Biography of Louis Armstrong, Master Trumpeter and Entertainer

Armstrong played a key role in the development of jazz

Louis Armstrong playing trumpet

 William Gottlieb / Getty Images

Louis Armstrong (August 4, 1901–July 6, 1971) was a masterful trumpet player and beloved entertainer in the 20th century. He rose above his humble origins as a Black man born into poverty to become one of the most influential musicians of his genre.

He played a key role in the development of one of the early 20th century's most important new styles of music: jazz. Though he mostly kept quiet about racial discrimination, much to the disapproval of fellow Black Americans, Armstrong sparked controversy among White and Black people when he spoke out publicly against segregation in Little Rock in 1957.

Armstrong's inventiveness and improvisational techniques—along with his energetic, dazzling style—have influenced generations of musicians. One of the first to perform scat-style singing, he is also well-known for his distinctive, gravelly singing voice. Armstrong wrote two autobiographies, becoming the first Black jazz musician to write an autobiography, and appeared in more than 30 films.

Fast Facts: Louis Armstrong

  • Known For: World-famous trumpeter and entertainer; he was influential in the development of jazz and also appeared in more than 30 films
  • Also Known As: Satchmo, Ambassador Satch
  • Born: August 4, 1901 in New Orleans
  • Parents: Mary Ann, William Armstrong
  • Died: July 6, 1971 in New York City
  • Top Albums: "Ella and Louis," "New Orleans Nights," "Satchmo Musical Autobiography," "Under the Stars," "Porgy and Bess," "I’ve Got the World on a String"
  • Awards and Honors: 1964 Grammy for Best Male Vocal Performance ("Hello Dolly"), Grammy Hall of Fame (various years), Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (inducted 2019)
  • Spouses: Daisy Parker (m. 1918-1923), Lili Hardin Armstrong (m. 1924-1938), Alpha Smith (m. 1938-1942), Lucille Wilson (m. 1942-1971)
  • Notable Quote: "If you have to ask what jazz is, you'll never know."

Early Life

Louis Armstrong was born in New Orleans on August 4, 1901, to 16-year-old Mary Ann Albert and her boyfriend Willie Armstrong. Willie left Mary Ann only weeks after Louis' birth, and Louis was placed in the care of his grandmother, Josephine Armstrong.

Josephine brought in some money doing laundry for White families but struggled to keep food on the table because she was paid little money for her work. Young Louis had no toys, very few clothes, and went barefoot most of the time. Despite their hardships, Josephine made sure her grandson attended school and church.

While Louis was living with his grandmother, his mother briefly reunited with Willie Armstrong and gave birth to a second child, Beatrice, in 1903. While Beatrice was still very young, Willie once again left Mary Ann.

Four years later, when Armstrong was 6 years old, he moved back in with his mother, who was then living in a highly dangerous neighborhood, a red-light district called Storyville. Because Armstrong was young during this period, not much is known about his mother's situation and why she lived there, but Black women, especially single mothers, were heavily discriminated against at the time.

When recounting his mother's occupation, Armstrong confessed that he did not know whether his mother was a sex worker, an occupation that he referred to as "hustling," or not because she "kept it out of sight," ("'Pops': Louis Armstrong, In His Own Words"). He only knew that they were poor. Nonetheless, it became Louis’ job to look after his sister while his mother worked.

Louis Armstrong pictured with mother and sister in 1921
Young Louis Armstrong pictured with mother, Mary, and sister, Beatrice, in 1921.  Apic / Getty Images

Working on the Streets

By the age of 7, Armstrong was looking for work wherever he could find it. He sold newspapers and vegetables and made a little money singing on the street with a group of friends. Each group member had a nickname; Louis' was "Satchelmouth" (later shortened to "Satchmo"), a reference to his wide grin.

Armstrong saved up enough money to buy a used cornet (a brass musical instrument similar to a trumpet), which he taught himself to play. He quit school at age 11 to concentrate on earning money for his family, as was common for young men from poor backgrounds at this time.

While performing on the street, Armstrong and his friends came into contact with local musicians, many of whom played in Storyville honky-tonks (bars with working-class patrons, often found in the South).

Armstrong was befriended by one of the city's best-known trumpeters, Bunk Johnson, a fellow Black performer who taught him songs and new techniques and allowed Louis to sit in with him during performances in the honky-tonks.

An incident on New Year's Eve in 1912 changed the course of Armstrong's life.

The Colored Waif's Home

During a New Year's Eve street celebration at the end of 1912, 11-year-old Louis fired a pistol into the air. He was taken to the police station where he spent the night in a cell. The next morning, a judge sentenced him to the Colored Waif's Home for an unspecified period of time. At the time, Black juvenile offenders were often given harsh prison sentences while White juvenile offenders were sentenced to time in reformatory homes for equal crimes. The Waif's Home made Armstrong's lesser sentence possible in a period when the justice system exercised strong bias against Black Americans.

The home, a reformatory for Black youths, was operated by a former soldier, Captain Jones. Jones was a strict disciplinarian dedicated to reducing juvenile delinquency in Black boys who "never had a chance." Records indicate that he and his wife took on parental roles for many of the boys. A Black man himself, Jones advocated for Black boys that were arrested to be placed in a reformatory home—designed specifically for Black juveniles—rather than thrown in jails with adult criminals. He wanted to give incarcerated Black boys an opportunity to rise above unfair treatment and not become the criminals that the judicial system already perceived them to be.

Due to both the structure and opportunities that Armstrong received there, Jones and his home had an overall positive effect on him. Of the home, Armstrong said: "It sure was the greatest thing that ever happened to me. Me and music got married in the Home (...) The place seemed more like a health center, or a boarding school, than a boys' jail."

Eager to participate in the home's brass band, Armstrong was disappointed when he was not allowed to join right away. Director of Music Peter Davis was initially hesitant to allow a boy who had fired a gun to join his band. However, Armstrong eventually convinced him and worked his way up the ranks. He first sang in the choir and later was assigned to play various instruments, eventually taking over the cornet. Having demonstrated his willingness to work hard and act responsibly, Louis was made the leader of the band. He reveled in this role.

The home's music program played an especially large role in the direction Armstrong's life would take from there. Davis, in particular, influenced young Armstrong greatly. He saw the raw talent the boy possessed and was persistent in nurturing him into the skilled musician he would become. According to Dr. Robert S. Mikell of The Syncopated Times, when the two reunited years later, Davis' pride and Armstrong's gratitude were palpable to onlookers.

In 1914, after 18 months at the Colored Waif's Home, Armstrong returned home to his mother.

Becoming a Musician

Back home, Armstrong delivered coal during the day and spent his nights in local dance halls listening to music. He became friends with Joe "King" Oliver, a leading cornet player, and ran errands for him in return for cornet lessons.

Armstrong learned quickly and began to develop his own style. He filled in for Oliver at gigs and gained further experience playing in parades and funeral marches.

When the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, Armstrong was too young to be drafted, but the war did indirectly affect him. When several sailors stationed in New Orleans became victims of violent crime in the Storyville district, the secretary of the Navy shut down the district, including brothels and clubs. While a large number of New Orleans' musicians moved north, many relocating to Chicago, Armstrong stayed and soon found himself in demand as a cornet player.

By 1918, Armstrong had become well-known on the New Orleans music circuit, playing at numerous venues. That year, he met and married Daisy Parker, a prostitute who worked in one of the clubs he played in.

Louis Armstrong playing the trumpet as a young adult
Louis Armstrong playing the trumpet as a young adult in Atlantic City. Bettmann / Getty Images

Leaving New Orleans

Impressed by Armstrong's natural talent, band conductor Fate Marable hired him to play in his riverboat band on excursions up and down the Mississippi River. Though disappointed to see him go, Daisy understood that this was a good move for his career and supported him.

Armstrong played on the riverboats for three years. The discipline and high standards that he was held to made him a better musician; he also learned to read music for the first time. Yet, chafing under Marable's strict rules, Armstrong grew restless. He yearned to strike out on his own and find his unique style.

Armstrong quit the band in 1921 and returned to New Orleans. He and Daisy divorced that year.

Armstrong Earns a Reputation

In 1922, a year after Armstrong quit the riverboats, King Oliver asked him to come to Chicago and join his Creole Jazz Band. Armstrong played the second cornet and was careful not to outshine bandleader Oliver.

Through Oliver, Armstrong met Lil Hardin, a classically trained jazz pianist from Memphis and the second woman he would marry.

Lil recognized Armstrong's talent and thus urged him to break away from Oliver's band. After two years with Oliver, Armstrong quit the band and took a new job with another Chicago band, this time as the first trumpet; however, he only stayed a few months.

Armstrong moved to New York City in 1924 at the invitation of bandleader Fletcher Henderson. (Lil did not accompany him, preferring to stay at her job in Chicago.) The band played mostly live gigs but made recordings as well. They played backup for pioneering blues singers such as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, furthering Armstrong's growth as a performer.

Just 14 months later, Armstrong moved back to Chicago at Lil's urging; Lil believed that Henderson held back Armstrong's creativity.

King Oliver and Creole Jazz Band featuring Louis Armstrong
Group portrait, taken in 1923, of King Oliver and His Creole Jazz Band with Louis Armstrong on trumpet. Gilles Petard / Getty Images

'The World's Greatest Trumpet Player'

Lil helped to promote Armstrong in Chicago clubs billing him as "the world's greatest trumpet player." She and Armstrong formed a studio band, called Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five. The group recorded several popular records, many of which featured Armstrong's raspy singing.

On one of the most popular of the recordings, "Heebie Jeebies," Armstrong spontaneously launched into scat-singing, in which the singer replaces the actual lyrics with nonsense syllables that often mimic the sounds made by instruments. Armstrong did not invent the singing style but helped to make it enormously popular.

During this time, Armstrong permanently switched from cornet to trumpet, preferring the brighter sound of the trumpet to the more mellow cornet.

The records gave Armstrong name recognition outside of Chicago. He returned to New York in 1929, but again, Lil did not want to leave Chicago. (They stayed married but lived apart for many years before divorcing in 1938.)

In New York, Armstrong found a new venue for his talents. He was cast in a musical revue that featured the hit song "Ain't Misbehavin'" and Armstrong's accompanying trumpet solo. Armstrong displayed showmanship and charisma, gaining a greater following after the show.

The Great Depression

Because of the Great Depression, Armstrong, like many other Americans and especially Black Americans, had trouble finding work. In 1932, approximately one half of Black Americans were unemployed, some fired from their jobs simply because White Americans were out of work. Armstrong decided to make a new start in Los Angeles, moving there in May 1930. He found work in clubs and continued to make records.

He made his first film, "Ex-Flame," appearing as himself in the movie in a small role. Armstrong gained more fans through this widespread exposure. After an arrest for marijuana possession in November 1930, Armstrong received a suspended sentence and returned to Chicago.

According to writer Marco Medic, it is widely believed that the cops responsible for his arrest were fans of his and that this played a role in his receiving a lighter sentence even though marijuana-related crimes were harshly punished across the board during this time. Some also speculate that higher-ups in the music industry had something to do with securing Armstrong a suspended sentence, though none of this is documented. Despite his arrest, he stayed afloat during the Depression, touring the U.S. and Europe from1931 to 1935.

Armstrong continued to tour throughout the 1930s and 1940s and appeared in a few more movies. He became well-known not only in the U.S. but in much of Europe as well, even playing a command performance for King George V of England in 1932.

Louis Armstrong with trumpet in hand beside dancer dressed as a skeleton
Louis Armstrong performing "Skeleton in the Closet" in the 1936 film Pennies from Heaven.  John Springer Collection / Getty Images

Big Changes

In the late 1930s, band leaders such as Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman helped to propel jazz into the mainstream, ushering in the swing music era. The swing bands were large, consisting of about 15 musicians. Although Armstrong preferred working with smaller, more intimate ensembles, he formed a large band in order to capitalize on the swing movement.

In 1938, Armstrong married longtime girlfriend Alpha Smith, but soon after the wedding he began seeing Lucille Wilson, a dancer from the Cotton Club. Marriage No. 3 ended in divorce in 1942 and Armstrong married Lucille, his fourth (and final) wife, the same year.

While Armstrong toured, often playing at military bases and army hospitals during World War II, Lucille found them a house in her hometown of Queens, New York. After years of traveling and staying in hotel rooms, Armstrong finally had a permanent home.

Louis Armstrong pictured with wife Lucille Armstrong
Louis Armstrong poses with fourth wife Lucille Armstrong.  John Kisch Archive / Getty Images

Louis and the All-Stars

In the late 1940s, large bands were falling out of favor, deemed too expensive to maintain. Armstrong formed a six-piece group called Louis Armstrong and the All-Stars. The group debuted at New York's Town Hall in 1947, playing New Orleans-style jazz to rave reviews.

Not everyone enjoyed Armstrong's somewhat "hammy" brand of entertainment. Many from the younger generation considered him a relic of the Old South and found his mugging and eye-rolling racially offensive because it was too similar to the performance of a minstrel in blackface.

Some experts see his performance style as a declaration and celebration of Black culture. Others, however, wonder whether he was just giving White people the entertainment he knew they wanted by presenting himself, a Black man, as clownish. Whatever the case, these characteristics became a lasting part of his persona and he was not taken seriously by young up-and-coming jazz musicians. Armstrong, however, saw his role as more than that of a musician: he was an entertainer.

Controversy and Racial Tension

Armstrong made 11 more movies in the 1950s. He toured Japan and Africa with the All-Stars and recorded his first singles. Soon he attracted even more attention, but this time not for his music.

Armstrong faced criticism in 1957 for speaking out against racial discrimination during the event in Little Rock, Arkansas, in which Black students were threatened and attacked by hateful White people while attempting to enter what should have been a newly integrated school. Upon hearing of this, Armstrong, then performing internationally for the State Department, canceled the Soviet Union leg of his tour.

During this time, the State Department was sending famous musicians, both Black and White, overseas to perform together. This was supposed to give the illusion of the U.S. as a superior, peaceful nation built on democracy, freedom, and equality. This "cultural diplomacy" effort was organized in order to win favor in communist countries and areas during the Cold War, and the U.S. was strategically using jazz and jazz musicians for good press and as a symbol of American democracy.

Armstrong's refusal to play in the USSR was done in protest of the U.S. government; specifically, President Eisenhower, who refused to do anything to help the Black students safely attend the school, and Gov. Orval Faubus, who continued to support keeping the Black students out. Armstrong, outraged and tired of being cooperative when his people were suffering, was no longer willing to pretend that conditions in the U.S. were anything close to favorable for Black Americans, as the U.S. government would have other countries believe.

After he canceled his tour in the Soviet Union and went back to playing U.S. shows with the All-Stars, Armstrong did an interview with Larry Lubenow of the Grand Forks Herald, during which he unexpectedly shared many instances of racial discrimination he'd experienced when performing in the South.

African American students being protected by U.S. soldiers as they enter Little Rock Central High School
Per President Eisenhower's orders to enforce integration, African American students enter Little Rock Central High School under the protection of armed U.S. soldiers.  Bettmann / Getty Images

In reference to the situation in Little Rock, he was recorded saying, "The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell." He also sang an expletive-ridden version of "The Star-Spangled Banner," though this never made it on the air, and made his distaste of the government even more clear when he called the president "two-faced" and Governor Faubus an "ignorant plowboy." This type of action was rare for Armstrong, who often said, "I don't get involved in politics. I just blow my horn."

Following this bold stand, some radio stations refused to play Armstrong's music. Other Black entertainers turned against him for overtly challenging the status quo because they were worried that he was risking undoing the progress Black Americans had made in society. The controversy, however, mostly faded after President Dwight Eisenhower finally sent the National Guard to Little Rock to facilitate integration and escort the students into the school. Many historians feel that Armstrong was partially responsible for this decision.

Criticized by Black Americans

But before bravely protesting segregation and the president's inaction in Little Rock, Armstrong was criticized by his own community for not doing enough. Some Black people at the time hated that his quiet and submissive demeanor tended to placate White people and make them feel more comfortable with Black Americans.

White people saw him as a contradictory member of the Black community and liked that he was reserved, respectful, and didn't ask for anything or cause problems for them. Many Black people, though, felt that Armstrong should be more outspoken about the horrors that Black Americans were facing and challenge White Americans rather than put them at ease. He was seen by many as "old-fashioned," and this wasn't a good thing.

Indeed, Armstrong mostly kept his thoughts about racism in America to himself. He was not known to take political stances when performing and he went along with being a "diplomatic ambassador" for the U.S. for a while. Until Little Rock, only those in Armstrong's close circle knew how he felt about politics and discrimination in America.

Shortly after his historic and controversial public outcry against the government, Armstrong's health began to sharply decline. On tour in Italy in 1959, he suffered a massive heart attack. After a week in the hospital, he flew back home. Despite warnings from physicians, Armstrong returned to a busy schedule of live performances.

Later Years and Death

After playing five decades without a No. 1 song, Armstrong finally made it to the top of the charts in 1964 with "Hello Dolly," the theme song for the Broadway play of the same name. The popular song knocked the Beatles from the top spot they had held for 14 consecutive weeks.

Armstrong was not involved much in politics after 1957. However, some experts believe that he might have been making a statement when he recorded the 1929 hit "Black and Blue," composed by Fats Waller, for the musical Hot Chocolates by Edith Wilson, in 1980. The lyrics to this song have been said to represent the plight of Black Americans, who were scorned, heavily discriminated against, and beaten (until they were black and blue with bruises) for the color of their skin:

"I'm white - inside - but that don't help my case
'Cause I can't hide what is in my face ...
My only sin is in my skin
What did I do to be so black and blue?"

By the late 1960s, Armstrong was still able to perform, despite kidney and heart problems. In the spring of 1971, he suffered another heart attack. Unable to recover, Armstrong died July 6, 1971, at age 69.

More than 25,000 mourners visited the body of Louis Armstrong as it lay in state and his funeral was televised nationally.

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