo actually performing the song. Excuse Louis Armstrong (Satchmo)’s raspy voice, and just listen to the beautiful lyrics and song.
For a version with displayed lyrics: https://youtu.be/A3yCcXgbKrE
For video version where Satchmo actually performs the song: https://youtu.be/VqhCQZaH4Vs
Here is a recap of all the acknowledgements of Satchmo’s great life. This is taken from the “Legacy” paragraph of Wikipedia:
· The influence of Armstrong on the development of jazz is virtually immeasurable. His irrepressible personality both as a performer and as a public figure was so strong that to some it sometimes overshadowed his contributions as a musician and singer.
· As a virtuoso trumpet player, Armstrong had a unique tone and an extraordinary talent for melodic improvisation. Through his playing, the trumpet emerged as a solo instrument in jazz and is used widely today. Additionally, jazz itself was transformed from a collectively improvised folk music to a soloist's serious art form largely through his influence. He was a masterful accompanist and ensemble player in addition to his extraordinary skills as a soloist. With his innovations, he raised the bar musically for all who came after him.
· Though Armstrong is widely recognized as a pioneer of scat singing, Ethel Waters precedes his scatting on record in the 1930s according to Gary Giddins and others. Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra are just two singers who were greatly indebted to him. Holiday said that she always wanted Bessie Smith's 'big' sound and Armstrong's feeling in her singing. Even special musicians like Duke Ellington have praised Armstrong through strong testimonials. Duke Ellington, DownBeat magazine in 1971, said, "If anybody was a master, it was Louis Armstrong. He was and will continue to be the embodiment of jazz." In 1950, Bing Crosby, the most successful vocalist of the first half of the 20th century, said, "He is the beginning and the end of music in America."
· In the summer of 2001, in commemoration of the centennial of Armstrong's birth, New Orleans's main airport was renamed Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport.
· In 2002, the Louis Armstrong's Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings (1925–1928) were preserved in the United States National Recording Registry, a registry of recordings selected yearly by the National Recording Preservation Board for preservation in the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress.
· The US Open tennis tournament's former main stadium was named Louis Armstrong Stadium in honor of Armstrong who had lived a few blocks from the site.
· Congo Square was a common gathering place for African-Americans in New Orleans for dancing and performing music. The park where Congo Square is located was later renamed Louis Armstrong Park. Dedicated in April 1980, the park includes a 12-foot statue of Armstrong, trumpet in hand.
· The house where Armstrong lived for almost 28 years was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1977 and is now a museum. The Louis Armstrong House Museum, at 34-56 107th Street between 34th and 37th avenues in Corona, Queens, presents concerts and educational programs, operates as a historic house museum and makes materials in its archives of writings, books, recordings and memorabilia available to the public for research. The museum is operated by the Queens College, City University of New York, following the dictates of Lucille Armstrong's will. The museum opened to the public on October 15, 2003. A new visitors center is planned.
· According to literary critic Harold Bloom, "The two great American contributions to the world's art, in the end, are Walt Whitman and, after him, Armstrong and jazz ... If I had to choose between the two, ultimately, I wouldn't. I would say that the genius of this nation at its best is indeed Walt Whitman and Louis Armstrong."
· On June 25, 2019, The New York Times Magazine listed Louis Armstrong among hundreds of artists whose material was reportedly destroyed in the 2008 Universal fire