Louis Armstrong. Satchmo. Pops. Need I say more?
Louis Armstrong often liked to tell tales about his past, especially his childhood. He often said his birthday was July 4th. It’s not, it’s August 4th. But there is and was always something so very fitting in having Pops born on July 4th. Jazz radio stations (yes, some still exist!) will often give Satchmo memorial broadcasts on or around July 4th. Sometimes for several days.
Jazz is The United States of America. And Louis Armstrong is jazz. So here on July 6th, as we all grab for more BBQ or fireworks display before returning to work tomorrow: Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong was born in New Orleans on August 4th 1901 and he died 43 years ago today on July 6th, 1971. For all intents and purposes, Louis Armstrong invented modern popular music which began as inventing Jazz. He wasn’t the only one per se, you cannot talk about the origins of Jazz without mentioning Jelly Roll Morton. And perhaps I am exaggerating by saying he invented modern popular music, though perhaps I am not. But he has left an imprint on music reviled only by men with last names like Mozart and Bach and Parker.
Unlike every other musician I’ve written about over the last 5 months, Satchmo has a museum for him. It is the house he lived in for 28 years in Queens, NY. The Corona neighborhood.
He also gets two nicknames! “Satchmo” apparently is short for satchelmouth which is a name he picked up as a kid hustling the streets of New Orleans. “Pops” was his go to word when he couldn’t remember someone else’s name. He would call people “pops” and eventually people started calling him by that name. I suspect as he became the elder statesman of jazz that folks subconsciously used it to identify him as the unofficial patriarch of Jazz. And maybe neither all that “sub”consciously nor “un”official.
Actually he has three, having been called dipper—short for dippermouth—early in his career.
If you want to see a good documentary about Louis Armstrong, watch the Ken Burns miniseries on Jazz. Ken Burns pretty much drops the ball when he hits the Be Bop period. But if you consider the series as being primarily about Pops (and Duke Ellington) and don’t expect it to be about Miles or Bird or Monk or Dizzy or Trane or Blakey or anything after 1959, it is an excellent documentary.
1927’s Struttin’ with some BBQ. Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five.
Its really too bad that Boardwalk Empire is going to see its last season in the fall. I don’t expect them to get into Chicago and Louis Armstrong. Well, honestly, I’ld rather watch a series about Al Capone, Lucky Luciano and Myer Lansky than one about Nuchy Thomas, but you can’t complain about a series not being the series you would produce.
Here’s the early bio—Louis grew up in deep poverty in Urban New Orleans. His father left the family when Louis was very young, his mother abandoned him and then reunited with him (by the time he was 5). He went to a boys school for a while but quit when he was 11. He sang and such on the street and began learning the cornet (a kind of trumpet) at 11. He did gigs around New Orleans and on riverboats and would occasionally play with the older New Orleans musicians including King Oliver, December 19, 1881 – April 10, 1938. Oliver moved north and in 1919 Satchmo took his place in the band led by Kid Ory, December 25, 1886 – January 23, 1973. In 1922, Armstrong moved to Chicago and was invited by Oliver to join his band. Louis now earned enough money from performing to no longer work day jobs. Apparently, he was able to afford his own apartment with a private bath!
At the prodding of his 2nd wife, Oliver’s pianist Lil, Armstrong began to strive for greater things. He left Oliver and joined the group of Fletcher Henderson in New York City.
Btw, that recording is the first with Louis singing.
By 1925, at the ripe old age of 24, Louis returned to Chicago started his first group, The Hot Five.
1926’s The Heebie Jeebies
This group was Ory on trombone, Lil on piano, Johnny Dodds on Clarinet , and Johnny St Cyr on Banjo; and Louis of course.
West End Blues from 1928
And Basin Street Blues also from 1928
Muggles is a song about marijuana. Pops grew up smoking marijuana and it said he continued to smoke it his entire life.
And there was also The Hot Seven which added a Tuba and Drums. Im also a little confused on something, Earl Hines will replace Lil on piano and record with the Hot Seven and the Hot five and I was under the impression that this happened when Lil and Armstrong split, but apparently they didn’t separate until 1931 and divorced in 1938. Earl “Father” Hines, December 28, 1903– April 22, 1983, is oft considered one of the most important early pianists in jazz.
Potato head blues, which known for its trumpet solo.
::Sigh:: Most players don’t play Tuba anymore. Some of the guys who play in the modern brass bands down in New Orleans do. I’m fairly sure the Bass player from The Roots does (that’s Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show band these days). But not many do anymore.
1927’s Weary Blues
1927 st james infirmary
Wild man blues
1927 that’s when Ill come back to you
I’ll be honest. This “Jazz Age” stuff is not my favorite. I like it well enough to listen. It’s no burden checking out the tracks for the diary. Should it be playing on WBGO or WKCR, I won’t change the channel. But it almost has more an intellectual and historical appeal to me more than a musical one. It is cool stuff, no doubt. If I didn’t think there was value in it, I wouldn’t have just posted ten clips. But I like Satchmo more so after this and into the 1930s.
Armstrong returned to New York, in 1929, where he played in the pit orchestra of the successful musical Hot Chocolate, an all-black revue written by Andy Razaf and pianist/composer Fats Waller. He also made a cameo appearance as a vocalist, regularly stealing the show with his rendition of "Ain't Misbehavin'", his version of the song becoming his biggest selling record to date
If you can, listen to how Louis phrases his vocal lines. It is really astounding. The way he plays with the rhythm and the melody. It certainly swings like a mother f----r (that’s a compliment of the highest degree), but its that command of the melody and the ability to bend it that is so very significant. It is Jazz. It is African-American. It is United Statesian. It is music.
1930 Bessie Couldn’t Help It
Remember “The Peanut Vendor”?
Armstrong started to work at Connie's Inn in Harlem, chief rival to the Cotton Club, a venue for elaborately staged floor shows,and a front for gangster Dutch Schultz. Armstrong also had considerable success with vocal recordings, including versions of famous songs composed by his old friend Hoagy Carmichael. His 1930s recordings took full advantage of the new RCA ribbon microphone, introduced in 1931, which imparted a characteristic warmth to vocals and immediately became an intrinsic part of the 'crooning' sound of artists like Bing Crosby. Armstrong's famous interpretation of Hoagy Carmichael's "Stardust" became one of the most successful versions of this song ever recorded....
And 1931’s lazy river
It was in the early 1980s that the public began to accept that Satchmo was not born on July 4th. I have strong memories of a July 4th in my tween years when my dad had us listening to a weeklong Armstrong broadcast on the radio. I remember driving with my parents and I probably was busy checking out because they were probably fighting with each other. The way I would “check out” during their fights in car rides was to focus on the radio and whatever dad had playing (or just “play” music in my head if the radio was not on). I remember hearing this next one in a way that has stayed with me since that day in 1981 or 1982. I don’t think its as an iconic recording as Stardust or Lazy River, but all I need to do is close my eyes and I hear Pops singing this one.
1932’s All of Me
The Gangster-Prohibition-Jazz connection is rather fascinating and probably worth more research. I actually had an undergraduate student in a class I taught last fall who was doing some research along those lines. Perhaps it was because Im 46 and an adjunct, perhaps it was because the course on the relationship between culture and biology and heavily about genetics (oy… evolutionary psychology is not as accurate or informative as too many people think it is….I’ll write that diary sometime soon and not publish it on a Sunday evening), but the student didn’t quite take me up on the offer to review her research before she submitted it as her senior project. Her loss.
Satchmo worked for gangster. He played the speakeasies. Prohibition was the Jazz Age and Louis Armstrong is its soundtrack. And he got into trouble with a few to the extent that he fled to Europe.
1933’s Dinah. Live in Copenhagen.
He changed managers. Some handled the gangsters better than others. I do believe some were gangsters. Ken Burns talks about this. He did a better job than I am.
1935’s Im in the Mood for Love
In the 1930s, Louis Armstrong becomes a HUGE star.
1937 Alexander’s Ragtime Band
Ah…to have a theme song. Bob Hope had “Thanks for the Memories”. Monk had “Epistrophy”. Paulie Walnuts had “Nancy with the Laughing Face”. Louis Armstrong had “Sleepy Time Down South”.
Following a highly successful small-group jazz concert at New York Town Hall on May 17, 1947….(t)his group was called Louis Armstrong and his All Stars and included at various times Earl "Fatha" Hines, Barney Bigard, Edmond Hall, Jack Teagarden, Trummy Young, Arvell Shaw, Billy Kyle, Marty Napoleon, Big Sid Catlett, Cozy Cole, Tyree Glenn, Barrett Deems, Joe Darensbourg and the Filipino-American percussionist Danny Barcelona. During this period, Armstrong made many recordings and appeared in over thirty films. He was the first jazz musician to appear on the cover of Time Magazine on February 21, 1949.Here’s Pops’ set from the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival
But what will always astound and delight me is the recordings he made with Ella Fitzgerald. These are the Armstrong recordings that I have listened to with great regularity. Perhaps the two greatest singers in Jazz together!
Cheek to Cheek
Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off
They Can’t take that away from me
Once we get into the 50s, some other issues come up…
Wikipedia brings up and Ken Burn’s deals a little with this….
….did not prevent members of the African-American community, particularly in the late 1950s to the early 1970s, from calling him an Uncle Tom….
He was criticized for accepting the title of "King of The Zulus" for Mardi Gras in 1949….an honored role as the head of leading black Carnival Krewe, but bewildering or offensive to outsiders with their traditional costume of grass-skirts and blackface makeup satirizing southern white attitudes….
Billie Holiday countered, however, "Of course Pops toms, but he toms from the heart."
The few exceptions made it more effective when he did speak out. Armstrong's criticism of President Eisenhower, calling him "two-faced" and "gutless" because of his inaction during the conflict over school desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957 made national news.
As a protest, Armstrong canceled a planned tour of the Soviet Union on behalf of the State Department saying "The way they're treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell" and that he could not represent his government abroad when it was in conflict with its own people. Six days after Armstrong's comments, Eisenhower ordered Federal troops to Little Rock to escort students into the school.
The FBI kept a file on Armstrong, for his outspokenness about integration
Louis Armstrong died of a heart attack in his sleep on July 6th 1971. He is buried in Flushing, Queens. The Earth is better place for having him here.
Ah…what the heck…I was going to leave this off on purpose, but…..
Thanks for listening everyone! And thanks for the comments and support. If you just found me today, I do my best to publish a jazz related diary every Sunday night. So come on back next week! I think next week I might dedicate a diary to a piano player. Im not sure who yet, but piano is my instrument and I certainly have an affinity for pianists. Also, since we will see two potentially very interesting bio-movies about two incredibly significant musicians this summer, I intend to do a James Brown diary sometime this month and a Jimi Hendrix one in August. No, it’s not exactly jazz, but there is really no way a two hour film can do justice to the music of either men. Not to mention that those films better not suck!
Please support your local jazz musicians and all local live music. And theater. And poetry. And art museums and galleries and painters and sculptors.