“All music is folk music. I ain’t never heard a horse sing a song.” – Louis Armstrong (1901-1971)
Louis Armstrong had the sort of grin that makes you think he was privy to the soothing secret of the universe that has somehow escaped the rest of us. That toothy smile would be the sage of his journey throughout a life of sanguine defiance. Naturally, a smile alone can’t win global acclaim, but it said so much about the man behind it and the music he emanated, that to say it defined his legacy is the antithesis of reductive; it signifies everything about him: a simple gift of sunny joy.
As far as the secret of the universe goes, Louis Armstrong would tell you that he happened upon it at an early age; exactly six years old, in fact. He was one of the lucky New Orleans few who witness the cloud shifting ways of the mythologised father of jazz: Buddy Bolden. Now, the records of Bolden are so tattered, and the hand to mouth tales have become so tortuous that he stands as more of a patron saint of jazz, some sort of half pioneering virtuoso/half virtually pretend protagonist, that the truth can scarcely be trusted. His impact on Louis Armstrong, however, was profound and undeniable.
As a young boy, Armstrong was raised in extreme poverty. He didn’t have shoes on his feet, let alone toys to play with. He was raised by his grandmother, and by seven years old, he was working the streets, tirelessly trying to assist financially while his grandmother maintained the vital importance of schooling and the church. As tough and as tragic as that might sound, it is not a despairing tale, not to be glib and downplay the hardship, but nothing is all that despairing when Louis is around.
On the same street corners where he polished shoes for change and all sorts of odd jobs, he heard the balm to life blasting around street corners coming from the heavenly horn of Bolden as he blew the hottest breezy horn-lines into the sultry Orleans air with the flippant force of a lion’s purr. Naturally, Armstrong wouldn’t be the only one stirred up this Promethean wind – I guess that goes without saying, seeing as though Bolden is dubbed the inventor of jazz – but in Louis’ case, it seems fateful that he caught the benison of this musical breeze head-on.
Despite his defiant remarks to the contrary, life can’t have been easy for Armstrong as a boy, but at this early age, as he basked in the benediction of music, he formed a mantra that would stick with him throughout life. “Seems to me it ain’t the world that’s so bad,” he once said, “But what we’re doing to it. And all I’m saying is: see what a wonderful world it would be if only we’d give it a chance. Love, baby – love. That’s the secret.” And if there was one thing Louis loved, it was the strange and exciting new sound of ‘jass’ that was gracing his ears, and he ran errands on the streets.
He started to save up whatever pocket change he could and managed to buy himself a used cornet. He taught himself to play, and by the age of eleven, he quit school to see if he could support his family by busking the corners of the musical city, in the aptly named quarter of Storyville. Another of New Orlean’s primitive jazz heroes, Bunk Johnson, enjoyed the boy’s enthusiasm and became a sort of mentor figure for him. Armstrong’s switch from school to the new-fangled boon of jazz seemed to be a fated one and all was coming up rosy. Then catastrophe struck…
On New Year’s Eve in 1912, an exuberant eleven-year-old Armstrong proved somewhat too exuberant for the authorities liking when he fired a pistol into the air like a firework. He was promptly arrested and sent to what was referred to as a Coloured Waif’s Home. While in many parts of the country this would have been a nightmarish situation, in New Orleans, the home was heralded by a benevolent ex-soldier who promoted discipline – but in a purely supportive sense, and Armstrong thrived as he became determined to join the home’s brass band.
Upon his release, after a seemingly disproportionate 18-months, Armstrong was skilled and proficient. He found himself mentored once more by a legendary great, Joe ‘King’ Oliver, who Armstrong would eventually replace when ‘King’ vacated his position as a trumpeter in King Ori’s celebrated band. From this moment on, Louis seized his opportunity to be part of that same rousing sonic wind that had affirmed him with hope as a boy and seemingly never stopped smiling since.
By 1932, his celestial star had risen to the rarefied heights of a global tour. Now, from the most unlikely beginnings, he was about to become not only a household name but a welcome auditory guest in just about every one of those abodes the world over. He teamed up with the eminent talent manager Joe Glazer in 1935, and Glazer would catapult Armstrong to new heights for the rest of his career. He was a film star, radio star, nightclub star, jazz star and more.
However, throughout his rocketing stardom, Armstrong never lost sight of the gift that had got him there, and that gift in question was both his own hard-fought talent and the blossoming sound that billowed around the street corners all those years ago. As his wife, Lucile, whom he met as a dancer while his band was performing in the Cotton Club and married in 1942, would attest: he practised tirelessly to be just as good as his heroes. And in some ways, in homage to his heroes.
As a singer and a player, his ability was best summed up by fellow jazz legend Billie Holliday, who said: “Louis toms from the heart.” That heart was clearly a happy one. “I came up the hard way, same as lots’ of people,” he would say, but hard and unhappy were mutually exclusive terms for Armstrong whose adversities were always braced with a smile.
Through his talents, he trailblazed a path towards equality in a highly segregated world. In fact, his list of pioneering feats in music is only really rivalled by the strides he made in society. He was the first performer to sign a contract refusing to play a hotel that he could not stay at and became the first person of colour in so many fields that it is needless to list them.
When the civil rights movement would swing around in the 1960s, Armstrong was often questioned for his refusal to politicise his egalitarian approach, and while the merits of that can be doctrinally dissected, what remains judiciously undeniable is the inherent humanity of his approach: “If lots more of us loved each other, we’d solve lots more problems. And man, this world would be a gasser,” and “I got a simple rule about everybody. If you don’t treat me right – shame on you.”
This humanised harmony and the exultant salvation that he brought along with it shone through his work and remains as joyously illuminating as ever. In his rapturous masterpiece of ‘We Have All the Time In the World’, he sings: “We have all the love in the world / If that’s all we have, you will find we need nothing more.” This simple beauteous thinking makes him as relevant today as ever. It can seem pretty hard to put the cares of the world behind us at this present moment but listening to Louis Armstrong is pretty much a shortcut to doing so. The man himself is a big cuddly trumpet-blowing ray of sunshine with undeniably the most comforting pipes in the business.
Listening to Armstrong is an act of escapism to brighter days no matter what your current circumstances may be. His songs float along on gorgeous melodies and tear all terrors asunder with butter-cutting ease. And behind it all, the source that seemingly made it so easy to dispense ether snatched wisdom like a patch of warm sun on a winter’s day, was rattled through the murk of New Orleans manner when he was just a boy and put to words by a jazz aficionado that Armstrong helped spawn when Jack Kerouac said: “The only truth is music.” As Armstrong concurs himself: “If you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know.”