Louis Armstrong was a multi-talented American jazz icon who was a singer, trumpeter, actor and comedian. He was born on August 4, 1901 in New Orleans, Louisiana. He had an impoverished childhood; his father was a factory worker who abandoned the family when Armstrong was born and his mother often left him with his grandmother as she worked the streets as a prostitute. He left school in 5th grade so he could start earning full time and took up any odd jobs he could get his hands on such as collecting junk and delivering coal.
Due to an incident involving a rifle fired accidentally in the air, Armstrong was arrested and later sent to the Colored Waif’s Home for Boys where he was first exposed to jazz music. He learnt to play the cornet and began to dream of a career in music. While still working odd jobs to support himself, Armstrong pursued his passion for music and began learning with Joe “King” Oliver who was the greatest cornet player of his time. Oliver encouraged Armstrong and sometimes even used him in his recordings. In 1918, Armstrong married a prostitute named Daisy Parker with whom he adopted a 3 year old child named Clarence. Clarence’s deceased mother had been Armstrong’s cousin and the child was brain damaged so Armstrong took him under his wing and cared for him his entire life. Armstrong and Parker separated shortly.
His reputation as a musician began to grow and he joined a band and began to play in bars, clubs and parties. He also perfected his skill of reading music and soon he was well known in musical circles by jazz greats such as Bix Beiderbecke and Jack Teagarden. In 1922, he joined Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band as a coronet player in Chicago. His talent as an instrumentalist earned him much fame and soon he recorded his first single. He then married Lillian Hardin who was the pianist from his band. She encouraged him to join Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra, which was the top African American dance band in New York back then. His work was much admired and he influenced the band’s style of music heavily. However, they did not want him to sing as they thought his Southern drawl was too coarse for Northern audiences. Armstrong later left the band and returned to Chicago.
In Chicago, he formed a band called “Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five”, and later The Hot Seven with whom he began recording jazz numbers. He recorded more than 60 songs with them between 1925 to 1928, which are now recognized as one of the most influential jazz records of all time. Armstrong began singing around this time and recorded one of his best known songs, “Heebie Jeebies”. He also performed nightly with Erskine Tate’s orchestra at the Vendome Theater and began to play the trumpet in addition to the cornet. He made his first Broadway appearance in 1929 and then moved on to film and radio as well. He toured extensively in Europe, Asia and Africa, and with the help of his manager Joe Glaser, he became internationally acclaimed.
In 1942, Armstrong married a dancer named Lucille Wilson with whom he settled in Corona, Queens. He then formed a small band called the All-Stars, which was a group of extraordinarily talented jazz musicians who had helped to revive jazz. He continued to perform, tour and record extensively with them throughout the 1950s and 1960s, making appearances on radio, television and film. He also collaborated with many major artists of the time such as Duke Ellington, Sidney Bechet and Bessie Smith. Up until the end of his life, Armstrong was an energetic and masterful performer, and churned out hit after hit such as “What a Wonderful World”, “Hello Dolly!”, “La Vie en Rose” and “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South”. Louis Armstrong died in his sleep on July 6, 1971 at his home in Queens, New York at the age of 70. His music has influenced numerous other great artists who came after him such as Bing Crosby, Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, to name a few.