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Louis Armstrong, a legend of the 20th century, died 50 years ago


On 6 July 50 years ago, a legend of world music, Louis Armstrong, died. Armstrong was one of the most famous jazz musicians of the twentieth century: he initially achieved fame as a trumpet player, and then established himself as one of the most important jazz singers, able to reach the general public, especially towards the end of his career. No one was missing at his funeral: from Bing Crosby to Ella Fitzgerald, from Duke Ellington to Dizzy Gillespie, to Frank Sinatra. Peggy Lee, one of the favorite singers of ‘Satchmo’, this was Armstrong’s nickname, sang The ‘Lord’s Prayer’ at the funeral. Armstrong was born on July 4, 1900 in the poorest New Orleans and there, in the cradle of ‘ragtime’, a primitive form of jazz, he began his musical training. Louis was the grandson of black slaves and his childhood was marked by poverty and precariousness. As a teenager he tried to help his family by learning to play the cornet in a reformatory band. In the following years, with a group of peers, he had played in the streets and on the boats along the Mississippi, earning his first money. He spent his free time listening to the big names of the moment, from Bunk Johnson, to Buddy Petit, to Kid Ory. Joe ‘King’ Oliver was his first guide. And when Joe Oliver left town in 1919, 19-year-old Armstrong took his place in what was then Louisiana’s best jazz band. There Louis’ talent began to emerge and he began performing in his first trumpet solos. In ’22 he emigrated to Chicago, where he met Joe ‘King’ Oliver again. In 1923 he recorded his first records playing as the second cornet in Oliver’s band. Thanks to the second marriage (the first in 1918 had lasted very little) with the pianist Lil Hardin, Armstrong was called to New York to play the trumpet with the orchestra of Fletcher Henderson, the most famous African-American band of the time. It was with them that he began to sing, telling the stories of New Orleans. And even Duke Ellington came to listen to him. The 1920s decreed the definitive success of Armstrong, who first founded the Hot Five and then the Hot Seven, giving birth to songs such as’ Potato Head Blues’, ‘Muggles’ and’ West End Blues ‘. The group included Kid Ory (trombone), Johnny Dodds (clarinet), Johnny St. Cyr (banjo) and his wife Lil on the piano. With them Louis also began to use ‘scat singing’, imitating music with his voice. When his second marriage was also wrecked, Louis returned to Chicago and started playing at the Sunset Café where boss Al Capone was often listening to him. In the tragic 1929 Armstrong returned to the Big Apple to play in the orchestra of the musical Hot Chocolate and began working in Harlem at ‘Connie’s Inn’, the most famous nightclub after the Cotton Club. The Great Depression also made itself felt in the show: the Cotton Club closed in 1936 and Armstrong left New York and moved to Los Angeles, performing at the new ‘Cotton Club of LA’ with Lionel Hampton as drummer. Bing Crosby and many celebrities became frequent guests of the club. In 1943, after several stays between Chicago and New Orleans, a third wife and a life on tour, he settled permanently in New York, Queens. He married a fourth time and stayed in the Big Apple until his death, entering the Olympus of the show with the ‘All Stars’ composed by Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines, Barney Bigard, Edmond Hall, Jack Teagarden, Trummy Young, Arvell Shaw, Billy Kyle, Marty Napoleon, Big Sid Catlett, Cozy Cole, Tyree Glenn, Barrett Deems and Filipino percussionist Danny Barcelona. After World War II, Armstrong performed with the most famous singers and musicians, including Jimmie Rodgers, Bing Crosby, Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, Bessie Smith, and especially Ella Fitzgerald. He also appeared in many films as an extra, a few times as a co-star. He earned the cover of Time Magazine in February 1949. In 1964, when he was already 64, he recorded one of his most famous songs, ‘Hello, Dolly!’. The single immediately took the top of the charts, even knocking the Beatles out of the top spot. Among his unforgettable hits and still today known and played all over the world, ‘What a Wonderful World’, ‘Stardust’, ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’ and ‘Dream a Little Dream of Me’ should certainly be mentioned.



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