Daily Archives: August 4, 2010

This Day in History 8/4: Louis Armstrong

Louis Armstrong (1901-1971)

True entertainers are gifts from above.

The best of them have dedicated their lives to their fans, to help spread joy to millions worldwide, and to make us feel, at least for a moment, just a little bit better.

Thus is truly the case with today’s subject.  August 4, 1901 marks the recorded birthday of Louis Armstrong, arguably the single most important artist in the history of American music.  The New Orleans-borne trumpeter—who grew up in an area so violent it was nicknamed “the Battlefield”—became the emblem for America’s musical genius, spreading his influence to almost every genre of our popular music.

Starting with King Oliver’s Band and then to his own ensembles, Armstrong took a local musical form, jazz, into an international phenomenon, introducing new methods of improvisation, phrasing, arrangement and vocal technique.  His “scat” vocals, which intermingled jazz lyrics and improvised rhythmic sounds, became the basis for almost all vocal popular music today, from country to hip-hop.

Then there was his trumpet.  I can hear Armstrong’s loud, direct, brassy trumpet anywhere and know it was his.  Every time I hear it, I weep.  Every time I hear his vocal recording, I’m in tears.  No other artist has that effect on me.

I am not alone.  Up until just before his death in 1971, Armstrong, known as “Satchmo”, “Satch” or “Pops” to his fans, entertained millions of people around the world.  He was adored, often worshipped, as the jolly, magnanimous ambassador of America to places as far as Asia and Africa.  His popularity was evident even as late as 1964, when Armstrong’s recording of “Hello Dolly” dethroned the Beatles from the # 1 spot on the Billboard pop music charts.

Yet he did not forget who he was, and the struggles that people of color faced.  Many blacks in his era criticized Armstrong for being too “cozy” with white audiences, with being too complimentary to white sensibilities.  Yet if you listen to Fats Waller’s lyrics from his famous 1929 tune “Black and Blue”, you may think otherwise:

“Cold empty bed…springs hurt my head.

Feels like ole Ned…wished I was dead.

What did I do…to be so black and blue?

Even the mouse…ran from my house.

They laugh at you..and all that you do.

What did I do…to be so black and blue?

I’m white…inside…but that don’t help my case.

That’s life…can’t hide…what is in my face.

How would it end…ain’t got a friend.

My only sin…is in my skin.

What did I do…to be so black and blue?”

In 1957, as the Little Rock Nine endured torrents of abuse in integrating Little Rock High School, Pops reportedly wired President Eisenhower the following: “If you decide to walk into the schools with the little colored kids, take me along, Daddy.”

Many today would argue that Michael Jackson was more influential, more important to music.  With all due respect to Michael, there would be no King of Pop without “Pops.”  Jazz, rock, rap, hip-hop, country, popular vocals, Latin music—there isn’t a single planet that wasn’t within Armstrong’s orbit. 

Bing Crosby said of him, “He was the only musician who ever lived, who can’t be replaced by someone.”

Fellow musical titan Duke Ellington: “He was born poor, died rich, and never hurt anyone along the way.”

Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns: “Armstrong is to music what Einstein is to physics and the Wright Brothers are to travel.”

Miles Davis was more frank: “No him, no me.”

I wanted to include some recordings, some MP3s of Armstrong’s music, but many tracks are not as of yet in the public domain.  If anyone in the Neighborhood has any links to free downloads of Armstrong’s recordings, please let me know.

In the meantime, here’s a video of Armstrong’s 1933 Copenhagen recording of “Dinah”, followed by Pops’ performance of “Hello Dolly” later in his career. 

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