What a Wonderful World: A Tribute to Louis Armstrong

Ode to Joy

Something shines from that man,
a rare thing, real joy.
And I think of the shadows
that gave that light,
a light that has no smugness,
a joy that comes close to prayer
It could only be shadows.
For what has strength to give
that does not live in shadows?

Beginnings

Best known for songs like “What a Wonderful World”, “Hello Dolly”, “Star Dust” and “La Vie En Rose”, Louis Armstrong (1901 – 1971) was a titan in the world of jazz and popular entertainment. A native of New Orleans, Louisiana, Armstrong came to prominence in the 1920s, influencing countless musicians with his daring trumpet style, unique vocals and not least, his charismatic stage presence.

But behind his bubbly persona lies the shadow of a difficult childhood. Armstrong’s father, a factory worker, abandoned the family soon after he was born. His mother, who often turned to prostitution, frequently left him and his maternal grandmother. Due to poverty, Armstrong had to leave school in the fifth grade and begin working. He met a local Jewish family who gave him a job collecting junk and delivering coal. They also encouraged him to sing and often invited him into their home for meals.

Armstrong in 1908, age 7

On New Year’s Eve in 1912, Armstrong fired his stepfather’s gun in the air during the New Year’s eve celebrations and was arrested and sent to the Colored Waif’s Home for Boys. There, he received musical training on the cornet and fell in love with music. After his release from the home in 1914, he immediately began dreaming of a life making music. Dream turned into reality as Armstrong began earning a reputation as a fine blues player, though he still had to work odd jobs selling newspapers and hauling coal to the city’s famed red-light district.

Armstrong found a music mentor in Joe “King” Oliver, who was one of the great cornet players in town. Oliver also occasionally used Armstrong as a sub. In 1918, Armstrong married Daisy Parker, a prostitute, commencing a stormy union marked by much bickering and acts of violence. Meanwhile, Armstrong’s reputation as a musician continued to grow. In 1918, he replaced Oliver in Kid Ory’s band, then the most popular band in New Orleans. He was soon able to stop working manual labor jobs to concentrate full-time on his cornet, playing parties, dances, funeral marches and at locak “honky-tonks” – a name for small bars that often host musical acts.

In the summer of 1922, 21-year-old Armstrong received a call from Oliver to come to Chicago and join his Creole Jazz Band on second cornet. Armstrong accepted, and he was soon taking Chicago by storm with his fiery playing and the dazzling two-cornet breaks that he shared with Oliver. A year later, he made his first recordings with Oliver.

Swinging Good Times

In the fall of 1924, Armstrong, at the urging of his new wife, Lillian Hardin, left Oliver’s band to join Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra, the top African American dance band in New York City at the time.  He immediately made his presence felt with a series of solos that introduced the concept of swing music to the band. Henderson and his arranger, Don Redman was so impressed that they began incorporating Armstrong’s swinging vocabulary into their arrangement, transforming Henderson’s band into what is generally regarded as the first jazz big band. Yet, at the same time, Henderson forbade Armstrong from singing, fearing that his rough way of vocalizing would be too coarse for the sophisticated Ballroom audience.

Unhappy, Armstrong left Henderson in 1925 to return to Chicago, where he began playing with his wife’s band at the Dreamland Café. It was in Chicago that Armstrong made a big break by recording his first records with a band under his own name. From 1925 to 1928, he made more than 60 records with the recording group Hot Five and later, the Hot Seven. Today, these are generally regarded as the most important and influential recordings in jazz history, each one a showcase of Armstrong’s virtuoso brilliance.

Sometime in 1926, Armstrong switched from the cornet to the trumpet. From that point, his popularity as a trumpeter grew. Together with Earl Hines, a young pianist from Pittsburg, he made some of the greatest recordings in jazz history in 1928, including the remarkable duet, “Weather Bird” and “West End Blues.” The latter performance is one of Armstrong’s best-known works, opening with a stunning cadenza that features equal helpings of opera and the blues, which proved to the world that the genre of fun, danceable jazz music was also capable of producing high art.

By the 1930s, Armstrong, who was now nicknamed Satchmo, had stints on Broadway and Hollywood. Everywhere he went, his daring vocal style changed the concept of popular singing and had lasting effects on all singers who came after him, including Bing Crosby, Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald.

Later Career

Armstrong continued a grueling touring schedule into the late ‘50s, and it caught up with him in 1959, when he had a heart attack while travelling in Italy. That incident didn’t stop him, however, and after taking a few weeks off, he was back on the road, performing 300 nights a year into the ‘60s.

Indeed, Armstrong’s popularity soared in the ‘60s, with such hits as “Hello Dolly!” for the Broadway show of the same name, and the 1967 ballad “What a Wonderful World”, a song that would that many music lovers most associate with him. The song features no trumpet and places Armstrong’s gravelly voice in the middle of a bed of strings and angelic voices. He sang his heart out on the number, thinking of his home in Queens as he did so.

Armstrong singing “Hello Dolly” in 1963

By 1968, Armstrong’s grueling lifestyle had finally caught up with him. Heart and kidney problems forced him to stop performing in 1969, though he resumed taking engagements around the world in 1970 before another his heart problem worsened. He died in his sleep in Queens on July 6, 1971.

Louis Armstrong with neighbourhood children on the front steps of his home in Queens, New York, circa 1970, a year before his death. Archival image courtesy of the Louis Armstrong House Museum. Photo: Chris Barham.
He was born poor, died rich, and never hurt anyone along the way… God bless Satchmo! ” Duke Ellington.

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