A Few Facts About Louis Armstrong: What You May Not Know
Even if you’re not a jazz fan or musician, the name Louis Armstrong seems to ring a bell. Remembered primarily for his beautiful renditions of “Mack The Knife” and “What A Wonderful World,” there’s more to ol’ “Satchmo” (as he was fondly regarded) than his unique, husky voice. A cornet and trumpet master, Armstrong did wonders for the jazz scene, and his legacy continues to this day, inspiring more and more artists – jazz and otherwise.
We put together a short list of “fun” facts about Satchmo that are less well known yet still play a large roll in who he was and what he did for music during the 20th century. Feel free to add your thoughts if you know something we missed.
(1) For years Louis Armstrong made claims that he was born on July 4th, 1900. As a talented musician who was blessed with the opportunity to rise from “rags to riches,” his admiration and love for America was so strong that he wanted people to think of him through this red, white, and blue story. He was actually born August 4th, 1901 (not as impressive and memorable a date apparently). What is true is his proud attitude of being an American and his opportunity to rise up and see his dreams through. He was brought up in one of the roughest communities in New Orleans, but out of love for the music found his calling as a jazz musician.
(2) Many people know that he began playing at a young age, astounding crowds at the age 16. He was indeed inspired at a much younger age, having grown up in the Big Easy and hearing jazz all around him. His actual music training, however, began in a reform school began in a reform school at the age of 12. He was fooling around and had fired a pistol in the air – just for fun. Despite his innocent intentions, the prank was not appreciated, and he was sent to a reform school for a period of 18-months. There his attention was guided toward music, and Armstrong was introduced to the cornet, a friend that would help shape the rest of his life. When interviewed he reported that “my whole success goes back to that time.”
(3) Armstrong was married to a woman named Lil Hardin. While this is generally well-known by musicians and historians, it is interesting to note that Lil was the pianist for the first band that he played with – Joseph “King” Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band out of Chicago. In addition to completing his life emotionally, she was one of the best things to happen to him professionally. As he often did not make the best business decisions, she was always there to support him and make sure that he was doing what was necessary to ensure a successful career in music.
The two most important things that she talked him into doing were to (a) form his own group; and (b) begin making phonograph records. Both of these led to one great opportunity, in the forming of his band the Hot Five. While very popular at the time, the group is still regarded regarded as one of the most influential groups in the history of jazz – to this day.
(4) While many new musicians were popping up left and right, Armstrong was one of the key figures to promote a more relaxed approach to the music, while bending the conventional rules of jazz and swing. Even members of his group still lingered in the realm of square, “on-the-beat” rhythms. Playing both in front of and behind the beat was something that Armstrong loved to do, and it caught on pretty quickly, influencing some of the greatest jazz musicians like Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck.
He also was on the scene when it came to the development of a new style of soloing. Utilizing his ability to seemingly “converse” through the solo and deliver a message, his music was associated with more of a story approach. He was not the only one doing this, but his early success and popularity helped make his ideas more accepted in the jazz community.
And, of course, who can forget about his scatting. As the story goes, he dropped his lyric sheet while recording the hit song “Heebie Jeebies.” Without dropping a beat, he just kept going with what must have seemed as random gibberish. This introduced his musical “language” to millions, inspiring future scatters like Ella Fitzgerald and Bobby McFerrin.
(5) While he was a great musician, he was popular not only for his music genius (which was very apparent); rather his fame also drew from the fact that his songs appealed to both black and white audiences, not all that common for the 30s and 40s. He was among the top artists in terms of his popularity among many different groups. While this was great for Armstrong, this also contributed toward the great momentum of jazz in general.
He was indeed a superstar not only among musicians, but also appealed to the greater masses. If you do any research on jazz and its role in society at this time, you’ll often find that this was a period of transition, where the bebop era was beginning and jazz was on its way to becoming an underground movement (at least for the those artists who were actively propelling jazz in the direction) The genre was changing, and this marked a clear change from what jazz and swing were in the 20s and 30s and what it what role it would play in the future. To be well liked by musicians and the general public alike despite this change can attest to his overwhelming success and influence.
(6) While pop songs in the early 20th century tended to reside in the area of love and relationships, Armstrong took a more unconventional approach, bringing more “earthy” subjects into the mainstream. “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue” acknowledged on of his favorite rib joints in Chicago, “Yes, I’m In The Barrel” was about gamblers in debt, and “Muggles” paid tribute to Satchmo’s beloved friend and assistant – marijuana. Many of these ideas had not been brought up – at least not in the mainstream.
So, I hope the information above gives readers a little more of the inside scoop on one of America’s most beloved artists and musicians. They were just a few fun facts that we thought would interest fans and jazz. Again, feel free to let us know if you think we should add to the list. It would be great to hear what other people know about Armstrong.