Full name, Daniel Louis Armstrong; nickname, "Satchmo"; born July 4, 1900, in New Orleans, Louisiana; died July 6, 1971, in Long Island, New York; son of Willie (a turpentine worker) and Mary Ann (a domestic servant) Armstrong; married Daisy Parker (divorced, 1917); married Lilian Hardin (a jazz pianist), February 5, 1924 (divorced, 1932); married Lucille Wilson (a singer), 1942.

Louis Armstrong was generally acclaimed by critics as the greatest jazz performer ever. Both with his trumpet and with his rich, gravelly voice, he made famous such jazz and pop classics as "West End Blues," "When It's Sleepy Time Down South," "Hello, Dolly," and "What a Wonderful World." Armstrong's influence on the jazz artists that followed him was immense and far-reaching; for instance, according to George T. Simon in his book The Best of the Music Makers, fellow trumpet player Dizzie Gillespie has affirmed that "if it weren't for Armstrong there would be no Dizzie Gillespie." Reviewer Whitney Balliett declared in the New Yorker that Armstrong "created the sort of super, almost celestial art that few men master; transcending both its means and its materials, it attained a disembodied beauty." Apparently, fans all over the world agreed with this assessment, for during his lifetime Armstrong made extremely successful tours to several countries, including some in Africa and behind the Iron Curtain.

Armstrong was born July 4, 1900, in a poor black neighborhood in New Orleans, Louisiana. He had a deprived childhood; his parents separated when he was five years old. His poverty was perhaps a motivating factor in discovering his affinity for music, however, for he sang in the streets for pennies as a child. When Armstrong was thirteen years old, he fired a pistol into the air to celebrate New Year's Eve and was punished by the authorities by being sent to the Negro Waif's Home. Actually, this proved somewhat providential: the home had a bandmaster who took an interest in the youth and taught him to play the bugle. By the time of his release from the facility, Armstrong had graduated to the cornet and knew how to read music. Working odd jobs, he scrounged up the money to continue lessons with one of his musical idols, Joe "King" Oliver.

From 1917 to 1922, Armstrong played cornet for local New Orleans Dixieland jazz bands. He also tried his hand at writing songs, but was only partially rewarded--he saw his composition "I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate" published, but the company cheated him out of both payment and byline. Then Oliver, who lead a successful band in Chicago, sent for Armstrong. As second cornetist for Oliver, the young jazzman made his first recordings. In 1924, Armstrong enjoyed a brief stint with bandleader and arranger Fletcher Henderson in New York City. By the time jazz pianist Lilian Hardin, who would become the second of his three wives, persuaded Armstrong to work independently around 1925, he had switched from the cornet to the trumpet. During the next few years he made recordings fronting his own musicians; depending on the number assembled, they were known as the Hot Five or the Hot Seven. Around the same time, Armstrong is credited with the invention of the jazz technique of scat singing--legend has it that Armstrong dropped his sheet music during a recording session and had to substitute vocal improvisations until someone picked up the sheets for him. Also during this period, his experimentations led him to break free of the more rigid Dixieland style of jazz to pave the way for a more modern jazz genre.

But in 1930, Armstrong began taking yet a different direction with his career, performing with larger bands and recording more pop-sounding songs. Jazz purists fault him for this move, but others point out that he helped inspire the later swing sound. Nevertheless, Armstrong was still identified with jazz by the public, and on his extensive European tours was considered an "ambassador" of the genre. When he gave a concert in Ghana, he was considered a hero by its natives; he also performed a few times before the British royal family. It was in England that he won the nickname "Satchmo," a distortion of "satchelmouth," which described the extent to which his cheeks puffed out when he played the trumpet.

Armstrong also helped spread jazz's popularity throughout the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s by appearing in musical roles in several films, from 1936's Pennies from Heaven to 1969's Hello, Dolly. He was probably included in the latter because his recording of the title song in 1964 sold over two million copies and momentarily displaced the then-phenomenal Beatles from the pop charts. Armstrong also made successful recordings of popular songs such as "Mack the Knife" and "Blueberry Hill" and, as late as 1968, scored a chart hit with the single "What a Wonderful World."

But Armstrong filmed his guest appearance in Hello, Dolly in between visits to the hospital. For a brief period during 1970, he was forbidden to play his trumpet by his concerned doctor. Undaunted, he made a couple of purely vocal albums. Later in the year, Armstrong's physician lifted the ban on his instrument; he did a Las Vegas show with singer Pearl Bailey and played a benefit in London. After a few appearances in 1971, Armstrong suffered a heart attack in March and was hospitalized once again. He recovered sufficiently to be allowed to return to his home in May, but he died in his sleep July 6, 1971.

Armstrong's fame and popularity, however, have continued long after his death. In 1975, a program dedicated to the jazz great's music by the New York Jazz Repertory Orchestra toured the Soviet Union as part of official cultural exchange between that country and the United States. A bust of Armstrong has been placed on the site of the Nice Jazz Festival in France. One of his hit records even became a hit again during the late 1980s--"What a Wonderful World" was included on the soundtrack of the Robin Williams film Good Morning, Vietnam, received a great deal of airplay, and introduced Armstrong's music to a new generation of fans.

by Elizabeth Thomas

Louis Armstrong's Career

Worked odd jobs as a boy, including delivering milk and coal and selling newspapers and bananas; played the cornet with various bands in the New Orleans area, c. 1917-22; played with King Oliver's Original Creole Jazz Band, c. 1922-24; played trumpet with Fletcher Henderson in New York City, 1924; played trumpet independently and fronted his own bands, including the Hot Five and the Hot Seven, 1925-71; recording artist beginning in the early 1920s. Appeared in Broadway shows, including "Hot Chocolates" and "Swingin' the Dream"; appeared in motion pictures, including Pennies from Heaven, Columbia, 1936, Every Day's a Holiday, Paramount, 1937, Going Places, Warner, 1938, Dr. Rhythm, Paramount, 1938, Cabin in the Sky, MGM, 1943, Jam Session, Columbia, 1944, New Orleans, United Artists, 1947, The Strip, MGM, 1951, Glory Alley, MGM, 1952, The Glenn Miller Story, United Artists, 1954, High Society, MGM, 1957, The Five Pennies, Paramount, 1959, A Man Called Adam, Embassy, 1966, and Hello, Dolly, 1969.

Louis Armstrong's Awards

"West End Blues" was one of the first five records elected to the Recording Academy's Hall of Fame; won several periodical jazz polls, including Esquire and down beat; honored by the American Guild of Variety Artists.

Famous Works

Recent Updates

September 30, 2004: Armstrong was inducted into the inaugural class of Lincoln Center's Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame. Source: "Jazz At Lincoln Center To Induct Inaugural Class of Musicians into The Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame" (Press Release), September 30, 2004.

October 2005: Variety listed Armstrong at number two on its list of the most influential entertainers of the twentieth century. Source: E! Online, www.eonline.com, October 17, 2005.

Further Reading



Visitor Comments Add a comment…

over 13 years ago

Hi Ryan, just to let you know, you might want to spell straight correctly. Thanks Jeff

over 15 years ago

just to let you know you might want to get your information stright. louis armstrong was born on august 4th 1901. thanks ryan