Of all the musicians the United States produced during the 20th century, it would be hard to imagine one who had greater impact than Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong, whose centennial we celebrate this year. Elvis Presley may have had more hits, Leonard Bernstein more cachet and Michael Jackson more money, but no one was as well-known or musically influential as Satchmo.
Like Jackson, Armstrong enjoyed worldwide popularity and was a beloved personality as much as he was an accomplished musician. Yet Armstrong accomplished this in the Jim Crow days of the '30s and '40s, when blacks were treated like second-class citizens and the notion of an African-American superstar was almost unthinkable.
Like Bernstein, Armstrong was a genius whose musical abilities stretched across stylistic boundaries. Bernstein, though, owed his technique to years of conservatory training, while Armstrong was largely self-taught. Even so, Armstrong's music was lauded by such European composers as Stravinsky and Milhaud, and he was considered such an exemplary representative of U.S. culture that he was nicknamed "Ambassador Satch."
Like Presley, Armstrong was proclaimed the king of his kind of music. But as much as Elvis did to popularize rock and roll, no one would argue that he originated the style. Satchmo, on the other hand, effectively invented jazz, setting down the basics of swing rhythm and melodic improvisation. He also had an enormous impact on jazz singing, having made the first recording of scat singing in 1925 with "Heebie Jeebies."
Indeed, it's likely that the last 100 years would have sounded very different had Armstrong not taken up music.
Armstrong grew up dirt-poor in a ramshackle section of New Orleans known as Brick Row. Armstrong believed all his life that he had been born on the Fourth of July, 1900 -- an auspicious start for such a markedly American musician -- but in 1988 a baptismal certificate was discovered, confirming his birth date as August 4, 1901. His parents split up shortly after his birth, and Armstrong was largely raised by his maternal grandmother, Josephine.
Turn-of-the-century New Orleans was a rough-and-tumble town, particularly the parts Armstrong grew up in. But it also had its playful side, one part of which was the practice of giving nicknames. "Fellers would greet each other, 'Hello, Gate' or 'Face' or whatever it was," Armstrong said in an interview once. "They'd be calling me Dipper, Gatemouth, Satchelmouth, all kinds of things ... any kind of name for a laugh."
"Satchmo," the nickname most frequently applied, was a gift from the press, coined when journalists compressed Satchelmouth into Satch'mo. Among musicians, however, he was affectionately known as "Pops," an acknowledgement of his stature as the father of jazz.
As a youth, Armstrong was certainly aware of New Orleans' musical culture -- it was hard not to be, in those days -- but he received no formal training in music before he was arrested as a juvenile offender at age 12 and sent to the Colored Waif's Home. Some sources suggest that he had never played an instrument at all before being sent off to the home, but Armstrong himself was quoted as saying he'd played cornet before being incarcerated. Indeed, saxophonist Sidney Bechet said that before being sent away, the music-besotted Armstrong had studied informally with cornet legend Bunk Johnson. Regardless of where he got his start, once Armstrong was released from the home in 1914, he was intent on becoming a professional musician.
He was in the right place at the right time. While the rest of the country was still dazzled by the brittle syncopations of ragtime, New Orleans in the Teens was in thrall to "hot" music -- the upbeat sound people today associate with Betty Boop and the early Warner Brothers cartoons. Although hot music, compared to ragtime, left a lot of leeway for the musicians, it was still dependent on arrangements and strictly defined roles within the band. Improvisation was not a factor.
Armstrong changed all that. Although he had been building a reputation in New Orleans since 1917, playing with bands led by King Oliver and Kid Ory, it wasn't until 1922 that Armstrong's genius became obvious. Oliver had invited Armstrong to come to Chicago and play second cornet with his band, and within weeks the Windy City's music scene was abuzz with talk of the musical fireworks that took place when the King traded solos with this young heir apparent.
At this point in his career, it wasn't so much Armstrong's gifts as an improviser that made him stand out as it was his sense of rhythm. Armstrong had a profound sense of swing, and could convey rhythmic excitement in ways that were downright revolutionary. For instance, he had a habit of playing on the beat but waiting a moment before adding vibrato, a trick that made the note feel as if it had arrived later than it did. Add that to his gift for the blues and the easy confidence he brought to standard syncopation, and it's easy to see why Armstrong's playing set the music world on its ear.
But he was just warming up.
Despite his obvious gifts, the youthful Armstrong was a surprisingly shy musician, more comfortable in a subordinate role than acting as a bandleader. That was why he seemed content to play second cornet behind King Oliver even though many who heard him felt that it was Armstrong who should be wearing the crown. What he needed was someone to push him out front and into the limelight, and that someone was Lil Hardin, the pianist in Oliver's band.
Hardin was a gifted pianist who was already an established star when Armstrong arrived in Chicago in 1922. Although she later recalled being unimpressed when she first met the young cornet player, it wasn't long before she saw his potential -- both musically and personally. They became a couple, and by 1924, Armstrong had not only married Lil but, at her urging, struck out on his own as a bandleader.
His first band, the Hot Five, made its recording debut a year later, and music was never the same. Working with Lil on piano, Kid Ory on trombone, Johnny Dodds on clarinet and Johnny St. Cyr on banjo, Armstrong laid the very foundation of jazz. Not only did the group swing in a way that made other "hot" bands seem lukewarm, but Armstrong defined the very notion of the extended jazz solo.
Up until that time, most jazz solos amounted to a restatement of the melody, with some minor embellishments and an occasional blues fill between phrases. Armstrong pushed beyond that, offering extended melodies of his own devising. In his hands, the jazz solo became a form of spontaneous composition.
Within a year, the Hot Five became the Hot Seven, thanks to the addition of Pete Briggs on tuba and Baby Dodds on drums, and the template had been set. Although these groups had their share of popular success -- "Muskrat Ramble" and "West End Blues" were Top-10 singles -- their influence on other musicians was felt for
decades. The Armstrong groups became the models for jazz feel and improvisational genius. (In August, the Legacy division of Sony Music will reissue a boxed set of the complete recordings of the Hot Five and Hot Seven.)
Armstrong's brilliant musicianship would alone have earned him a place in history. But Satchmo was also a natural-born entertainer whose onstage antics attracted listeners less interested in musical breakthroughs than a good time. He would mug shamelessly and shout slangy encouragement to his cohorts. Moreover, under Lil's tutelage Louis became a stylish dresser and a suave presence onstage. It was no wonder audiences adored him.
By the mid-'30s, Armstrong was an established star. He had switched from cornet to trumpet, had made his name in New York playing in the band for the Fats Waller musical revue "Hot Chocolates" (Armstrong very nearly stole the show when he sang "Ain't Misbehavin'"), and had begun to appear in motion pictures. By the time war broke out in Europe, he was one of the biggest names in show business.
Yet he remained an iconoclast. Although he had little use for modern jazz, at one point dismissing Dizzy Gillespie and early bebop as "Chinese music," his own playing continued to develop, even when he went back to playing with New Orleans-style ensembles in the late '40s. And unlike other jazzmen of his era, he held onto his popularity well into the rock and roll era. His last No. 1 single was "Hello, Dolly!" in 1964, and his last appearance in the Top 40 came with "What a Wonderful World" in 1988--- 17 years after his death.
A lifelong diarist, Armstrong was forever recording his thoughts, and published an autobiography -- "Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans" -- in 1954. Rather than try to cover his roots with a coat of gentility, Armstrong was unabashed about his fondness for prostitutes and marijuana, and in fact had written a second volume of autobiography that he dubbed "Gage," after his pet name for the drug. (His manager, fearing the worst, kept the book from being published.)
There were those who felt Armstrong's clownish affability demeaned the value of his music. As Miles Davis famously complained, as a young musician he "hated the way [Armstrong] used to laugh and grin for audiences." To Davis' mind, being a good musician was enough.
But even he couldn't deny the musical import of Armstrong's life and work. "You know you can't play anything on a horn that Louis hasn't played -- even modern," Davis told critic Nat Hentoff. "I love his approach to the trumpet."
As did everyone.