The Jazz Legend That Turned Pain And Abandonment Into Musical Treasures
August 4, 2018|María Isabel Carrasco Cara Chards
Louis Armstrong once said he "was determined to play my horn against all odds, and I had to sacrifice a whole lot of pleasure to do so." All his life this jazz legend was told by everybody he couldn't do anything, he proved them wrong by becoming one of the best musicians in the world.
It’s easy to sink ourselves in those dark moments in our life and get stuck in the pain and sorrow. Sometimes, those experiences may create such impact that they may stay to lead our lives. However, some people in history channeled those emotions and turned them into something legendary and sublime, leaving a huge mark in culture. One of those rare specimens was the legendary Louis Armstrong, an American trumpeter and singer, a man who turned his tragic life into a musical expression that continues to inspire and move our hearts.
Louis Daniel Armstrong was born in a poor neighborhood in New Orleans on August 4, 1901 (though he always claimed he had been born in July 1900). His father, a factory worker, left his family when he was very young. At five, Louis was sent to his grandmother since his mother lived a life of poverty, both economically and affectively.
Later on, he came back to his mother but the economic situation wasn’t the best and so she had to prostitute herself to provide for him and his sister but even then it wasn’t enough. When Armstrong was really young he had to start working in an attempt to improve their precarious situation. He first worked for a Jewish family, the Karnofskys. With them, he found the love and support he had never experienced to the point that he used a star of David for the rest of his life to honor them. They encouraged him to pursue his passion for music; actually, Mr. Karnofsky was the one who helped him buy his first used cornet.
One day, by the time he had dropped school, he grabbed his step-father’s gun and shot to the air in the New Year’s Eve celebration. He was arrested and sent to a juvenile correctional where treatment wasn’t particularly friendly. He served about two years and when he was out he was sent to his actual father who had also remarried and already had two kids. When her step-mother gave birth to a baby girl, his father sent Louis back to his mother abandoning him again for the second time.
Somehow he realized he was by his own and that if he wanted to do something in life he had to work hard to get it. Back home he got a job at a dance hall where he met with local musicians and learned from them. Soon, he was playing with brass bands at the local parades. By 1922, he moved to Chicago following his mentor, friend and idol King Oliver. An open-minded city where black people had more chances than in his natal New Orleans and soon he got a place at one of Chicago’s most important jazz bands of the decade. He started earning good money, he had his own apartment, and for the first time, things were looking bright to him.
Not only did Armstrong had developed a unique musical style, he was also very ambitious so he would do anything he had to shine and scale in the music business. By 1924, he decided the best move was to leave Chicago and try his luck in New York where he joined the Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra, one of the top dance bands in the city. Of course, he gave the band something innovative and unique to the point that the band passed through history as the first big jazz band in the history of the US.
Unfortunately, while the twenties had been the time of fun and dance, by the end of the decade the Great Depression hit badly to the music and entertainment business. Many of the most important dance halls and clubs had to shut down, making many musicians switch professions (if they were lucky to find a job). Armstrong decided to move to Los Angeles, there was still some space for music and entertainment. He was hired to play at the New Cotton Club which was one of the favorite spots of Hollywood’s elite. Though he didn’t stay for long, his passionate and peculiar gritty voice became a sensation.
His fame took him to travel throughout Europe touring setting for good his name as a music legend in stone. He also appeared in movies like "Hello, Dolly!" or "High Society", becoming the first African-American to get featured in a billboard. He continued working until his final days with that same strength and passion that characterized him.
Louis recorded so many classics and his role in music is considered to be one of the tops in the history of music, for developing a style where the instrumentalist and the vocalist are the same which later had a strong influence in many other jazz musicians.
We might remember him for classics such as "Mack The Knife", "Blueberry Hill" or "Hello, Dolly!", this last which knocked the Beatles off the charts, but one unmissable is "What A Wonderful World", written specially for him to calm down the social and political climate in 1967.
He was always a rising star with no limits willing to show the people all those intense emotions through his voice and trumpet, and in a way, through it lured so many that he was never to be alone ever.
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Cover photo by Adi Holzer