Spotlight on ……
Louis Daniel Armstrong was born in the Storyville district of New Orleans on the 4 August 1901. The date over Louis's birth has caused much controversy in recent years. Louis maintained that he was born on the 4 July 1900, the first Independence day of the new century. This was taken to be fact by the wider world until in 1983 a baptism certificate was found belonging to a Louis Daniel Armstrong from a church at 139 South Lopez St New Orleans just a few blocks away from Louis's neighbourhood. It is likely Louis himself was probably unaware of this mistake and all the leading experts now generally accept that Louis was born on this day. It was a custom for many poor blacks unaware of their birthdays to adopt a famous or significant date such as this on which to celebrate their birthdays.
Louis's mother Mary Albert whom everybody referred to as Mayan gave birth to Louis at age fifteen after a short romance with William Armstrong Louis's father who abandoned Louis less than three weeks after his birth. This abandonment by his father despite the fact he would see him in the coming years had a hugely negative psychological effect on Louis. Louis's mother did whatever she could to provide for the young Louis and his sister Mama Lucy in the coming years. They lived in the red light district of New Orleans and inevitably as was the case for many of the poor black women in this area Mayan was forced to turn to prostitution in order to make ends meet. His mother tried to conceal this from the impressionable youngster and if Louis was to bump into one of her customers he would be introduced as a new boyfriend and as Louis once observed, "Mayan seemed to have a whole lot of boyfriends".
After a brief spell living with his grandmother Louis eventually spent most of his childhood in Storyville or "back ‘o’ town", as it was known. New Orleans at that time was a diverse and interesting city. Being a port it was a melting pot of cultures African, American, French and British to name a few. New Orleans was truly a fun loving city and despite what was in many respects an atrocious start in life Louis was being brought up in a place that lived and breathed music. He was surrounded by the then new and evolving music of jazz (although the term jazz had yet to be adopted) and at the time of his birth jazz was just beginning to take shape.
The actual origins of jazz can not really be traced back to one specific place or person. The fact was jazz like the city of its birth was a continually evolving melting pot of musical types and ideas. Its biggest influence by far was that of the tribal music brought over by the black slaves from the East Coast of Africa. Louis recalls how his grandmother explained to him how in the years before his birth the slaves would gather in Congo Square (now aptly named Louis Armstrong Park) and play lively music with whatever improvised instruments they could find or manufacture.
All of the early stars of jazz the founding fathers of the music were active during Louis's childhood and they achieved their zenith just as Louis started to learn to play his first few notes on the cornet. It is generally acknowledged that three men Joe "King" Oliver Louis's idol, Bunk Johnson, and Buddy Bolden were the three greatest of these.
The young Louis after briefly attending school (although he spent most of the school days absent), got a job with a local white family. They were the Karnoffsky family, Lithuanian immigrants who had settled in the city. Louis’s life revolved around earning money although when he took a job riding the Karnoffsky’s junk cart his reasons were not purely financial. On his travels Louis would ride through Storyville an area largely banned to blacks and received his first taste of New Orleans music. In the brothels and honkytonks of Storyville bands would play to attract and entertain the customers. These establishments were lucrative business and Louis was mesmerised by them.
During Louis's early life he continued to work this area of New Orleans learning and trying to understand the music and culture. He was living what in that day was a fairly conventional life until one day an event happened that would change his life and the course of world musical history forever.
It was new years eve 1912. As was tradition at that time, men would fire blank shots into the air as a way of celebrating and marking the occasion. Louis did not own a gun nor had he ever used one. However across the street another boy probably from a rival group fired a shot. Not to be outdone Louis borrowed a friend's pistol and inadvertently pulled the trigger. Unfortunately a local policeman had heard the shot and as he had been in many a scrape with the law in the past was taken into custody and eventually sentenced to an indefinite period in a correction home for boys called the "Coloured Waifs Home". Louis was taken away from his family friends and the music that was to mean everything to him in the future. It was a harsh authoritarian establishment. Louis found this difficult as the solidly enforced routine and the certainties of a meal on the table were the complete opposite of his previous home life.
Louis for a while now had been interested in New Orleans music and was intrigued by it. In the home Louis joined the brass band. He started off with the bugle and then progressed to the cornet. Within a year Louis lead the band.
When Louis got out of the home at the age of 14 he took up a job taking a coal cart around the city. He missed the stability of the home and was continually ignored by his father, which did not help matters.
Every so often Louis would be called upon to deliver coal to a brothel next door to the Pete Lala's Cabaret where King Oliver played. Joe Oliver was a large well built man in his thirties when Louis first met him. He worked as a butler for a rich white family and supplemented his income by playing the cornet. Louis was mesmerised by him and he was rapidly to fill the vacuum left by his father. Over the coming years Louis befriended Oliver and idolised him to no end. Joe however was not the only early musical influence in Louis's life two other legendary New Orleans musicians deserve a mention.
Bunk Johnson was as Louis put it, "the most imaginative and controversial of musicians who had a wonderful tone". Bunk was a popular man, a friend to everybody and a womaniser. He was also a drunk but nevertheless became a friend to Louis and taught Louis the secrets of playing the cornet successfully at a young age. Bunk himself had a habit of exaggerating tings a little so the mans talents are still shrouded in myth although it is fair to say Bunk had the biggest influence on Louis's entertaining skills.
The second and most dubious of these musicians was Buddy Bolden. He was by all accounts the first trumpet king and the greatest early jazz musician ever to grace the streets of New Orleans. It is said he played so loudly that he could be heard 17 miles away. He was the man who created the special relationship between the trumpet and trombone and used the clarinet to reach the higher more complicated riffs. He formed the template ensemble that Louis was in future years to use for his Hot Five, Hot Seven and the All Star format. Despite his pioneering musical achievement his career lasted only a few years and he spent the later part of his life in an asylum and his sad story is typical of many a jazz man at that time. Although it is not clear whether Louis actually met Bolden, Louis maintained he did although it is likely he caught only the occasional glimpse his legacy can not be underestimated.
During the coming years Louis gained somewhat of a hotshot image and he began to play in the local bars and clubs often for barely enough money to buy one meal. His reputation quickly spread and King Oliver recognised his talent and helped him along by letting him play the odd night in his band. He played a variety of venues in the evenings and hauled the coal cart during the day. This proved difficult for Louis so for a brief time he tried his hand at another trade he became a pimp. This however was short-lived as Louis was a happy go lucky man not the cut throat villain that was needed for this sort of career and luckily little was ever said about it thereafter.
Louis ever since he had left the home started to mix with the opposite sex. It was the norm for the men at that time to keep as many women going as possible. In one of the clubs where Louis was working he befriended a bouncer called Black Benny. He gave him a piece of advice that Louis was to conform to for the rest of his life. He told Louis that he should go out with as many women as possible so when one of them left him it would not hurt as much. This may be a perhaps by modern standards a very sexist viewpoint but Louis took it to heart. At the age of 18 Louis fell in love with and married his first wife Daisy Parker a local prostitute. Their marriage was a very difficult one and Louis in perhaps what can only be described at his young naivete trusted Daisy. She continued to ply the trade and Louis was tempted off by other women. They rapidly descended into chaos with Daisy threatening to cut Louis's throat from ear to ear if he ever looked at another woman. Louis took her word for it.
This was not the life Louis wanted to lead, the majority of men and women leading this sort of life as Louis had witnessed died at a young age. Louis knew he had a talent and wanted to exploit it. He took a job on a local steamboat and played in the Fate Marable Orchestra. For the first time Louis was in a real musical ensemble and had a chance to prove himself. It was here that Louis learnt to read music and was now able to put his ideas down on paper. By now Louis had become well known in New Orleans. However New Orleans was no longer the centre of the jazz world. Stars like King Oliver had found a new home, Chicago.
During the past few years Joe and Louis had become great friends Louis needed a father figure and Joe provided that. Years earlier he had promised Louis a job in the north and at last Louis now had a chance to hit the big time.
In the summer of 1922 Louis received a telegram asking him to travel north to Chicago to play in Oliver's band. Louis was desperate to get away from Daisy and go up north to a more secure and reputable job. He was over the moon; he was to receive a proper wage and most of all play with his idol King Oliver the premier musician of jazz.
On the 8 August 1922 Louis arrived in Chicago. Olivers Creole Jazz Band was by far the best in Chicago and played at the Lincoln Gardens Café. The Chicago jazz scene was completely different to that of New Orleans. It was sophisticated, fashionable and fast evolving. Louis was a simple southern boy who arrived in a battered second hand suit and spoke with a strong southern accent. As you may guess he was the butt of many jokes and had a great deal of trouble fitting into the band. However Louis did not care one bit about this. He was playing second trumpet to his idol and had at the age of 21 already achieved his greatest dream.
In 1923 the Kings band started recording. In the early twenties it was not normal practise for a band to do this. There was no mass market on which to market records and many musicians feared that recording music would only result in their ideas being stolen. Although preceded by Sidney Bechet they were one of the first groups to utilise this. They managed to record a few numbers most notably, "Chimes Blues" and "Dippermouth Blues" one of Armstrong's first compositions. It is evident on the recording of "Chimes Blues" the sheer weight of Louis's talent. Despite the fact he is playing strictly second trumpet to Oliver his style and phrasing is completely different to that heard anywhere before and his musical ideas seem completely limitless. This immediately earned him a reputation. Already Louis was becoming a well-known face on the Chicago jazz scene.
The plot however was to thicken before Louis could further his career. Oliver was an intelligent man he realised what Louis was becoming and already many critics were saying that he was past it and Louis was the Prince that would steal his crown. This was to an extent true and listening to the bands early recordings Oliver's style sounds old fashioned and weary where as Louis's even today is fresh and full of new ideas. Louis of course denied this and needed Oliver as a father figure and he was not capable of starting and leading a band alone. That though was soon to change.
Among the musicians in the band at the time was the pianist Lillian Hardin and she caught his eye. She was a good looking, intelligent and sophisticated girl. She was not like any other girl Louis had met before and in 1924 after a brief relationship and a speedy divorce from Daisy they married. Louis had always been missing a stable home relationship in his childhood. Being abandoned by his father and having an arms length relationship with his mother had meant he had never been taught the rudiments of life. He needed someone to look after him. First it was Joe Oliver and now Lil Hardin. She realised Louis talent and potential and almost as soon as they were married pressured Louis into leaving Oliver. She saw that she could promote both Louis and herself to bigger and better things.
In 1924 he bowed to her wishes and left Oliver. This was painful for Louis after all Oliver had done for him and proved to be the beginning of the end of Oliver’s career. Louis moved to New York to play in Fletcher Henderson's orchestra. In New York the style of jazz was completely different to that of the Chicago jazz scene and yet again he brought it to its knees with his innovative new style. However no sooner had he got there than Lil had an even better idea Louis had now become famous enough in the jazz world at least to start to lead his own band and Louis returned to Chicago.
In the coming years Louis’s new band the Hot Five and later the Hot Seven were to record the most important and influential recordings ever made, the bible of jazz and subsequently twentieth century music. With Lils help Louis got a small group of musicians together the majority of which were old friends from down south. Lil on piano, replaced in 1928 with Earl Hines, Johnny St Cyr on banjo, Johnny Dodds on clarinet, Kid Ory on trombone and Louis on the trumpet.
This group did not tour or perform daily like his All Stars would but only recorded in the studio. He spent most of his time and energy performing with various big bands and orchestras in Chicago mainly Erskine Tates at the Vendome, Carroll Dicksons at the Sunset Café and Les Hites while on a tour of the West Coast. The difference was in these Big Bands he was the featured soloist not the bandleader like in the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens.
The Hot Fives and Hot Sevens recorded from 1925 to 1929. The format changed slightly over the years with Lil being replaced with Earl Hines to form the greatest edition of the group. From the first record going on sale Louis immediately turned the musical world upside down he became a household name and was quickly acknowledged as the world's greatest trumpeter, musician, and jazz artist. There were several reasons for his success. At that time jazz ensembles did not use soloists. The trumpeter would lead and the trombone and clarinet would accompany it with no space for prolonged innovation or solos. Louis threw away this idea and played extensive solos and used innovation where he would literally make up parts of the solos as he went along. He could invent solos that seemed like they had been written and planned. Not only that but he continued to develop the material and used every conceivable trick with the trumpet to achieve some strange and different effects. With the Hot Five and Hot Seven he recorded m
any tunes but some of the most famous were "Muskrat Ramble", "Hotter Than That", "A Monday date", "Potato Head Blues" and "West End Blues", to name a few.
Louis’s voice also caused controversy on the jazz scene. People heard the gravel and said no way is this man singing. Louis however had other ideas and eventually recorded "Heebie Jeebies". Which featured not only him singing but also scatting that is to say substituting the words for made up words and phrases. Overnight this record went out and changed music forever. Not only had he invented the idea of jazz improvisation and prolonged solos, but also the idea of jazz singing and scat singing. This was quite a ferocious recipe and with the advent of radio and the grammar phone becoming more widely available Louis achieved worldwide fame and became not only the world's greatest trumpeter but also Americas greatest musician.
Despite his world-wide success on the home front things were not quite as rosy. Louis’s relationship with Lil was going from bad to worse and Louis had at last realised why she had become so fond of him in the first place. After the first two years of relatively happy marriage they drifted apart until finally Louis left her and spent the final 12 years of his marriage with a young Chicago girl called Alpha Smith. She became Louis's girlfriend and they toured Europe together and in 1938 after many a fierce confrontation with Lil and finally a divorce they married. Although now on his third wife happiness still eluded him. Alpha loved him for the money, the jewels and the pampering. She provided neither emotional stability nor a stable home. Their marriage signalled yet again the beginning of the end of their relationship.
One of Louis’s most controversial yet groundbreaking steps was overcoming the racism and prejudice that was rampant in America at that time. Louis in later life was often referred to as an "Uncle Tom" as his critics accused him of not openly supporting the black civil rights movement and for performing in all white venues. Louis in his laid back fashion at the time did not realise what the effect of this would be until later in his life. The fact was Louis was the first black entertainer to enter the white musical establishment. He had a large white fan base and indeed if it wasn't for the whites fondness for him he would not have got such great deals and exposure to the wider public. Louis’s problem was he was not a confrontational man. That is not to say he did not have strong political beliefs he did, but he had no desire to stoke up a race war that would inevitably severely damage his fan base and no doubt alienate a large proportion of the black and white communities.
Due to Louis largely accepting the racism and prejudice as the "status quo" he made more breakthroughs for black performers than anyone then or since has done. Time and again there is the headline in the newspapers that Louis Armstrong was the first black performer to perform at such and such a venue. Not only was Louis spreading the traditionally black music to the white establishment he also performed with whites in his band something that outraged many musicians on both sides of the racial divide. If anything what Louis was doing was making the breakthroughs that chipped away at the idea that a black American could not be a superstar and for a large part of his life was America's most recognisable face.
There were also other reasons for Louis’s critics to sound. The two main reasons were Louis’s association with the Mafia and his exuberant use of the drug marijuana. At the time of Louis’s stay in Chicargo the "mob era" was in full swing. Due to the enforcement of prohibition the Mafia operated nearly all of the clubs and bars in the town mainly by the notorious Al Capone who became a fan of Louis. Louis described Capone as "A nice little cute boy who tipped generously". The joints that he ran required the hottest and latest jazz and Louis helped supply that. It was a mutual agreement, Capone guaranteed protection from gangsters and the law not to mention a tidy wage and in return Louis and his colleagues supplied the music to fill the clubs.
The alcohol sold in these places was of a dangerous quality. It was nicknamed "gut rot" and was usually industrial alcohol mixed with some other form of liquid to add taste. This was done of course as distillation and brewing was impossible during the prohibition era. This if drank in even small quantities caused irreversible damage to the drinker's health. Louis realised this and looked to some other form of stimulant, marijuana. He considered it a tonic, something that aided rather than damaged his health and Louis swore by it until the end of his life.
During the late twenties Louis made some of his most famous recordings with his Hot Seven group along with his frequent radio appearances Louis was now the front man of jazz and its greatest practitioner. At the same time the mob culture was about to reach its zenith and the golden prize the worlds greatest trumpeter was stuck in the crossfire. Louis although a household name in the states was little known overseas. While being hounded by unhappy managers, Lil and the mob Louis had to escape.
In 1932 Louis crossed the Atlantic to England and began his first and most important overseas tour. Despite his talent being little known, Louis was as least being treated like a human being. In England he could go where he wanted and was free from the constraints of segregation. His arrival in London created a storm, Jazz was a little known entity and all of a sudden Ambassador Satch years before that title was invented was going to show them how it was done. He opened at the London Palladium (the first black performer to appear there) and despite hounding from a few conservative critics was immediately embraced by the British public. His tour culminated in a concert for King and Queen who presented him with a gold plated trumpet. His tour continued all over Europe and at last he had achieved world-wide fame the first black American to do so. He was at the age of 31 playing the part that he would occupy for the rest of his life that is Americas greatest musical ambassador, the man the whole world would look
to for entertainment.
When the hotel manager in London greeted Louis he was a little confused. The manager had greeted him by saying "Hello Satchmo". Louis had had many a nickname in the past but had never heard this one. When he questioned the manager he explained that the British press fed up of calling him "Satchel-mouth" as was his current nickname shortened it simply to "Satchmo", and so Satchmo was born.
There had also been a string of managers but none of them could keep the peace. Louis was being menaced physically by the mob. He was held at gunpoint more than once and the police wanted little to do with sorting out a black man's problems. That though was all to change when Louis met the man that was to manage him for the rest of his life, Joe Glaser. Joe Glaser was a small time gangster who was a member of the Capone syndicate. He was by all accounts a foul man but Louis immediately latched onto him "He’s my Daddy" Louis once said. The trouble had been Louis was yet again short of that all-important father figure. Louis had always been looked after, first by Joe Oliver then by Lil finally Joe Glaser took over. He may have been a brilliant musician but he would never have got a job as an accountant. Louis simply could not handle booking and organising concerts, recording dates, T.V and radio appearances not to mention looking after the band. Glaser immediately thrust Louis into the public eye. He got him
parts in films and organised well-publicised concerts and events. During the thirties Louis remained with his orchestra and appeared in films such as "Cabin in the Sky", "Pennies from Heaven" and "Going Places". Although he appeared mainly as himself or a musician he pioneered the use of black performers in popular films. If Louis appeared for as little as one scene the film would be guaranteed top billing in the black neighbourhoods.
By 1942 his relationship with Alpha had come to an end. Indeed soon after their marriage he had become aware of her real reason for marrying him. For the third time he filed a divorce and married his new girlfriend a New York dancer called Lucille Wilson. She was the love of his life and they remained together until Louis's death in 1971.
During his time with the orchestra Louis made many recordings that were a moderate success but Louis was not in his element. In the orchestra he was the featured soloist not the ensemble leader that he was born to be. The early and mid forties were the Swing era. Louis was not a swing musician nor was he willing or capable for that matter to change his style to suit a passing fad. Indeed by the mid forties he was no longer billed as the worlds greatest trumpeter and the orchestra was getting less and less popular.
By the end of the Second World War jazz was changing be-bop the new revolution in jazz was taking place. Its practitioners were northern urban and more artistically poised in their outlook. They were distancing themselves from the practitioner of "Sleepy Time down South". They accepted what Louis had done previously but many now thought that it was time for Louis to bow down and retire. From this moment onwards jazz would no longer be the mainstream music of the world. The bop musicians had a small but steady audience. They were not entertainers if anything they were often anti-audience artists that detested Louis's trademark of laughing, joking and generally having fun on stage. Bop was merely a distant relation to the New Orleans style of jazz Louis championed.
By the mid forties the revolution was in full swing and Louis experiencing trying times launched a counter attack. Indeed he even recorded "The Whiffenproof Song" simply to mock them. In his eyes they were ruining the music he had fought to bring to the public and in turn insulting him. In 1944 Miles Davis made this statement: "I hated the way they (Louis) used to laugh and grin for the audiences. I know why they did it-to make money and because they were entertainers. They liked acting the clown and as I was younger than them and I didn't have to go through the s*** they had to go through to get accepted in the music industry. I wasn't going to do that so some non-playing, racist, white motherf***** could write some nice things about me."
Louis responded by saying: "When they tear out from the first note you ask yourself what the hell's he playing? -That's not for me, I wouldn't play that kind of horn if I were playing for a hundred years!"
With bop taking over jazz and swing quickly dying Louis needed to get himself back in to his rightful place as the king of the jazz world. This was to come true when he went back into his element in his new band called the All Stars.
In 1947 someone probably Joe Glaser had the idea of taking Louis back to his roots. He disbanded his big band and Glaser launched him into a ferocious comeback and the All Stars were born. This band was unofficially to become the greatest in jazz and commercially was by far the most successful jazz band ever seen.
The band was more a less a carbon copy of the Hot Five and Hot Seven groups that had made Louis so famous all those years earlier. Louis was now in his element he was in his natural habitat. He didn't have to adjust his style as in the big band but was now free the play as he thought he should. Louis invented the All-Star formation in 1925 as the best possible way to set off his art. This invention of a before unseen format is something not usually associated with musicians but with composers. Indeed the band accompanied Louis so well that the best of their recordings could compete with the best bands the music world ever produced as the Beatles found out in 1964 when the All Stars stole their number one spot. The band rhythm section consisted of the double bass, drums, and piano with the trombone, trumpet and clarinet fronting the band. It debuted in the Billy Bergs club in Los Angeles after performing a series of triumphant concerts on the East Coast. Almost immediately the public hailed Louis as the king o
f jazz and the worlds greatest trumpeter once more. The sheer weight of his popularity took many critics by surprise and the bop musicians were left speechless. His world wide fame as now reinforced and in many appearances in the coming decade he was introduced as the most famous man in the world. Yet again, Louis had beaten the odds and come back to his adoring public.
The All Stars were the best possible musical platform from which Louis could demonstrate his talent. Not only were they a superb band in their own right but they allowed Louis to perform the same revolutionary solos from the Hot Five and Hot Seven era that had laid fallow during the big band years. During the late forties and early fifties the all stars stayed out of the studio and concentrated on touring. They went all over the world the concert halls and theatres were sold out. Millions were entertained wherever he went and he was by far the most widely loved and popular American musician alive.
Despite his enormous celebrity persona Louis refused to live like one. In the early forties Louis and Lucille had purchased an averaged sized house in Corona, Queens, New York. Louis could easily have afforded a Hollywood mansion, fast cars and private jets but the glamour of a celebrity life did not suit him, and Louis was a genuine man proud of his roots. He did not appreciate the polite society of glamour and celebrity parties.
During the late forties and early fifties the All Stars toured the world. They kept a full diary on the road 300+ days a year. It came as a welcome break when in 1954 the All Stars now at their collective musical peak stepped into the studio. From 1954-57 they recorded many famous albums that were in many ways as revolutionary and groundbreaking as some of his recordings from the twenties. "Satch plays Fats", "Louis Armstrong plays WC Handy", were two of the most successful. Louis by now had become to the majority of the public the beginning and the end of jazz and he sold millions of records all over the world. Indeed he was to many people the sound of America and the sheer size and diversity of his fan base reflected that. Louis was occupying a niece in the musical market. There was and always would be a call for traditional American jazz and Louis not only being its most famous and talented practitioner was old enough to have been their at the start yet young enough to perform the music.
By the mid fifties Louis had in many ways reached the zenith of his career. Many critics said he was past his best and the material simply did not measure up to magic of the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens. However the more you listen to his music the greater the distinctions between different phases of his career abound. His music was not changing but was evolving, maturing and developing. By this time he is clear of his musical identity and no longer has anything to prove. In the twenties Louis openly admitted he was more concerned with impressing the musicians of the house rather than the fans. By the mid fifties he has reached the top and could now show off his talent. The shear diversity and energy of his music is unbelievable. His concerts contained an amazing assortment of songs. From "Didn't He Ramble" to "La Vie En Rose", from "Muskrat Ramble" and the "Twelfth Street Rag" to "Mack The Knife" and "You'll Never Walk Alone". His concerts could swing from an explosive edition of "Tiger Rag" to a sleepy and slow
"West End Blues". He did come under criticism for using the same material over the years but he believed, as do many others it has never been improved on and what therefore would be the reason for changing it.
Although the magic of Louis's music can not be put down to one thing or the fact he is undoubtedly one of if not the premiere figure of twentieth century music be put down to one thing either, it is possible to demonstrate why he holds this position. Take for instance the solo on the 1957 recording of "When You're Smiling". Not only at the age of 56 does he play one of the most imaginative and near musically impossible solos of his life 40 years later no one has been able to match let alone improve on or improvise something as brilliant. The sheer depth of feeling in the music is immense. Although many musicians have tried to copy and imitate his solos they do not sound the same.
Louis was by all accounts an entertainer not just a musician and is undoubtedly the greatest the world has ever seen. Many critics mocked him for this and preferred the dull concerts performed by the boppers. However Shakespeare was an entertainer, he wrote to entertain the audience and to earn a crust not to fulfil some intellectual ideology.
When Louis stepped on stage it was evident all the way through his career that the audience loved him. The reason of course is that his music and persona made them feel good about themselves. As Louis observed once himself, "Even if you don't want to swing after a couple of bars it'll make you swing!" His escapades on stage were deplored by the critics but managed to keep the public entranced. He had the ability of being funny but not ridiculous acting the clown without acting the fool.
Louis's career reached its zenith in 1956 when in one of his busiest years when he grabbed more headlines and became more famous than anyone in the music business had been before him. To begin with Louis and the All Stars appeared in the film "High Society", along with Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Grace Kelly. The film/musical was a huge success in the box office although the performances given by the rest of the cast left much to be desired. It was very much a black man performing in a white mans world but never the less "High Society Calypso", and "Now You Has Jazz", did well in the charts.
One of Louis's greatest albums "Ambassador Satch" was released in mid 1956 and was a huge success. The year before Louis had played a series of concerts on a European tour, a few of which had been recorded live. A selection of the music from these was released on LP and spread the Ambassador Satch message across the globe.
After the success of the "Ambassador Satch" album the American government enrolled Louis as a real "Ambassador of goodwill". Louis was often introduced on his tours as the most famous man in the world and the government hatched a plan to use Louis's fame and talent to promote the American message. This was one weapon that the Russians could never copy. Louis, the All Stars and a huge entourage of officials and Journalists crossed the Atlantic to the West Coast of Africa. When he arrived at a small airstrip somewhere in the middle of Ghana 500,00 people turned out to hear him play. This was truly an amazing sight. In the month long tour that followed in over 60 performances often up to 2 or 3 a day Louis and the All Stars performed to audiences of often more than 10,000 people. Despite the language and cultural barrier the message got through. The tour grabbed the attention of the world and the government seeing the amazing effect it had signed Louis up to tour the Soviet Union in the following year, 1957.
Unfortunately it was never to be, just weeks before the tour was due to begin Louis did something he had never done before. In Little Rock, Arkansas a black girl had been refused entry into her local school because of the colour of her skin. Louis had watched it on the television news and as he was preparing for yet another performance was interviewed on the subject by a local reporter. He let lose with both barrels, "The government can go to hell, it's getting so bad a coloured man hasn't got a country", and as for Eisenhower Louis said he was two faced and had no guts. He was sick of the hypocrisy of it all, how dare they send him all over the world preaching about the American dream when they were in direct conflict with there own people. Louis immediately called of the trip. Had it been any other musician these comments would have been ignored but Louis, America's chief ambassador. In the aftermath Louis stood right next to his comments but many people boycotted his performances and the critics tried once again to destroy him although after a few months it was nearly all forgotten.
As if to add insult to injury, Louis was never again to play in his hometown New Orleans ever again. The law in Louisiana stated that it was illegal for integrated bands to perform. The All Stars were an integrated band and despite the fact Louis had performed in every corner of the world for millions of people in the name of "goodwill and democracy" he was threatened with imprisonment if he were ever to perform in his hometown.
For the rest of the decade Louis continued on his world tours endlessly performing in concerts and on the radio and television. He recorded many albums and records in this time and had many hits the most famous being "Mack the Knife", Louis would have been happy to carry on doing this for ever but something happened to him that would effect him for the rest of his life.
He was on a tour of Italy in 1959 and Louis had as normal played a concert and retired to his hotel bedroom. During the night Louis's personal doctor found him collapsed on the floor. After he had been rushed to a local hospital it was found he had suffered a massive heart attack. After 40 years of Marijuana, laxatives, cigarettes and 300 days a year on the road it had caught up on him.
Louis took it in his stride and resumed performing as he had been doing before, but the critics started to hound him. He was now nearly 60 years of age and like in the mid forties many critics were palming him off as past it saying he could not play the trumpet with the same skill and energy as he had done before. Of course this was not entirely true but as the 1960's pop revolution began to take over he seemed to be ever more distanced from the mainstream music scene. The public of course adored him more than ever and his enthusiasm was boundless. Indeed some of the albums he recorded during the early sixties were more challenging and innovative than anything he had done as a young man. He recorded with Dave Brubeck, Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington. All of these were a great commercial success although the meeting with Ellington was viewed as a missed opportunity as their styles did not really gel together well.
By 1964 Be-bop and modern jazz was becoming an ever smaller entity and the public saw jazz to be Louis Armstrong, and no one else would ever steal his crown. However 60's pop was now in full swing and the British band "The Beatles", had taken over the music world. Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and nearly every other performer in the States had tried to knock them off the number one spot. Louis however was not in the slightest bit bothered at this until the unthinkable happened. In December 1963 he had recorded a little known show tune called "Hello Dolly", with the All Stars. It was released and almost immediately shot to the number one spot. Nobody could believe it a 64 year old jazz musician had knocked the worlds most famous and successful band off their throne. Yet again Louis was in the spotlight, he was the eldest man to hold the number one spot in the U.S. charts and was also the last ever jazz musician to hold that position.
In the following years he was carried along on this wave of popularity and as before continuously travelled and recorded. However by the late 1960's Louis's health was getting worse and worse and he was now having difficulty playing the trumpet. He went into hospital for several months at a time for major heart and lung surgery. No matter, Louis still had the boundless enthusiasm he had always had. The public still worshipped him but many people not just critics were saying it was time to save what was left of his health and retire. That however was never to happen, Louis's whole life was his horn and to him retiring would be worse than dying. Although by 1967 in the few concerts he gave he either ditched his trumpet completely or just played a few light bars in a song like "Sleepy Time Down South", (still his favourite song).
In 1967 his trumpet playing nearly all but over Joe Glaser had signed him and the All Stars up to record a number called "What a Wonderful World". This was not strictly jazz, but then was "Hello Dolly"? The song was only moderately successful in the U.S. but in Britain it shot to number one and held the spot for several weeks. Ambassador Satch was still at work and to this day he is still the eldest musician to have topped the British charts as well as being the only musician ever to have a number one hit and be older than the serving Prime Minister.
Not content with this in 1969 he recorded his last hit "We Have All The Time In The World", for the James Bond film "On Her Majesties Secret Service". The film slumped at the box office but the song was a moderate success.
By 1971 Louis was still performing but his health was now in a terrible state. He could no longer play the trumpet at all and could barely walk for more than a few steps let alone perform 300 days a year. He was a frequent guest on the chat show circuit but unfortunately despite his boundless enthusiasm he could not go on. At 5:30 on the morning of 6 July 1971 Louis suffered a massive heart attack and died in bed. The world was shaken by the news that the greatest musician and entertainer the world had ever seen had died.
His funeral took place in New York and a crowd of 25,000 lined the route. In New Orleans the traditional funeral march was performed in his honour. Despite his death nearly 30 years ago Louis Armstrong's records are selling more than ever and he is and will forever be the greatest trumpet player and jazz musician the world has ever seen.