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Louis Armstrong

In my first blog about the origin of the word Jazz I discussed how the term for the music came about. I find it only fitting to talk about how Jazz music as we know it today came about and the only way to do so is to go back to one man, Louis Armstrong.

Louis Daniel Armstrong was born a poor child in the city of New Orleans, LA in 1901. It seemed fitting and no one asked questions when Louis would brag about being born on July 4th of 1900 but it has been concluded through hospital records that his actual birth was around August 4th. Growing up in the slums of New Orleans, specifically an area called Storyville young Louis worked doing odd jobs here and there to raise money to help support him, his sister and his mother. One of the jobs that he had was a junk collector with an immigrant Russian-Jewish family called the Karnofskys. Louis wrote extensive pages on his life growing up in Storyville and his relationship with the Karnofskys and revealed that the kindness and generosity of the family is the reason he became who he was, one of the biggest reasons was that they loaned him the money to buy his first cornet.

On New Year's Eve young Louis, out with his friends, decided to have a little fun while celebrating the holiday and pulled out a gun from his clothing. Aiming straight up into the air he fired the gun and got the expected attention of all the people and then was promptly arrested. He was sentenced to the New Orleans Home for Colored Waifs which is where he received his first formal instruction in music. Upon his arrival at the boys home Louis was already a self taught horn player and thought that his skills were good enough to earn him the right of being the leader of the Boy's Home band.

When released from the Waifs Home Louis would follow any band he could soaking up the music. At the time pickup bands would roam the city streets performing for various events such as funerals and parties and young Louis would be right there watching and listening intently, learning. One of the people that Louis met at this time was the man who would become his mentor, Joe "King" Oliver. King Oliver was the trumpet player in Kid Ory's band which at the time was the best band in all of New Orleans. Louis idolized King Oliver but in 1919 Oliver left Ory's band which gave Louis an opportunity to replace his idol. Working with Ory proved invaluable in helping Louis learn about the music that he would soon re-invent. The job took him all over New Orleans and helped lead him to other jobs specifically on the famous Riverboats that traveled the Mississippi River.

Louis's first trip on the famous river found him working with Fate Marable's band on the paddle boat the St. Paul and an incident that he witnessed would forever help him identify what was important in life, he writes;

David Jones starved himself the whole summer we worked on the St. Paul. He saved every nickel and sent all his money to a farm down South where employees and relatives were raising cotton for him and getting away with as much of his money as they could, since he was not there to look after his own interests. Every day he would eat an apple instead of a good hot meal. What was the result? The boll weevils ate all of his cotton before the season was over. He did not even have a chance to go down and look his farm over before a telegram came saying everything had been shot to hell. After that David Jones used to stand at the boat rail during every intermission looking down at the water and thinking about all the jack he had lost. I often said to Fate Marable: "Fate keep an eye on David Jones. He's liable to jump in the water most any minute."

This incident taught me never to deprive my stomach. I'll probably never be rich, but I will be a fat man.

In 1922 Louis received a letter from his mentor Joe Oliver asking him to come to Chicago and join his band. Olivers Creole Jazz Band was at the time considered the best band in the new center of Jazz, Chicago. While in Chicago Louis made his first recordings, even taking some solos but always playing second cornet to Joe Oliver. Some historians claim that the relationship between Louis and Oliver was very one sided and even say that Oliver resented Louis because he knew that he was much better. Armstrong had been making quite a name for himself in other bands and evidence suggests that Joe Oliver invited Louis to join his band simply so he could keep a reign on the young prodigy. Louis strongly disagreed with the critics and made it a point to always state that he was very grateful that Joe Oliver took him under his wing. Barney Bigard shines some light into the special relationship between the two great horn players by saying:

Joe Oliver had sent for Louis to come up from New Orleans to play second trumpet in his band, just like he sent for me, but Louis really won the people where they worked at the Lincoln Gardens. or Royal Gardens as it became later. But Joe had never really let Louis go for himself.

What really started Joe into giving Louis his own chorus, and this is what Joe Oliver told me, was that one night they were playing and this guy Johnny Dunn walked in who was cracked up to be a hell of a trumpet man in those days. Johnny Dunn was with a big show and the people were clamoring to hear what he would play. He walked on to the stand and said to Louis, Boy! Give me that horn. You dont know how to do. That made Joe Oliver real angry and he told Louis, Go get him. Louis blew like the devil. Blew him out of the place. They looked for Johnny Dunn when Louis finished but he had skipped out. They never found him in there again. So that was when Joe started to turn Louis loose by himself.

Joe Oliver saw a lot of himself in Louis according to Richard M. Jones and knew that Louis needed to be heard. He remembers a similar confrontation he witnessed with Oliver back in New Orleans. He writes:

A horn player named Freddie Keppard was playin in a spot across the street and was drawin all the crowds. I was sittin at the piano and Joe Oliver came over to me and commanded in a nervous, harsh voice, Get in B-flat. I did and Joe walked out on the sidewalk, lifted his horn to his lips and blew the most beautiful stuff I have ever heard. People started pouring out of the other spots along the street to see who was blowing all that horn. Before long, our place was full and Joe came in smiling and said Now, that son of a bitch wont bother me no more. From then on our place was full every night.

The genius that was Louis Armstrong amazed all that heard his horn. Here was this roly poly type of a man with a large wide smile blowing the most amazing notes and phrases ever heard. Things that were thought to be impossible on a trumpet were done by Louis just as if he were simply breathing. Some musicians even made claims that the notes were impossible and that Louis played trick horns to produce the sound. While in Norfolk, Virginia all the trumpet players came to his show and Taft Jordan recalls:

One of them asked him, May I see your horn?
Yeah, Pops said and he handed it to him.
Mind if I blow it?
Right, Pops said. Got your mouthpiece?
So the guy put his mouthpiece in and sounded C on Pops horn and then a C on his own horn. He ran the scale on his horn then he ran the scale on Pops. It was all the same. It was no trick horn. It was just the man, the difference of the man.

After playing with Joe Oliver he left the Creole Jazz Band on good terms in 1924. He went on to play with other top bands such as the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra in New York City, then eventually returning to Chicago to record under his own name with his famous Hot Five and Hot Seven groups. The recordings made at this time became the groundwork for what Jazz was to be known as. His recordings with Earl Fatha Hines and his introduction to "West End Blues" remain some of the most famous and influential improvisations in jazz history.For the next 30 years Louis toured constantly all over the planet, playing as many as 300 shows a year. During this time the greatness of his horn continued to develop. His influence on Jazz is immeasurable, practically invented Jazz improvisation and Jazz singing. Louis knew nothing other than the music he produced and he loved everyone around him because he knew that they loved his music saying:

I never tried to prove nothing, just wanted to give a good show. My life has always been my music, its always come first, but the music aint worth nothing if you cant lay it on the public. The main thing is to live for that audience, cause what youre there for is to please the people.

A few months before Louis died his doctor urged him to cancel a show in New York telling him he needed to conserve his energy and that he was to sick to perform. Louis told him:

My whole life, my whole soul, my whole spirit is to B-L-O-W that H-O-R-N, The people are waiting for me, I got to do it Doc, I got to do it.

Louis Armstrong died quietly in his sleep at his home in Corona, Queens, New York on July 6, 1971. He was 69 years old. As a tribute to him Ill leave you with several quotes by people from all over the world.

What he does is real, and true, and honest, and simple, and even noble. Every time this man puts his trumpet to his lips, even if only to practice three notes, he does it with his whole soul. —Leonard Bernstein on Louis Armstrong
I think that anybody from the 20th century, up to now, has to be aware that if it wasn't for Louis Armstrong, we'd all be wearing powdered wigs. I think that Louis Armstrong loosened the world, helped people to be able to say "Yeah," and to walk with a little dip in their hip. Before Louis Armstrong, the world was definitely square, just like Christopher Columbus thought. —Hugh Masekela (South African trumpet legend)
He's the father of us all, regardless of style or how modern we get. His influence is inescapable. Some of the things he was doing in the 20's and 30's, people still haven't dealt with. —Nicholas Payton (Armstrong disciple)
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
Armstrong is to music what Einstein is to physics and the Wright Brothers are to travel." —Ken Burns ("Jazz" documentary producer)
[Armstrong was] the key creator of the mature working language of jazz. Three decades after his death and more than three-quarters of a century since his influence first began to spread, not a single musician who has mastered that language fails to make daily use, knowingly or unknowingly, of something that was invented by Louis Armstrong. —Dan Morgenstern—Oxford Companion to Jazz
It's America's classical music…this becomes our tradition…the bottom line of any country in the world is what did we contribute to the world? …we contributed Louis Armstrong —Tony Bennett
If anybody was Mr. Jazz it was Louis Armstrong. He was the epitome of jazz and always will be. He is what I call an American standard, an American original. —Duke Ellington
In my opinion, Louis Armstrong is the greatest trumpet stylist of all time and has influenced every trumpet player of his time and long after —Al Hirt
He left an undying testimony to the human condition in the America of his time —Wynton Marsalis
You can't play anything on a horn that Louis hasn't already played —Miles Davis
Jazz is not—never has been—a one man show. But if I had to vote for one representative for jazz, that one would have to be Louis Armstrong —Art Hodes
Louis Armstrong could only happen once—for ever and ever. I, for one, appreciate the ride —Bobby Hackett
All we can do is be glad we live in the same century as Louis Armstrong —Wynton Marsalis
I'm proud to acknowledge my debt to the 'Reverend Satchelmouth'…He is the beginning and the end of music in America —Bing Crosby
Americans, unknowingly, live part of every day in the house that Satch built —Leonard Feather (noted critic)
If you don't like Louis Armstrong, you don't know how to love —Mahalia Jackson
Louis is not dead, for his music is and will remain in the hearts and minds of countless millions of the world's peoples, and in the playing of hundreds of thousands of musicians who have come under his influence. —Dizzy Gillespie; July 17, 1971
He could play a trumpet like nobody else, then put it down and sing a song like no one else could. —Eddie Condon

Finally in his own words, I leave you this.

What we play is life. —Louis Armstrong

Thanks for reading everyone and please go out and discover Louis for yourself.