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One of the arts that transcends culture is the art of music. Louis Armstrong was an individual who took the art of music, specifically jazz, and transformed it.
Louis Armstrong was born in August of 1901, to Maryann and Willie Armstrong. When Louis Armstrong was a newborn baby, his father left his family with no money and no way to support themselves. Because Louis’ mom was a poor black woman living in the south in the 1920s, she had no chance of finding a job to support her family. Maryann Armstrong, Louis’ mom, chose the life of prostitution to support her family. Because of this lifestyle, Maryann became a very poor mother for Louis and his younger sister Beatrice. The children’s grandmother ended up raising and caring for them. Josephine Armstrong, Louis grandmother raised her grandchildren with discipline and made sure they were in school and instilled in them proper morals. Louis grew up in New Orleans, Louisiana which was known for its late nights and its crime. He was raised in Black Storyville, New Orleans, which was well known for its night life and its violence. Black Storyville was a segregated community that shaped who Louis became as a person. When he was young, Louis worked several jobs just to help his family. Some of these jobs included running errands for prostitutes and selling newspapers.
Even with Louis’ help, his family was still very poor and struggled even to put food on the table. Because of this poverty, his childhood was especially difficult and the only escape he could find was in music. His nights were often filled with listening to jazz music and spending hour upon hour in this new love. Soon he would join a quartet and would often sing for money even though it was pennies. This lasted for a few years but didn’t really help his family, so he began to pick pockets and hustle others for money. These actions put Louis on a path that led to jail. He was soon arrested on New Year’s Eve for attempting to fire a pistol. He spent a year and a half in a juvenile detention center. This ended up being a blessing in Louis’ life because it is where he learned to play the cornet and he would spend hours and hours practicing his new love. After he was released, he began playing at bars and honky-tonks and very soon he became a well-known artist.
In 1922, King Oliver, a leading musician, asked Armstrong to move up to Chicago and play second cornet in his band. He accepted the offer and was paid $52 a week. He played in Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band for many months but began to grow tired of there same old styles of jazz and Dixieland. While playing in the band, Louis fell in love with the pianist, Lilan Hardin, and they were married in 1924. Soon after they were married, Armstrong’s wife encouraged him to quit the band to seek further fame and develop more as a musician. So, he did just that. He headed off for New York. There he played in many bands only to move back to Chicago where most all of his great works were created. These musical masterpieces included hits like, “Wild Man Blues”, “Struttin With Some Barbeque’, “Hot Than Hot” and the famous “West End Blues.” At this point in his musical career, Louis moved from the cornet to the trumpet. His technique was as unique as unique could be and his talent was beyond anything that people had seen before. He was a musical genius who had a passion for what he was playing. Louis’ stardom shot up in 1929, when he moved back to New York City. He played in the theatre. Then he went on to tour America and Europe as a trumpet soloist. While touring, he began to ignore the often-used blues-based materials and put his own spin on it. He took songs written by Irving Berlin and Duke Ellington and added his own style to them.
In 1929, Louis went on to Broadway, there he played one of the leading roles in the production of Connie’s Hot Chocolates. That year he recorded with many small New Orleans influenced bands (including the Hot Five). He also recorded many popular songs of the day consisting of: “Body and Soul,” “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love,” and “Star Dust.” Louis’ unique vocals took these songs to new levels. He completely transformed the concept of good vocalization in America, evident by singers like Frank Sinatra, Bing Cosby, and Ella Fitzgerald.
In 1967, many years down the road, Armstrong recorded his famous ballad, “What A Wonderful World,” which did not feature his trumpet or any iconic jazz styles but instead Armstrong’s soothing, unique voice. This song features only his voice and stringed instruments. This song became a hit around the world and became one of his most beloved songs. Sadly, Louis Armstrong retired in 1968 because of heart and kidney problems resulting from his lifestyle. Because of the love he had for his music, he still continued to play his trumpet daily. A heart attack took his life in 1971.
Louis Armstrong was an amazing man who took the art of music and changed it forever. Armstrong grew up in unspeakable poverty and lived a very hard life as a young man, yet he never gave up on his dream to become a musician and went on to become one of the greatest performers of all time.
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