Louis Armstrong entertains a young fan backstage.
Louis Armstrong entertains a young fan backstage.
By his early thirties, Louis Armstrong had already revolutionized jazz forever. Working with his mentor "King" Oliver in Chicago, Armstrong explored and expanded the sounds of his native New Orleans. He developed his improvisational genius with Fletcher Henderson's orchestra in New York, then returned to Chicago already billed as "The World's Greatest Trumpet Player," and recorded the legendary Hot Fives sessions. By the early 1930s, Armstrong had displayed unprecedented virtuosity, sculpting the jazz solo into a unique art form and invigorating the jazz world with a new rhythmic vision of swing.
By 1932, Armstrong was the preeminent voice in jazz. But the gangsters who controlled the Chicago nightclubs where he played were not nearly as casual about their businesses as Armstrong was on the bandstand. Louis fled town. Soon afterward he found himself in Europe, where he stayed until 1935.
When Armstrong did return to the U.S., he faced immediate problems. His second wife Lil pressed him with an alimony suit. A split lip hindered his ability to perform, and two different agents – Tommy Rockwell and Johnny Collins – claimed him as their client.
His fortunes improved when Armstrong reconnected with Joe Glaser. Once manager of the Sunset Café, where Armstrong moonlighted in 1927, Glaser resolved the managerial dispute and settled with Lil. Glaser represented Armstrong vigorously for the remainder of his life, often standing up for the performer against racist business practices.
In 1936, Armstrong's career was on the rise again: He performed regularly on a sponsored radio show, appeared in the movie Pennies From Heaven with Bing Crosby, and released a new autobiography. Before long, he signed a recording contract with Decca Records, and cut a new hit single: "Swing That Music." Many of Armstrong's Decca recordings were commercial hits, enjoyed by the public, and lauded by his fellow musicians. At the same time, his appearances in movies made him an international superstar.
Indeed, by 1938 Louis was back at the top of his game. But there were still hard times in his personal life. He was rocked by the passing of King Oliver. Soon afterward, he finally secured a divorce from Lil. A month later, he married his long-time mistress Alpha Smith, but the marriage didn't last.
But it wouldn't be too long before Armstrong had found romantic happiness once again — this time for good. Louis and Lucille Armstrong were wed in October, 1942, and in March of the following year, they purchased a home in the outer reaches of Queens, New York. The house gave Louis the domestic stability he sought after many years of itinerant touring, and it showed: the Armstrongs happily resided there for the rest of their lives.
His personal fulfillment fortified Louis against new challenges. The musicians' union recording ban of 1942, coupled with the advent of World War II, prevented Armstrong from recording frequently. But he still managed to leverage his talent to help the war effort. He performed for the troops, over the Armed Forces Radio Service, and recorded on "V-Discs," highly durable records distributed to military personnel.
Shortly after World War II, Louis co-starred with vocalist Billie Holiday in the film New Orleans. Though the movie was not a hit, it would go down as a career highlight for both great singers, and Holiday cited Armstrong as one of her chief influences.
But public tastes in jazz and popular music were evolving. A new generation of musicians rose to the spotlight, performing a harmonically complex, solo-oriented, small group style of music — a style called bebop. Armstrong rejected the new trend; it ran counter to his own tried-and-true aesthetic. At the same time, young black audiences were increasingly flocking to acts like those of saxophonist Louis Jordan, whose music prefigured the R&B and rock of later decades.
In response, Armstrong reinvented himself one more time. With big bands in decline, his brilliant appearance at New York's Town Hall in 1947 gave birth to the small ensemble called the Louis Armstrong All-Stars. Different versions of the band would accompany Armstrong on his tours throughout the rest of his career, referencing — but never directly copying — traditional New Orleans styles.
While working with the All-Stars, Armstrong still found time to produce a parade of widely varying hits. With conductor-arranger Gordon Jenkins, he resurrected the old tune "Blueberry Hill." Encouraged by Columbia Records' George Avakian, he reinvigorated the works of blues pioneer W.C. Handy and pianist Fats Waller, and blew new life into Kurt Weill's "Mack the Knife." For Norman Granz's upstart Verve Records, he collaborated magnificently with Ella Fitzgerald on a number of top-selling albums. And in 1964, "Hello Dolly" knocked no less than the Beatles off the top of the charts to become a number one hit.
Armstrong was also an official ambassador of music and goodwill, performing jazz throughout the world under the sponsorship of the U.S. Department of State. He was also outspoken against prejudice: his vision, as reflected in the diverse ensembles he worked with, was a colorblind world free of racism.
Louis Armstrong died on July 6, 1971 in New York, but his touring and recording schedule was full until the very end. Like his most enduring song, Armstrong left behind a "wonderful world" of American entertainment. Against all odds, he reached the top of that world, in the process changing it profoundly, and forever.