Armstrong was born on August 4, 1901 in New Orleans, LA to William Armstrong and Mary “Mayann” Albert. He attended Fisk School for Boys, where he was exposed to music. His father abandoned their family for another woman and Louis and his little sister went to live with their grandmother, Beatrice Armstrong Collins. He moved back with his mother at the age of 5, but she began prostituting. He worked as a paperboy and also sold discarded food to restaurants to bring in money for the family. He hung out in dance halls and observed the dancing. He hauled coal to Storyville, the famed red-light district, for extra money. There, he would listen to the music coming from brothels and dance halls. He dropped out of school at 11 and joined a quartet who sang in the streets for money. Later, he worked for the Karnofskys, a Lithuanian-Jewish immigrant family. They had a junk hauling business and gave him jobs to do. They took him in and cared for him like a family member.
Armstrong developed his cornet skills while playing in the New Orleans Home for the Colored Waifs, where he’s been sent for general delinquency. Professor Peter Davis taught Armstrong discipline and provided musical training. Davis made Armstrong bandleader of the band, which is where he began to attract attention for his cornet playing. He was released from the Home at the age of 14. He got his first dance hall job at Henry Ponce’s. He played in marching and jazz bands. He listened to older musicians such as Kid Ory and Joe “King” Oliver and learned to play music by ear. About 1919, Joe Oliver decided to move up north and resigned from his position in Kid Ory’s band. Armstrong replaced him and became second trumpet for the Tuxedo Brass Band.
Oliver sent for Armstrong to play second cornet in his Chicago band, Creole Jazz Band, in 1922. There, he met pianist Lil Hardin. Armstrong married Hardin in 1924. He recorded his first solos, “Chimes Blues” and “Tears”, as a member in Oliver’s band composed by himself and Hardin. He was encouraged by his wife to quit the band and seek further fame. He played in New York for a year and returned to Chicago. In New York, he created some of his most important works, such as “Hotter Than That,” “Wild Man Blues,” and “Potato Head Blues.” Armstrong was playing trumpet by this time.
Armstrong was a famous musician by 1929. He moved back to New York to perform in the theatre review Hot Chocolate. He toured America and Europe as a trumpet soloist. During this time, he abandoned his blues-like style for more popular songs composed by Hoagy Carmichael, Irving Berlin and Duke Ellington. His trumpet range changed, leading to such masterpieces, as “That’s My Home,” “ Body and Soul,” and “Star Dust.” Armstrong and his wife separated in 1931. Joe Glaser managed his career from 1935 until his death. Armstrong was a dominant influence on the swing era. Many trumpeters and trombonists tried to emulate his works.
Armstrong appeared on radio, movies and television. He played a dramatic role in the film, New Orleans, where he played in a Dixieland band. This prompted the formation of Louis Armstrong’s All-Stars, a Dixieland band that included other jazz greats like Hines and trombonist Jack Teagarden. He toured the world with the All-Stars, changing musicians every now and again. His non-stop touring of “Ambassador Snitch’ was the period when he produced “Mack the Knife” and “Hello Dolly!” such as tributes to W.C. Handy and Fats Walker. He died on July 6, 1971 in New York of a heart attack in his sleep. His last appearance was in Hello Dolly!
The house where Armstrong lived in for nearly 28 years is a National Historic Landmark and museum called The Louis Armstrong House Museum in Corona, Queens. The museum is operated by the City University of New York’s Queens College. On August 4, 2011, New Orleans’ airport was renamed Louis Armstrong International Airport in his honor. There are many bands dedicated to honoring the music and style of Louis Armstrong. Louis Armstrong Park is a 32-acre park located in the Treme area in New Orleans, Louisiana. The park contains the New Orleans Municipal Auditorium, the Mahalia Jackson Theatre of Performing arts, Congo Square and part of the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park.
(Courtesy Asante Foundation)