What Does Louis Armstrong Mean? It is an interesting question, and a vague one. The questions’ interest is derived from that very vagueness. It can be interpreted narrowly and answered as “What does Louis Armstrong mean to me,” and be used as fodder for a personal exploration of the impact that Armstrong’s life and music may have had in the way one views the world or carries on his or her life. The question can also be given a broad interpretation (The Supreme Court of Satchelmouth!) and examined in the context of his imposing presence on our cultural landscape, what he means to us. Wynton Marsalis, for example, speaking in Gary Giddins’ documentary “Satchmo” (a companion to the book of that name) said Armstrong’s was “the sound of America and the freedom that it is supposed to represent.” In Armstrong’s art there is possibility and triumph and celebration and the blues. It is in the very humane-ness, of his playing and singing, as well as his off-stage life, and his ability to elicit emotional responses in people that make this question ripe for discussion. Some may answer viewing Armstrong as the magnetic pop star of “Hello Dolly,” or “What A Wonderful World,” while others will no doubt answer in terms of the innovations of his early “Hot Fives and Sevens” period. So we ask “What does Louis Armstrong mean?”
“He’s inspired me in a number of ways throughout my life. At first, my father was into him and I wasn’t. I kept saying, man, he’s an Uncle Tom. I wasn’t hearing it. The only thing I heard was him singing. And then I joined Art Blakey’s band and Art was talking about how great Pops was, so I said, well damn, if this renegade is talking about how great Pops is, then maybe I need to check it out. Then I started to understand how great a trumpet player he was and what kind of impact he had on the music world. Not just in jazz, but music in general. Because you have to remember that in the time that he came along, in the ’20s and ’30s, nobody was playing like that. And those are great arrangements he did with the Hot Five and all those groups. It’s not necessarily all about improvisation, but it’s written in the style of jazz, and that’s the thing I always talk about when I’m talking to film directors. I say you know jazz is not just about improvisation. It’s a language that can be utilized in many different ways. So that’s another influence that he’s had on me.
“But the other thing I’ve been really getting into within the last two or three years is his pure genius in bringing together his art and his ability to entertain. Because all too often the younger musicians from my generation and younger we got into the late ’50s and mid-’60s, where you were just an artist, and you just played what you wanted to play. But Pops was playing his stuff for mass audiences, and people were into it because he knew how to entertain and make them feel welcome and comfortable with his music, which allowed him to probably do just about anything he wanted.”
“Louis Armstrong is everything that I aspire to be. Not only was he a musical genius and trumpet virtuoso, his ability to entertain people was unmatchable. He touched millions of people without sacrificing his craft. You can hear magic in every single note that he ever sung or played. To me that’s an artist.”
“Louis Armstrong means several things. His spirit, to me as an Afro-American, represents all of what is positive about us as a people: beauty, humor, the ability to think and create. What is striking about Louis is that the core and essence of the sound of his voice is the core and essence of the sound of his trumpet. He played like he sang and he sang like he played. So what I take from Armstrong is the idea that I am an instrument and I’m expressing my thoughts and feelings through my horn. He teaches that an individual is an extension of his or her instrument. Louis Armstrong had a certain style and with it he created something new. That’s what New Orleans is about and should be about, creativity and keeping the music new.”
—Clyde Kerr, Jr.
“Louis Armstrong—Wow! I guess whatever you can say about him, there’s going to be something else that you have left out. Because there’s just so many things you can say about this one great individual who has affected not just musicians but just people. He left a legacy…as far as musicians, he laid a ground work for musicians to build upon, and set a standard that I don’t think we’ll ever amount up to. In terms of the impact that he had on musicians, you know, when you think of Louis Armstrong, you think of him as a trumpet player, as an entertainer, singer, a musician in general. A great individual. That’s it.”
“He was a jazz ambassador.”
“When I was very young, an art student at New Orleans Academy of Art, just starting building floats—I couldn’t have been 20-years-old so this had to be in 1950, Louis Armstrong was coming to New Orleans with Jack Teagarden, Big Sid Catlett, Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines and some of the greats of jazz. They were going to come and play at Municipal Auditorium and I heard about it. I was brought up on jazz and my daddy was a promoter when I was a kid. Gosh, it was too good to be true!
“I was a 52-20 recipient in those days—52-20 meant when you got out of the Army after World War II was over, for 52 weeks, they gave you 20 bucks a week. That was my income and I was using it at the art school.
“I wanted to see Louis Armstrong and I went down and I just knew he was going to be so incredible, I borrowed $300 and I bought the whole front row of the Municipal Auditorium. I think the seats were about $4.95 or $6.95. I bought the whole front row and I brought the tickets to the art school. We had about 150 students over there and I just knew everybody was going to want to buy these tickets from me. I wasn’t going to scalp them—I just wanted my friends to have the opportunity to see the greatest man in jazz.
“What happened was I only sold a few and I was stuck with all these tickets. Good God, I didn’t know what to do. Anyway, I do remember going to the big jazz concert that night at Municipal Auditorium. Louis comes out and he starts playing. I’m sitting front row and center with all my friends, my sisters—because I gave most of the tickets away. He’s playing and it’s going incredible. I’m tapping my feet. What a glorious, wonderful thing to see all these great musicians. I was on the very first row.
“Then he stops playing and all of a sudden, he watches an old man coming down the aisle, walking towards him and Louis spots him. And Louis starts to cry. And the old man walks up on the stage and walks toward him and Louis is positively bawling. The old man proceeds to unwrap this towel under his arm and he brings out a battered cornet. It was the first cornet that Louis ever played on in his life. And this old man gave it to him and he fell into the old man’s arms and they were crying together. And laughing—it was glorious! The hair went up on the back of my neck. I remember this 50 years later to this day. It took me a year to pay off that $300 but it was worth it. I witnessed history: Louis being back with his mentor and his first cornet.”
—Blaine “Mr. Mardi Gras” Kern
“Satchmo—that’s why Daddy put me on the trumpet. He wanted me to be another Satchmo because someone was going to do ‘The Louis Armstrong Story’ and Daddy was promoting me, saying I could be the trumpet player to play the part. That didn’t materialize. Satchmo is definitely one of the greatest. We all had problems but his story is just amazing, isn’t it?”
—Al “Carnival Time” Johnson
“I adore him. I love his music and always have. He’s one of the quintessential New Orleanians and everyone loves him.”
“When I first saw Louis Armstrong on television, he filled a void—his personality, more than his music. I enjoyed his persona. I think he really loved himself a lot. I like to see human beings who really like themselves a lot and are not afraid to show that they are enjoying themselves. That’s the thing that impressed me about him, more so than the music.
“Most people talk about his music but I expect to see good musicians in the world. I’m not like amazed that he was a great musician. Most of my amazement came from me watching him enjoy himself and his life.
“His playing influenced me—most definitely—but I really didn’t know it. When I heard him playing, I immediately thought this is the way you’re supposed to play the trumpet. I never tried to copy him because I don’t practice but just the feeling. I’m quite sure there were other trumpet players in this country that could really play but you only get to see one guy. So, I like Louis. I felt that he had a burden and I liked the fact that he had a beautiful personality.”
“I always tell people if God was to ever speak he would probably have Louis Armstrong’s voice. He’s the best that ever did it, man. He had everything. The charm. The technical ability to play anything in any range. He had the voice. And he’s from New Orleans. [laughing] He could cook, too. He’s like one of those everything kind of people. A genius, you know? I mean, if it wasn’t for Louis Armstrong we wouldn’t be sitting here. I don’t know what I would be doing if it wasn’t for Louis. It goes to show you that your past is your future, you know? We wouldn’t have anything if not for him traveling the world to let everybody hear the music and put all those records out. It was totally for me and I wasn’t even a thought yet. Same for anybody else that’s playing trumpet. Everybody that plays trumpet in the whole world now has to play those licks at one point or another. He set the pace for everybody.”
“Louis Armstrong is the true manifestation of democracy in a human being. He was a great artist as well as an entertainer of many facets. The more I study his life and music the more I realize the challenge of transcending humanity, art and love, and the more I see the necessity for all Americans to study him.”
“Louis Armstrong is certainly the focus of the music that I play. I think most importantly he is a synthesis of what went on here, in New Orleans, as far as trumpet playing prior to his emergence as a visible figure. In Louis’ playing there is of course Joe Oliver, but also Buddy Petit… and Bunk [Johnson]. I mean, he’s just the main character of jazz music.”
—Chris Tyle, trumpeter (Silver Leaf Jazz Band)
“If we had to name a ‘Man of the 20th-century,’ then Louis Armstrong would be my choice. The more I listen to his music, the more I am in awe of him, and the more incredible his achievement seems to be. His contemporaries felt the same way. The clarinetist Albert Nicholas said once that Armstrong made all the other trumpet players sound like little boys. No wonder he swept away all before him.
“And yet his recordings are but little vignettes taken out of time and caught forever on wax. The bassist Truck Parham told me that when Louis caught sight of a group of friends and musicians in the audience he would really open up. What he played on these occasions went beyond anything you could imagine. Toward the end of his life, I was fortunate enough to hear Armstrong several times and played on his 70th Birthday Concert—‘Hello Louis!’—in Los Angeles. When I heard him here in New Orleans in 1965, he gave us a brief glimpse of what Truck Parham was talking about when he unexpectedly played a variation on ‘The Saints’ so rhythmically and melodically intricate that the whole audience gasped.
“Taking the raw material from the neighborhood in which he was born, even to the extent of the language and mugging of the characters he grew up with, Armstrong was able to transform through his music the sum of all those early experiences and present it on stage for the whole world to see and enjoy.
“There is no denying the emotional intensity of Louis Armstrong’s music, but it takes us also to a place that I sense is beyond emotions, where the music stands purely on its own terms. There is a quality in Armstrong’s tone, in his swing, spontaneity and freedom of expression that is indefinable, yet connects directly to a place deep within us. What I hear is so much joy, so much joy even in sadness… and so much joy in his art of expressing so much joy.”
“Louis Armstrong has meant so much to music all over the world. He was a symbol… the greatest trumpet player ever to be from New Orleans, probably the greatest musician in the world. For the culture, he means a lot as the first musical ambassador to the world. For the music, I think Louis Armstrong was one of the first pop musicians that was recognized all over the world. He had a lot of New Orleans flavor, but I think Louis Armstrong added spice and high energy to the music unlike anybody else. When I think of trumpet players, there is no one that comes close to Armstrong when it comes to talent and entertainment.”
“Louis Armstrong means something different to everybody. There is a lot that comes to mind, but for me he is one of those once-in-a-couple-of-century musicians who influences not only the style he’s involved in, but music in general. He changed the way music is played. Louis is my hero and inspiration, and not only musically, because the way he lived his life is inspiring. He certainly changed mine.”
“My first feeling when I listen to Louis Armstrong, even as a small child, because I grew up with the music in my house…you know, it was popular music when I was a kid and the first feeling was just joy. I would say that when everybody listens to music, you can see the looks on their faces. Everybody experiences that joy, that happiness. Louis’ music immediately evoked that joy, that happiness. That’s what Louis Armstrong is for me when I hear him play. He is the Father of Jazz, but I would have to say my most simple, reduced reaction is that it’s immediate joy, immediate happiness.”
“I’m so sorry that I never got a chance to meet that man in person. To have a musician of that caliber from my hometown, now, that is what I can incredible. Younger guys like [Wynton] Marsalis and [Nicholas] Payton are carrying that on, keeping New Orleans in the forefront of producing historical musicians who have done their part for music history. Louis did his.”
“Personally, to me, Louis Armstrong, he’s the patriarch of jazz music, past, present and future. All the way around, everything we do in jazz music from the traditional to the contemporary to acid to fusion—all these things he was the foundation for and I think, just his name itself, you can say it anywhere in the world and people know it and that lets you know that this man and his music—our music—is one of the few things that crossed racial, economical and educational boundaries everywhere and that’s an amazing thing to be able to do. Especially to be able to use an art form to do it, which seems to me to be one of the few things in our lives that actually ever crosses over to all ethnic backgrounds and cultural backgrounds—it’s got no class. It’s like social redemption. It’s the only thing that people have to make all of the other screwed-up stuff we do mean something.”
—Tricia “Sista Teedy” Boutté
“I would say Louis Armstrong means freedom. The freedom to overcome any adversity or obstacle. Because after all the adversity that he faced and dealt with, to still be able to smile and come above that and create great music and love people of all races, that’s a beautiful thing. You can put on some Louis Armstrong music or read a biography about him and you’ll see clearly that you can achieve anything you want to achieve in life.”
“Louis Armstrong could be the poster child for the opening and the expression of one’s spirit and soul. He didn’t try to be like another trumpeter: he was Louis Armstrong. He was so distinctive in his playing style, as well as his phrasing. That’s how I would sum it up.”
“All that stuff was done from the heart. And the things he did were just incredible. Nobody still can really do any of that. His sense of melody and rhythm, harmony and syncopation, I mean funkiness, soulful, bluesy—and then to be one of the key figures on how all that came together with jazz at that time. With King Oliver and all his influences, kind of like Clifton [Chenier] did with his influences, I mean it all came together to make this incredible, unique sound that was so powerful you just couldn’t ignore it. That’s what happens when a purely natural raw talent is developed to all that it could aspire to be, as good as it can possibly get.
“You know what else about Satchmo to me? He was a true hero of New Orleans, of our whole area. And he became so enormously popular throughout the world. A lot of things get misrepresented: there’s a misconception of what Cajun is, and Creole. He was the real deal: you wanna hear it—here it is, man.”
“What Louis means is that jazz was born in New Orleans. How else could jazz not have been born in New Orleans? We produced somebody like Louis Armstrong. To get back to the birthday, he was born at exactly the right time. He was there at the right time to absorb all the culture and music to develop all the tools that he needed to become Louis Armstrong. He leaves New Orleans at 21 at a time when not only can he make a living playing the music but we now have the infrastructure within the entertainment industry for him to become a star. Look at Buddy Bolden—Bolden was totally parochial. Twenty miles outside New Orleans, nobody knew who Bolden was. We had no structure in the entertainment industry to go beyond those bounds. So Bolden was this star in a microcosm. But when Louis came along, he could make art with his horn and the world hears what he does and he can influence the entire world, not just New Orleans like Bolden did. That tells me jazz came from New Orleans.”
“Louis Armstrong is New Orleans music.”
—Michael P. Smith
“Louis Armstrong—just the person—don’t mean nothing to me. What he did with music, the swing element that he put in, the way he swung and played stuff, he laid a foundation for some stuff to go over. The way I look at it, when Louis Armstrong was playing jazz, Stravinsky was playing in three keys at the same time. So if it wouldn’t be for Louis’ swing elements, Stravinksy and them couldn’t swing.”
—Edward “Kidd” Jordan
“Louis means that a great man went out there and did something. If it wouldn’t be for Louis, New Orleans wouldn’t be on the map. When you say ‘New Orleans,’ that’s the first thing people say—‘Louis Armstrong.’ He’s dead and gone but his feelings are still here.”
“He is jazz. He is New Orleans.”
—Philip Frazier (ReBirth Brass Band)
“Louis Armstrong means a lot to local New Orleans musicians. He means New Orleans music. My favorite Louis Armstrong song is ‘Basin Street Blues.’ I just like the way he sang it. He’s talkin’ about our neighborhood.”
—Tanio Hingle (New Birth Brass Band)
“His ability to do two things at once, this combination of control and abandon, is largely what he brought to the definition of jazz. From the widest artistic movement to the smallest musical detail, from popular adoration to the critiques of the most demanding connoisseurs, from the streets of New Orleans to international fame, he had it all and he never lost it, never lost the music. I think the difference is that it still always came down to him and his horn.”
—Dirk Powell (Balfa Toujours)
“Louis Armstrong is the most important ingredient in the beginnings, I would say the first stage of jazz, which ended, of course, with the Parker revolution. I started out being influenced by the white players, Bix and Tram [Frank Trumbauer], but when I first heard Louis I said, ‘Well, that’s it!’ He is a man that revolutionized music. Jazz might have succeeded one way or another without him, but it probably would not have become the music it is today.”
“Louis Armstrong means, he expresses, that all of us, no matter what culture or color, we should all get together because we are all from the same source. Louis shows us that we are all brothers and sisters and that all this racism and fighting should end. He expressed love for everybody. He showed that we are all human beings, we all live, we all die, we all eat, and that we are alone in this universe, as far as we know, on this little ball traveling through space. What Louis expressed every night I played with him was the idea that we are alone and here we are fighting and destroying each other and for what? Louis Armstrong means we should be trying to get together.”
—Arvell Shaw, bassist, Armstrong Alumni All Stars
“To me, Louis means the joy in living, the joy of being alive and feeling good. He felt good when he played music and you can hear that because he conveys that good feeling. He teaches us to play music from a positive point of view. The idea is that it is more than just notes and blowing wind into a horn or a string vibrating, it is feeling good and celebrating the joy of life . I know it sounds corny, but that’s what it is. I played with him from 1967 to 1971 and every night he always tried to tap that mother lode of joy. You can’t play like he played without coming from a place of joy.”
—Joe Muranyi, clarinetist, Armstrong Alumni All Stars
“Louis Armstrong means everything. He’s the bottom line. He was the first guy with the rough vocals. I listen to Armstrong incessantly, as much as I can. He was such a great vocalist. It’s such a great thing, the Armstrong growl, as they call it now. I have the growly voice, and he was the first one with it. So, I feel like I’m a direct link. When I was little, I would watch Louis Armstrong. He was New Orleans all the way down to the towel to wipe the sweat. If you’re from New Orleans, you got to have that. They call it a ‘flag’ here. He always had a flag in his pocket. He was doing New Orleans on the world. That’s what I think I’m doing.”
—Theryl “The Houseman” deClouet
“You know, I’ve got a great view of his statue in Armstrong Park from my window, so every day I can look out and kind of center myself when it comes to music. I can see Pops through the window. I think he was a prophet, using the most powerful medium that we had—music. I also think he was a gift to the world because he was really himself. He didn’t have any record company trying to give him an image—he was the image. He was as New Orleans as they get—he didn’t put on any airs about himself. He was representing who he was. I think he was the most influential cat in the 20th and 21st centuries.”
“Louis Armstrong is better than he was supposed to be.”
“Louis Armstrong means the highest level of musical ability. He means soul, groove, phrasing, good vibes, happiness, sadness, chops—not as in pork chops, entertainment, marijuana, King of the Zulus, swing, inspiration. He also means, to me, Trummy Young and Jack Teagarden, who are two of my favorite trombone players.”