Fifty years ago, the American trumpeter and singer Louis Armstrong (1901 – 1971), founder of improvised jazz, died. Jazz trumpeter Miles Davis (1926 – 1991) said about his predecessor: “You can’t play anything on a horn that Louis Armstrong hasn’t played.”
The general public knows Armstrong for songs like ‘What A Wonderful World’ and ‘When The Saints Go Marching In’ that he sang with his gravelly voice. He was the first African American artist in the US to present a nationally broadcast radio programme. But Armstrong also made regular appearances on television shows where, armed with his trumpet, his big white handkerchief and his indestructible grin, he stole the audience’s hearts. As an actor, Armstrong appeared in the films High Society (1956) and Hello Dolly (1969) and many others.
The start of his life was far from easy. His mother Mary Albert earned a living as a prostitute in New Orleans, father William Armstrong did not even wait for the arrival of little Louis. Louis was initially raised by his grandmother and then was fostered by the Jewish family Karnoffsky. Out of gratitude to the family for introducing him to classical music and higher culture, he wore the Star of David for the rest of his life. When twelve-year-old Louis fired a pistol during New Year’s Eve celebrations, he was arrested and put in a home for neglected youngsters. There he learned to play the cornet and won a place in the local brass band.
Armstrong’s career as an entertainer began on the Mississippi riverboats, where he spent many hours playing in jazz bands. There he refined his musical ear and technique. In the 1920s, he left with a group of musicians for Chicago, the epicentre of jazz in those days.
The recordings that Louis Armstrong made in the 1920s with his Hot Five and Hot Seven bands were groundbreaking. Until then, improvisations were mostly group improvisations that followed a fixed pattern. Armstrong, however, soloed on his own and thus expanded the musical possibilities enormously. His playing always sounded fresh, energetic and surprising and his timing was impeccable. For the first time in jazz history, the music was not only meant for dancing, but the audience could also simply enjoy a well played solo. Louis Armstrong thus paved the way for all the jazz musicians who came after him.
Thanks to the fast-growing record industry, Armstrong’s music also reached the rest of the world. The US State Department considered Armstrong an ambassador of American culture and sponsored his world tour. With a big band, Armstrong toured Europe, Asia, Africa and some Eastern bloc countries. Armstrong started to sing more often and played the trumpet less and less, because of the many performances (up to 300 times a year) which had damaged his lips. He also improvised while singing; during a recording his sheet music dropped on the floor and he continued without using words. This so-called scatting became his later trademark. Armstrong formed a memorable duo with singer Ella Fitzgerald. Together they recorded the legendary Gershwin album Porgy & Bess in 1959.
In the autumn of his life, Armstrong met more resistance from modern jazz musicians than from the upcoming rock & roll artists. In 1964, Armstrong managed to dislodge the Beatles from the top of the charts with his rendition of ‘Hello Dolly’. In his improvisations, Armstrong incorporated various musical influences from classical to pop, he was less interested in modern jazz. The new generation of jazz musicians blamed Armstrong for always grinning on stage and pleasing his audience. He was also said to show too little indignation about the injustice that African Americans experienced daily. This view is not correct, Armstrong did speak out in public about things he did not like.
After a warning heart attack in early 1971, he returned to the stage against all medical advice. One month before his 70th birthday, Louis Armstrong died in his sleep in his New York apartment on 6 July 1971. At his funeral, Al Hibbler performed the spiritual song ‘Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen.’
Louis Armstrong – Potato head blues (1927):
Louis Armstrong – West End Blues (1928):
Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong – Summertime:
Louis Armstrong – Hello Dolly: