In 1922 Louis Armstrong left his native city and went to Chicago to play second cornet for Joe Oliver’s Band. This book is his story leading up to the move that would bring him fame and riches. The autobiography was first published in 1954 and reissued in 1986. In the introduction to the second edition Dan Morgenstern convincingly argues that Louis wrote the book all on his own. Morgenstern had access to the original manuscript typed by Armstrong himself. Reading it, without any external evidence, is proof beyond any doubt that it’s all Louis’ work. His personality and unique insights are on every page. Why a review now? I was given a copy as a birthday present, there couldn’t have been a better one.
Armstrong says he was born in 1900, though it might have been 1901. He was so poor that he didn’t wear shoes until he was well into his teens. The quarter of New Orleans into which he was raised is called ‘Back ‘o Town’. The part into which he came to life was called ‘The Battlefield’ for reasons that are self evident. Shortly after he was born his parents split leaving him in the care of his grandmother. He waits 195 pages to tell the reader that she had been born a slave. Despite not really being a surprise, given the time and proximity to slavery, it still jars the reader. The casual way he drops this bomb has even more impact coming near the end of his New Orleans story than it would have had he mentioned it at its start.
Louis’ ambience was filled with alcohol, whores, knives, pistols, bricks, murder, tough men, every form of mayhem imaginable, Jim Crow, and music. It was to the last of these that he was drawn from childhood on. Armstrong is quite frank about the way he was raised and the rough nature of his neighborhood.
The story that the Karnoffsky family took him in and nurtured him during his early years is not found in this memoir. Morris Karnoffsky is just mentioned as his employer when he was hauling coal and selling it for a nickel a bucket.
While very young, about six or so, he moved from the care of his grandmother, to the single room in which his mother, called Mayann, lived with his newly born sister Beatrice – nicknamed Mama Lucy. He loved his grandmother and cried when he left her, but he also loved his mother and was happy to be with her. Louis distinguishing personality trait seems to have been the ability to adjust to whatever fate threw his way, to the point that he embraced his condition no matter how harsh. The glass seems to have been not half full, but always completely full.
Armstrong’s first two decades were filled with colorful characters, whom he describes with wit, empathy, and insight. Of course they included the founders of Jazz like Kid Ory, Buddy Bolden (who went permanently mad at age 30), and most important for Louis – Joe Oliver. I’ll return to him below. One of the most frequently described figures in Armstrong’s early life was a man he calls Black Benny, no last name given.
Benny was the toughest man in a crowd of very tough guys. No one could stand up to him. He took a liking to Louis and looked out for him when trouble loomed, which in this milieu was just about all the time. Benny was also good on the drums. He was frequently arrested, but his relationship with the cops was so good they’d let him out of jail to play a gig on the drums after which he’d return to the lockup. In the middle of a lot of Black Benny stories Armstrong casually remarks, “The world really missed something by not digging Black Benny on that bass drum before he was killed by a prostitute.” Nothing more is given about Benny’s demise.
A man simply called Isaac repeatedly gave Benny a hard time. Benny put up with it until Isaac called him “A black bastard.” The result was an epic fight that ended with Isaac out cold. Benny also gave Louis the first pistol he ever owned.
Louis had previously gotten into a lot of trouble by taking his “stepfather’s” pistol from his mother’s old cedar trunk. He had a lot of “stepfathers.” He says that shooting off guns, pistols, or anything loud was how New Orleans celebrated the interval between Christmas and the New Year. So while walking down Rampart Street he fired the pistol into the air. Reloading the weapon he moved farther down the street, and let loose again. But this time he was arrested by a white detective. Apparently without a trial or hearing, he was moved to the Colored Waifs’ Home for Boys.
As was typical, Armstrong turned reform school into a positive experience. Mr Davis, who ran the brass band, initially didn’t like him. Davis gave him 15 hard lashes on the hand for a minor infraction. But as was his want, Louis won him over and Davis asked him to to join the brass band. Doing so was his introduction to the cornet.
Obviously, he was a natural and soon was playing at an elite level. He took as his inspiration all the great players of his native city, particularly Joe Oliver. Oliver became like a father to Louis and gave him his first cornet. It had been played by Oliver for years and was “beat-up”, but “I prized that horn and guarded it with my life.” This was the instrument he played during the rest of his time in New Orleans. The trumpet came later. He subsequently got a new cornet “on the installment plan.”
Armstrong was released from the home after what seems to have been a stay of several years. His comment about his incarceration: “All in all I am proud of the days I spent at the Colored Waifs’ Home for Boys.” He even liked the food there.
He went to live with his father for a short while before returning to his mother. Hauling coal during the day, the honky tonks started bidding for his playing at night. Doubtless, he was an exceptional player at age 14, when he was let out of the Home. He never directly says how good he was, though the reader can safely conclude he was very good, indeed.
“From seven in the morning to five in the evening I would haul hard coal at fifteen cents per load. And I loved it.” Then he would play the cornet well into the night. Dale Carnegie must have gotten all his ideas about the power of positive thinking from Louis. All the while he was still barefoot.
Violence was omnipresent. People were regularly transported to Charity Hospital to be put back together. Gunfire and stabbings were a near daily part of his life. He describes a knife fight between two whores that left one dead and the other with a face that resembled a scorecard. His reaction to this life? “[D]espite our hardships I would gladly live it all over again.” Of course, this was written when he was 54, rich, and famous. The memory for pain is short and nostalgia long.
The book is called Satchmo. Where did the famous name come from? Armstrong mentions it only once. I guess he rightfully assumed that everyone knew who Satchmo was and that there was no need to dwell on the name. Regardless, on page 85 he says his name is Louis Satchmo Daniel Armstrong.
He gambled a lot and regularly lost his wages. “In less than two hours I would be broker than the Ten Commandments.”
In 1918 Joe Oliver left for Chicago and Kid Ory asked Armstrong to replace his idol. He was intimidated by the prospect of taking Oliver’s place, but he did so and was a big success.
Louis was asked to join Fate Marble’s band on the excursion steamer Sydney. It was on this boat that the melophone (sic) player David Jones taught Louis to read music. He was a quick study and learned musical notation rapidly. He was proud of his ability to read music at sight and thought less of those, like Kid Ory, who couldn’t.
He finally left New Orleans when Joe, now “King” Oliver summoned him to Chicago to be second cornet. Armstrong said only Oliver could have induced him to leave his home town. He was given a Chicago apartment with indoor plumbing, the first time he’d had this luxury.
The book his filled with far more stories and reminiscences than can be described in a review. Louis style is simple and endearing. His portrayal of New Orlean during the first part of the 20th century is brilliant and utterly devoid of pretence. The supersize personality that made him a world figure is on every page. The book will appeal to virtually any reader. It’s still available at Amazon. Read it!
In the mid-1970s I was fortunate to spend an afternoon interviewing Columbia Records’ John Hammond, who knew Armstrong “as well as he would let anyone know him,” as Hammond put it. Hammond mentioned Armstrong’s ability to get along with jazz and blues artists who could be extremely difficult (Bessie Smith), and his indifference to the race of anyone who, like Jack Teagarden, was a first-rate artist. Hammond also talked about Armstrong’s sometimes unusual food preferences, and his free endorsement of “Swiss Kriss,” a herbal concoction that he said kept him “regular.” I regret never having seen and heard him in person, but on television I saw him “carve” Dizzy Gillespie after the latter had made some disparaging remarks about his playing being “outdated,” and I heard him confirm to Johnny Cash that indeed he had played on Jimmie Rodgers’ recording of “Blue Yodel No. 9.” I have not read his autobiography but I am eager to read it now because of your compelling review.
Armstrong mentions his admiration for Teagarden’s playing. He also frequently describes the beneficial effects of the “physics” he was regularly given by both his grandmother and mother.