The Louis Armstrong Story


The Louis Armstrong Story

Part One

Louis Armstrong is an enduring jazz icon, one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time, and a pioneer in breaking down racial barriers, both inside and outside the music world. But his personal success and goodwill have sometimes been misunderstood and occasionally dismissed as jive-talking Uncle Tomming – playing up to an offensive stereotype held by clueless white people – by members of both races. His ebullient personality and his ability to entertain were seen as clowning around and demeaning to the music by serious students of jazz, who preferred the model provided by Miles Davis (an apparently sullen personality who often turned his back on his audience).

But those who dismiss Armstrong as merely an entertainer have missed the point. A product of his times, Armstrong rose above those times, and his outstanding contributions to jazz have, over the years, become increasingly clear. Nearly three decades after his death, there is hardly a musician who plays jazz who has not made use – knowingly or unknowingly – of something created first by Armstrong. He transformed jazz from a collective art into an individual soloist’s expression, and as a trumpet player he was a virtuoso. He virtually invented “scat” singing, and his personal way of interpreting the lyrics of a pop song has influenced generations of popular and rock and roll singers. In 1995 the African nation of Malagasy issued a stamp sheet by to honor Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong along with other famous entertainers.

Truly a child of the 20th century, Armstrong claimed he was born on July 4, 1900 – but his birth certificate, discovered in the late 1980s, revealed the date to be August 4, 1901 – in a poor section of New Orleans. His parents, Mayann and William, never married, but had two children, Louis and his younger sister, Beatrice. They were the children of slaves, and they left Louis and Beatrice to be raised by William’s mother, Josephine Armstrong. Louis was not reunited with his mother until he was five. The boy lived in poverty among the gambling joints, saloons and whorehouses of the black vice district of New Orleans. When he was 12, Armstrong celebrated New Year’s Eve by firing a gun, loaded with blanks, in the air. This led to his incarceration for a year and a half in the Colored Waif’s Home for Boys, a reform school run by Captain Joseph Jones.

This was probably the best thing that could have happened to the boy, since it led directly to his first formal musical instruction, under Peter Davis. He learned to play the cornet, a trumpet-like instrument. When he left he began playing in local bands. These are referred to now as “jazz bands,” but they were New Orleans brass bands which played at funerals and from wagons (the trombonist at the tailgate because of the way the trombone’s slide would thrust out, leading to the phrase “tailgate trombone”) and at social halls at dances. The music was a rough and ready mixture of ragtime and both classical and popular tunes.

The legendary trumpet player Buddy Bolden – who apparently never recorded – was held up as the best New Orleans had to offer, but next in line was Joe “King” Oliver. Armstrong was at 17 befriended by Oliver, who made him his protégé. When Oliver left New Orleans in 1918 for the Mississippi riverboats and eventually Chicago, he recommended Armstrong to replace him in trombonist Kid Ory’s popular band. Four years later, now established in Chicago with his Creole Jazz Band, Oliver sent for Armstrong to join him in his band as second cornetist. And this is where Armstrong’s recording career begins.

During the period of 1922-24 King Oliver had the top jazz band of the era, an octet which, although built around group improvisation – the standard New Orleans style – also had room for short solos. Despite Oliver’s own talent and ability, Armstrong soon revealed a greater talent and ability. Starting with a session for the Gennett label, in April, 1923, which yielded four sides, one of them the “Dipper Mouth Blues,” Armstrong recorded 41 cuts that year with Oliver’s band, for four labels, including Columbia subsidiary OKeh and Paramount. These can presently be found on the Media 7 set, Louis Armstrong Complete Edition Vol. 1-7 (MJCD-1-7). They can also be found on the Milstone CD, Louis Armstrong and King Oliver (MCD-47017-2). LP collectors will want the 1950 Brunswick 10-inch LP, Amstrong Classics (BL-58004), currently valued at $30 to $75, depending on its condition.

These recordings were made under primitive conditions. Recorded directly to a wax 78 rpm master, the music came from the band members positioning themselves at varying distances from an acoustic horn, which funneled the sounds directly and mechanically to the cutting needle. The positions of the players were dependant on their relative strength of playing and volume, and Armstrong’s delivery was so powerful that he was usually placed the furthest away. Once the correct “mix” was achieved, the band would then quickly rip through its pieces. Time was money. Many of these recordings sound similar and repetitive when listened to on albums, but they were not recorded to be heard one after another, but as single records to be listened to individually.

In King Oliver’s band Armstrong met pianist Lil Hardin, whom he subsequently married. Lil had ambitious plans for Louis. It was she who talked him into quitting the Creole Jazz Band and moving to New York to join Fletcher Henderson’s big band.

Part Two

After his early success playing second cornet in Joe “King” Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band in Chicago, where Armstrong met and married pianist Lil Hardin, he moved to New York at Lil’s urging, and joined Fletcher Henderson’s big band.

Despite white bandleader Paul Whiteman’s claims to have put together the first “jazz orchestra” (he employed jazz musicians but did not play true jazz, playing dance music and more ambitious music – including Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue – instead) it was black bandleader Henderson who is credited with the first genuine “big band” jazz orchestra. In later years it was Henderson’s charts which established Benny Goodman’s Orchestra as a genuine jazz band. (In 1952 Decca issued the 10-inch LP, Fletcher Henderson Memorial Album, DL-6025, collecting some of his early recordings. That album is now worth from $50 to $125, depending on its condition. In the 1960s Columbia issued a four-LP boxed set, The Fletcher Henderson Story, C4L-19, now valued at between $30 and $75.)

Despite being considered the top jazz orchestra of that era – the mid-1920s – Henderson’s band did not yet really swing, make use of improvisation, or play any blues. At that time the musicians in New York were felt to be less advanced than those in Chicago – which made Armstrong’s arrival of great importance. Henderson did not employ the group improvisation of Dixieland jazz, but used written scores – a necessity in an orchestra of any size. Armstrong’s first recording with Henderson was on October 7th, 1924, when “Manda” b/w “Go ‘Long, Mule” was recorded for Columbia. On October 10th through the 13th three more sides were recorded with Armstrong (he didn’t play on the fourth) for Pathe: “Tell Me Dreamy Eyes,” “My Rose Marie,” and “Shanghai Shuffle.” (These cuts can be found on Volume two of the CD set, Louis Armstrong Complete Edition, on Media 7. “Go ‘Long, Mule” and “Shanghai Shuffle” can also be found on the CD edition of The Fletcher Henderson Story, Columbia 57596.)

Armstrong made additional records with Henderson in November and December of that year, but also began to record with others, playing accompaniment for blues singers like Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey.

In October, a few days after his second recording session with Henderson, he backed Ma Rainey with a pickup group taken from Henderson’s orchestra which included Henderson on piano and Buster Bailey on clarinet, to record “See See Rider Blues,” “Jelly Bean Blues,” and “Countin’ The Blues” for Paramount. Sitting in with the Clarence Williams Blue Five – which included clarinetist Sidney Bechet – Armstrong recorded “Texas Moaner Blues” for Okeh the very next day, and that same day (October 17th) Armstrong with the Blue Five accompanied singer Virginia Liston on two more blues for Okeh, “Early In The Morning” and “You’ve Got The Right Key But The Wrong Keyhole.” (As that title may suggest, some of the blues lyrics of that era were as raunchy as anything modern rockers have come up with.) These can also be found on the Media 7 CD collection, Louis Armstrong Complete Edition (MJCD-1-7), as well as on Louis Armstrong And The Blues Singers (Affinity AFS 1018).

Armstrong was much in demand for such recording sessions. As 1924 came to an end he recorded with Josephine Beatty and the Red Onion Jazz Babies, Margaret Johnson, Sippie Wallace, Maggie Jones, Clara Smith, and Eva Taylor.

On January 14th, 1925 Armstrong recorded five now-famous sides with Bessie Smith, the “empress” of blues singers. It was a very simple “band” – consisting of Armstrong on cornet, and Fred Longshaw on piano or harmonium (a reed organ) – backing Bessie. They recorded “St. Louis Blues,” “Reckless Blues,” “Sobbin’ Hearted Blues,” “Cold In Hand Blues,” and “You’ve Been A Good Ole Wagon” for Columbia. These were first collected by Columbia onto LP in 1950 as a four-volume set called The Bessie Smith Story, and Columbia reissued that set in 1951, 1956 and again in the 1960s. (If you have the 1950 set with the ML prefix, each LP is worth between $25 and $60, depending on condition. The 1951 set, with GL prefixes, is valued at half that. The 1956 set, with a CL prefix, is valued at only $10 to $25 an LP, and can be told from the 1960s set – which has identical catalog numbers – by the six white on black “eye” logos on each label. The 1960s set, valued at $6 to $15, has “360 Sound” on the bottom of the labels.) Presently these sides are available on CD as Volume 5 of the Media 7 set. A check of auction sites reveals a variety of Armstrong’s 78 rpm records from this era, offered for as little as $4 or $5 apiece, for those who want them.

During 1925, in addition to recording regularly with Fletcher Henderson, Armstrong recorded with Trixie Smith & Her Down Home Syncopators, Eva Taylor, Clara Smith, Billy Jones with the Southern Serenaders, Coot Grant, and Kid Wilson. Louis stayed busy in New York. But late that year, once again at the behest of his wife, Lillian, Armstrong returned to Chicago.

Part Three

The plain and simple fact is that, good as his precursors – Buddy Bolden and King Oliver – were, Louis Armstrong was better. He was better in a number of ways, and his ability to play the cornet was only one of them. Armstrong had a richness and bell-like clarity of tone which could cut through the ensemble sounds of a traditional jazz band like a hot knife through butter. His forcefulness was such that in the early days of acoustic recording (before electric microphones) he would be positioned the furthest away from the recording horn of all the musicians clustered around it.

But Armstrong also was a young man in his twenties at a time when jazz itself was no older, and he was not one to meekly bow to tradition. “Tradition” said that jazz was the music of a marching band and improvisation was collective – a swirl of notes from all the horns, based on a common harmony. But a separate wing had also formed around the piano players (who usually played solo, indoors, often in the parlors of “sporting houses”), who had come to jazz from ragtime. In New Orleans “jazz bands” never included a piano, but as New Orleans’ jazz musicians began migrating to Chicago by way of jobs playing on the Mississippi riverboats the pianists became integrated in bands.

This was one break with “tradition.” Another was the use of saxophones – something early jazz purists frowned upon. There were no saxophones in New Orleans jazz bands, but gradually clarinet players broadened out to play saxes (Sidney Bechet played soprano sax as well as clarinet), although initially they looked down their noses at the simpler, easier to play instruments. Although they are now emblematic of jazz, saxes did not become a part of jazz until the mid-1920s.

Armstrong saw beyond these superficial changes to changes in the nature and structure of jazz itself. He foresaw the rise of the jazz soloist, and the modern jazz “combo” in which the duties of maintaining the rhythm are assigned to a “rhythm section” (usually piano, bass and drums, sometimes with a banjo or guitar added or substituted), while the front line consists of horns (trumpet, trombone, sax) who trade off solos and play ensemble sections together. What now, the better part of a century later, seems obvious and inevitable was revolutionary at the time. Armstrong introduced this concept with his Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings.

After spending most of 1925 in New York City, playing and recording with Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra and with the major blues singers as well, Armstrong was strongly encouraged by his wife, Lillian, to return to Chicago, where she found him steady club work. With Lil acting as his manager, Armstrong did well and the couple settled down in a large house on Chicago’s South Side. Armstrong had become quite well known and signs posted outside the clubs where he played proclaimed him the world’s greatest cornet player. During this period Armstrong was the featured player with big bands led by Eskine Tate and Carrol Dickerson. But he was far better known to the record-buying public for his recordings with the Hot Five, and later the Hot Seven.

Although it almost never performed live dates, the Hot Five was an all-star quintet whose records have been described as “the Rosetta Stone of jazz.” (The one time the Hot Five did perform for the public it was for a function put on by Okeh Records – a promotional appearance.) These records were the first Armstrong made under his own name as a leader.

The Hot Five consisted of Armstrong on cornet, Kid Ory on trombone, Johnny Dodds on clarinet, Johnny St. Cyr on banjo and Lil Armstrong on piano. The absence of bass or drums may be a concession to the limitations of recording – later the Hot Seven added Pete Briggs on tuba and Baby Dodds on drums when recording went electrical, giving the music more bottom end, the tuba taking the role now occupied by the bass.

The first recordings of Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five were made on November 12, 1925, and resulted in three sides: “My Heart,” “(Yes!) I’m In the Barrel,” and “Gut Bucket Blues.” Lil is credited with “My Heart.” It was held back until it could be paired with “Cornet Shop Suey,” recorded February 26, 1926, as Okeh 8320. The other two, credited to Louis, were released as Okeh 8261.

Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven records consisted of one “classic” after another during the period 1925-1927 – records which have been referred to as both the height of New Orleans jazz and its death, due to the increasing emphasis on Armstrong’s virtuosity. In 1927 Armstrong switched from cornet to trumpet. In that same year his single, “Heebies Jeebies” (Okeh 8300, b/w “Muskrat Ramble”), popularized scat singing, for which he was to become famous. Among the other Hot Five records, “Cornet Chop Suey” amazed other trumpet players, while “Potato Head Blues” (Okeh 8503) and “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue” (Okeh 8566) were prized for their perfectly constructed solos. All these Okeh recordings are currently available as three Columbia CDs, The Hot Fives, Vol. 1 (CJ44049), The Hot Fives & Hot Sevens, Vol. 2 (CJ44253) and The Hot Fives & Hot Sevens, Vol. 3 (CJ44253). Collectors can find the actual Okeh 78s for auction on the auction sites. On eBay, for example, a copy of “You Made Me Love You” (Okeh 8447) by the Hot Five was offered for $75, while “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue” (Okeh 8566) and “Got No Blues” (Okeh 8551) – both composed by Lil Armstrong – were last seen going for $32 and $53, respectively.

But these were far from Armstrong’s only recordings. He continued to be in great demand to back up blues and jazz singers like Bertha “Chippie” Hill, Blanche Calloway, Hociel Thomas, Baby Mack, Sippie Wallace and Nolan Welsh. On these records he customarily played with only a pianist. These sides are currently available on CD in Louis Armstrong and the Blues Singers (Affinity AFS 1018). He also recorded with Lillian Armstrong’s Serenaders (in a Vocalion session which was rejected, to be redone a month later in May, 1926, as by Lil’s Hot Shots).

But Lillian and Louis were drifting apart. She was replaced in his band by Earl Hines with the Hot Five recording session of June 17, 1928 – and Armstrong’s ties to Chicago were loosened. (That date with Hines was really an unacknowledged Hot Six, since it also included Zutty Singleton on drums.)

Part Four

One thing which contributed to Armstrong’s image as an entertainer and a clown was his nickname, “Satchmo,” which became as famous as he was. The name is derived from “Satchel-mouth,” contracted into “Satchmo.” I’ve read varying descriptions of how he got this nickname – and, equally, when he got it. The most commonly accepted version is that it came from his puffed-up cheeks while he was blowing his horn – originally a cornet, and, after 1927, a trumpet. But some claim it came out of his childhood, when he smiled a wide smile. Certainly, the image of Armstrong smiling that wide smile is a common one which persisted all of his life.

There are those who feel that, as a young black man coming up in racially segregated times, during the days of Jim Crow, Armstrong could have had little to smile about – and that his smile was an act, an Uncle Tom smile, aimed at his increasingly white audience, to whom he bowed and for whom he cavorted foolishly.

Others claim it was the product of a drug-induced euphoria – Armstrong was an advocate all his life of “Gage,” or marijuana, and was actually arrested for possession in March 1931 in Los Angeles and spent nine days in jail before his trial (he received a suspended sentence). But other musicians who smoked it with him claimed that Armstrong always bought the cheapest, lowest-grade weed he could find, implying either that it didn’t take much to “get him off,” or that he wasn’t really very affected by it. (Armstrong claimed he had to give it up, out of prudence, but always sang the drug’s praise – along with that of a certain brand of laxative – Swiss Kriss – which he used regularly.)

Armstrong was no fool when it came to racial relations. He understood the fine line he had to walk and perhaps he felt playing the clown would disarm white people. But it was his nature to enjoy himself and the music he made, and to express that enjoyment without too many inhibitions. There was, at the root of his bandstand behavior, a genuineness about him which most people recognized, and which endeared him to them.

Far more people knew of Armstrong through his recordings, of course. There was no television, and he did not appear in any movies in the 1920s, playing live gigs for a tiny proportion of those who bought his records. And the records spoke for themselves. There was his clarion trumpet, executing the tricks and turns of complex and cleanly executed improvised solos. And his singing, which developed in parallel to his horn playing, using the same syncopations and phrasings, “scatting” nonsense words and syllables in that uniquely identifiable gravelly voice. We take it for granted, now, but no one sang like that before Armstrong. He gave us “scat” singing. His influence was felt by singers as diverse as Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald.

While still in Chicago, recording with the Hot Five and Hot Seven, Armstrong played with Carrol Dickenson’s Orchestra at the Sunset Café. At that time a man named Joe Glaser was running the Sunset. Glaser would subsequently, in 1935, become Armstrong’s long-term manager, remaining with him to his death. On December 12, 1928, Armstrong made his last recordings in Chicago – these, for Okeh, as Louis Armstrong and His Savoy Ballroom Five, whose membership was mostly that of the recent Hot Seven.

Then, in 1929, Armstrong returned to New York’s Harlem. Record company exec Tommy Rockwell got him work at Connie’s Inn and a number of other popular Harlem clubs. These led it turn to appearances on Broadway, when he made his debut in Hot Chocolates – a black musical. His rendition of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” was an immediate hit with (mostly white) audiences.

It was at this point that Armstrong saw his way to mass success. His Broadway appearances earned him the respect and favor of white intellectuals, but the skills he honed onstage – emphasizing his singing and bringing out his talent for onstage comedy – would carry him far beyond that, to genuine multi-racial stardom. By now some of the country’s top songwriters were lining up to get him to perform their songs.

(Underground comics artist Robert Crumb, a great fan of early jazz and blues recordings, created a 36-card set of Early Jazz Greats trading cards, which features Armstrong along with Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Joe Venuti, Benny Goodman and others. At last check, a set was up for auction with bidding at just under $16.)

Armstrong toured with Hot Chocolates, and played on occasion with the Luis Russell Orchestra, with Dave Peyton and with Fletcher Henderson. He moved to Los Angeles in 1930, where he had a band called Louis Armstrong and His Sebastian New Cotton Club Orchestra. He continued to record for Okeh, and less often for the label’s parent, Columbia. One unusual exception was a Victor recording with Jimmie Rodgers, “Blue Yodel No. 9 (Standing’ on the Corner)” (Victor 23580), recorded on July 16, 1930. (It can be found on the Affinity collection,Louis Armstrong & The Blues Singers, AFS 1018. I note that vol. 1 of this collection was recently auctioned on eBay for $10.)

The period of 1929-1932 – his initial stardom – saw Armstrong making a smooth transition from “race” records to “pop” records. Some purists of the day felt he’d abandoned traditional Dixieland jazz, and resented him for this “betrayal,” but by moving in a more popular direction Armstrong gained a following which bridged racial and cultural gaps – and opened up the way for many more black musicians and entertainers to follow. He was a trailblazer.

Yes, Armstrong was now an “entertainer,” with world-wide fame to go with it, and he straddled musical worlds, but he remained a superb jazz musician.

Part Five

For Armstrong, becoming an entertainer – rather than simply a musician or even a singer – was the key to success. And this has caused a great deal of controversy among jazz fans and critics. Because Armstrong was not just a black entertainer who “crossed over” to the white audiences, he was at that time the greatest living jazz musician. Many jazz traditionalists, later dismissed as “Moldy Figs,” found it difficult to forgive Armstrong for the multiple sins of first abandoning Dixieland jazz for a more modern style (which he largely created himself) and then for seemingly abandoning jazz for popular music and Swing.

The music world was undergoing a rapid upheaval by 1930. On the one hand, the stock market crash in late 1929 was precipitating the Great Depression, which lasted the entire decade of the 1930s, ending only with the entry of the United States in World War II. This had the effect of drying up many people’s “disposable income” – the money they spent on entertainment. Yet, desperate, hard-working people had an even greater hunger for popular entertainment and “escape,” however brief, from their grueling lives.

In addition, the end of Prohibition in the early 1930s allowed night clubs and jazz joints to function more openly (no longer “speakeasies”). Into this add a now-mature recording industry (having established a standard 10-inch 78 rpm disk for popular music and a 12-inch disk for classical music) which, with the use of electrical recording techniques, was approaching full-range musical fidelity – and the new infant radio broadcasting industry. Any home which could afford a wind-up Victrola or a radio could import the popular entertainment of the day. And sound had come to the movies, making even a matinee a thrilling experience.

What this meant was the dawn of mass entertainment and popular culture as we now know it – and Louis Armstrong’s timing was perfect, allowing him to get in at the beginning.

Armstrong toured extensively in the early 1930s. After a final separation from Lillian in 1931, Armstrong returned to California and then went to England, where he enjoyed a major success. For the next several years he was almost always on the road, criss-crossing the U.S. dozens of times, and returning to Europe to play in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Holland and England.

In 1935 Armstrong returned to America and hired Joe Glaser to be his manager. Glaser was reputedly connected to Al Capone, but was a good manager and a good friend to Armstrong. Glaser handled the business end, leaving Armstrong free to deal with the music. And Glaser hired the Luis Russell Orchestra as Armstrong’s band – renamed Louis Armstrong and his Orchestra – with Russell as the musical director. Since many of the musicians in the band were old New Orleans compatriots, some of whom had also played with King Oliver, Armstrong felt right at home with them.

It was during this period that Armstrong began his appearances in short jazz films as well as full-length features, establishing himself further as a personality whom everyone seemed to know and love. Out of this period comes the first easily collectible memorabilia – movie posters and publicity photos. Glossy photos of this era can be found occasionally on auction sites for as little as $22 for an unsigned copy – but considerably more for one bearing Armstrong’s autograph.

His band enjoyed a wide popularity throughout the Swing era. Armstrong ended his long association with Columbia’s Okeh label (a “race” label) in 1932, and began a two-year run with Victor, during which he recorded around 30 sides. These have been collected in a four-CD set (which also includes additional sides from the late 40s) as Louis Armstrong – The Complete RCA Victor Recordings (RCA 09026-68682). In October, 1934, Armstrong signed with Decca, recording the first seven sides with Decca’s Brunswick subsidiary label. He remained with Decca into early 1946, returning to RCA Victor that spring. Some of these recordings can be found on the spotty, hit-or-miss The Best of the Decca Years (Decca MCAD-31346). The European Classics label has put out a series of eight CDs spanning 1928 to 1942, Chronological Armstrong, but they are more difficult to find.

By the late 1930s Armstrong was starting to record jointly with others – most notably the Mills Brothers (now available on Jazz Archives 157652, Louis Armstrong & The Mills Brothers) – but also the Polynesians, and Andy Iona and His Islanders, for a foray into Hawaiian music.

In 1938 Lillian and Louis divorced at last after a nearly eight-year separation. He then married Alpha, but the endless touring led to a divorce four years later. Armstrong subsequently married Lucille, to whom he remained happily married for the rest of his life.

There was one interruption in Armstrong’s recording career. In 1942 the American Federation of Musicians called a halt to all commercial recording, a ban which lasted for several years during World War II and affected all musicians. During this period Armstrong’s only recordings were “V-Discs” – 16-inch transcription disks used for our overseas Army radio network, which broadcast to our troops. (Some of these, from January 18, 1944, are now available on CD as At The Esquire All American Jazz Concert, on Music Memoria 7 87965.)

Part Six

Louis Armstrong is an enduring jazz icon, and one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time. His accomplishments in “modernizing” the traditional marching-band jazz of New Orleans cannot be underestimated. His Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings in the late 1920s are where it began.

And in this Armstrong was also revolutionary: his seminal band, the Hot Five, was a studio band which never played live club dates. Armstrong was the first to use recordings to advance jazz, while he played a more traditional lead horn role every night with others’ orchestras for the paying customers.

By the 1930s Armstrong had found fame both within jazz – he was unquestionably the top jazz musician – and beyond jazz, as a Broadway entertainer, as a personality, a star, on stage and in films. The public had, in the 1920s, a rather unsophisticated view of “jazz,” and one not shared by aficionados and musicians, but not for nothing was that period known as “the Jazz Age.” And Armstrong, a genuine giant of jazz, rode the crest of the wave of “the Jazz Age” right into mass-media culture-consciousness.

Although Armstrong never lost his love of music, nor his way with it, he did lose his edge. By the late 1930s he had fallen in with Swing, which was the popular music of the day. Swing existed in two forms. “Hot” Swing was played by the jazz bands – those of Benny Carter, Duke Ellington, and Benny Goodman, among others (Goodman had hired Fletcher Henderson to arrange for him). “Sweet” Swing was played by the society dance bands of Lester Lanin and others. The Dorsey Brothers and Glenn Miller tried to straddle the line.

But by the end of the 1930s another revolution was brewing within jazz. Musicians were meeting in uptown Harlem after-hours joints like Minton’s to jam, to cut each other (musically), and to forge a new and more sophisticated vocabulary for jazz. These musicians included alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie, pianists Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, bass player Jimmy Blanton, guitarist Charlie Christian, and drummer Kenny Clarke. Most were playing in the bands of the day, and got together after-hours. What they invented was called “Be-Bop” and later just Bop. It changed the face of jazz in the 1940s and thereafter.

Many pioneering jazz musicians adopted bop or at least accommodated it. Coleman Hawkins, who virtually introduced the tenor sax to jazz in the 1920s, was one who did so effortlessly. Nor was Bop the first effort to advance jazz another notch. Duke Ellington had introduced unique voicings to his band by refusing to score for all the instruments of a “section” together, and was writing “extended” works. Bix Beiderbeck – the model for the book and movie, The Young Man With A Horn – had switched from trumpet to piano before his premature death in the 1930s and was writing Debussy-like music.

But Armstrong did not go along with Bop. He condemned it in 1946 as “Chinese music.” And suddenly, to a younger generation of jazz fans and musicians, he was irrelevant – a posturing Uncle Tom, wiping the sweat from his forehead with a huge handkerchief and grinning, laughing that wide-mouthed gravelly laugh.

This did not significantly decrease his popularity with the public, however, and in 1947 Armstrong unveiled at a May 17 Town Hall concert in New York his new All-Stars band. In fact, big bands were losing money then, and the Armstrong Orchestra had lost its steam as well. Record sales were off amid complaints that they’d become too “commercial.” Manager Joe Glaser fired the Orchestra and replaced them with the small group known as the All-Stars. It included clarinetist Barney Bigard, trombonist Jack Teagarden, drummer Big Sid Catlett, singer Vilma Middleton, and later Earl Hines on piano. This band enjoyed great popularity and, with changes in personnel from time to time, Armstrong used it for the rest of his performing career.

The All-Stars did a lot of recording, revisiting the Hot Five and Seven classics from 25 years earlier, and then, when they changed labels from Victor back to Decca, they re-recorded them all over again. Glaser was putting Armstrong in front of elaborate orchestras and giving him tepid pop material to do, and it was – in retrospect – a period of musical unfulfillment. Glaser paired Armstrong with pop singers like Bing and Gary Crosby, but lacked the vision to give him the showcase he deserved.

Fortunately, Norman Granz – of Clef, Norgran, and ultimately Verve Records – offered to record Armstrong and did so, producing what many regard as a series of albums which stand with the best of his previous catalog of recordings. Armstrong was teamed with his musical peers in relaxed sessions which showcased his formidable talents. He recorded with Ella Fitzgerald (who was overwhelmed by him), and was backed by the Oscar Peterson Trio, whom Granz used in many sessions for his label.

Meanwhile, back at Decca, he recreated his early recordings in December, 1956, and January, 1957, for the Autobiography sessions. They were done in anticipation of a Louis Armstrong Story movie which was never made. However, he’d been given a handsome role in the movie, High Society (its title taken from a song he’d recorded decades earlier), along with Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. At the beginning of the 1960s he made a Roulette album with Duke Ellington – an inspired pairing – and appeared on a Columbia tribute by Dave Brubeck.

But the 1960s were another time of change, and pop music was being swept aside by a British Invasion, Armstrong with it. His records of this period were middle-of-the-road (MOR) pop. But, ironically, Armstrong’s popularity was at an all-time peak, boosted by the unexpected worldwide success of “Hello Dolly” – a song he’d forgotten he’d made! He had other major hits with “Blueberry Hill” and “Mack the Knife.” He was greatly in demand on television, being booked on many different shows. It’s doubtful his audiences understood whom they were watching – by now Armstrong was a pure showbiz icon, a living legend whose very appearance earned torrents of applause. His last big hit – which is still being heard today – was “What a Wonderful World.” It was not until its later use in a film that it became a mega-hit, but in many ways its lyrics and its rendition sum up Armstrong, the man and the musician. What a wonderful world, indeed, that could produce a Louis Armstrong.

Armstrong died on July 6, 1971, at the height of his popularity, beloved the world over. Since then his recordings have been reissued in great multitudes on CD, and the United States Postal Service has issued a commemorative stamp of him. Materials relating to him are widely traded on auction sites like eBay, where, at last check, nearly 500 items were up for auction, including many recordings (78s, LPs and CDs), sheet music, videos, books, magazines, posters, ad cards, programs, photographs, and even Effanbee statuettes and musical figurines. The vast majority of these items date from the 1950s and more recently, when Armstrong had achieved his legendary status. Far rarer and more difficult to find are the mementos and collectibles of earlier eras – the 1920s and 1930s. Collectors know their worth and do not part with them easily.

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