The Role of Louis Armstrong in The Civil Rights Movement

Born in August 4th 1901, Louis Armstrong, also nicknamed as Pops was one of the most influential artists in Jazz music in America (Teachout, 2010). Of African-American origin, Armstrong was the first African-American to cross the racial line and be judged purely on his talent and not for his skin color (Nollen, 2004). Known for his mastery in the trumpet and cornet, Armstrong was also a singer and an actor. He had a very gravelly voice that was unique and he easily made it blend with the jazz sounds that always accompanied him. In many instances, he would have solo performances, which were characterized by a strong stage presence, emotions and charisma (Nollen, 2004). His career pned for more than five decades and was a loss to the jazz genre and the entire music industry on 6th, July, 1971, when he died at the age of 69 years as a result of a heart attack (Brothers, 2007).

Armstrong love for music started when he was seven years old, he would go to listen to bands perform in the different brothels that his mum worked in as she could not afford a decent job. As a daughter to a former slave and abandoned by his father, Armstrong’s mother tried to provide for her children as a prostitute (Nollen, 2004). At the age of eleven, during a new year’s eve, Armstrong fired one of his step father’s guns in public as a mark of celebration and was arrested and detained in a delinquent home. This would mark the beginning of his music career (Brothers, 2007). At the delinquent center, Professor Peter Davis would come to teach the children music and taught Armstrong how to play the cornet and eventually he became the band leader to the home’s band (Teachout, 2010). After being released at the age of fourteen, he joined the brass band parade where he started learning how to play the trumpet. In 1919, he joined the band Tuxedo Brass Band and become their second trumpeter.

In 1922, he joined Joe ”King” Oliver in Chicago in the Creole Jazz Band. The band was one of the most influential bands in Chicago. It was during this time that he joined cutting contests and discovered that he could blow two hundred high Cs in a row, something that others were not able to do with the ease that he did it with (Brothers, 2007). After this discovery, he made his first recording, with the Gennett and Okeh labels. Some of the recordings were with the band members and some were solo. In 1922, his wife Lil Hardon Armstrong, urged him to play more classical music and infuse the modern music using an upbeat tempo at the bridge (Nollen, 2004). This was the beginning of the signature upbeat tempo that jazz picks after starting with a trumpet. This made him more famous and he started playing in “white People” clubs. He later on moved to New York and joined other different bands.

At this time his fame was spreading and most of the young men would try to compete or imitate him. Those who would try to compete with him always ended with a split lip from trying to hit the high Cs notes several times in a row; conversely this was never the case for Armstrong (Nollen, 2004). While in New York he played for the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra band which was the most famous African-American band countrywide (Teachout, 2010). During the time he played with the band, his influence can easily be felt as there was a change in the tenor sax soloist. Although he was in a band, Armstrong would stand out during performances as he would play with more emotion and passion.

In 1925, he returned to Chicago as a solo artist and recorded with Okeh under his own name. he also formed a band and named it Hot Seven but any productions that were made had his name on it. He recorded hit songs like Potato Head Blues, Muggles and West End Blues, these were the songs that set the standard for Jazz music for many years to come (Nollen, 2004). At this point Armstrong developed a love for the theatre and would furnish silent movies and live shows with his jazz music. He developed more resilience as most live shows were long and would require him to play for long periods of time and with the same energy and emotion he had started with. He continued to play for the instruments for years and toured countrywide.

Conversely, in 1935, Armstrong realized that he had suffered bruises and cuts that were severe on his lips and fingers as a result of his unorthodox playing styles (Brothers, 2007). This made him to stop relying on his instruments for performances and urged him to focus more on his vocals. This was a major shift in the jazz industry as there was less focus on the instruments and more on the voice. In 1940 he moved back to New York, married his fourth wife and settled in Queens (Teachout, 2010). For the next thirty one years, Armstrong performed nearly 300 shows a year with the same passion. The Night prior to his death, he performed a show, although against his doctor’s advice. He played music till the last day he lived and transformed not just an industry but also the lives of the many people he touched with his music.

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