Sunday, August 4, 2013
BORN ON THIS DAY: LOUIS ARMSTRONG
Armstrong often stated that he was born on July 4, 1900, a date that has been noted in many biographies. Although he died in 1971, it was not until the mid-1980s that his true birth date of August 4, 1901 was discovered by researcher Tad Jones through the examination of baptismal records. Armstrong was born into a very poor family in New Orleans, Louisiana, the grandson of slaves. He spent his youth in poverty, in a rough neighborhood of Uptown New Orleans, known as “Back of the Town”, as his father, William Armstrong (1881–1922), abandoned the family when Louis was an infant and took up with another woman. His mother, Mary "Mayann" Albert (1886–1942), then left Louis and his younger sister Beatrice Armstrong Collins (1903–1987) in the care of his grandmother, Josephine Armstrong, and at times, his Uncle Isaac. At five, he moved back to live with his mother and her relatives, and saw his father only in parades.
He attended the Fisk School for Boys, where he likely had early exposure to music. He brought in some money as a paperboy and also by finding discarded food and selling it to restaurants, but it was not enough to keep his mother from prostitution. He hung out in dance halls close to home, where he observed everything from licentious dancing to the quadrille. For extra money he also hauled coal to Storyville, the famed red-light district, and listened to the bands playing in the brothels and dance halls, especially Pete Lala's where Joe "King" Oliver performed and other famous musicians would drop in to jam.
After dropping out of the Fisk School at age eleven, Armstrong joined a quartet of boys who sang in the streets for money. But he also started to get into trouble. Cornet player Bunk Johnson said he taught Armstrong (then 11) to play by ear at Dago Tony's Tonk in New Orleans, although in his later years Armstrong gave the credit to Oliver. Armstrong hardly looked back at his youth as the worst of times but instead drew inspiration from it, “Every time I close my eyes blowing that trumpet of mine—I look right in the heart of good old New Orleans... It has given me something to live for.”
He also worked for a Lithuanian-Jewish immigrant family, the Karnofskys, who had a junk hauling business and gave him odd jobs. They took him in and treated him as almost a family member, knowing he lived without a father, and would feed and nurture him. He later wrote a memoir of his relationship with the Karnofskys titled, Louis Armstrong + the Jewish Family in New Orleans, La., the Year of 1907. In it he describes his discovery that this family was also subject to discrimination by "other white folks' nationalities who felt that they were better than the Jewish race... I was only seven years old but I could easily see the ungodly treatment that the White Folks were handing the poor Jewish family whom I worked for." Armstrong wore a Star of David pendant for the rest of his life and wrote about what he learned from them: "how to live—real life and determination". The influence of Karnofsky is remembered in New Orleans by the Karnofsky Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to accepting donated musical instruments to "put them into the hands of an eager child who could not otherwise take part in a wonderful learning experience."
Armstrong with his first trumpet instructor, Peter Davis, in 1965.Armstrong developed his cornet playing seriously in the band of the New Orleans Home for Colored Waifs, where he had been sent multiple times for general delinquency, most notably for a long term after firing his stepfather's pistol into the air at a New Year's Eve celebration, as police records confirm. Professor Peter Davis (who frequently appeared at the Home at the request of its administrator, Captain Joseph Jones) instilled discipline in and provided musical training to the otherwise self-taught Armstrong. Eventually, Davis 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. At fourteen he was released from the Home, living again with his father and new stepmother and then back with his mother and also back to the streets and their temptations. Armstrong got his first dance hall job at Henry Ponce’s where Black Benny became his protector and guide. He hauled coal by day and played his cornet at night.
He played in the city's frequent brass band parades and listened to older musicians every chance he got, learning from Bunk Johnson, Buddy Petit, Kid Ory, and above all, Joe "King" Oliver, who acted as a mentor and father figure to the young musician. Later, he played in the brass bands and riverboats of New Orleans, and began traveling with the well-regarded band of Fate Marable, which toured on a steamboat up and down the Mississippi River. He described his time with Marable as, "going to the University," since it gave him a much wider experience working with written arrangements.
In 1919, Joe Oliver decided to go north and resigned his position in Kid Ory's band; Armstrong replaced him. He also became second trumpet for the Tuxedo Brass Band, a society band. The rest is sweet musical history, and Armstrong would continue a exciting and monumental jazz career for the next fifty years...