Louis Armstrong: From Indigent to Institution


Originally posted in 2011.

August 4, 1901 is the birthday of the great Louis Armstrong. (He gave it out himself as July 4, 1900, but the records tell differently). He never played vaudeville, but through recordings and performances with dance bands at nightclubs and ballrooms, he was influential on many performers who did.

A latchkey kid, raised in poverty by various adults (including at sundry times one or the other of his parents), occasionally in trouble with the law, Armstrong was lucky enough to have been born in New Orleans, a city in the throes of a musical explosion. He grew up just as jazz was being born, in the whorehouses of Storyville and NOLA’s famous marching bands. He was 11 when he first picked up the trumpet, learning from jazz pioneers like King Oliver and Bunk Johnson, as well as receiving some formal musical training from a variety of sources over the years. By the late teens, he was one of New Orleans’ top musicians and already noted for his unique style of playing, which pioneered the transition of jazz from the Dixieland style (a clash of simultaneous improvisation by the entire band) to a music that would accomodate instrumental solos.


In 1922, Armstrong moved to Chicago to join Oliver, and throughout the 20s shuttled between there and the nightclubs of Harlem in a succession of influential bands that helped define the Jazz Age. In 1924, he began his recording career. His distinctive singing voice, still instantly recognizable to millions of people today, became an important second instrument, and thus he pioneered the art of jazz vocalizing (including scat) as well. Bing CrosbyBillie HolidayFrank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and countless other singers owe something to his stylistic influence.

In the 1930s, when many other musicians’ careers were hurt or even ended by the Depression, he had the wise instinct to move to Hollywood, where the nightclub scene still managed to flourish, and he made his first film appearances. As time went on, he became an American institution, a frequent presence on television shows like Ed Sullivan’s, a film star (most famously in High Society, 1956), and recording artist (finally cracking #1 in the pop charts in 1964 with “Hello, Dolly” and later having a British hit in 1968 with “What a Wonderful World” from the soundtrack to the James Bond film “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service)”.

On The Flip Wilson Show circa 1970

Though Armstrong passed away in 1971, his influence and exposure continued to spread. His recordings continue to be used in Hollywood films to this day. In 2003, his home in Corona, Queens opened as a museum. I am planning to visit it in the near future, and will report back here what we discover.

Legend has it that he was called Satchmo because when he was a boy playing for pennies, he would carry the coins around in his “Satchel Mouth”.

To find out more about  the history of show businessconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


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