Horn of Plenty

The man who unleashed the trumpet's voice

Cover Story

July 09, 2000|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Sun Music Critic

Of all the musicians the United States produced during the 20th century, it would be hard to imagine one who had greater impact than Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong, whose centennial we celebrate this year. Elvis Presley may have had more hits, Leonard Bernstein more cachet and Michael Jackson more money, but no one was as well-known or musically influential as Satchmo.

Like Jackson, Armstrong enjoyed worldwide popularity and was a beloved personality as much as he was an accomplished musician. Yet Armstrong accomplished this in the Jim Crow days of the '30s and '40s, when blacks were treated like second-class citizens and the notion of an African-American superstar was almost unthinkable.

Like Bernstein, Armstrong was a genius whose musical abilities stretched across stylistic boundaries. Bernstein, though, owed his technique to years of conservatory training, while Armstrong was largely self-taught. Even so, Armstrong's music was lauded by such European composers as Stravinsky and Milhaud, and he was considered such an exemplary representative of U.S. culture that he was nicknamed "Ambassador Satch."

Like Presley, Armstrong was proclaimed the king of his kind of music. But as much as Elvis did to popularize rock and roll, no one would argue that he originated the style. Satchmo, on the other hand, effectively invented jazz, setting down the basics of swing rhythm and melodic improvisation. He also had an enormous impact on jazz singing, having made the first recording of scat singing in 1925 with "Heebie Jeebies."

Indeed, it's likely that the last 100 years would have sounded very different had Armstrong not taken up music.

Armstrong grew up dirt-poor in a ramshackle section of New Orleans known as Brick Row. Armstrong believed all his life that he had been born on the Fourth of July, 1900 -- an auspicious start for such a markedly American musician -- but in 1988 a baptismal certificate was discovered, confirming his birth date as August 4, 1901. His parents split up shortly after his birth, and Armstrong was largely raised by his maternal grandmother, Josephine.

Turn-of-the-century New Orleans was a rough-and-tumble town, particularly the parts Armstrong grew up in. But it also had its playful side, one part of which was the practice of giving nicknames. "Fellers would greet each other, 'Hello, Gate' or 'Face' or whatever it was," Armstrong said in an interview once. "They'd be calling me Dipper, Gatemouth, Satchelmouth, all kinds of things ... any kind of name for a laugh."

"Satchmo," the nickname most frequently applied, was a gift from the press, coined when journalists compressed Satchelmouth into Satch'mo. Among musicians, however, he was affectionately known as "Pops," an acknowledgement of his stature as the father of jazz.

As a youth, Armstrong was certainly aware of New Orleans' musical culture -- it was hard not to be, in those days -- but he received no formal training in music before he was arrested as a juvenile offender at age 12 and sent to the Colored Waif's Home. Some sources suggest that he had never played an instrument at all before being sent off to the home, but Armstrong himself was quoted as saying he'd played cornet before being incarcerated. Indeed, saxophonist Sidney Bechet said that before being sent away, the music-besotted Armstrong had studied informally with cornet legend Bunk Johnson. Regardless of where he got his start, once Armstrong was released from the home in 1914, he was intent on becoming a professional musician.

He was in the right place at the right time. While the rest of the country was still dazzled by the brittle syncopations of ragtime, New Orleans in the Teens was in thrall to "hot" music -- the upbeat sound people today associate with Betty Boop and the early Warner Brothers cartoons. Although hot music, compared to ragtime, left a lot of leeway for the musicians, it was still dependent on arrangements and strictly defined roles within the band. Improvisation was not a factor.

Armstrong changed all that. Although he had been building a reputation in New Orleans since 1917, playing with bands led by King Oliver and Kid Ory, it wasn't until 1922 that Armstrong's genius became obvious. Oliver had invited Armstrong to come to Chicago and play second cornet with his band, and within weeks the Windy City's music scene was abuzz with talk of the musical fireworks that took place when the King traded solos with this young heir apparent.

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