Born into a very poor family in New Orleans, Louisiana, the grandson of slaves, Armstrong spent his youth in poverty, in a rough neighborhood of Uptown New Orleans, known as “Back of the Town”. His father, William Armstrong abandoned the family when Louis was an infant and took up with another woman. His mother,Mary “Mayann” Albert left Louis and his younger sister Beatrice Armstrong Collinswith with his grandmother, Josephine Armstrong, and at times, his Uncle Isaac.
Attending the Fisk School for Boys, where he likely had early exposure to music, he hung out in dance halls close to home, where he listened to the bands playing in the brothels and dance halls. Dropping out of school at age eleven, Armstrong joined a quartet of boys who sang in the streets for money. He started to get into trouble. Under the tutelage of cornet player Bunk Johnson, something for which he would give credit to King Oliver, he started to learn to play cornet by ear.
After firing his stepfather’s pistol into the air at a New Year’s Eve celebration, as police records confirm, something for which he was sent to the New Orleans Home for Colored Waifs, Armstrong developed his cornet playing seriously in the Home band. Professor Peter Davis (a visiting professor of the Home) instilled discipline in and provided musical training to the otherwise self-taught Armstrong. He eventually made Armstrong the band leader. The Home band played around New Orleans and the thirteen year old Louis began to draw attention by his cornet playing, starting him on a musical career.
He played in the city’s frequent brass band parades and listened to older musicians every chance he got. Later, he played in the brass bands and riverboats of New Orleans. At 18 he got a job in the Kid Ory Band in New Orleans. Four years later, in 1922, he went to Chicago, where he played second coronet in the Creole Jazz Band. He made his first recordings with that band in 1923.
In 1929 Armstrong appeared on Broadway in “Hot Chocolates”, an all-black revue written by Andy Razaf and pianist/composer Fats Waller. In it he introduced Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’, his first popular song hit.
In 1932 he made a tour of Europe, and performed for King George V. Forgetting he had been told that performers were not to refer to members of the royal family while playing for them, just before picking up his trumpet for a really hot number, he announced: “This one’s for you, Rex.”
Armstrong died of a heart attack in his sleep on July 6, 1971, a month before his 70th birthday, and 11 months after playing a famous show at the Waldorf-Astoria’s Empire Room. Residing in Corona, Queens, New York City, at the time of his death, He was interred in Flushing Cemetery, Flushing, in Queens, New York City. His honorary pallbearers included Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Pearl Bailey, Count Basie, Harry James, Frank Sinatra, Ed Sullivan, Earl Wilson, Alan King, Johnny Carson and David Frost. Peggy Lee sang The Lord’s Prayer at the services while Al Hibbler sang “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” and Fred Robbins, a long-time friend, gave the eulogy.
He was elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (under the category Early Influence). Charter inductee of the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame in 1978. Pictured on a 32¢ US commemorative postage stamp in the Legends of American Music series, issued 1 September 1995. He was awarded a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for Recording at 7601 Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood, California.
To what movies did Armstrong contribute music?
1913 – Wesley Addy (actor: What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Kiss Me Deadly, Seconds; died Dec 31, 1996)
1944 – Richard Belzer (comedian, actor: Mad Dog and Glory, Homicide: Life on the Street, The Big Picture, The Groove Tube)
1952 – Kristoffer Tabori (Siegel) (actor: Chicago Story, Seventh Avenue)
1955 – Billy Bob Thornton (actor: One False Move, Tombstone, On Deadly Ground, Primary Colors, Armageddon, Pushing Tin, Franky Goes to Hollywood)
1961 – Lauren Tom (actress: The Joy Luck Club, When a Man Loves a Woman, Grace Under Fire, DAG, Max Steel)