Happy Fake Birthday to an All-American Founding Father of Jazz

Every year, on the 4th of July, Louis Armstrong celebrated his birthday. It was during his lifetime that WKCR, the college radio station at Columbia University, began clearing its airways to play 24 straight hours of his music. Ensconced in his house in Corona, Queens, Pops loved it. In an ordinary house, in an ordinary neighborhood, lived one of the most extraordinary musicians in the history of American jazz. 

He grew up in New Orleans with one of the roughest backgrounds imaginable. He sometimes had to feed himself from garbage can scraps. His father was gone like lightning at his birth, and, like many children in the black community to this day, he ended up with his grandmother. When he got a coronet from a pawn shop, his life changed, as did the future of American music. Only years later did he move to the trumpet.

How dysfunctional was his early life? After Louis’s death, historians, those spoilsports, dug into his background and learned things that even he didn’t know. In the words of one of his biographers, Laurence Bergreen, “According to his own cherished tradition, Louis Armstrong was an all-American jazz baby, born in New Orleans, Louisiana, on the Fourth of July 1900. He believed this to the end of his days, and so did everyone else, until a baptismal certificate confirming his actual birth date as August 4, 1901, surfaced and in the name of scholarship silenced one of the happiest legends in American popular music. 

Exactly three weeks after his birth, the infant was taken to Sacred Heart of Jesus Church at 139 South Lopez Street to be baptized “according to the rite of the Roman Catholic Church.” The baptismal card, signed by the Reverend J. M. Toohey, described Louis as “niger, illegitimus,” apparently because his father had by that time abandoned his mother and was living with another woman. So it was that Louis Armstrong, an illegitimate black child, was baptized into the Catholic Church.

If you ever visit Armstrong’s grave in Flushing Cemetery, where he is buried along with his beloved wife, Lucille, you will also find the wrong date there as well. A story Dan Morgenstern tells about when Louis was dating Lucille summed up their relationship. He and Dan were together between shows, when Louis said, “Do you want to come visit Lucille with me? I want to bring her a quart of ice cream.” So they went up to Harlem, and her mother let them in. They then sat around the kitchen table, having a grand old time talking away. As Dan recalls it, the only person to eat any of the ice cream was Louis. As the front door on the brownstone closed when they left, Louis looked up to the heavens. “Isn’t she great?” he cried out. “I’m the luckiest man alive.” At that point, he put his index finger on the top of his head and did a ballet pirouette. 

The man had heart. You can just imagine that great Satchmo smile as he turned. Below are some songs from a seemingly endless rabbit hole of options. You probably have your own picks. Some good advice for appreciating his work is to see what Armstrong has done with any song, singer, or musician you already like. With 50 years in show business, there is a lot to choose from.

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Pops was both a musician and a great gravelly-voiced singer. He was devoted to his fans. As he put it, “The people put me in my seat, and I will never let them down.” Armstrong was a fan of opera. If you listen, you can hear how his trumpet performs like the aria of a lead opera singer. I envy a friend of mine who heard Satchmo play at a dance at the Naval Academy. My friend married the girl he brought that night, and, yes, they lived happily ever after. I hope the same is true for all of you.

 Have a great, real Fourth of July.

“A Kiss To Build A Dream On”

Here is some early spice.

“Old Man Time” shows the fun personalities of these two greats. Jimmy Durante was a great piano player. In 1919, he played in America’s first integrated recording session.

Louis Armstrong and His All Stars perform “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South,” “Muskrat Ramble,” and “On the Sunny Side of the Street” on Timex All-Star Show #2, originally telecast live by CBS on April 30, 1958. 

A little touch of New Orleans jazz, “Basin Street.”

“Black and Blue.” My only sin is in my skin.

Pops in London

“Struttin’ With Some Barbecue” this Fourth of July.

Life is worth living, whether it is the woes of 1967 or today. We all need the virtue, the anchor of hope. Life’s adversities aren’t the last word. Louis reminds us to hang in there. 

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