Foundations of the Founding Father of Jazz: Louis Armstrong Being heard in movies, the radio, television, and even elevators, jazz music has made its mark in just about every single location of the world. As popular as jazz is around the world, its original roots and foundations in the African-American culture are often forgotten. One of the most influential jazz musicians, Louis Armstrong, also known as Satchmo or Pops, is considered to be among the founding fathers of jazz music. His career launched in the early 1900s, where his legacy would form early to create a sound foundation for early jazz music that was quite exceptional.
Louis Armstrong was such an essential part of the jazz age during the 1920’s that his music created a firm foundation, paving the way for Jazz musicians everywhere. His influential singing, along with his great dexterity, intricate lyrics, and profound melodies make it easy for him to claim his title as “The Founding Father of Jazz. ” Taking his first breath in the world on August 4, 1901, Louis Armstrong was born to William and Mary “Mayanne” Albert Armstrong in the “Battlefield” of New, Orleans, Louisiana – one of the poorest areas of town (Old 15).
Shortly after his birth, he was abandoned by his father, a factory worker, to be left with his mother, struggling to make ends meet (Old 16). Armstrong’s childhood was rather tough considering the fact that he had been abandoned by his father. Also, as times worsened, he was abandoned by his mother as she turned to prostitution to earn additional cash. He and his younger sister, Beatrice Armstrong Collins, were often left in the care of his maternal grandmother, Josephine Armstrong and their Uncle Isaac (Old 16).
At age five, he moved back to live with his mother and relatives and very rarely saw his father. Armstrong had much respect for his mother; he wrote, “She held up her head at all times…What she didn’t have, she did without. ” (Old 22) As a youngster, Armstrong was often seen singing in the streets with his friends to earn money. He was a very smart boy, but he often made the wrong decisions. He skipped from kindergarten into the second grade and grew up in a rough area where he would learn to shoot dice for pennies and play blackjack (Old 23).
He attended the Fisk School for Boys in 1906 where he was first exposed to a large variety of music and brought in extra money as a paperboy, selling food to restaurants, and hauling coal to Storyville. However, he was not able to help his mother from turning to prostitution. Often times, young Armstrong explored local dance halls where he would soak in various aspects to the music business, including the music itself, performances, and dancing. The infamous Storyville is where Armstrong often listened to bands and musicians which included Joe “King” Oliver and other famous vocalists (Old 36).
A fast forward to the year of 1912 brings us to the beginnings of Armstrong’s involvement in instrumental music. In this very year, he dropped out of the Fisk School for boys and began to make a living by singing on the streets of New Orleans with a quartet group. During the time Armstrong performed with the quartet, Joe “King” Oliver taught him how to play the cornet. Because Armstrong did not have much family support, he was often left to his lonesome. However, a very kind Lithuanian-Jewish family, the Karnofskys, who gave him odd jobs from time to time took him in and treated him as their own.
Eventually, the Karnofskys loaned him money for his first very own cornet, which would give him one of the necessary tools needed to be a successful musician – an instrument (Morgenstern 100). Although Armstrong’s positive image and career outlook began to develop in a great way that soon took a change in 1914 when he was sent to the New Orleans Home for Colored Waifs, a delinquency home (Old 27). During that time, he was most known for his arrest due to firing his stepfather’s pistol into the air at a New Year’s Eve celebration.
While at home, he was appointed to be the band leader for The Home band as they played all around New Orleans at the age of 13 years old. His musical career became more popular as he gained attention from the public eye for his evident cornet playing skills. At the age of 14, Armstrong was released from the home, returned to live with his father and stepmother, and soon to live with his mother again. Moving back with his mother put him in an environment that led him back to performing on the streets and being tempted by the red-light district lifestyle.
Shortly after moving in with his mother, he got his first dance hall job (Henry Ponce’s) where he hauled coal by day and played cornet at night, making his skills well-known once again. Armstrong frequently performed as a cornet player which eventually helped him develop his own style and a more serious attitude toward music. He played in the city’s brass band parades, riverboats and steamboats, and took notes from other musicians with every change he got. Perfecting his craft was something that was very important to him.
Some influential musicians that affected Armstrong’s career included Buck Johnson, Buddy Petit, Kid Ory, and Joe “King” Oliver. King soon became a mentor and somewhat of a father figure for the young musician who seemed to have no relevant family relationships or strong ties. His participation in playing on steamboats around New Orleans led him to travel with the popular band, Fate Marable. As he and the well-regarded band toured up and down the Mississippi River, much experience was gained by working with written musical pieces and arrangements.
In 1917, Armstrong began playing with Kid Ory’s band until 1919 when Joe Oliver decided to move north and resign his position in the band. 1919 marks the year Armstrong became an official band member and replaced the “King. ” Also, in that year, he became the second trumpeter for the Tuxedo Brass Band in New Orleans. In between his time playing with Kid Ory, Armstrong married Daisy Parker (Gretna, Louisiana) on March 19, 1918 (Old 39). Around that time Louis’ cousin, whose mother, Flora, died shortly after giving birth, had been taken in by the newlyweds.
The three-year-old boy, Clarence Armstrong, who was mentally disabled, became one of Louis’ main responsibilities. Although both Daisy and Louis were parenting Clarence, the marriage did not last very long. They quickly separated and filed for divorce. However, Parker died shortly after the divorce. As Armstrong’s career began to develop even more, some adjustment had to be made to perfect his craft even more. In 1921, Louis Armstrong learned how to efficiently read music. His improvements led to great advancements as he joined Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band in Chicago in 1922.
While working with the band, he took interest in Lillian (Lil) Hardin, the pianist, and they soon got married. His marriage with Lil lasted much longer than his first and they accomplished great things together. Although Louis Armstrong is renowned for his incredible jazz records, it is not widely known that many of his greatest hits were written and arranged by his wife at the time. She played the piano, composed, and arranged music for most of the important bands from New Orleans at the time.
Lil Armstrong was a major contributor to her husband’s success as she composed hundreds of records and created musical successes (Kallen 32). In 1923, as paychecks continued to roll in, Armstrong’s career began to take a turn for the better. His lucrative career provided the proper finances for his lavish lifestyle maintained in Chicago, where he met Hoagy Carmichael. A mutual friend, Bix Beiderbecke, introduced the two to each other and they later collaborated on several projects. Jazz music began to circulate and spread through speakeasies, ballrooms, and dancehalls of Chicago (Kallen 30).
It was very important that Armstrong would move to Chicago during the 1920s in order to keep up with the times. African-Americans moved away from the South to industrial states in the North; this was known as the Great Migration (Kallen 28). The city nicknamed “Chi-Town” became the major hub for gangsters, illegal nightclubs (speakeasies), and illegal liquor trade. The speakeasies were a major launching place for black musicians because they provided a place for the musicians to perform, earn lucrative paychecks, and led to a golden age of innovation (Kallen 28).
Although Armstrong thoroughly enjoyed working with Oliver in Chicago, his wife suggested that he seek more advisement in order to develop and expand his newer style which was quite different from Oliver’s. Listening to his wife, Armstrong left Oliver’s band, and began to play in Fletcher Henderson’s band in Harlem, New York, 1924. The Henderson band, being highly respected, played in only the best venues and often for white-only crowds. While in Henderson’s band, he adapted to their controlled sound and style of play and incorporated storytelling and singing into his acts.
Armstrong also made many side recordings which included the likes of Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, and Alberta Hunter. Many of these collaborations were arranged by an old friend back in New Orleans, Clarence Williams. Although he made quite a name for himself in the big city, his stay in New York did not last long; he eased on down back to Chicago in 1925 in hope of boosting his career, increase income, and gain more publicity. Introduced as “the World’s Greatest Trumpet Player,” Armstrong began to play with the Lil Hardin Armstrong Band but eventually began to record under his own name instead of joint projects with his wife.
He recorded under Okeh and worked with his own groups, the Hot Five and the Hot Seven. Popular hits during this time include “Potato Head Blues,” Muggles,” and “West End Blues. ” Several hits, including “Muggles” had references that indicated Armstrong’s long-time fondness of recreational plant use with marijuana. After working with the groups Hot Five and Hot Seven, Armstrong went into great ventures forming another band – Louis Armstrong & the Stompers. The band toured with the classic musical, Hot Chocolate, and had notable performances.
He also made cameo appearances as a vocalist, often taking the spotlight with his rendition of “Ain’t Misbehavin. ” Armstrong’s version of the song was quick to gain popularity and became his biggest selling record of all time. Armstrong eventually moved to Los Angeles in 1930 and played in the Cotton Club with elaborate floor shows and celebrity guests. At the Cotton Club, he had notable success with his vocal recordings and even renditions of other famous songs. His recordings took a chance of course with the introduction of the RCA ribbon microphone in 1931.
Intrinsic music style change showcased Armstrong’s unique vocal style and gave him a more innovative approach to singing. It would not be long before Armstrong would make appearances in film. In fact, in 1931, he appeared in his first movie, Ex-Flame. However, shortly thereafter, he was convicted for possession of marijuana, induced conflict upon himself with the mob, moved back to New Orleans, and eventually fled to Europe. As a comeback attempt, which was successful, Armstrong and his band worked with Joe Glaser to record with the Mills Brothers, Louis Jordan, Tommy Dorsey, and even Ella Fitzgerald.
He later appeared in the film, “Pennies from Heaven” with Bing Crosby in 1936 and in 1937, he became the first black to host a sponsored, national radio broadcast. Louis Armstrong’s career began to rise again; however, his marriage did not experience the same thing. After having a variety of issues with his wife, Lil, they decided to divorce in 1938 and he began his third marriage with a woman named Alpha and his image to the public became a major concern. In addition to Armstrong’s marijuana usage, he loved to eat food and write in his journal.
Several journal entries range from implicit to explicit notes which include several accounts regarding his sex life, music, childhood memories, and even a few jokes. He also went into great detail to describe food – the taste of it, the smell of it, the textures, and the way it made him feel on the inside. Food truly made him a soulful man with a smile on his face. However, his love for food became a problem when it came to health concerns. Armstrong was at major risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and even obesity.
It became his primary goal to control his weight. Often times, he would be seen taking laxatives and offering them to his band mates. It was very important to him to maintain a certain image that he would be perceived as a fit man; being in many films inspired him to do so. Some who worked with him also recalled times he would purge him in order to control weight. Armstrong’s life as not only an entertainer, but a leading personality, made him a great man adored by Americans in the 1900s. He gave even the greatest performers something to learn from.
His influential jazz styles along with his loving personality gave him the career of a lifetime and truly a great experience. Louis Armstrong and his legacy as a Jazz musician continue on. “The Founding Father of Jazz” left a mark in music history that cannot be erased. Works Cited Armstrong, Louis. Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans. New York, NY: Da Capo, 1986. Print. Bergreen, Laurence. Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life. New York: Broadway, 1997. Print. “Jazz . Jazz Greats . Louis Armstrong | PBS KIDS GO! ” Jazz . Jazz Greats . Louis Armstrong | PBS KIDS GO!
PBS Kids, n. d. Web. Nov. 2012. <http://pbskids. org/jazz/nowthen/louis. html>. Kallen, Stuart A. The History of Jazz. San Diego: Lucent, 2003. Print. “Louis Armstrong. ” Musician (Trumpet) @ All About Jazz. N. p. , n. d. Web. Nov. 2012. <http://musicians. allaboutjazz. com/musician. php? id=3483>. “Louis Armstrong. ” Musician (Trumpet) @ All About Jazz. NPR, n. d. Web. Nov. 2012. <http://musicians. allaboutjazz. com/musician. php? id=3483>. Old, Wendie C. Louis Armstrong: King of Jazz. Springfield, NJ: Enslow, 1998. Print.