10 (Little) Things You Might Not Know About Louis Armstrong

The name Louis Armstrong is synonymous with jazz, a musical style that he revolutionised and popularised. He was a trumpet player, singer, but also an actor, he performed in What a Wonderful World and Hello Dolly!. He surprised and delighted the public, making them 'swing'!

10 (Little) Things You Might Not Know About Louis Armstrong
Portrait de Louis Armstrong (1954), © Getty

Louis Armstrong was born on August 4, 1901 (though he considered himself to be a child of the twentieth century, and claimed to have been born in 1900). He grew up in turbulent New Orleans, where his family lived in Back o'Town, a poor, violent neighbourhood.

Music was omnipresent in New Orleans. Louis Armstrong was exposed to negro spirituals, blues and ragtime. He formed his first band at the age of seven, a vocal quartet called the Singing Fools. Five years later, he took his first music lessons when he was locked in a correctional facility. 

A Stay in a Correctional Facility

Do you know that the great Louis Armstrong was a "little delinquent"? In 1913, during the New Year, "Little Louis" took a 9mm revolver from his mother's business. Armstrong was more daring than most teenagers, who are usually content to play with firecrackers, and fired shots into the air. He was immediately arrested for "disturbing public order".

He was placed in a correctional facility, the Colored Waif's Home, for one and a half years. It was here, against all odds, that he took his first steps as a trumpet player. Peter Davis, who conducted an orchestra in the home, noticed him and taught him first to play the tambourine and the drums. Armstrong then went on to learn the bugle and was tasked with playing at certain points throughout the day. 

He was then shown how to play the piston horn. He was so gifted that Mr. Davis made him head of the school band. Young Louis became popular with other residents, but also with the inhabitants of his old neighbourhood that he played for. "Prostitutes, pimps, gamblers, thieves, tramps, nobody was missing (...). They would never have believed that I would play a trumpet one day, and that I would play it so well, "Armstrong writes in his autobiography, My Life in New Orleans.

King Oliver, The Unsurpassed Mentor

A defining moment in Louis Armstrong's career was his meeting Joe Oliver, a renowned Cornet player, nicknamed the "King". In 1917 he made Louis his protégé. He gave him trumpet lessons in exchange for chores.

The "King" soon left for Chicago, in 1918, and Armstrong replaced him in trombonist Kid Ory's orchestra, one of the best in New Orleans. He then began to play with conductor and pianist Fate Marable, on pleasure boats going up the Mississippi. Then, in August 1922, he received a telegram from "Papa Joe", who asked him to join him. Louis moved to Chicago and started playing in his mentor's group the Creole Jazz Band, as a second trumpet.

Le Creole Jazz Band (de gauche à droite : Baby Dodds, Honore Dutrey, King Oliver, Bill Johnson, Louis Armstrong, Johnny Dodds, Lil Hardin)
Le Creole Jazz Band (de gauche à droite : Baby Dodds, Honore Dutrey, King Oliver, Bill Johnson, Louis Armstrong, Johnny Dodds, Lil Hardin), © Getty

The "father" and "son" duo, caught the attention of the Chicago musicians. They were intrigued by their bond, and their instrumental interludes that momentarily interrupted the flow of pieces. Little by little, they earned a reputation as two of the greatest trumpeters ever heard.

Little Louis' playing impressed, it was praised as being even more powerful than that of the King. In 1923, when they made their first recordings (of the famous Chimes Blues and other songs) with their band in Richmond, Indiana, the sound engineers had to place Louis a few metres behind the other musicians to balance the parts, because he played so forcefully! 

The King of Improvisation 

It is well known that Louis Armstrong revolutionised jazz and trumpet playing. He expertly explored the range of the instrument, experimented with syncopated rhythms and improvised masterfully... 

He did not only improvise on his instrument but also with his voice. He frequently used scat singing, a musical style where words give way to onomatopoeia. Armstrong did not invent this new way of singing, it was already being performed on the streets of New Orleans when he was a child. But it was he who made it popular and cemented its place in jazz history. 

He also worked to develop his style, which gave a larger role to the soloist. It soon superseded Joe Oliver's "New Orleans" polyphonic style jazz, which was based on collective improvisation and equality between instrumentalists. Armstrong mixed the two styles but gave priority to solo lines. This can be seen in his songs My Heart, Big Butter & Egg Man and Muskrat Ramble (1925-1926). As Jean-Marie Leduc and Christine Mulard, his biographers, explain, "We can already see the art of Armstrong: the triumph of individual expression, a considerable development of improvised melody". 

Four Marriages 

Armstrong met his first wife at eighteen in a bar in a small town in Louisiana, where he was performing. Her name was Daisy Parker, she was twenty-one and working as prostitute. Their marriage lasted four years "of torture and passion," before falling apart. Lil Hardin, the pianist of the King Oliver ensemble, became the second Mrs. Armstrong in February 1924. She was a real "businesswoman", and did not hesitate to take charge of her husband's career. She felt that the King Oliver Orchestra did not value him enough. In June 1924, Armstrong therefore left the band and his mentor. Armstrong founded two bands the Hot Five and the Hot Seven, with Lil as pianist. But their romance soon faded and they separated in 1931, then divorced in 1938.

Louis Armstrong et sa femme Lucille
Louis Armstrong et sa femme Lucille, © Getty

He had another failed marriage in 1938, to Alpha Smith. He then finally met Lucille Wilson, a dancer at Cotton Club, a major Harlem nightclub. They got married in 1942. Lucille was nicknamed "Lady Armstrong" by clarinetist Joe Muranyi; she supported and respected Louis until her death, and understood that "his trumpet comes first".

Gangsters and Louis Armstrong

Criminal gangs dominated Chicago in the 1930s, they had a huge influence on jazz. Many careers started in unsavoury cabarets. Inside the clubs, amidst laughter and frenzied dancing to bass and piano, gangster would meet and settle scores.

One of the most popular clubs in Chicago was the Sunset Cafe, it was run by Armstrong's future manager Joe Glaser. Glasser was very well connected. Armstrong performed at the Sunset Cafe from 1927, but it was not until 1935 that Joe Glaser became his agent. He remained as Armstrong's agent until the end of his career and helped to build him a  great reputation. 

Satchmo Lips 

"Dippermouth", "Gate mouth", "Satchelmouth", "Satchmo" - Just some of the nicknames that the broad mouthed trumpet player had to put up with. Dipper Mouth Blues was even the title of a song performed by Armstrong when he was part of Joe Oliver's band.

His lips caused him a lot of trouble. He damaged them lots playing the trumpet and reaching high pitched notes, and suffered greatly. One evening in 1932, while performing Them There Eyes in Baltimore, they split. According to his biographer Hugues Panassié, most musicians would have cried in pain, but Armstrong struggled on to the end of the piece managing to play the final high F at a whisper. 

A few months later, he had to interrupt a European tour. In 1943, he wrote to drummer Zutty Singleton: "My lips are screwed up, I would like to cancel concerts, but in this business, to cancel, you have to be dead! "

Louis Armstrong the Actor 

In addition to being an instrumentalist and singer, the jazz musician was also an actor. His first appearance on the big screen took place in 1932 in the short film A Rhapsody in Black and Blue. He played the trumpet and sang with great enthusiasm, wearing a leopard skin leotard, knee-high in foam.  

The same year, he appeared in the cartoon Betty Boop, singing I'll Be Glad When You're Dead and You Rascal You. He then appeared in a number of films, including the musical Pennies from Heaven (1936) which was his first collaboration with actor and singer Bing Crosby.

Armstrong was one of the first black actors to perform in Hollywood movies. His roles were however often brief and of less importance. He was sometimes even entirely cut in the editing process, as in the 1938 Doctor Rhythm.

His big break came in 1946 with New Orleans, a film about the history of jazz. In addition to writing the soundtrack, Armstrong accompanied other great musical names such as Billie Holiday, Kid Ory and Zutty Singleton.

Louis Armstrong et Billie Holiday dans le film New Orleans (1947)
Louis Armstrong et Billie Holiday dans le film New Orleans (1947), © Getty

He rubbed shoulders with some of the biggest names in Hollywood. He appeared with Grace Kelly in High Society (1956) and Barbara Streisand in Hello Dolly! (1969), a highly successful musical directed by Gene Kelly. This film marked the end of Armstrong's film career. In total, he appeared in about thirty feature films and a dozen short films.

A True Icon

He was so successful that people started to imitate him, and identify with him. Shortly after his arrival in New York in 1924 and his first concerts in Harlem, he became the talk of the town. His way of playing stunned musicians. "I was trying to walk like him, talk, eat, sleep like him," recalls trumpet player Rex Stewart.

Portrait de Louis Armstrong (1956)
Portrait de Louis Armstrong (1956), © Getty

Young people in particular tried to imitate his posture and his mannerisms. Louis Armstrong crossed his arms across his stomach in a certain way.... so, so did they. Louis Armstrong still used a handkerchief to wipe his face and they did the same (as Milton Mezzrow and Bernard Wolfe note in Really the Blues).

« Red beans and ricely yours »

Louis Armstrong had a taste for rhythm that was matched by his taste for food. He loved a Creole rice dish that his mother, Mayann, used to make. "The Creole gumbo of Mayann! It was the best in the world - in my opinion at least. (...) As for the red bean rice, it's useless to talk about it, everyone knows it's my hallmark," he wrote in Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans.

Armstrong even used to sign his letters with the phrase "Red beans and rice-ly yours". Many of his songs also reference his favorite dish. For example, in the second version of You Rascal You, he blames the rascal for stealing his rice and red beans! 

Louis Armstrong et sa femme Lucille pendant une visite aux pyramides de Gizeh
Louis Armstrong et sa femme Lucille pendant une visite aux pyramides de Gizeh, © Getty

"This man has never learned to rest"

Louis Armstrong did not see music as "work". Music was his life; he never stopped recording, performing, for film or concerts. According to Hugues Panassié, he "had such endurance and loved to play so much that once his set at the Sunset ended he went to other cabarets with a group of musicians and still played for hours, improvising ten, fifteen, twenty chorus in a row". 

In the early 1970s, he continued to crisscross the United States despie being ill. His doctor tried to get him to stop playing the trumpet but to no avail. As his wife remarked, "this man has never learned to rest." Armstrong himself said that "where I come from, musicians do not retire. They just stop playing". 

On July 5, 1971, recovering from a severe heart attack, Armstrong asked his doctor to assemble his orchestra to resume work as soon as possible. The father of jazz never got the chance, he died in his hospital bed the next day at dawn.