Louis Armstrong (1901–71)
Armstrong’s early life, growing up in the New Orleans slums, gave no sign of his influence on the evolution of jazz and the major part he played in popular music in the 20th century.
After firing a pistol in public, Armstrong was sent to the Coloured Waifs Home. Peter Jones, who organised the home’s brass band, encouraged Armstrong to take up the cornet and he was soon made leader of the band.
In 1914, Armstrong left the Waifs’ Home and was hired by various cabarets throughout the city. He came to the notice of Joe ‘King’ Oliver, a major bandleader in the city, and when Oliver moved to Chicago, Armstrong took his place with the Brown Skin Babies, led by Kid Ory.
After two years playing on the Mississippi River boats Armstrong was invited by Oliver in 1921 to join him in Chicago playing second cornet in Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band. His reputation growing, Armstrong left Oliver and in 1925 found success in New York.
Encouraged by his recording company, he formed his studio band, the Hot Five, which produced many seminal recordings. Around this time, he switched from cornet to trumpet. The band’s recording of “Heebie Jeebies”, featuring Armstrong's famous scat chorus, led to his later popularity as a singer.
Armstrong’s contribution to jazz cannot be underestimated. His trumpet playing, at the time considered revolutionary, laid the ground for all who followed. Likewise his vocal style took a ground-breaking approach to melody and phrasing.
Biography by Mike Rose
The Les Tomkins interview
The story of the life of Louis Armstrong is little short of inspirational. From a background of poverty in New Orleans, he played and sang in his own unique style and became recognised across the world as inspirational both as a musician and as a human being. In this interview by Les Tomkins during a visit to the UK in 1965, Armstrong looks back on his life, the emergence of bebop and the old days with Joe 'King' Oliver in Chicago.
|1st January 1965
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For the public, there is a familiar Louis Armstrong exterior. The offstage reality is a little different. True, when he greets you with: “Good to see you, Pops”, the expansive beam is there. And it glows at you through most of the ensuing conversation. Frequently, it is accompanied by an almost imperceptible chuckle that seems to originate at the back of his throat somewhere. The phraseology is, to a large degree, free of the exaggerated showbiz touches, following a more ‘normal’ pattern. However, that gravel voice, at close range, sounds even more gravelly than usual. There is an ageless impishness about the features that frame those trumpet - beaten chops. The in-grooved top lip is smeared with white lip-salve as he sits, clad in a blue silk robe, in his dressing-room between shows. Nearby is his wife, Lucille, ready to warn him that the other band is playing, and he will be due on again soon. You sense that she makes no small contribution to the maintenance, at 65, of the stature and the vitality of this absolute giant of jazz. Les Tomkins, London 1965
It’s awful nice to get another chance to come over and give a show for the folks. I’ve been coming here since 1932, so I see a lot of my old friends here. There’s my friend back there come all the way from Ireland—Maxwell Norris. He used to live here. When I first came here, he was a little boy. Yeah—he and his wife flew up from Ireland just to spend the day with us. I thought that was awful nice.
I have friends all over the world, but I always enjoy coming to London —or to anywhere in England. I’m looking forward to going up to Manchester. I always have a nice welcome up there, too, with the band playing at the airport—the usual greetings. It’s so wonderful, you know.
As for being a world figure—well, I mean, I didn’t bargain for that when I was coming up as a child, in my teens, and things. But since it happened, I think it’s nice to have a lot of friends and a lot of fans. They never let you down. What more can you ask in life? I think I’m blessed.
If I’m loved and respected, that’s because I love and respect everybody and I’ve always done so. I always gave what I had. I mean, you’re just one person and you’ve got to enjoy it as time marches on. What makes me so happy is I’m right there among the youngsters coming up and they’re always glad to see old Satchmo. So that makes me feel good, too. It ain’t like you’re forgotten, or something like that.
I run into a lot of kids everywhere and I buy all their records. I buy the Beatles. Everything they put out, I got ‘em in my house and I put ‘em on tape. They’re very good—and they swing. They’re good boys. Yeah, and they made a wonderful reputation, which they deserve. Because they put everything in it. And I thought it was awful nice. They upset the world!
I’ve been around about three generations. And now the new generation, they come up and say: “Satch, give me your autograph.” No Mister—they say: “Satchmo! I got your ‘Hallo, Dolly’.” I say: “Okay, daddy”, or something like that. Knocks ‘em out—they love that.
It’s surprising—you never can tell, by the tune, what a number can do. I wasn’t expecting it, but it happened. That’s the way it is—with anything musical, you never can tell ‘till you put it out, or put it over. And “Dolly” turned out swell. Everywhere we play, they still enjoy it, and it’s been a year ago since we recorded it.
Yeah, I had big bands for many years. Well, you see, in the big band era, I stayed right with it. I mean, I felt at home, but I started out with a small group—that’s all we had in the early days. And I prefer the small group. Like the rabbit in the briar patch—you’re glad to get back. But that’s what we had to do, because that was the fad then—all big bands. A small group couldn’t get a gig, you know. Then, all of a sudden, you’d come back to small groups. So whatever change they made—I did it with ‘em, that’s all.
My unfavourable comments on bebop? We all had a little something to say at that time—and some laughs, you know. It’s like they said things about Dixieland jazz, too. But it’s much more smoother now. In the younger days everybody was trying to figure which way to turn, so they all got their little styles. It was pretty rough, then. Nobody knew what was happening. Just a lot of notes, a lot of figurations—and no lead.
It’s become much better, and you got to appreciate it. That’s why you see different groups now that’s coming up—they're much different from when the first bop started out. It's more musical. So I don't say them things no more.
Incidentally, I live right around the corner from Dizzy in Corona, New York. And we go to each other's house a lot of times. And he's booked out of the same office, so it shows you. I always did like Dizzy's playing. Yeah, he sounds like me when he sings. Everybody's got their little taste, you know.
He's a good showman, too. I think showmanship is very important. In the old days, all musicians used to just sit down and didn’t say nothing. Some of ‘em turned their backs to the people, and everything. But you can’t do that nowadays.
It makes it more together. It ain’t the amount of numbers, or the tunes you play. I mean, you can at least announce it, or something. A little humour here and there—it ain’t going to hurt nothing. You don’t want to keep that old trend. Nobody else is doing it. Everybody else is trying to, at least, entertain the people. Sure, I do them things out there. The way I feel, they’ve come to see a show, after all.
No, I don’t have to put in too much exercise to keep my playing up to standard. If we work every night, we just warm up a little at home, and warm up before we go on the stage. Course, when we’re laying off, we have to maybe practise about a half-hour in the low register, and you get results there, too.
Everybody has their little moments. Sure, Cat and Roy go way up. They do all right. I admire those boys’ work, too. I’m always glad to hear Cat, Roy, Dizzy and all of ‘em. They all have something on the ball, you know.
My film acting? It’s everyday life; the parts that they write for me. They make it real plain, what I’m supposed to do. And everything I do is something I might do in my neighbourhood. Like, in one picture I was leading a blind man. I did that when I was a kid—for about 75 cents a week. I used to go up there, get him ready and take him out on the street. So they gave me that part in a picture called Glory Alley—I led this blind man, and I was almost his legal advisor.
Well, they give me them lines— I can learn ‘em. Then there was that picture New Orleans. I had a real nice acting part in that.
If you ask me to look back to a highspot in my career—I still remember the days I played second trumpet with King Oliver in Chicago. I came right out of New Orleans, playing with the Tuxedo Brass Band. And we was at a funeral when I got Joe Oliver’s telegram. He had a little band at the Lincoln Gardens, and he told me to come at once. Gee, that was one of the highest lights I’ll ever have! It was the first time I’d been up North, you know. Chicago looked like a great big wonderful city to me.
Yeah, I liked Joe. He never was too busy to help the youngsters, you know. He did a lot for me. It broke my heart to lose him.
They had some good players in those days. Everybody played from the soul, and good notes. At that time there was King Oliver, Bunk Johnson, Freddie Keppard—they were the main three that went down in history. King Oliver was the most popular of all of ‘em, but they were all good boys. And all three of ‘em’s gone now. Lost three good men.
Even if I don’t play any more, I’ll be glad to be around. There’ll always be something I can do in music, anyway—go and help the youngsters, and teach ‘em when they’ll listen. I 1’ust want to be among ‘em—just one of the the cats.
Well, like I tell everybody—as long as there’s contracts, who am I to run out? It must be all right, you know. But if he says the contract’s finished—maybe another year or so it’ll probably happen.
Anyway, we got a nice taste here. Tell everybody how happy I am that I had a chance to say a few words to them. All right, pal, it’s for me and you.
Copyright © 1965, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved