He told us that he was born on July 4, 1900, an easy date to remember. Throughout his life, Louis Armstrong celebrated his birthday on this American holiday, but recently unearthed documents show that the actually date was August 4,1901.
Why the discrepancy? Probably because Louis didn’t know, and the 4th of July had a nice ring to it — he was by no means the only one to adopt that date.
So much for trivia, and that is precisely what such information as Armstrong’s birthdate become when one looks at the broader picture and considers the enormous impact this man from New Orleans had on music.
He was, of course, the embodiment of jazz, the greatest improviser of them all, and he practically invented the art of the jazz vocal. No practitioner of any other art form has towered so high above all other artists in his field—he was more important to jazz than Beethoven was to classical music or Shakespeare to drama.
But music was only a part of Armstrong’s immense talent, for he was also the quintessential entertainer.
Several years ago, the ABC network presented a made-for-television movie in which Ben Vereen portrayed Louis Armstrong. Forget about all the historical inaccuracies it contained, and never mind that the script was pedestrian, what really struck anyone who knew Louis Armstrong was Vereen’s portrayal.
From beginning to end, Vereen’s Armstrong walked around with a broad grin and bulging eyes—it said a great deal about how many American’s viewed Louis.
But, although he was often accused of it, Louis Armstrong was no Uncle Tom.
He was bewildered when civil rights activists to whose cause he had contributed generously criticized him for pandering to white audiences by playing the black buffoon, but a double standard exists, for this is a role that Bill Cosby—who once called Armstrong’s greatest performances “Mickey Mouse” music— is often applauded for.
The truth is that Louis Armstrong refused to go on a State Department tour of Russia, in the late Fifties, because he felt that the Government was not doing enough to prevent racial injustice. He was fiercely patriotic, but fully aware of his country’s failings.
“People never really understood Louis,” Lil Armstrong, his second wife, told me in a 1961 interview. “They don’t know that his smile is just a part of his act, and when he clowns it’s because he’s performing. Louis is a very serious person when you get to know him, but he fools people because he’s got such a great sense of humor. Those writers can say all they want about him, but the fans love him—just look at how popular he is everywhere he goes.”
Indeed, even in the early Thirties, when he made his first trip to Copenhagen, ten thousand Danes showed up to greet him at the railroad station; almost thirty years later, an equal number of Africans waited to see him carried into the Leopoldville Stadium on a red throne borne by tribesmen. “It was real nice,” he said later, ” ’cause my ancestors came from Africa. I felt at home there.”
Louis was still unknown when he left New Orleans to join trumpeter King Oliver’s orchestra in Chicago. “He would have gone to the end of the earth to play with Joe [Oliver],” said Lil Armstrong, who was Oliver’s pianist when Louis came on board, “but he played much better than Joe—I used to tell him that all the time, but he didn’t want to believe me.”
Louis sparked the Oliver band, and word of his amazing performances soon brought throngs to the Dreamland, where the band played. “Every big-time act that played Chicago dropped in to hear, see and be seen,” Lil recalled. “Many famous white performers came to seek inspiration at the Dreamland, or so they said—actually, they were just stealing our material. Our own stars also came by, but they didn’t dare borrow.”
In 1924, Louis made his first trip to New York, where he joined Fletcher Henderson’s big band at Roseland Ballroom. While in New York, he made numerous recordings with Henderson and added memorable touches to sides by Bessie Smith and other blues singers, but he was basically still in the background, and that bothered Lil.
“Fletcher never mentioned any of his musicians’ names in his billing,” she explained, “and I cared less about Louis playing with a big-name band if his name wasn’t anywhere to be seen.”
To rectify that, she persuaded the Dreamland’s manager to book a band under her leadership, with Louis as the prominently advertised star. “I guess I had a lot of nerve,” Lil reflected forty years later, “but I got my way, even though Bill Bottoms, Dreamland’s manager thought $75 was an awful lot of money for Louis.
Louis thought so, too, but Lil managed to get him back to Chicago with a threatening telegram: COME BY STARTING DATE OR NOT AT ALL.” He arrived promptly, and what he saw in front of the Dreamland erased his disbelief, a huge sign that read “Madame Lil Armstrong’s Dreamland Syncopators featuring LOUIS ARMSTRONG, THE WORLD’S GREATEST CORNET PLAYER.”
Louis and Lil opened at the Dreamland on November 6, 1925. A few days later, he began recording a classic series of sides with his Hot Five, a group that existed only in the studio, captured the essence of New Orleans jazz, and forever carved a cavernous niche for Louis Armstrong in the history of American music. Louis would never again take second billing.
When he died, in 1971, Armstrong left a rich legacy of films and recordings that continue to inspire young and old artists alike. Perhaps the late Miles Davis put it best when he remarked “You know, you can’t play anything on a horn that Louis hasn’t played.”
Starting September 22 and running through January 8, 1995, the newly renovated Queens Museum of Art will feature Louis Armstrong: A Cultural Legacy, an exhibition that traces Armstrong’s life from his New Orleans childhood days to his final years, when he lived in Corona, Queens.
Comprising over 375 works, this exhibit will eventually travel to seven other venues under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, bringing to thousands of people rare documents, photographs, memorabilia, video clips, film and audio recordings that chronicle the life and accomplishments of this extraordinary artist.
In conjunction with the exhibit, a series of concerts, workshops, and lectures will be launched on September 25 at Queens College, which houses the Louis Armstrong Archives. A day-long symposium will start at 10 am on November 12; attendees are offered free bus transportation from Lower Manhattan, with departure at 9 am.
Following the symposium— which will be held at Aaron Copland Auditorium, on the Queens College campus—attendees wishing to view the exhibit will get free bus transportation to the museum. For details, and to make reservations, call the Queens College Museum at (718) 592-9700, extension 132.
See the complete issue of Routes, A Guide to Black Entertainment September 13-22, 1994 as PDF.