“Satchmo" – as he was affectionately called by his legions of friends – never boasted like his fellow New Orleanians, jazzmen Jelly Roll Morton and Bunk Johnson, that he invented jazz, or that he was even one of its better players.
But everyone who heard him play or hears his inimitable style today can only agree that Louis Daniel "Satchmo" Armstrong was one of the best jazz musicians and greatest entertainment personalities the world has ever known. At one time, he was so popular, mail reached him that was simply addressed, “Mr. Jazz, U.S.A.”
The universal popularity of jazz can be directly attributed to "Satchmo." He took New Orleans-style music from its raw origins and introduced it to the world as a refined art form.
Armstrong was born in New Orleans on August 4, 1901. A proud American, he claimed July 4 as his birthday. (His birthplace near the corner of Tulane and Broad avenues was torn down in 1964 to make way for a new court building and police headquarters. A plaque dedicated on what would have been his 100th birthday marks the site today.)
As a child, on a dare from a friend, he fired a pistol into the air on South Rampart Street and was sentenced to the Colored Waif's Home. There he got the job of playing the bugle when the flag was raised and lowered.
After serving his sentence, Louis began playing his horn in the noisy, smoke-filled musical clubs of what was then "Black Storyville," the section of New Orleans in the vicinity of South Liberty and Perdido streets (where New Orleans City Hall is now). Honing his skills by playing in early brass bands with Joe "King" Oliver, Bunk Johnson, Kid Ory and others, he replaced Oliver in Ory's band in 1919 when Oliver moved to Chicago.
In 1922, he was ready to join his idol, "King" Oliver's Creole Jazz Band in Chicago. By the mid-1920s, Louis had surpassed his mentors in popularity. His Hot 5 and Hot 7 bands were so hot they burned! One musical innovation followed another, from his solos to his gravelly vocals to the rhythmic progressions that expanded the boundaries of the jazz genre.
As the years passed, Satchmo's star appeal continued to grow. He had recording deals with major labels and movie deals with major Hollywood studios. He played for presidents, European royalty and for high-ranking officials on his beloved continent of Africa. “Pops,” as he was often called, toured internationally as a special envoy for the U.S. State Department. He represented his country and New Orleans with dignity, charm and class. Of the many accolades he received, being selected King of Zulu during Mardi Gras was the one that he often said meant the most. A photo of him as Zulu made the cover of TIME magazine in 1949.
During his long career, Satchmo had many classic hit records, including "Stardust," "When the Saints Go Marching In," "Dream a Little Dream of Me," "Ain't Misbehavin'," "You Rascal You," "Stompin' at the Savoy,” "Up a Lazy River" and “What a Wonderful World.”
In early 1964, at age 62, Louis achieved the distinction of being the oldest musician ever to have a No. 1 song on the Billboard charts. His version of the "Hello Dolly" was the first record to knock the Beatles out of the top position they held for 14 weeks with three separate songs.
Bing Crosby said his friend Satchmo was “the beginning and the end of music in America.” New Orleans is proud that it began right here.
Late in his career, when Armstrong recorded "What a Wonderful World," it was a fitting ode to the life he lived and the legacy he created. He died in New York City on July 6, 1971, a month short of his 70th birthday. He is buried in Flushing Cemetery in Queens, New York but his heart was here in New Orleans. He often signed letters "Red Beans and Ricely Yours."
Two statues in New Orleans have been erected in Armstrong's honor, one on the West Bank in Algiers adjacent to the Canal Street Ferry landing, and the other in the park named for him on North Rampart Street.
In 2001, his centennial year, New Orleans International Airport was renamed after him and the Satchmo SummerFest began on his birthday weekend. A commemorative postage stamp of him was issued on Sept. 1, 1995 in Louis Armstrong Park.
The legacy of Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong will endure as long as American music is played.