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Armstrong, Louis

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Armstrong, Louis, seminal American jazz trumpeter and singer; b. New Orleans, Aug. 4, 1901; d. N.Y., July 6, 1971. As the first prominent jazz soloist, Armstrong is the most influential musician in the history of the genre. His virtuosic playing, notably in the Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings of the mid-1920s, helped to define jazz as a music of improvisatory complexity. His gravelly voice and exuberant personality led him to a broader fame as a popular singer and motion picture performer that his jazz fans sometimes viewed with dismay. Nevertheless, he did more to popularize jazz than any other individual, and his major pop hits, including“All of Me” (1932), “Hello, Dolly!” (1964), and“What a Wonderful World” (1968), were just as much expressions of his musical talent as his astounding trumpet playing.

Armstrong was born into poverty. His father, William Armstrong, was a factory worker who left the family shortly after Louis was born. Louis was raised by his mother, Mary Albert Armstrong, and by his maternal grandmother. While attending grade school, he worked for a junk dealer who encouraged his interest in music and helped him buy a cornet, which he taught himself to play. At 11 he dropped out of school in the fifth grade and joined a street-corner quartet. Convicted of firing a gun in a public place on New Year’s Eve, 1912, he was sentenced to a reform school; there he studied with music teacher Peter Davis, joining the school band in which he played the bugle and the cornet and of which he was appointed leader.


Armstrong was released on June 16, 1914. He became a manual laborer over the next few years while gradually finding work as a musician. He became the protégé of cornetist Joe“King” Oliver, from whom he took lessons. When Oliver left New Orleans for Chicago in June 1918, Armstrong took his place in Kid Ory’s band. Around this time he married Daisy Parker, a prostitute. (They were divorced on Dec. 23, 1923.) In the spring of 1919 he joined the orchestra of Fate Marable, which played on a Miss, riverboat. He stayed with Marable until the fall of 1921.


Armstrong left New Orleans in August 1922 to join King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band at the Lincoln Gardens Café in Chicago. He made his first recordings with Oliver in the spring of 1923. On Feb. 5, 1924, he married the band’s pianist, Lillian Harden, and his wife encouraged him to leave Oliver. He moved to N.Y. in the fall to join the orchestra of Fletcher Henderson; at this time he began to play the trumpet as well as the cornet. He was with Henderson for more than a year, returning to Chicago in November 1925 to play in his wife’s band, the Dreamland Syncopators.


Armstrong made his first recording as a leader, “My Heart,” on Nov. 12, 1925. From then through December 1928 he recorded frequently in small studio ensembles dubbed the Hot Five or the Hot Seven, and these recordings established him as a star. Meanwhile, in 1926 he played with Erskine Tate’s orchestra at the Vendóme Theatre and with Carroll Dickerson’s orchestra at the Sunset Café.


Armstrong scored his first record hit in July 1926 with the Hot Five recording of“Muskrat Ramble” (music credited to Kid Ory, though it was based on a tune by New Orleans jazz legend Buddy Bolden). In February 1927 he began fronting the group at the Sunset Café, which was called Louis Armstrong and His Stompers. (As a star soloist, Armstrong fronted bands rather than leading them in the conventional sense.) His first vocal hit came in April with“Big Butter and Egg Man” (music and lyrics by Percy Venable and Armstrong), on which he duetted with May Alix. He continued to score hits during 1927 and 1928, notably“West


End Blues” in September 1928; the recording became one of the first to be admitted into the NARAS Hall of Fame in 1974. Meanwhile, he again played in an orchestra nominally under the leadership of Carroll Dickerson at the Savoy Ballroom starting in March 1928.


Armstrong took the band to N.Y. in May 1929, where they appeared at Connie’s Inn, a nightclub in Harlem, while he also played in the orchestra of the Broadway revue Hot Chocolates (N.Y., June 20, 1929), performing“Ain’t Misbehavin’” (music by Fats Waller, lyrics by Andy Razaf), which he recorded for a hit in September. This marked the beginning of his transition from a jazz instrumentalist to a popular entertainer.


Starting in February 1930, Armstrong fronted Luis Russell’s band on a tour of the South. In May he went to Los Angeles, where he took over the band at Sebastian’s Cotton Club until March 1931. He also found time to make his first film appearance in Ex-Flame, released at the end of the year.


Returning to Chicago, Armstrong fronted an orchestra led by Zilner Randolph, with which he toured nationally. Now recording more pop-oriented material for Columbia Records, a major label, he began to have bigger record hits in 1932, including“Chinatown, My Chinatown” (music by William Jerome and Jean Schwartz, lyrics by Jerome), “You Can Depend on Me” (music and lyrics by Charles Carpenter, Louis Dunlap, and Earl Hines), “All of Me” (music by Gerald Marks, lyrics by Seymour Simons; a best-seller in March), “Love, You Funny Thing” (music by Fred Ahlert, lyrics by Roy Turk), “Sweethearts on Parade” (music by Carmen Lombardo, lyrics by Charles Newman), and“Body and Soul” (music and lyrics by Edward Heyman, Robert Sour, Frank Eyton, and John Green).


Armstrong arrived in England for a tour in July 1932, and he spent much of the next several years in Europe. Returning to the U.S. in 1935, he took several important steps in his career. He hired Joe Glaser as his manager (they would stay together until Glaser’s death 34 years later); he organized a new band, which he premiered in Indianapolis on July 1; and he signed a contract with Decca Records. During the late 1930s he toured the U.S. regularly, made a diverse set of recordings, and appeared in small roles in a series of films starting with the Bing Crosby vehicle Pennies from Heaven in December 1936.


Armstrong divorced his second wife on Sept. 30, 1938; on Oct. 11 he married his long-time companion Alpha Smith. They, in turn, divorced on Oct. 2, 1942. Five days later he married chorus girl Lucille Wilson, to whom he remained married for the rest of his life.


Armstrong briefly returned to Broadway in Swingin’ the Dream (N.Y., Nov. 29, 1939), a musical version of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream that ran only 13 performances. During the early 1940s he continued to tour, record, and make the occasional film appearance, notably in the all-black musical Cabin in the Sky in May 1943. He scored an R&B Top Ten hit with “I Wonder” (music and lyrics by Cecil Grant and Raymond Leveen) in March 1945 and reached the Top Ten of the pop charts with “You Won’t Be Satisfied (Until You Break My Heart)” (music and lyrics by Freddy James and Larry Stork) and the Top Ten of the R&B charts with ‘The Frim Fram Sauce” (music and lyrics by Joe Ricardel and Redd Evans), both duets with Ella Fitzgerald, in April 1946.


Armstrong disbanded in the summer of 1947, reorganizing a smaller unit he called the All Stars, which made its debut Aug. 13, 1947, at Billy Berg’s Club in Los Angeles. With the end of World War II and the recovery of Europe, he embarked on his first European tour in 13 years in February 1948; from then until his death, much of his time would be taken up by international touring.


Armstrong’s first Top Ten LP came with Satchmo at Symphony Hall in June 1951 (”Satchmo,” a corruption of“Satchelmouth,” was a nickname he had acquired in 1932); in September he reached the Top Ten on the singles chart with“(When We Are Dancing) I Get Ideas” (music by Julio Sanders, English lyrics by Dorcas Co-chran). Another notable recording of this period was“A Kiss to Build a Dream On” (music by Harry Ruby, lyrics by Bert Kalmar and Oscar Hammerstein II), which Armstrong sang in the movie The Strip and which he recorded for a hit in early 1952. Forty-one years later the recording was used prominently in the hit film Sleepless in Seattle and featured on its chart-topping, triple-platinum soundtrack album.


Leaving Decca Records in 1954, Armstrong freelanced for various labels instead of signing an exclusive deal. This allowed him to record his Top Ten tribute to Fats Waller, Satch Plays Fats, for Columbia in 1955, as well as a treatment of “Mack the Knife” (music by Kurt Weill, English lyrics by Marc Blitzstein) that made the Top 40 in February 1956, while moving to Verve Records for a popular duet album with Ella Fitzgerald, Ella and Louis, on the charts in December 1956. Meanwhile, “Now You Has Jazz” (music and lyrics by Cole Porter), a duet with Bing Crosby that charted in October 1956 and was drawn from Armstrong’s appearance in the film High Society, was released on Capitol Records, and Decca, capitalizing on his popularity on records (and on the revival of the song by Fats Domino), scored a Top 40 hit with Armstrong’s 1949 recording of “Blueberry Hill” in November.


Armstrong spent most of his time touring, barely slowed down by a heart attack in June 1959. His hit recording of the title song from the musical Hello, Dolly! (music and lyrics by Jerry Herman), was a surprise; it topped the charts in May 1964, followed by an LP of the same name that also went to #1 in June and was gold by August. Nominated for two Grammy Awards, Armstrong won one for Best Vocal Performance, Male.


During the last four years of his life, Armstrong was plagued by heart and kidney troubles that put him in the hospital frequently. He scored an international hit in the spring of 1968 with “What a Wonderful World” (music and lyrics by George David Weiss and Robert Thiele), which topped the charts in the U.K. It did not hit in the U.S. at the time, but 20 years later made the Top 40 after being featured in the film Good Morning, Vietnam . Armstrong made a triumphant appearance in the film version of Hello, Dolly! in 1969. He died two years later at the age of 69.

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