Did you know that every year when you celebrate the extraordinary ideas of the founding fathers of the United States to do away with such ideas as primogeniture and aristocratic claims of divine rights by imbibing copious amounts of fermented hops and barley and embarking upon the day-long process of digesting whatever is that hot dogs are really made of that you are also celebrating the birth of probably the most famous jazz musician in history? And while we’re at it, did you know that Louis Armstrong’s famous nickname Satchmo is actually a shortened version of his childhood nickname Satchel Mouth?
The first few years following that July 4th were not exactly what you might term an average childhood; though perhaps it was far more normal than many might assume. From a very young age, Louis Armstrong came face to face with the realities of a world most of us are fortunate enough to never know: prostitution, drug dealing, and murder occurred around young Satchmo every day. It is probably quite safe to assume that if it hadn’t been for music, Louis Armstrong would have become a part of that environment and would probably have died at an early age. The irony is that a criminal activity might have been the very thing that saved Louis Armstrong from such a sad end. It occurred New Year’s Eve when Louis Armstrong was a mere 12 years old, drawing the attention of police as he fired a pistol into the night as part of the wild celebration on the streets of the Big Easy. He was tried, convicted and later sentenced to the New Orleans Colored Waifs’ Home.
During the period when he was incarcerated, Louis Armstrong joined his first musical group. On his way to perfecting the trumpet, Louis gained his knowledge of music by playing the tambourine, the drums, and finally the bugle. Louis decided to commit to putting the mistakes of his past behind him as he concentrated on becoming a musician, ultimately taking over leadership of the Colored Waif’s Home band from Peter Davis. After finally being released, Louis returned back into the real world with a new determination. By June 1914, Louis Armstrong was having no trouble at all working full time as a musician in the various bands that were in demand at the multiple New Orleans jazz clubs and cabarets. Joe ‘King’ Oliver tendered Louis the chance to perform with orchestras before being offered the vacancy Oliver left when he joined the Brown Skinned Babies jazz band. By 1919 Louis Armstrong was a regular face on the showboats cruising from New Orleans to St. Louis. St. Louis became Louis’ home away from New Orleans as his fame continued to grow and he found himself in the enviable position of being a musician who never found himself out of work. Two and a half years later, however, Armstrong was tossed off one of those riverboats for fighting. What he found waiting for him when he got home to New Orleans was an offer from King Oliver to become a member of The Creole Jazz Band. The Jazz Band made its first recording in 1923 and then appeared in clubs across the tri-state area of Illinois, Ohio, and Indiana. It was during the period that Louis Armstrong played with The Creole Jazz Band that he began perfecting the cornet. A year later, Armstrong moved from the back of the band to take the lead when recorded for the Hot Five and then later the Hot Seven.
The Hot Five and the Hot Seven were both very influential bands, revolutionizing the very essence of jazz from being a showcase for the hot soloist into an art of ensemble improvisation. In addition to that wild sound that his band was making, this was the era when music fans also came to hear something else they’d never heard before: Louis’ gravelly singing voice. That voice served him well in affording the chance to stand out from the crowd of smooth-as-molasses jazz singers who were the fashion at the time. As if improv and his unique voice wasn’t enough to make Louis Armstrong into a jazz iconoclast, he was also at the forefront of the evolution of scat singing and no male singer did it better. (The incomparable Ella Fitzgerald has a case, however.) After burning down the houses of jazz from Chicago to New York over the next few years, Armstrong made his first foray to the west coast. He made his first of what would be many appearances in movies on this trip, but his first visit to Hollywood is probably remembered best, unfortunately, because of his arrest on charges of possessing marijuana. (Hey, he was a jazz musician; isn’t it illegal for them NOT to possess marijuana?) In what may perhaps be a forerunner of what we might call the Paris Hilton Effect, although Louis was sentenced to six months he actually served a mere three days before having his sentence suspended.
In 1932, The Hot Five went their separate ways. Louis Armstrong stayed behind in California, appearing in more movies and recording more music before creating a big band that reflected the changing musical tastes of American jazz lovers. For the next decade Armstrong’s big band grew in popularity and by the end of the 1940s he had become a major force in American entertainment, managing to do what no other black jazz musician could accomplish, even those arguably more talented. Louis Armstrong crossed over the racial barriers to become beloved by everyone.
It wouldn’t last. During the Civil Rights Movement Louis Armstrong found himself facing the taunts of being called an “Uncle Tom” by the more militant black activists. The reasoning was that Louis had been more than willing to accept fame at the cost of playing the inoffensive negro who expressed all the worst stereotypes of being under the thumb of a white society that only handed out success to those blacks who played their game. At the same, he had refused to help out his black brothers and sisters less fortunate then him. The criticism deeply pained the man who had been named America’s musical ambassador in 1955 and had extensively traveled around the world as a representative for all Americans. Further hurting him was his absolutely justifiable conviction that any prejudice is the ultimate in ignorance because each person should be judged as an individual.
Louis Armstrong died of a heart attack just two days after celebrating his July 4th birthday in 1971. He was sixty-nine years old. His influence on the mainstreaming of jazz-for better or worse-probably will never be fully appreciated. As a trumpeter, Armstrong was nearly alone in the evolution of that particular instrument a leading one in the jazz repertoire. Louis Armstrong bears as much if not more responsibility than any other musician for turning jazz into a style of music that focused on the ensemble rather than the talent of a solo virtuoso. That would be more than enough for one man, but Louis Armstrong is also a primal figure in the fact that when most people hear the word jazz they probably immediately think of the Dixieland sound that Armstrong made famous. Louis Armstrong’s influence can be felt in the music of other jazz men who perhaps more credential among the hardcore jazz lovers such Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. In fact, it was Louis Armstrong who was the first to engage in the elaborate improvisation on a melody that those men and others routinely engaged in. So the next time you are celebrating Independence Day, take a moment to celebrate the birth of the man who may very well be the greatest musical figure this nation ever produced.
BREAKING NEWS: Apparently, Louis Armstrong was not born on July 4. Despite celebrating his birthday every year to coincide with the birth of America, a hospital certificate found after Louis died affirmatively places his date of birth exactly one month later on August 4.