6 July marks that day that Louis Armstrong died in 1971.
Armstrong was born into a poor family in New Orleans, Louisiana. His grandfather had been a slave. At age 11, Armstrong dropped out of school and began doing whatever he could to scrape by. This included joining a troupe of street performers and doing odd jobs for a local Jewish family named Karnofsky. The Karnofsky’s had a junk hauling business and Armstrong frequently witnessed the discrimination they faced. This prompted Armstrong to wear a Star of David around his neck, inspired by the family’s perseverance and kindness to him.
After gaining experience playing in the brass bands of New Orleans, Armstrong began his life as a professional musician, traveling up and down the Mississippi river on steam boats.
Armstrong would find great success in both New York and Chicago in the roaring 20’s and would also begin his first Jazz recordings. In the 1940’s Armstrong settled permanently in Queens, New York, and began to tour almost continuously. In 1950, his American version of “C’est si bon” became a world-wide smash hit and in 1964 his recording of “Hello Dolly” spent 22 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
Armstrong was not politically active, but occasionally did speak out on matters of Civil Rights. When the State Department hoped to send him on a goodwill tour to the Soviet Union he refused, saying the government could “go to hell” for “the way they are treating my people in the South.” It was later revealed that the FBI kept a file on him.
Below is a clip of Armstrong and Jack Teagarden performing “Rockin’ Chair Blues” in 1957, in which Armstrong’s charisma and unique style is on full display.