It is highly unlikely I’ll ever be rich or famous, however, I’ve been fortunate to cross paths with a few folks who were one or both of these. Louis Satchmo Armstrong had no idea who I am, but I knew his name well. He was one of my father’s favorite musicians. Dad built a Heath Kit home stereo system that sat in the corner of our dining room. When Dad was home the house filled with the sounds of Nat King Cole, Satchmo Armstrong, and Big Band musicians.
In August 1964 I worked at Cedar Point along Lake Erie. When I learned Louis Satchmo Armstrong was booked to do a show there, I was determined to hear him. The park gave summer staff housing and free access to the rides in our off-work hours, but the perks didn’t include concerts in the indoor concert hall near the Hotel Breakers.
Not to worry. I could hear clearly from the adjacent beach. I rolled out my beach towel, applied insect repellant, and spent an evening listening to Satchmo do his magic with his horn. He did not disappoint.
Though Armstrong’s life was full of challenges, he returned again and again to his love of music. He could be the poster child for converting lemons to lemonade. Like many great artists, he kept doing what he most loved. “My whole life, my whole soul, my whole spirit is to blow that horn.”
Born in abject poverty in New Orleans in 1901, Armstrong was raised by his mother and grandmother. He dropped out of school after fifth grade to help support the family. One lemons-to-lemonade transformation came when he got a job working for the Karnofsky family. The Karnofskys, Jewish immigrants from Lithuania, hired him to do odd jobs, gave him food, treated him like one of their own children. They helped him get his first cornet. To show his appreciation for their role in his life, he later wore a Star of David pendant.
From Reform School to Recording Studio
A second lemons-to-lemonade opportunity materialized when he was arrested at age eleven on New Year’s Eve for firing a pistol in the street. That started his formal musical training. The authorities sent him to the Colored Waif’s Home for Boys where Peter Davis taught him how to play the cornet. Armstrong soon became the leader of the home’s brass band. Armstrong later said that experience launched his career. “I do believe that my whole success goes back to that time I was arrested as a wayward boy, because then I had to quit running around and began to learn something. Most of all, I began to learn music.” By the time he was released in 1914, he was determined to become a professional musician.
One of New Orleans’ best cornetists, Joe “King” Oliver mentored him and by 1919 he had steady work on the Mississippi riverboats. In 1922 Oliver invited Armstrong to join his Chicago band. They started making records together in 1923. When he married a year later, his bride, Lillian Hardin, convinced Armstrong to go out on his own. He moved to the New York “Big Apple,” but returned to Chicago in 1925. He started recording records under his own name and developed his famous improvised solos that transformed jazz.
Back to NYC and Far Beyond
His popularity eventually led him back to New York. From there Armstrong began touring, and kept touring. After a heart attack in 1959, followed by heart and kidney trouble in 1968, doctors advised him to stay off the tour circuit. However, he continued touring and recording until five months before he died peacefully in his sleep July 6, 1971. I have often sung along with tunes he wrote such as “Blueberry Hill,” “Mack the Knife,” “What a Wonderful World,” and “Hello, Dolly!” I’m grateful his tour schedule included Cedar Point one of the summers I worked there. I got to hear him once in person, even if it was from a beach towel on the sand outside the concert hall.
R.I.P. Louis Satchmo Armstrong
The world is better because you were here.
August 4, 1901 – July 6, 1971
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