This weekend, August 3-5, we’ll celebrate the 12th annual Satchmo Summer Fest, a music festival in the French Quarter at the Old U.S. Mint paying tribute to New Orleans’ favorite son, Louis Armstrong. There are special lectures and seminars on his music and the early jazz of New Orleans, as well as a stellar lineup of performances by brass bands, traditional jazz bands, and jazz bands, all tuned up to show off Louis’ music. And of course, there’s always wonderful food at New Orleans festivals.
Satchmo was born onAugust 4, 1901 (although he claimed to be born on the 4th of July!) The first Summer Fest commemorated the 100th anniversary of his birth. Armstrong grew up poor in New Orleans. His legal father abandoned his mother when he was an infant, and he didn’t see much of her either. She went to live in the Perdido/Liberty St. neighborhood known as Storyville, home to pimps and prostitutes. Armstrong’s paternal grandmother and uncle took care of him. He briefly went to school, but quit when he was 11 and earned money by singing on the streets with other youngsters and working random jobs.
When he fired a 38-caliber pistol on New Year’s Eve 1913 (probably acquired from one of his “stepfathers”), Armstrong was arrested and ended up in a Colored Home for Boys. Its structure and discipline helped him develop, but he got a real start in life when Peter Davis, his professor who taught at the school, introduced him to the bugle and cornet. He played in the Home’s brass band at picnics, socials, and funerals. Young Louis rapidly absorbed what he could learn from the New Orleans players who were on the scene in those days–Bunk Johnson, Buddy Petit, Kid Or, and especially “King” Joe Oliver. He started playing with Kid Ory’s band in 1919, when Oliver left behind New Orleans. Before long, Armstrong went up to Chicago to play with King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, but he soon struck out on his own. Switching from cornet to trumpet, he became a star.
New Orleans’ own back-of-town rough and rowdy music developed into a new art form—jazz– under his leadership. As an individual, Armstrong essentially invented the virtuoso solo that is now standard in jazz music, but his syncopated, rhythmic style and prototype “scat” singing also paved the way for later jazz singers like Ella Fitzgerald. Duke Ellington called him “Mr. Jazz.” Armstrong’s voice, trumpet, and beaming face made him famous. He spread the joyous spirit of New Orleans music everywhere he went. He traveled and performed the world over for the Department of State, becoming “America’s ambassador of goodwill.”
Armstrong died in 1971. At his funeral, honorary pallbearers included Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Pearl Bailey, Count Basie, Frank Sinatra, and Johnny Carson, among others. He was one of a kind. In New Orleans, we never stop learning from his example of grace, talent, and incandescent joy. Go out and find out more at Satchmo Summer Fest!