The Biography of Louis Armstrong



One of the greatest legends of Jazz history is that Armstrong was born on James Alley, July 4th, 1900 and was named Daniel Louis. This statement is most certainly incorrect. He was not born on July 4th, 1900; he was not born on James Alley; he was not named Daniel Louis.

His parents were not born into slavery. His paternal grandmother, Josephine Armstrong who raised Louis as an infant, was born a slave.

Josephine's son, Willie Armstrong would become Louis' father. Willie was probably born around the mid 1870s. He abandoned his wife and child at Louis' birth, and made no effort to see his son for years. When he finally did, he gave Louis nothing. Armstrong was incredibly bitter towards his father.

"My father did not have time to teach me anything; he was too busy chasing [prostitutes]."

"I was touring Europe when he died. Didn't go to his funeral and didn't send nothing. Why should I? He never had no time for me or Mayann."1

On the other hand, Willie Armstrong had a second family to which he seems to have been a reliable and supporting father.

Mary Ann, or Mayann as she was often called was born in the early 1880s in Boutte, near New Orleans. At fifteen, she established a relationship with Willie. Mayann was undependable, and sometimes she left her children for days at a time, "to the kindness of others..." She often relied on Louis more than she should have as a provider and a helper.

The illiteracy of his parents may have had something to do with the fact that Louis was not granted a proper birthday. Many people in the 1900s without birthdays chose July 4th. Now, it is reasonable to believe that Louis was born in 1898. One reason for this is that in 1918 Armstrong registered for the draft. In filling out the form, the registrar started to write out his birthday as July 4th, 18-; then he wrote over the 8 and made it 1900. The mistake was most likely Armstrong's. He probably lowered his age to escape the draft during World War One.

He was born on Jane Alley. Armstrong clearly says that he was born on James Alley, but there are photographs of his street in which the street sign says "Jane Alley" quite clearly.

So far as his name is concerned, Armstrong himself said that Daniel was never a part of his name. He never used anything but Louis Armstrong.

Armstrong spent the first few years of his life about 18 blocks from the black Storyville. Storyville was a district of run-down wooden shanties and shotgun houses. The streets were dusty and extremely muddy when it rained. The houses were crowded. Sanitation was primitive; outhouses served as toilets, water was collected in cisterns, and laundry and bathing were usually done in tubs in the backyard, knife fights and gunplay were common, and occasionally somebody was killed. It was a tough neighbourhood.

Shortly after Louis was born, Willie left. While he was still an infant, Mayann left as well, leaving Louis to the care of Josephine. About two years after Louis' birth, Mayann had a second child whom she named Beatrice, but was often called Mama Lucy.

When Armstrong was seven or so, he left Jane Alley to move in with Mayann in black Storyville. Black Storyville was a neighbourhood of rundown buildings, most of them wooden: dance halls, rows of "cribs", a few churches housed in plain houses, at least one school, an occasional grocery store. Within a block or two of Armstrong's home were a half-dozen honkytonks, where Louis later learned to play Jazz - Spano's, Matranga's, Joe Segretto's, Kid Brown's, and Ponce's. Armstrong spoke of peering through the cracks of the Funky Butt Hall to hear the music and watch the whores.

Louis Armstrong never seemed to be ashamed of the neighbourhood in which he grew up. He had genuinely good memories of his childhood there: the sense of community, the feeling of belonging there. It was his home.

"Louis was a hard-working kid who helped support his mother and sister by every type of job there was, including going out on street corners at night to sing for coins."2 And sing at night for coins he did. At the age of seven, he formed a vocal quartet with a boy named Happy Bolton (who later became a jazz drummer), Big Nose Sidney, Little Mack, and Georgie Grey (who later replaced Bolton). This group existed for about two years. They practised or performed two or three times a week. It was here that Louis acquired several hundred hours of experience in improvised part-singing. It was also here that he acquired a few of his nicknames. "Dippermouth" and "Gatemouth" for his wide, toothy grin, and by neighbourhood adults, "Little Louis". He got the name "Satchmo" as an adult. Around the same time, he brought in money by running errands, shooting dice, and of course the money he brought in with his quartet.


The Coloured Waifs' Home

On New Year's Eve of 1912 or 1913, Armstrong was in the street with his vocal quartet. In New Orleans it was customary to celebrate the holiday by shooting off fireworks or bank cartridges. Mayann's boyfriend of the time owned a .38 pistol. Armstrong had taken the pistol out with him to fire during the New Year's Celebration. As the group was walking along South Rampart Street, looking for a likely place to sing, a boy fired a blank cartridge in Armstrong's direction. In response, Armstrong fired one himself and the next thing he knew a big white policeman was hauling him off to jail. On January 2nd he was given a quick hearing and sent to the Coloured Waifs' Home to serve an indeterminate sentence. It is likely that Armstrong was not sentenced only because of his offence on New Years, but also because of rising concern for the welfare of children in New Orleans at the time. It was not uncommon for children of questionable background to be sent to children's societies, homes or orphanages.

Joseph Jones, the founder of the Coloured Waifs' Home was a kind man who was never rich, but died an admired and respected man because of his community work. At the Waifs' Home, the children were taught "reading, writing and arithmetic, with garden work as a sideline. Twice weekly, the boys marched around the yard outside, with wooden guns and wooden drums."3 Most importantly to Louis' story, there was a band at the Waifs' home under the direction of Peter Davis. At the beginning, Davis was not very find of Armstrong, and he was sent to be a part of the singing group with Mrs. Spriggins. Finally, after being allowed to join the band again, to Louis' disappointment, his first instrument was a tambourine. He was soon raised to the drum, then the alto horn, then the bugle,a and finally the cornet. At the age of seventeen or so, he was released form the home, although he was reluctant to leave. He had quickly become accustomed to living there, and had considered it his home during his stay.


Development as a Musician

Louis started learning jazz in the blues bands of the tonks. Later he began doing street parades, working on riverboats, and eventually he was playing with the city's best jazz bands. At first, he did not even own a cornet of his own, so he would rent one whenever he had a gig set up. A year or two later, he bought a cornet with 10 dollars which he borrowed. He bought it at a pawn shop, and it was "all bent up, holes knocked in the bell,"4 labelled "Tonk Bros." During the years that Louis apprenticed in the tonks, Joe Oliver became his sponsor and teacher. He gave Armstrong a decent cornet, helped him with his technique, got him a few jobs with important bands, and finally he brought him up to Chicago where he could later make a larger mark in the world.

In 1918, Louis married a prostitute named Daisy Parker. The two never got along. Daisy was a rough girl, and they fought often. In 1921 they separated after a long, rough relationship.

Around 1919, Armstrong began to play on riverboats. His frequent playing on the riverboats played an important part in the development of his playing. Pops Foster said,

The Streckfus people were funny to work for. You played music to suit them, not the public. As long as they were happy you had the job. You had fourteen numbers to play in an evening and you changed numbers every two weeks. The numbers were long. You'd play the whole number and maybe two or three encores and sometimes two choruses... The Streckfus people made musicians out of a whole lot of guys that way. Louis Armstrong, Johnny St. Cyr and I didn't know nothin' about readin' when we came on the boats, but we did when we came off. That's what started us off."

Armstrong left the riverboats after 1921.


King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band

Sometime during the summer of 1922, Oliver decided that he wanted Armstrong to play 2nd cornet for him in his band, "King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band". So at the age of 24 or so, Louis hopped on a train to Chicago.

Louis frequently played with Oliver at Lincoln Gardens in Chicago. It was with Oliver's Creole Jazz Band that Armstrong met Lillian Hardin, a young, educated pianist who had recently begun playing with Oliver. She describes his arrival in Chicago: "Everything he had on was too small for him. His atrocious tie was dangling over his protruding stomach and to top it off, he had a hairdo that called for bangs, and I do mean bangs. Bangs that jutted over his forehead like a frayed canopy. All the musicians called him Little Louis, and he weighed 226 pounds." "...I was on top then, had a mink coat and a big black car, and he was a greenhorn form New Orleans. But he had nice white teeth and a nice smile." They started a relationship sometime in the autumn of 1922. On February 5th, 1924, after arranging divorces for both of them, Lillian Hardin and Louis Armstrong were married.


The Fletcher Henderson Orchestra

Later in 1924, Fletcher Henderson of the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra in New York decided to add a hot soloist to his band, and he thought of Armstrong:

"I never forgot that kid. Louis was even better than Oliver and let no man tell you differently... Some years later I heard that he was with Oliver at the old Dreamland Cafe in Chicago. Knowing the way that horn sounded, I had to try and get him for my band that was scheduled to open at the Roseland Ballroom. Truthfully, I didn't expect him to accept the offer and I was very surprised when he came to New York and joined us."

After accepting his offer, Louis and Lil packed their bags and head for New York. They expected New Orleans style jazz, and it most definitely was not. The New York style of jazz consisted of arranged dance music with a jazzy feel to it and occasional solos. New Yorkers had not yet learnt how to play real jazz. But Louis Armstrong was there. Louis continued to greatly influence the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra and New York Jazz for until the summer of 1925.


Louis Armstrong and the Hot Fives

In November after returning to Chicago, he went to the OKeh recording studio with Lil, Kid Ory, Johnny Dodds, and Johnny St. Cyr, a banjoist. This group was later called Louis Armstrong and the Hot Fives, or Louis Armstrong and the Hot Sevens. During his time with the Hot Fives, he switched form cornet to trumpet.

In 1928, after having many problems with Lil, mostly because of her controlling ways with the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, Louis and Lil separated. Louis began seeing who would become his 3rd wife, Alpha Smith. Their relationship was never very serious, however they married in 1938. However, not long after their marriage, Louis met the woman with whom he spent the rest of his life: Lucille Wilson.


The All Stars

In 1947, Louis formed a band called the All Stars, which included Earl Hines, Jack Teagarden (trombone), Barney Bigard (clarinet) , Sid Catlett (drums), Dick Carey (piano), and Morty Korb (bass). Armstrong stayed with the All Stars for many years, and in 1963 he was asked to record the hit song, Hello, Dolly for the Broadway version of "Matchmaker". This song replaced the Beatles hit song, I Want To Hold Your Hand, on the Billboard magazine record charts, and also won Louis a Grammy Award in 1964.

For the next 7 years of his life, Louis would suffer from severe overweight problems, high cholesterol and blood pressure. As well as weight problems, he suffered from lip problems caused by his incorrect embouchure which he used during his entire career. Since his childhood, he had always had polyps on his vocal cords which account for his rough, hoarse voice. He had problems with the veins in his legs caused by the endless hours of sitting in cars, planes and trains. Chronic heart problems also caused Louis problems, and his shortness of breath affected his playing.

On May 5th, Louis played his last gig. He went home with pain in his legs, but was in high spirits. Armstrong felt he was improving, and he was eager to begin touring again. By July 5th, he felt good enough to ask to get the band together for a rehearsal. He went to bed very happy. Early on the morning of July 6th, Lucille woke up to the realisation that something was very wrong. Louis Armstrong was dead. The cause of death was kidney failure, attributable to heart failure.

1- Satchmo
2- Marc Miller, an art historian and curator
3- According to Foose et al. who interviewed Frank Lastic
4- Meryman