Today is the birthday of jazz musician Louis Armstrong (1901), who earned the nickname “Dippermouth” as boy singing for pennies on the streets of New Orleans. He would scoop up the coins and stuff them in his mouth so the bigger boys couldn’t steal them. Later, his effusive style of playing, in particular the way he blew high C’s on his trumpet, would earn him the name “Satchelmouth,” later shortened to “Satchmo.”
Armstrong was born in Storyville, the poorest neighborhood of New Orleans. He worked for a family of Russian Jews delivering coal to prostitute’s rooms. The Karnovsky’s were kind to him, helping him buy a tin trumpet. Because of them, he wore a Star of David pendant for the rest of his life. At 11, he was sent to a boys home, where he was given a cornet and taught to read music. He said: “It sure was the greatest thing that ever happened to me. Me and music got married in that home.”
As a teenager, he honed his skills playing dances, funeral marches, and riverboats. He met jazz greats like Bix Beiderbecke, Sidney Bechet, and King Oliver, who welcomed him to Chicago in 1924, when scores of jazz and blues musicians began an exodus from the South, changing the landscape of music forever. Armstrong was known for his ebullient playing style and the intense charisma he displayed from the stage. He’s largely responsible for the shift in jazz from collective improvisation to solo performance. From 1925 to 1928, he and his band, Louis Armstrong and The Hot Five, made more than 60 records, which influenced everyone from Wynton Marsalis to The Beatles, whom he displaced in 1964, when his rendition of “Hello, Dolly!” knocked them off the number-one spot on the Billboard Charts. Armstrong’s most famous, and enduring, song is “What a Wonderful World” (1967), and claimed as his favorite.
About the song, he said: “Seems to me it ain’t the world that’s so bad 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 …”