Tuesday, February 19, 2008

King Louis - Armstrong That is.......

Most people under sixty when, and even if, they think of Louis Armstrong recall a man who sang ‘It’s A Wonderful World’ or ‘Hello Dolly’. They recognise his voice from the soundtracks to films or the backing tracks to TV commercials. What they probably don’t know is that he was such a remarkable musician whose technical expertise, the genius of his musical imagination and his dominance made him the model for virtually every jazz musicians from the late 1920s to the outbreak of World War 2 – and beyond.

“An artist of Flaubertian purity and a character of exceptional warmth and goodness.”

Philip Larkin


Born in a slum, the son of a labourer and a part time prostitute, Armstrong thought throughout his life that he had arrived in the world on 4th July 1900 and it was only after his death that his real age was discovered on church baptismal records (4th August 1901). He spent the first few years of his life with his grandmother before rejoining his mother in ‘Black Storyville’ the rundown area of brothels and honky tonks in the city.

Armstrong’s first musical training was singing in a barbershop quartet, which helped train his ‘ear’. In his early teens he was sentenced to spend time in the ‘Home for Colored Waifs’, which is where he joined the band, and was given a cornet. Released from the home he began playing around New Orleans and eventually he befriended King Oliver who was considered the best jazz cornetist in the city. The older man became a mentor for the teenage Armstrong before Oliver left, along with huge numbers of other blacks, for Chicago where fortunes were to be made. Armstrong took Oliver’s place in trombonist Kid Ory’s Jazz Band around 1918; he also married a prostitute, although the stormy marriage lasted but a few months.

In 1922 Oliver invited his former protégé to Chicago to join his Creole Jazz Band that was working at the Lincoln Gardens. Soon they were making records and Armstrong was beginning to build a reputation as a fine cornet player. He also married the band’s pianist, Lil Hardin and shortly afterwards left Chicago for New York where he joined Fletcher Henderson, the premier black orchestra of the time. His first recordings with his new boss were in October 1924 in a band that included saxophonist Coleman Hawkins. It was while he was in New York that Armstrong also worked with some of the women Blues singers including Bessie Smith.

In November 1925 he began working with his band he named – the Hot Five. The sixty recordings with this wonderful band transformed jazz, inspiring players and enthusing jazz fans in equal measure. To get just a small hint of Louis' mastery of his instrument listen to West End Blues recorded in 1928 with his Hot Five. This and many of the other recordings from this period are the basis of his legend.

1 comment:

Richard Evans said...

As an English lad I spent most of my life thinking that Satchmo was Louis (pronounced Loo-ee) Armstrong. It was only in later years when I went to the States I discovered, or rather came to realise, that he was Louis (pronounced Lewis) Armstrong.

A good man. The opening sequence of 'High Society' where he's singing the theme song in the backseat of the bus is a gem. As the song finishes he looks straight into camera and says "End o' song, beginnin' o' story!"