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Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong

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The world of music is full of loud-sounding and honorable names. There are musicians known to a small circle of fans and those admired by several consequent generations. Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong belongs to the second group. There can be hardly found a person who has never heard a positive “What a Wonderful World” or brisk “Hello, Dolly!” performed by this rich low voice or somebody who can imagine him without his magical trumpet. Mentioning of jazz will inevitably lead to recollecting the name of Mr. Armstrong. Yet not a lot of the people are familiar with the destiny of this musician, though many music critics dedicated their works to studying it.

Life roots of this remarkable American lie in a very special city in terms of jazz history: little Louis was born in a poor New Orleans family in 1901. The future legend of the music world changed several locations during his life, but this at the times small town remained in his memory forever as the place he grew up in and felt his first inclinations to art. State name Louisiana must also have been a major factor in baptism. The original nickname was given to him later: Satchmo is shortened from “satchel mouth” – it is the way his friends called him kind-heartedly for his large mouth (Howard). If Armstrong himself was inclined to call himself Satchmo, some people who knew him referred to him as Pops: it is the way Armstrong addressed those whose names he could not remember or someone he met for the first time (Weinberg). Only later this nickname acquired secondary metaphorical meanings.

Childhood in New Orleans’ Storyville at the beginning of the 21st century was a struggle. The corrupting power of the street was too hard to resist. It seems that the path of a transgressor was almost predetermined. Of course, a single mother – of a young age herself - raising two children in poverty and made to resort to prostitution due to it could not control her kids at all times, which led to a rather stupid incident, fortunately leaving no victims – one night little Louis fired a revolver in the street during a celebration of a New Year’s Eve (“Louis”). It led to an arrest, and after that this 11 or 12-year-old (resources present different data on the topic) juvenile delinquent was sent to reform school, the Colored Waif’s Home for Boys (Pritchard). This experience was crucial in terms of identifying Armstrong’s interests – having tried several instruments, Louis decided to choose a cornet in this institution’s brass band, which was the first stage of his love of music. One may presume the boy had a natural talent and inclination to music. Armstrong himself assessed this time as “the greatest thing that ever happened” to him and explained it in his own comparison of his love of music revealed in the reform school to marriage – “me and music got married at that home” (Ewen). After the release from the correctional institution young man made his living by a series of odd jobs like newspaper selling, selling coal from a cart, and even as a stevedore - he unloaded boats.

It was during his work at dive bars that Louis was noticed by people who could help him change his career. Many critics assess that the ambition range of the promising young man was too large for a small hometown. A musical cruise up the Mississippi undertaken in 1919 deepened this feeling, especially after acquaintance with Joe “King” Oliver. Later Armstrong would refer to this tour as to his "University" because with no regular special education it gave him an opportunity to study musical arrangements in the written form. Young Louis joined Creole Jazz Band led by Oliver and headed to Chicago with it. Due to this fact residents of the Windy City consider the jazzman to be a part of their music history and are very proud of this fact. Truly, association with a figure of such range can be flattering to every location. Louis Armstrong left it for New York for less than a year to play with the most famous band of the city - the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, but in 1925 he returned back. By 1924 he was married for the second time already, this time to a pianist (the first wedlock with a woman of a very low standing proved to be a failure and did not last long). In 1925 Armstrong made his first records as a leader of his own band. It was the time when such songs as "Hot Five", "Potato Head Blues", "Muggles", and "West End Blues" were written (“Louis”). The improvised introduction to “Blues” raised a standard of performing jazz to a considerable extent. Terry Teachout resorts to a vivid metaphor regarding these first endeavors which became extraordinary popular: he calls the albums “the first chapters in what was to become the Old Testament of classic jazz” (Pritchard). Religious references, however pompous, seem to be appropriate in this case.

This recording brought Louis Armstrong and his band their first fame. David Ewen assesses this period of jazzman’s life as a “pinnacle of his artistry, with few equals”. Success of the albums led to excessive touring across the USA and Europe, where the musicians were welcomed more than cordially. This new level of performance is a great accomplishment for American music – it gradually came out of its regionally-rooted traditions and ascended to the national and, consequently, international level. In such a way, in 1930’s the jazzman became an active performer, and it is this period that his fantastic workability stems from. In the next decade, the Big Band could already be considered an influential power in the world of music. Armstrong decided to return to the Dixieland style, and it turned out to be a reasonable choice. Since then Armstrong’s life becomes a quick whirlpool of constant performances, recordings and appearance in feature films and TV shows. Sixties were his chart breakthrough, when “Hello, Dolly!” managed to defeat Beatles in the struggle for the first place in the list of top songs, and the Liverpool Four had been occupying this position for long weeks before that. Critics mention that after the intense touring which included performing in Europe and other parts of the world which lie in the east, as well as participating in more than 30 movies, Armstrong moved to New York’s Queens and carried on recording activity. As it was already mentioned, his touring brought him worldwide fame and because of the cultural and artistic significance there were grounds for nicknaming him "Ambassador Satch". International influence of the prominent American is only emphasized by this fact.

As we know, the best things come at the very end of our lives. In the similar way, in 1968 (only three years before his death) Louis Armstrong recorded a song that was destined to become one of the most prominent hits among many, his sunny hallmark "What a Wonderful World" (“Louis”).

Music versatility of Louis Armstrong is also worth mentioning. Being both an instrument performer and a vocalist is a gift not everyone is granted. As for his performing talent, he became an icon for many followers. One of them, Al Hirt, calls Armstrong “the greatest trumpet stylist of all time” (“Louis”), emphasizing his unique technique and virtuosity. As for  legacy of this American as a singer, Ted Gioia mentions that it was almost as large as that of the performer and that he “exerted a tremendous influence on later jazz and popular singers” (Gioia 42). Such an acknowledgement justifies all the hard work, for it is common knowledge that even the brightest and most outstanding talent is worth nothing without efforts directed towards its evolvement. Moreover, Louis Armstrong managed to make inventions in the singing style - "scat" singing. David Ewen explains that it emerged in Chicago and had a form of “singing nonsense syllables in place of words and vocally simulating instrumental sound”. It is hard to say now whether this technique was invented accidentally or not, but one thing is known for sure – since this first jocular attempt scat singing became a part and parcel and a characteristic feature of performances of the jazzman.

Autobiography of the famous musician presents special interest. Books of this kind always provide the readers with such insights into the inner life of a person that no scholarly or literary source can provide. Armstrong’s autobiography incorporates, for example, recollections about his father who left the family for another woman when the two kids were young – of course, his son had only some pieces of memories like seeing the father on the Odd Fellows parade. His early years revealing “the dark side” of a poor New Orleans district were enrooted in his mind, with all of “bars, honky-tonks and saloons” and cheap beauties (Armstrong 8). And in the middle of all this, the man with music in his heart was just “happy to blow his horn” (Armstrong 150). Written in a simple language understandable to everybody and accompanied by black and white family photos, this book presents a first-hand view on certain issues and displays a real Louis Armstrong. Moreover, it is highly praised by critics, biographers and music historians. For example, Terry Teachout called it “the best book written by any jazz musician” (Pritchard). One may conclude that it is a manifestation of another talent of this prominent person – that of a captivating, sincere and informative writer.

Louis Armstrong remained in business and performed till his last days, for he was convinced that music is intended to be heard and to please the public, which by no means lessens its inexpressible value. Armstrong was suffering from a lip problem for a large part of his life, and he also survived after a heart attack. Some biographers and historians point out his lifelong marijuana addiction, for example, Terry Teachout (Pritchard). Nevertheless, the reasons of his death do not seem to be connected with this harmful habit. He passed away from another heart attack peacefully during his sleep, on a July day of 1971, in New York. People who knew him claim that he “exuded happiness”, despite of explosive temperament and frivolous behavior (Weinberg). This positive attitude can also be traced from the songs he wrote and performed. Apart from that, it must also be mentioned that his music united people of all races, for biased America of the middle of the 21st century harbored serious segregation. It is a shame that the last decades of his life were blemished by accusations of excessive “uncle-Tomming” and stereotyped way of “Negro” performances” (Pritchard). People must respect the style and reasoning of a creative person. It is good we have an opportunity to assess it through the length of years.

As William Pritchard jocularly put in his review to a biography of Louis Armstrong written by Terry Teachout, he was “a black man born at the turn of the century in the poorest quarter of New Orleans who by the end of his life was known and loved in every corner of the earth”. Probably, no description fits him better than this. Louis earned it with his determination, with his tireless urge to perform. True talent always finds its way up and becomes acknowledged. The whole life of this prominent American is a proof to it.

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