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Music / Louis Armstrong

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"He was born poor, died rich, and never hurt anyone along the way."

Louis Daniel Armstrong (August 4, 1901 – July 6, 1971) was a massively influential American jazz musician and singer. Born in New Orleans, he learned how to play the trumpet and cornet in his teens, and engaged in a fifty-year career in music. He is considered the Trope Codifier for many of the basic elements of jazz, including improvisation and scat singing.

His biggest hit was "Hello, Dolly!", from the 1964 musical of the same name, which knocked The Beatles from the top of the Billboard chart and earned him a Grammy Award for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance. Nowadays, his most well-known contribution to pop culture is probably his 1967 song "What a Wonderful World", which is frequently employed for soundtrack dissonance in film and television.

He was the first African-American to host a nationally broadcast radio show in the The '30s. He also had appearances in such films as High Society and Hello, Dolly!, and a few where he played himself: New Orleans, The Five Pennies and A Song Is Born. He performs in the 1960 concert film Jazz on a Summer's Day, filmed at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival.

Note that although he's commonly known these days as Louie Armstrong, most jazz aficionados are careful to pronounce his first name Lewis. This can be Serious Business among those who see the "Louie" nickname as cartoonish and disrespectful. Armstrong himself wasn't particularly bothered, although he favoured the "Lewis" pronunciation.

Not to be confused with the muscle-bound Strong-Arm Alchemist whose skills were passed down through the Armstrong line for generations!! Also, he is not related to Neil Armstrong or Lance Armstrong. (For the record, the latter's real surname is actually Gunderson.)

Songs of note:

    Songs A–Z 
  • "Ain't Misbehavin'"
  • "All of Me"
  • "Big Butter and Egg Man"
  • "Body and Soul"
  • "Chinatown, My Chinatown"
  • "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?"
  • "Dream a Little Dream of Me"
  • "Hello, Dolly!"
  • "Heebie Jeebies"
  • "Hotter Than That"
  • "I'm in the Mood for Love"
  • "If I Could Be with You One Hour Tonight"
  • "Jeepers Creepers"
  • "Keyhole Blues"
  • "A Kiss to Build a Dream On"
  • "La Vie En Rose"
  • "Love, You Funny Thing"
  • "Mack the Knife"
  • "Melancholy Blues"
  • "Muskrat Ramble"
  • "Potato Head Blues"
  • "Public Melody Number One"
  • "St. James Infirmary"
  • "St. Louis Blues"
  • "Star Dust"
  • "Stompin' at the Savoy"
  • "Struttin' with Some Barbecue"
  • "Takes Two to Tango"
  • "We Have All the Time in the World"
  • "West End Blues"
  • "What a Wonderful World"
  • "(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue"
  • "When It's Sleepy Time Down South"
  • "(When We Are Dancing) I Get Ideas"
  • "When the Saints Go Marching In"
  • "When You're Smiling"
  • "You Are My Lucky Star"
  • "You Can Depend on Me"
  • "You Rascal You"

Albums of note:

Tropes found in his music and career include:

  • Artist and the Band: Some of his most important recordings are those with the first bands he led himself: Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five, and Louis Armstrong and His Hot Seven.
  • As Himself: Appeared in a lot of movies, but mostly played himself.
  • Big Band: Although he preferred to play in smaller groups, he was one of the big band leaders of the 1940s.
  • Broken Smile: His performance at the 1970 Newport Jazz Festival was some variation of this. He was the honored guest of the performance, and despite his failing health he elected to go against his Doctor's Orders and sing at it. The whole performance shows him alternating between his trademark cheery smile and being overcome with emotion and sobbing, all while never missing a note in the song. There is documentary footage of him being interviewed before the performance, breaking into tears at the thought of going on that stage without singing.
  • Christmas Songs: "Santa Claus Blues", "'Zat You, Santa Claus?", "Cool Yule"
  • Concept Album: The Real Ambassadors.
  • Cool Old Guy: In 1964 he kicked The Beatles out of the #1 spot with "Hello Dolly!" He was 63! The BEATLES!
  • Crossover: Recorded a number of duets over the years, including full-length albums with fellow jazz great Duke Ellington and vocalists Bing Crosby and Ella Fitzgerald.
  • Cover Version: He did numerous covers throughout his career, including "Star Dust" and "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)".
  • Deep South: He loved to evoke imagery from the American South in his songs, like "When It's Sleepy Time Down South".
  • Epic Swinging: His version of "St. Louis Blues" on Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy is over ten minutes long with multiple solos and two singers, Armstrong himself and Velma Middleton.
  • Expository Theme Tune: "High Society Calypso" for the 1956 film High Society.
  • Friendly Rivalry: He had this with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, who was also a superb musician but younger and of the bebop generation. Gillespie went on record as being uncomfortable with what he saw as Armstrong's Uncle Tom Foolery, and recorded a track which was a parody of Armstrong, so Armstrong responded with a track in which he teased the beboppers. They eventually teamed up and did an awesome duet of "Umbrella Man" on TV in the '50s, and after that Gillespie realised that Armstrong's clowning was a way of refusing to allow anything to steal the joy from his life.
  • Guttural Growler: Armstrong's singing voice was famously gravelly, but no less expressive for that. It was less so when he was a young man – his 1928 wordless vocal duet with the clarinet in "West End Blues" will convince anyone that he was a great singer.
  • Iconic Outfit: His blue and/or black suit, white handkerchief in one hand, trumpet in the other.
  • Improv: Armstrong is the first great jazz improviser on record. Since jazz is characterised by lots of improvisation, this makes Armstrong the first great jazz musician on record. Trope Codifier, indeed.
  • Instrumental: His trumpet solos were often this.
  • Jazz: Synonymous with the genre.
  • Large Ham: Enjoyed clowning it up in front of the camera.
  • Location Song: "West End Blues", "St. Louis Blues", "When It's Sleepy Time Down South", all nostalgic and melancholic tracks and songs about these locations.
  • Lyrical Dissonance: "Old Man Mose" is a very cheerful, upbeat melody... about a guy reporting a neighbor's death.
  • Mammy: Character in "When It's Sleepy Time Down South".
  • Mood Whiplash: See Broken Smile above.
  • Murder Ballad: "Mack the Knife", "You Rascal You". It's been noted that in Armstrong's early years playing sleazy dives in New Orleans, he would have known plenty of Mack the Knifes.
  • Patrick Stewart Speech: His spoken-word preface to his less-famous later recording of "What a Wonderful World".
  • Rags to Riches: Grew up in a poor black neighbourhood, managed to become an internationally famous musical superstar despite racial discrimination and prejudices, as well as respected as an innovative, influential and creative artist and died rich.
  • Rivals Team Up: Duke Ellington wasn't exactly a rival to Armstrong as they weren't competing with each other, but the one album that they made together, 1961's The Great Summit, contains much awesomeness of the kind invoked by this trope.
  • Rugged Scar: Armstrong's lips were heavily scarred. Constant trumpet playing and a less-than-orthodox technique caused him to grow calluses on his lips that would interfere with his playing, so to deal with them, he'd cut the calluses off with a razor blade, leaving scars. Eventually he had to stop playing altogether. Needless to say, trumpet players are not advised to do what he did.
  • The Sacred Darkness: "The dark sacred night" is mentioned in "What a Wonderful World."
  • Silly Rabbit, Cynicism Is for Losers!: His original recording of "What a Wonderful World" could be interpreted as this in hindsight, given its timing in the U.S. political landscape. Vietnam was ramping up into a real war, and Martin Luther King Jr. would be shot the following year. But Satchmo made the trope explicit when he made a less-famous second recording of the song a few years later. He added a spoken-word "preface" that directly addressed naysayers. An excerpt:
    Louis: 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 gave it a chance."
  • Singing Simlish: Trope Codifier of the "scat" technique of singing that uses nonsense syllables on improvised vocal lines.
  • Smoky Voice: And how!
  • Something Blues: "West End Blues", "St. Louis Blues", "Potato Head Blues", "Melancholy Blues"...
  • Soprano and Gravel: Armstrong's collaborations with Ella Fitzgerald. Possibly the Ur-Example.
  • Southern-Fried Genius: He was from New Orleans, but in addition to being a musical genius, Armstrong was a lifelong reader and talented, idiosyncratic writer who carried a dictionary with him on tour. He's one of the few great jazz musicians to have a distinctive literary style, and the only one whose Selected Writings are published by Oxford University Press.
  • Took a Level in Cheerfulness: His public persona was being a man who was eternally happy and joyful. Yet he could also play and sing melancholic tunes, like "Black and Blue".
  • Uncle Tom Foolery: Subverted. Armstrong was often accused of doing this, but jazz critic Gary Giddins has retorted that to dislike or resent Armstrong's eternally cheerful demeanour is to diminish him as an artist by refusing to allow him to be himself; Armstrong projected confidence and warmth without ever losing dignity.
    • He also famously spoke out on the enforced school segregation in Arkansas in 1957, saying Dwight D. Eisenhower had "no guts" and calling the governor a "no-good motherfucker."
    • That said, it must be noted that many of his mannerisms on stage descended directly from Minstrelsy. In particular, the handkerchief which never left his hand; coming from the minstrel tradition of blackfaced characters making a show of how hard they were working to entertain their (white) audience. However these were mannerisms which nearly all black musicians of his era adopted to some degree, and much of the criticism that they earned him came from the fact that Armstrong's career lasted so much longer than most of his black contemporaries and he never changed his behavior.
  • Weaksauce Weakness: Addiction was an epidemic within jazz music circles. Many succumbed to alcoholism, or turned to even harder drugs like heroin. Armstrong, however, was addicted to laxatives. He famously carried a jar of Swiss Kriss laxative pills around with him, and urged them on everyone he met. They don't seem to have done him any harm; his enthusiasm for laxatives was regarded by people around him as an amusing personality quirk, not a serious health problem.
  • "When I'm Gone" Song: "What a Wonderful World" is a Type 3.
  • Yandere: "You Rascal You" involves a man envying another who woos his (the former's) wife, and is willing to wish him ill will.

And I think to myself... what a wonderful world.