Pops. Satchmo. Louis Armstrong. Hands down the most influential musical figure of the 20th century. The one who started it all. Musical genius with the kindest of hearts.
It is not easy for me to write about Louis Armstrong. He has affected me profoundly and means so much to me I’m nervous my writing won’t do him justice. It’s pretty telling that all the time that I’ve had this blog I haven’t written about the single most important reason why I started listening to this music in the first place. But here it goes.
“If it hadn’t been for him, there wouldn’t have been none of us. I want to thank Mr. Louis Armstrong for my livelihood.” - Dizzy Gillespie
I was talking to a Slovenian trumpeter the other day, and was surprised when he admitted that he never really listened to Louis Armstrong. A similar thing happened some days later listening to When You’re Smiling with another professional musician, when I found out she didn’t know the song. I’m not sure why, but for some reason I just assumed that everyone is very familiar with Louis Armstrong and his music. I mean he is the father of Jazz, right? He was and is my greatest inspiration and the one who opened doors to a whole new musical universe for me. Maybe that is why I thought others interested in (jazz) music would have at least slightly similar experience. Turns out I couldn’t be more wrong. More often than not people quickly dismiss Armstrong by falling to the old clichés of him either being outdated our not true to the music. Both of these are ridiculously far from the truth. Or they have simply never paid any attention to ol’ Satchmo. And that’s what pushed me to write this post.
“What we play is life” - Louis Armstrong
If I had to name two things that make Louis awe inspiring, I would probably say his music and who he was as a person - his liveliness, his spirit, his life story. Well, one could argue that it’s just one thing since the two are basically inseparable. There was no distinction for him. The music was his life.
"Louis was born poor, died rich, and never hurt anyone along the way" - Duke Ellington
Louis Armstrong was born in 1901 in the famous birthplace of jazz, New Orleans. The city that lives and breathes music. The city that grabs any chance it can to celebrate and enjoy life. Where any event, big or small, happy or sad, is likely to be accompanied by music. New Orleans, this culturally rich environment, is an integral part of what makes Satchmo, Satchmo. All of it was imbued in him.
I find it fascinating how often these passionate musicians ooze music in their everyday life. The way they talk, the way they walk is pure music (and I think that with musicians from New Orleans this is even more pronounced). And Louis Armstrong is a prime example - When you listen to him talk, or when you read his writings it’s all so musical. It’s like his life force was made out of music.
His childhood was rough. Back O’ Town, the neighbourhood in which he grew up in, was so rough that it was aptly know as ‘The Battlefield’. And of course this was a time of segregation and racism. Louis never finished school, but instead took different jobs supporting his mother so she wouldn’t have to turn to prostitution. Among many jobs this would include carrying coal to Storyville, the red-light district of New Orleans. This exposed him to all the different facets of life, the people and the culture. It is where he got to hear a lot of music and he was soaking it all in. At this time, before learning to play the trumpet, he would sing in a quartet for money in the streets of New Orleans. He would also work for a Jewish family, the Karnofskys, who would make sure that he would never finish a day without getting a warm meal, as they knew that he was poor. They treated him like family. He never forgot this and wore a Star of David for the rest of his life.
“I ran into Louis on the street and I asked him home for dinner, I wanted him and the quartet to come around so my family could hear them sing. Well, Louis, he sort of hemmed around, and said he couldn’t make it. I could see there was something troubling him and finally he let it out. ‘Look, Sidney,’ he says, ‘I don’t have any shoes… these I got, they won’t get me there.’ Well I said that was easy fixed and gave him fifty cents to get his shoes repaired, and he went off promising me he would come.” - Sidney Bechet
Then something kind of crazy happened. On a New Year’s eve he would steal his stepfather’s gun, and to celebrate he shot some blanks into the sky. He and his friends got a kick out of it. The police did not. They arrested him and he was sent to a Colored Waifs home for boys. And why is that crazy? Well, this is where he learned to play the cornet (and eventually, he would transition to the trumpet). Even at this age it was obvious that music was the love of his life. He was thrilled that he could play the cornet. After he was let go from the Home, between the different jobs he had, he would use every single chance he got to play his dear cornet. As the time went by, he would start getting bigger and bigger reputation around New Orleans. Eventually (and I’m skipping a lot of chapters here) he moved to Chicago to play with his mentor, Joe King Oliver, whom he deeply respected and cherished all his life. And this is when his career started to kick of. This is where the history creating moment would happen - The Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings. After that, nothing in the world of music would ever be the same again.
“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 at that time was already doing all the revolutionary things in music, but Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings would capture it forever. It’s hard to overstate the value of these recordings. They were groundbreaking, and on them Armstrong basically defined what jazz would be from that moment on. He set the stage for the soloist in what was before mostly ensemble music. His endlessly inventive musical ideas would influence generations to come. And as if that wasn’t enough he would sing with equal revolutionary force as he played the trumpet. It’s also been said he invented scat singing.
“[Louis Armstrong] completely remade the sensibility of the culture. He remade the sensibility of the culture just as much as the Wright brothers did. See before the Wright brothers, people didn’t dream of being fliers. Ever. But after Kitty Hawk, you could dream that. And see, Armstrong changed the nature of dreaming. He made people dream things they have never dreamed before.” - Stanley Crouch (paraphrased)
So all in all he created a whole new musical dictionary. I mean he was like Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein of music. I am astounded by these men - how can their ideas be so completely unlike anything that has come before them? How can they be so in tune with the universe, the world, or the music to create something so novel?
You have probably heard of 6 degrees of separation theory. Well, it’s been said that everyone in jazz is connected to (influenced by) Louis Armstrong through just 3 connections or less.
"You know you can't play anything on a horn that Louis hasn't played." - Miles Davis
To be honest, these early Armstrong recordings (not just Hot Five and Hot Seven) stay as exceptional today as when they first came out. One might dismiss them as outdated because of the scratchy sound and not always perfect ensembles. But what Louis did in these recordings would be considered remarkable anytime, including today. Anyone who thinks differently should give it another listen. Beside seeing Armstrong as outdated, another very common complaint against him is that in his later years he supposedly ‘sold out’. I don’t want to get into that right now, but I will mention a great book about the subject, which throws all such statements out of the window. Ricky Riccardi’s What a Wonderful World - The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years. But these subjects of unjustified and lasting opinions call for a different blog post altogether anyway. So more on that another time.
I mentioned in one of my previous posts how I got into the music of Louis Armstrong. And at that time I had no idea about his importance. I was simply drawn to his music unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. Music never made me feel this way before - Hell, forget music, I never felt this way before. I was hooked the moment I heard that sweet trumpet on ‘La Vie En Rose’. After that songs like ‘West End Blues’, ‘Potato Head Blues’ would hold me in disbelief (and of course all this time I was oblivious to how historically groundbreaking these songs were). His whole body of work was so compelling and I have never heard anything that would even come close to this kind of intensity, that he basically opened a brand new world to me. An enormous musical world. A world which has become an important part of who I am and which I am still happily exploring. Plus he inspired me to take up the trumpet!
What happened to me when encountering his music for the first time was neither a chance nor was I the only one to experience that. It’s simply what’s in his music. It’s so timeless, full of life and vigor. And if you’re open to it, it will astound and enchant you. For me it opened a new cosmos. Not only did it make me see and appreciate music on new levels, but it also made me conscious of new aspects about myself. And that’s a huge thing to achieve all by itself let alone for a piece of music. When talking about the intensity and vigor of his music, the same song always comes to mind. Whenever I hear this song I’m taken aback. At first I thought it’s just a personal preference, but after hearing the following quote (from a tuba player at that session), I realized it’s no coincidence.
“In that moment, he turned that place into a personal chapel. He looked up and he started talking to God… Nobody in the room but Louie and his God. It was absolutely frightening. And we got done with the first take, I’m standing there crying. I turned and looked, the drummer’s crying, the clarinet player’s crying, the trombones are crying, Lucille’s crying, his own wife.” - Rich Matteson
You can hear the whole talk here. It’s beautiful.
I find it fascinating what Louis does with this song. He doesn’t need any fast, intricate playing in order to get his message across. I’ve listened to a lot of music but I have never heard anyone else being able to put so much energy and intensity into a single note, the way Pops does. And you clearly hear it in this song. Here it is:
Besides his music it is also quite amazing hearing about who Pops was as a person. There are countless tales about his warmth, humbleness, and generosity of his spirit. To experience a piece of that firsthand I highly recommend visiting the Louis Armstrong House Museum in New York. This was the house he and his wife Lucille bought in 1943, and it is where he passed away. Seeing as how popular he was at the time he could have bought any house practically anywhere he damn pleased, but he was happy to call this little house in a working-class neighbourhood, his home. He didn’t need or want anything other than this humble abode. He loved the neighbourhood and the neighbourhood loved him. One neighbour said that she didn’t even know the extent of his renown, until after he passed away - he was just such a simple man.
Often when he got a bonus after a tour or a recording, he would take a stack of white envelopes, write names on them of people he thought would need the money and divided the bonus among them. He could easily spend $2000 this way. He didn’t sign or put any notes about who it’s from in the envelopes, just cash.
His view on money was very down to earth: “What’s money anyhow? You make it and you might eat a little better than the next cat. You might be able to buy a little better booze than some wino on the corner. But you get sick just like the next cat, and when you die you’re just as graveyard dead as he is. So what’s the difference between me and some cat that’s making it at the Salvation Army Lodge? All I got was a little better roll of the dice.” 
He was also very grateful to all of his fans and to anyone who came to see his show. He would always make sure that the people who came to see his show would get their money’s worth. For example, the first time he came to Ljubljana, he was supposed to perform at 8 pm, but because of the weather he was terribly late. He and his band would arrive at the stage no earlier than 1:30 am! Because everyone had to wait for so long, he was dedicated to put up an even greater show than usual. Fans were not disappointed. 
And as always he would go backstage and wait for anyone wanting an autograph. He would always be the last member of the band to leave, making sure no one would leave empty handed. He was just so grateful to all of his fans. And these things weren’t a chore to him, he wanted to do it. Now compare that to the pop musicians of today.
And another thing to understand is how popular he actually was at this time. One story always comes to mind - one time he stopped the war for a day; when he was doing a tour in Africa he also performed in Congo, where a civil war was raging. But for the day of his concert both sides called a day-long truce so everyone could go see the great Louis Armstrong. Enemies otherwise, would sit together on this special occasion.
The genius of Louis Armstrong, the jazz-loving movie star Tallulah Bankhead wrote in 1952, “reaches across land frontiers and oceans. I believe in one world. I don’t use the term politically. I am thinking of the oneness of humanity. Louis is the epitome of one world.” 
One could keep talking about Louis Armstrong. I’ve just written the longest post on my blog and I feel I’ve barely scratched the surface. And such is his legacy as well. You can listen and relisten a hundred times, but the music will still find a way to move you in new and unexpected ways.
Pops touched millions of souls, and inspired countless musicians. It’s really hard to describe what his impact was, as it is just so damn extensive and universal.
I’ve often said that Louis Armstrong is one of the best things that has ever happened to me. I know it probably sounds crazy, but I mean it.
Before I finish this, I just wanted to give a shout out to Ricky Riccardi, whose book, blog and endless passion have fuelled my own passion and obsession. Besides being the world’s greatest expert on Louis Armstrong, he is an inspiration and an epitome of Louis Armstrong’s impact on humanity. Meeting Ricky in person last year, while visiting the Armstrong Archives, was one of the highlights of my life.
Go check out his blog. Seriously! I’ve spent way too much time on that thing. It’s a joy to read and it’s got some true gems. For example in one post he talks about what songs Louis Armstrong listened to, hours before he passed away. Chilling. Go check it out.
The magic that Satchmo brought to this world is infinite and lasting. It makes the world a brighter place. Thank you, Pops.
 Unpublished interview with Richard Shaw, taken from What a Wonderful World, Ricky Riccardi
 A concert by Louis Armstrong in Ljubljana almost didn’t happen
 The Wonderful World Of Louis Armstrong