He was released from Beth Israel Hospital a few weeks ago after spending 10 weeks there, undergoing treatment for heart and kidney ailments:
“In New Orleans, I played at as many funerals as I could get,” he mused, “and cats died like flies, so I got a lot of nice gigs out of that.
“It’s business. They going to enjoy blowing over me, ain’t they? Cats will be coming from California and everywhere else just to play.”
Whether they play or not, those cats will be there Friday to pay tribute to Pops, a trumpeter who could even put soul into the stuffy State Department.
State Department Mourns
Spokesman Charles W. Bray said yesterday, “The Department of State, for which he traveled on tours to almost every corner of the globe, mourns the passing of this great American.”
New York Daily News
Louis (Satchmo) Armstrong died two days after his 71st birthday. Published Wednesday July 7, 1971.
Satchmo didn’t speak like that, but he made himself clearer than any diplomat.
“I play the trumpet in any language,” he used to say. “If they understand it, that’s any language.
“A note’s a note in any language, and if you hit it – beautiful – they dig it.”
In London once, he prepared to play a number and looked up from the stage with the famous grin. “This one’s for you, Rex,” he said. From the royal box, King George V acknowledged the honor.
Armstrong first picked up a horn in New Orleans, where he was born in 1900 to a laborer and his wife, a former domestic servant. The town’s notorious brothel district, Storyville, was wide open and young Louis grew up in the midst of thieves and cutthroats, prostitutes and madams.
He loved it, but particularly he loved the jazz that was evolving among musicians who played in the plush brothels. Jelly Roll Morton played piano at Miss Lulu White’s Mahogany Hall on Basin St.
Still in shorts pants, Armstrong learned to play a little toy slide whistle. He would listen as musicians on bandwagons touted their appearances at local clubs.
“Two wagons would park head-to-head and blow until one band was reduced to a frazzle,” he remembered.
Long afterwards, Armstrong told writer Larry L. King that his first professional gig was at 15 as a substitute cornet player in a honky tonky. He made 15 cents.
Sang in Street with Pals
Picture showing Louis Armstrong playing trumpet for his wife, Lucille, in front of the Great Sphinx and pyramids in Giza, Egypt.
“But I sang for my money long before I played for it,” he said. “When I was around 12, we formed this quartet. We’d sing on the streets and in taverns – pass the hat; might make six bits, a dollar.
“After hours all them prostitutes would be juicing, having a little fun, and they would offer us big tips to entertain ’em. Some would hold us on their laps and we would sniff the pretty scents and powders they wore.”
When he was 16, Armstrong found a patron in King Joe Oliver. Oliver gave the youngster a new horn, fed him and, most important, got him jobs.
“Lotta claims been made that Bunk Johnson put me wise to trumpet,” Armstrong said later. “Bunk hisself helped that story along. No such thing. Joe Oliver was the man.”
Aged 19, Armstrong married the first of his four wives, Daisy Parker. Once she found him with another woman and went at him with a brickbat.
“I ain’t been no angel,” Armstrong said later. “But I never once set out to harm NO cat.”
In 1922, his reputation already growing, Armstrong took the train to Chicago to join Oliver as second trumpet for $50 a week. It was a tough town, then and later.
“One night this big hood crashes my dressing room in Chicago and instructs me that I will open in such-and-such a club in New York the next night,” Armstrong told King.
“I tell him I got this Chicago engagement and don’t plan no traveling. And I turn my back on him to show I’m so COOL. Then I hear this sound: snap! click! I turn around and he was pulled this vast revolver on me and cocked it. Jesus, it look like a cannon and sound like death!
“So I look down that steel and say, ‘Weeell, maybe I do open in New York tomorrow.’”
Louis Armstrong displayed his broad smile in this 1932 file photo, made in Chicago to promote Armstrong's first European tour.
Instead, Armstrong contacted every Chicago tough he and his friends knew – “it must have been 1,800 of ’em” – and asked them to pass the word he wasn’t to be messed with. He didn’t go to New York.
He organized his first band, Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five, and began a period of spontaneous inventiveness that produced records now known as classics and worth hundreds of dollars.
Critics said his lips and strong teeth gave him a natural advantage with a trumpet or cornet. That vast mouth also led to his nicknames, first “Dippermouth,” then “Sathelmouth,” later shortened to “Satchmo.”
In later years, Armstrong was accused of becoming too much the showman, relying too much on the white handkerchiefs, the teeth-baring grin, the voice that seemed to come gurgling up from an emptying wash basin.
Militants accused him of playing the Uncle Tom for his white audiences.
Billie Holiday watched him on TV once and murmured, “God bless Louis. He Toms from the heart.”
But Armstrong could get angry about the sufferings of his people. After seeing the televised gassing and clubbing of blacks in the South, he said:
“They would beat Jesus if he was black and marched… Tell me, how is it possible that human beings treat each other in this way today? Hitler is dead a long time. Or is he?”
But, above all, Armstrong was a musician who simply wanted to entertain people.
“I believe in myself, and I know what I can do when I pick up the horn,” he said shortly before his death. “Lots of guys just hoping that they play something. I don’t have to go in a corner and practice nothing.
“I play a piece of music and the thought of the life of that tune comes in my head… just the music, that’s all I’m interested in.”
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