A Musical Appreciation ► Louis Armstrong
Dateline August 4, 1901 – A Black boy is born into a world of extreme poverty and Jim Crow laws in New Orleans, Louisiana. By the time Louis Armstrong died in 1971, in Queens, New York, he was one of the most recognizable musicians on the planet. Along the way he entertained millions and became one of the greatest performers in all of Jazz. However, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

While I’ve been a fan of Louis Armstrong for many years, I became a huge fan all over again by what Jazz historian Gary Giddins said in Ken Burns’ (amazing multi-part) Jazz documentary. Giddins was asked whether Armstrong was a genius. Giddins replied (paraphrasing), “We tend to throw the word ‘genius’ around. However, if by ‘genius’ you mean that after him nothing was ever the same again, then by that measure Louis Armstrong was a genius.”

“You can’t play anything on a horn that Louis hasn’t played”
~~~~~Miles Davis

It was Louis Armstrong’s praise of Bing Crosby talents that made me reassess everything I ever thought about Der Bingle. Here they are together in one of my favourite Louis Armstrong clips, a terrific Cole Porter tune from the movie High Society:

“What was the greatest band of the 20th century? Forget the Beatles – it was Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and its subsequent incarnation, the Hot Seven… these bands altered the course of popular music.”
~~~~~Playboy magazine

 There are two things that have always impressed me about Louis Armstrong and neither have to do with his music.

Armstrong being fitted by Toronto’s world famous hatter Sam Taft

1). In the mid-’40s, when he was just starting to make some really good money, he bought a house on 107th Street in Corona, Queens, NYC. He lived there the rest of his life, long after he could have afforded to move to better and more expensive digs. When he wasn’t touring he was known for sitting on his porch and greeting the neighbourhood kids, who all called him Pops, and giving them apples and unconditional love. That house was made a National Historical Landmark in 1977 and is now the Louis Armstrong House and Museum.

2). During his lifetime Armstrong was criticized for being an Uncle Tom for playing to segregated audiences, accepting the title “King of the Zulus” in the 1949 Mardi Gras parade, and not doing more for ‘his people.’ Billie Holliday was even quoted as saying, “Of course Pops toms, but he toms from the heart.” Aside from the fact that being named King of the Zulus was a singular New Orleans honour misunderstood elsehwre in the country, when Louis Armstrong made his views on race relations known, the entire world listened.

In 1957, during the desegregation controversy in Little Rock, Arkansas, Arstrong sppoke out loud and clear. He called President Eisenhower “gutless” and “two-faced” for sitting on his hands and doing nothing. And, to put his money where his mouth was, Armstrong cancelled a tour of the Soviet Union he was about to do on behalf of the State Department. Uncle Tom would never have said, “The way they’re treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell.”

“Louis Armstrong is the master of the jazz solo. He became the beacon, the light in the tower, that helped the rest of us navigate the tricky waters of jazz improvisation.”
~~~~~Ellis Marsalis

Louis  Armstrong also helped change Jazz singing. He wasn’t the first to Scat, but he helped popularize the genre with his joyful Scat singing, which was as revolutionary as is trumpet playing.

As for honous: 

  • When his version of “Hello Dolly” knocked The Beatles off the top of the charts in 1964, he became the oldest person to have a #1 hit on the Billboard charts; 
  • The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame listed his 1928 version of “West End Blues” as one of 500 songs that shaped Rock and Roll;
  • On what would have been his 100th birthday New Orleans renamed its airport Louis Armstrong International Airport
  • Also on his centenery the United States Postal Service put Armstrong on a First Class stamp;
  • He was given a postumous Lifetime Grammy Award in 1972;
  • Eleven of his songs have been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame;
  • President Richard Nixon released a statement upon Armstrong’s death calling him Mr. Jazz. 

“I’m proud to acknowledge my debt to the ‘Reverend Satchelmouth’ … He is the beginning and the end of music in America”
~~~~~Bing Crosby

However, it’s always been about the music. Louis Armstrong recorded hundreds, maybe thousands, of sides in his lifetime. Here is just a small sample of what made Louis Armstrong one of the greatest musicians ever.

“If you don’t like Louis Armstrong, you don’t know how to love”
~~~~~Mahalia Jackson


About Headly Westerfield

Calling himself “A liberally progressive, sarcastically cynical, iconoclastic polymath,” Headly Westerfield has been a professional writer all his adult life.