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We’re all familiar with the music of Louis Armstrong, but it is the man’s vibrant charm and purpose that saw him halt a bloody civil war. True story.
There aren’t many people, and that includes diplomats and politicians, who have the power to stop a war, albeit temporarily, but jazzman Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong did just that when he visited Central Africa in 1960. After Belgium granted independence to what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a bitter civil war erupted in that country, a bloody conflict that went on for five years (1960-1964) and resulted in the deaths of some 100,000 people.
Armstrong and his band visited in the city of Leopoldville – now Kinshasa – in October 1960 not really knowing what to expect, but as news of the band’s arrival permeated throughout the country, somehow a truce was achieved so that everybody could attend the concert and enjoy the music of one of the most famous people in the world. Reports say that around 175,000 people came to hear Armstrong blow his trumpet and the sounds of jazz filled the air and perhaps hearts as well. By some tacit understanding, once the concert had finished and the musicians had departed, hostilities resumed.
The power of music – enough to bring about a ceasefire. It’s an amazing and forceful story. Armstrong’s enormous talent, charisma and impish sense of humour made people want to stop whatever it was they were doing – even fighting a war – so they could listen to his distinctive improvisations, dazzling high notes and swinging scat singing.
A natural musician, Louis Armstrong was born on August 4th, 1901 in New Orleans into desperate poverty. He learned to play cornet during a stint in a boys’ home and later attracted the attention of local jazz musicians. By the age of 17, he’d joined Kid Ory’s band, the most famous band in New Orleans. A few short years later he was playing in King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, the hottest group in Chicago. He went on to play in other bands in other cities, building on the styles of the early jazz trumpet players, augmenting that with what he heard from other instrumentalists, experimenting with musical ideas and ultimately developing his own particular and unique style. In marked contrast to earlier players, Louis favoured lovely relaxed phrasings; he had a refined sense of rhythm and improvisation and it wasn’t long before his blazing cadenzas not only made him famous but changed the course of jazz, transforming it from an ensemble effort into an artistic vehicle for soloists.
The recordings he made with his Hot Five and later Hot Seven are often called the most influential jazz recordings ever made. Listen to West End Blues, recorded way back in 1928 with his Hot Five. If he recorded nothing else, this would still make Armstrong one of the greatest exponents of jazz ever. His unaccompanied opening, the sheer technical brilliance of his playing – play particular attention two and a half minutes in – and his scat singing are now legendary and still stop people in their tracks.
Much has been written about Armstrong’s influence on later generations of musicians, including luminaries like Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, BB King, Miles Davis, Wynton Marsalis, Nicholas Payton. Miles once said: “You can’t play nothing on modern trumpet that doesn’t come from him, not even modern shit. I can’t even remember a time when he sounded bad playing the trumpet. Never. Not even one time.”
Of course the truth is that Armstrong’s influence went way beyond jazz. Singers like Billie Holiday, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Tom Waits cited him as a major influence. Armstrong’s voice was more than just recognisable. He improvised when he sang – it was inventive and swinging and he, along with the great Ella Fitzgerald, made scat singing the art form it is today. Commentators have remarked that scat opened up new horizons for singers who followed him. Armstrong’s take on popular songs was personal and genuine. He made songs his own, whether they were jazz standards or pop songs of the day. His version of What a Wonderful World is so iconic it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999. (He was also inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.) His influence on popular singing is immeasurable. How about his take on La Vie en Rose recorded in 1950:
Armstrong was one of the few African-Americans whose art took precedence over his race. In mid-twentieth century America, rampant racism was very much still evident across society and Armstrong was often criticised for not speaking out against it, but he was in fact a strong supporter of the civil rights movement both morally and financially. For almost a decade he refused to play in his hometown of New Orleans because integrated bands were banned there; he returned there in 1965 after the Civil Rights Act was passed.
And although he once said he never got involved in politics, in 1957 when nine black students were prevented from integrating into a high school in Arkansas, he called President Eisenhower “two-faced” and cancelled a tour to the Soviet Union organised by the State Department saying “the government can go to hell”. He was the first black entertainer to speak out on that issue.
He’s been condemned for not being a more vocal activist, but it’s a little unfair to expect entertainers to be orators. When it was possible, Armstrong spoke out, but his prime mode of expression was his music. Musicologists have written that jazz helped to break down barriers between black and white. Jazz – infectious, joyful and satisfying – made white audiences realise how much black culture had to offer them. Louis Armstrong was a household name across the globe so his contribution to this breaking down of barriers was truly significant. A 1991 article in The New York Times commented that he “forced whites to rethink their racism whether they knew it or not”.
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Louis Armstrong toured all over the world, performing in some 300 concerts each year, which earned him the nickname “Ambassador Satch” (also the name of one of his albums). He appeared in movies, on radio and television and made the cover of Time magazine in February 1949. He had recording hits across the globe and in 1964 his Hello Dolly bumped the Beatles down to second place in the charts, making him the oldest ever American (he was 62) to have a number one song.
Louis Armstrong was genial, warm, humorous and incredibly gifted. His connection with audiences was solid. A musical innovator whose music was accessible to everyone, he was kind of a crossover artist in some ways, combining black and white, jazz and pop, art and entertainment. He died in 1971 just a month shy of his 70th birthday. One of the biggest celebrities of twentieth century culture, Satchmo has had untold influence on musical and popular culture and his music continues to make people happy.
“My life has always been my music, it’s always come first, but the music ain’t worth nothing if you can’t lay it on the public. The main thing is to live for that audience, because what you’re there for is to please the people.”
On that pleasing thought, let’s go out with this 1930 recording of Peanut Vendor. Thanks Pops.