Have you ever noticed how different music can make you feel different things? Some music makes you feel joyful and energetic, like you need to get up and dance. Some can make you feel sad, even make you cry. Other music might make you feel calm or hopeful. Music can remind you of things that happened a long time ago, or of people you love, and make you feel like they’re right there. But for some people, music doesn’t just change the way they feel. It changes their entire life.
Louis Armstrong didn’t start out with many advantages in life. Born in 1901, in New Orleans, Louisiana, his family was extremely poor and their neighborhood was so dangerous, it was nicknamed “the Battlefield.” His father left the family when he was a baby. At different times, Louis lived with his mother and grandmother, and had to support his family by doing odd jobs even as a small child.
But, Louis did have something special. He had a horn and a voice, and he could make music with both. He would often hear jazz music coming from the clubs and dance halls of New Orleans. He learned to sing some of the songs that wafted out into the warm night air, and even play some of them on a beat-up old tin horn.
As a child, he organized a quartet with his friends and sang on street corners for coins. Some people think this is how he got the nickname Satchmo, which would stay with him all his life. The story goes that when passersby tossed coins on the sidewalk, Louis would snatch them up and put them in his cheeks so that the older boys couldn’t steal them. He was using his mouth like a satchel or bag, which led his friends to start calling him “Satchel Mouth,” then Satchmo for short.
There are many stories about how Louis got his first real horn, many of which he told himself! One of the best known involves a family he worked for. At age 7, Louis went to work for the Karofskys, a Jewish family from Lithuania who ran a junkyard. The Karnofsky family treated Louis like family, sharing meals with him and treating him with kindness. Louis helped them deliver coal and collect junk. Sometimes, he would play his tin horn to attract business. Even though Louis managed to get tunes out of this horn, it was really just a toy. He longed for a real horn.
Knowing how much Louis loved to play, the Karnofskys lent him money to buy his first real cornet, which is like a smaller version of a trumpet. For the rest of his life, Louis wore a Star of David, a Jewish symbol, on a necklace in honor of the family.
Unfortunately, getting the cornet wasn’t quite a ticket out of Louis’s hard life. When he was 12, Louis took out his stepfather’s gun on New Year’s Eve, and shot it into the air. This was a common thing to do at celebrations in the past. No one was hurt, but Louis was arrested. He was sentenced to spend two years in the Waif’s Home for Boys. “Waif” is an old-fashioned word for a child who was unhealthy or uncared for. But the home was closer to being a prison than a real home. There were no mattresses to sleep on, meals were usually bread and molasses, and discipline was harsh.
But, there was one good thing. There was music. There was a band, and a music teacher, Peter Davis, who came every week to teach music and conduct rehearsals. Davis taught Louis to play cornet, and then trumpet. Eventually, he made Louis the band’s leader.
Louis was released from the Waifs’ Home after two years. He could play very well now, and he started performing in clubs and on riverboats as part of a band. He got to meet other musicians, including Joe Oliver, often called “King” Oliver. King Oliver was the best cornet players in New Orleans, and Louis idolized him. He began to take lessons with Oliver.
In 1922, Oliver asked Louis to join his band, the Creole Jazz. Band. They set off for Chicago, where they performed in clubs and made records. By now, Louis was becoming famous in his own right, and left Oliver’s band in 1924 in search of new opportunities. He moved to New York City. There he worked with many of the most famous jazz musicians of the time, and formed his own band, “The Hot Five” within a few years.
Along the way, Louis developed his own unique style of playing and singing. At the time, most jazz was played in groups, but Louis would improvise amazing solos in the middle of his songs. Improvising means to make up something as you go along, and it isn’t easy to do it well, but Louis was one of the best. This is part of what made his music so new and exciting to listen to, and it would change jazz forever.
Louis also continued to sing in addition to playing the horn. He became known for his unusual singing voice, which was deep and gravelly. He was one of first performers to popularize scat singing, in his 1920s hit “Heebie Jeebies.” This technique involved singing improvised made-up syllables, like dee-dop-a-dee-ya, and would become very common in jazz.
In 1943, Louis moved back to New York and settled in Queens with his wife Lucille. He would live there for the rest of his life. But even though he had settled in one city, Louis’s career was far from winding down. He continued recording, performing, and making movies for nearly three more decades. Sometimes, he would play more than 300 shows per year. He was internationally famous by this time, and popular with both black and white audiences at a time when much of the United States was still segregated by race.
Actually, some civil rights activists were critical of Louis because they thought he wasn’t a strong enough supporter of civil rights for black Americans. Louis didn’t like to get involved in politics though, and tried to keep a positive, happy outlook on life. But he understood that big changes needed to happen. He did eventually speak out against how the government handled school integration, saying that it hadn’t done enough to protect black students trying to go to schools that had previously been all-white.
Louis’s career kept him busy throughout the 1950s and ‘60s. His single “Hello Dolly”, recorded in 1964, pushed the Beatles out of the number one spot on the Hot 100 chart, where they’d been for weeks. It was the best selling record of his career. He made more than thirty movies, with people like Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and Barbara Streisand, and worked with many famous jazz musicians, such as Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby.
Even though he loved playing music, the trumpet can be hard on a player’s mouth. Louis developed health problems, some of which were related to his playing, when he was in his 60s. He had to quit playing altogether at times. He always went back to his horn though. The last time he went against the advice of his doctors, he said, “My whole life, my whole soul, my whole spirit is to blow that horn.”
That was in 1971, and Louis’s health was deteriorating. He played his last concert just a few months before he passed away peacefully in his sleep.
Louis recorded his last major hit single, “What a Wonderful World,” in 1967. If you know one Louis Armstrong song it’s probably this one. In it, he sings about all the beautiful things in this world: trees of green, rainbows, blue skies, and friends. He ends by singing:
I hear babies cry
I watch them grow
They’ll learn much more
Than I’ll never know
And I think to myself
What a wonderful world
I don’t know about you, but this song–and Louis’s story–make me feel hopeful. Louis Armstrong started his life having almost nothing, and lived through a lot of hardship early on. But he found something–music–that he excelled at and that he loved doing. Louis shared his gifts with everyone. He entertained the rich and famous, but also played his horn for neighborhood kids on the stoop of his house in New York. His contributions to jazz changed music forever. Just as important, his music inspired millions of people around the world to see just what a wonderful world it is.