From the Slums of New Orleans to the Palaces of Europe: Meet Louis Armstrong – Musician

Meet Louis Armstrong – musician. You, the reader, may be muttering, “You must be joking: Everyone knows Louis Armstrong – musician and trumpet player, and he’s still world- famous even though he is long-gone from this earth!” In reality, only a tiny fraction of the many people around the world who “know” Louis Armstrong actually does.

king_oliver[1]Joe (King) Oliver and the Creole Jazz Band – 1923. King Oliver is on muted cornet behind the kneeling Louis Armstrong and Armstrong’s future second wife, pioneer jazz pianist, Lil Hardin.

Years ago, as a teen-aged, aspiring trumpet player, I had Louis Armstrong pegged as an old-timer from New Orleans whose trumpet playing sounded frayed around the edges. His questionable virtuosity on the trumpet seemed somewhat offset by his appealing “feel” for the music of his home town. His was an infectious style of playing – real soul – the inevitable outcome of growing up in the “Big Easy,” I reckoned. That’s all.

And I knew of his singing with that raspy voice. Songs like “Mack the Knife,” “Blueberry Hill,” “Hello Dolly,” and “It’s a Wonderful World” were very popular back in the nineteen-sixties. Armstrong had an awful voice… yet listening to him was and is, strangely, a pleasurable experience. Why is that? One thing was certain: Mr. Armstrong was a unique entertainer with his ever-present smile which often verged on “mugging.”

I knew nothing about Louis Armstrong, in reality! I discovered Louis Armstrong – jazz pioneer and trumpet player without peer once I began to seriously delve into music and my own trumpet playing – late in life. The eye-opener for me was the Ken Burns video opus titled, Jazz. That excellent, comprehensive documentary on the history of jazz took me way back in time to Armstrong’s early years in New Orleans, Chicago, and New York. It was then that I realized what a sensational musician he had been on the trumpet in his prime and how he, perhaps more than any single individual, defined a new style of playing which ultimately evolved into the musical genre known as “jazz.”

Then I read more about Armstrong – biographical accounts, and I listened to his early recordings (now on re-mastered CDs). I quickly realized that this man was not only the finest trumpet player of his era – by far – he was also an irresistible force stirring the winds of change which brought us new music – music which ranged from New Orleans and Chicago jazz to the big-band swing tunes of Goodman, Dorsey, Shaw, and Harry James. Jazz has continued to evolve from the seeds planted and nurtured by Louis Armstrong – even today.

I ultimately appreciated that his true stature as a musician evolves from both the brilliance of his playing in the early years and his unique musical phrasing which freed musicians from the prison of playing the music exactly as written. Armstrong’s creative, improvisational style heralded the beginning of modern jazz. The well-regarded authority, Gary Giddins, has said there is virtually nothing musically that came along later that did not have echoes of Louis, Louis….Louis.

 Out of the Mud Grows the Lotus; A Most Improbable Story!

I agree that fact is stranger than fiction. I can think of no better illustration than the life-story of Louis Armstrong. Born in the slums of New Orleans at the turn of the twentieth century, his father nowhere to be seen, his mother a part-time prostitute, little Louis (not “Louie”) did what it took to survive, much as his mother Mary Ann (he called her May-Ann) did. The youngster was born at 723 Jane Alley, on the edge of black Storyville, the red-light district where black sex was readily for sale. He lived among the worst squalor extant in New Orleans, and it was there that he began to learn all there was to know about life and living. He, like so many of the black youngsters, moved readily among the pimps, prostitutes, and cut-throat thieves that inhabited that infamous section of New Orleans.

There was another small class of individuals that caught the attention of Armstrong and most of his young pals, and these folks were the local musicians who played in the whore-houses, bars, and honky-tonks. These people, although almost as poor as the rest of the residents, were held in quite high esteem and even idolized by the boys in the neighborhood. For most Storyville residents, life offered little of cheer beyond alcohol, sex….and music. Little Louis and the other boys heard their music from the sidewalk, listening while standing outside joints like the “Funky Butt Hall” located across the street from the Fisk School for Boys which Armstrong began attending in 1907.

Little Louis and the Karnofsky Family who “Adopted” Him:
A Lifelong Respect for Jewish Industry and Ambition

At seven years of age, young Armstrong was working for a large Jewish family, the Karnofskys. Their little business involved buying and selling rags, junk, and coal. Louis pushed his little coal-laden wagon around Storyville, delivering small quantities to various enterprises including those operating in prostitute’s cribs. The Karnofskys took a liking to little Louis, often inviting him to stay for dinner after the day’s work was done. He was frequently included in their daily family rituals.

I purchased a very enlightening book on Louis Armstrong several years ago at Powell’s bookstore in Portland, Oregon. The title reads, Louis Armstrong in His Own Words – Selected Writings. It was edited by Thomas Brothers. Revealing his debt of gratitude to the Karnofsky family for their kindnesses shown him as a young boy, Armstrong pens some very strong words while comparing Jewish attitudes toward personal industry and self-improvement to the behaviors he had long observed on the part of poor black people, especially those he lived among as a boy. While blacks in the South were clearly “held down,” Armstrong saw, first-hand, similarly prejudicial attitudes toward poor Jews like the Karnofskys. In his opinion, Jews were not much better off in that regard. He also noticed that the Jews stuck together while patiently executing their self-crafted plans to lift themselves by their bootstraps – actions he claimed not to see from his black bretheren. Armstrong wore the Star of David for the rest of his life in remembrance of the Karnofskys.

These are startling accounts and accusations coming from a major adult black voice. His choice of words in the writings is blunt and brutally frank.

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When Armstrong left New Orleans to conquer the world with his talent, he often encountered racist attitudes which stung him and his fellow blacks. It is clear from his writings that these incidents left scars, yet he managed to defer the pain and embrace the white entertainment culture which quickly accepted him and made him a star. His willingness to play the white man’s game engendered criticism from many black colleagues at the time, some of whom accused him of “Uncle Tomming.”

Young Louis was once advised by an older, wiser black friend in New Orleans to, “Always have a white man in your corner.” The mature Louis took that advice to heart in the form of Joe Glaser, a tough character with mob connections who managed Armstrong’s career for decades. Despite the disparity of backgrounds and interests, they had mutual respect for one another, and Armstrong was freed to perform his music, free from the headaches of booking and book-keeping. For his all-inclusive role, Glaser received half of Armstrong’s considerable earnings!

The often present, toothy smile across Armstrong’s beaming face irritated some of his black critics, to be sure, and some white folks were not quite sure how to take him. His image was distinctly different from the smooth, sophisticated demeanor of a Duke Ellington, for example. To decipher Louis Armstrong, one must understand the forces that shaped him. I see him as a blend of two people: On the one hand, he was a basically kind, well-meaning human being who loved to please and who was easily pleased, needing not much more in life than his music, audience approval, and basic human respect; on the other hand, he was a worldly man, given his bulging dossier of life-experiences, many of which were bound to leave scars.

Louis, himself, confidently and proudly wrote (I paraphrase perhaps a bit), “There’s nothing I ain’t seen!” That certainly includes a lot of good and, undoubtedly, a bunch of “bad.”

It all began for little Louis Armstrong when the Karnofsky’s advanced him some pay so he could buy a battered, used cornet. He learned to really play his horn in the Colored Waif’s Home band where he found himself at age eleven, having been sent there for being involved in some Rampart Street mayhem on New Year’s Eve. After leaving the Waif’s home, young Louis hung around the local musicians, learning from them and finally coming to the attention of Joe “King” Oliver. Joe Oliver also played the cornet (a first-cousin of the trumpet which Louis later adopted) and fronted some local musical groups. When Oliver left New Orleans for Chicago in search of fame and fortune, he eventually called for Armstrong to come and join him, there. That was in 1922; from there, the rest is history as Louis proceeded to outplay everyone in sight with his unique musical phrasing, his pure tone, his high-register capability, and his overall technical proficiency. It was his phrasing, his interpretation of the written music, which made him the singularly most influential musician in the whole history of jazz and its development. It was his phrasing of music, his improvised elaboration of basic melodies that made listening to his vocals a pleasure despite his gravelly voice. And, always present and a significant factor, was his perfect intonation, or pitch.

Armstrong traveled the world, playing numerous command performances before kings, queens, and presidents. His real-life story makes Cinderella’s storybook transformation look rather mundane, by comparison. Later in life, as his raw talent on the trumpet declined, his music had become distinctly commercial. That was the Louis Armstrong I first encountered as a youngster. That was not the Louis Armstrong that garnered such musical acclaim as a young man – the musician you really should know and appreciate.

Armstrong and his wife Lucille lived their late lives in a very modest house in Queens, New York. There were no security guards; there was no gated property. At the end, Louis Armstrong was, fittingly, merely a “resident of the neighborhood” whom everyone knew just as he was in New Orleans at the beginning of it all.

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A good, readable biography is Pops by Terry Teachout.

Radio! The “World In a Box”; How It Came to Be

Imagine what life was like before there was a radio in every home! Society was accustomed to quiet evenings and self-entertainment – not all bad! News from the outside world was slow in coming. The advent of radio changed everything.

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The Crosley “Pup,” is a one-tube radio introduced by the Crosley Corporation in 1925. Battery-powered and designed for earphone listening, the Pup retailed for $9.75! Its Armstrong regenerative circuit was manufactured under patent license from Edwin Howard Armstrong, radio’s greatest inventor/engineer. The particular working example, pictured here, came from my wife’s aunt and uncle after a major garage-sweep. Her aunt’s father brought this very radio home one evening in the mid nineteen-twenties; it brought the “world” and the magic of radio into the family household when “wireless” was still new.

Well before radio’s debut, Samuel Morse’s telegraph sent that famous first code message: “What hath God wrought,” over the Baltimore to Washington DC telegraph line in 1844 – using the dots and dashes of his own “Morse code.” Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone invention was first demonstrated in 1876 by Bell transmitting his spoken message to a nearby assistant over a telephone line: “Mr. Watson – come here – I want to see you.”

Those technologies were important steps in what was yet to come, but it was “wireless” radio that left giant footprints on America’s social fabric; radio was the great leap forward that led to the age of communication and life as we know it today.

Music, News, Entertainment! Radio Changed the Way We Live
The Beginnings of Mass Communication

Whereas radio’s inventor, the Italian, Guglielmo Marconi, visualized his brainchild as a point-to-point communications channel – much like the telegraph line or a pair of walkie-talkies in the hands of two individuals, others quickly saw radio’s real potential in “broadcasting.” The term derives from the farmer’s field during planting season where seeds for the year’s crops were “broadly cast” far and wide from a point-source…the farmer as he walked through the field. The concept of a point-source (radio transmitter) broadcasting far and wide to a large receiving audience was quickly adopted as radio stations rapidly came on the air. This application of radio soon morphed into a huge commercial enterprise which would see such icons as RCA, Philco, ABC, CBS, and NBC become household names. Other names like Edgar Bergin and Charlie McCarthy, Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Fibber McGee and Molly, the Lone Ranger, and Jack Armstrong also became part of the national consciousness, joined later by the great big-band leaders, Goodman, Miller, Dorsey, and Shaw. Later, President Franklin Roosevelt used the airwaves and his fire-side chats to mobilize America’s resolve through the depression years.

Marconi first demonstrated wireless radio (Morse-code telegraphy) in 1896. The first wireless transmission of music and the human voice was heard on Christmas Eve, 1906, courtesy of an important radio pioneer, Reginald Fessenden. It took ten more years for technology developments in “wireless” to reach the critical mass necessary to birth the broadcasting industry. Two major technical developments occurred within those ten years which spurred radio’s meteoric rise and changed society forever. 

The “Audion” Vacuum Tube Amplifier/Oscillator

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Most people have heard of “crystal set” radios. These were early receivers of radio signals which were “passive” in nature (no external power source), and very popular with young boys in radio’s early days. These receivers relied on unique electrical properties of natural crystal materials such as Galena to rectify and detect weak radio waves, rendering them suitable for earphone listening in the process. There was no amplification available in crystal sets to boost the weak signals from the receiving antenna, hence their performance was very poor.

Enter Lee De Forest and his Audion vacuum tube in 1906. De Forest is familiar to anyone knowledgeable about early radio. Although he was a central figure in early “wireless,” he is also regarded as somewhat of a “wheeler-dealer” and a charlatan by many who know the complete history. The short version of the story centers on his introduction of the Audion vacuum tube in 1906, an “active” (battery-powered) device which, after subsequent design improvements, provided the signal amplification/detection qualities necessary for radio to become practical. In the view of many, De Forest did not understand the workings, from an engineering point of view, of his own invention!

Edwin Howard Armstrong, “Explainer” of the Audion Tube and  Inventor of “Regeneration,” the Second Great Advance in Radio.
Howard Armstrong: The Tragic Victim of a Passing Age

For radio and electrical engineers who know the history, Edwin Howard Armstrong is the tragic hero of early “wireless” and a victim of the radio empire which he helped to create. He was the quintessential radio engineer’s engineer – bright, motivated, creative…and stubbornly persistent. He exuded personal integrity. The very qualities which made him the greatest inventor/engineer in the history of radio, led to his downfall and suicide in 1954.

Howard Armstrong surfaced in 1912 as a senior electrical engineering major at Columbia University with an obsessive interest in the infant science of “wireless” radio. He was a fine student with a probing, independent mind that suffered no fools. In 1912, while living at home in nearby Yonkers, New York, and commuting daily to Columbia on an Indian-brand motorcycle, he invented a way to greatly increase signal amplification using a single De Forest Audion tube by feeding part of the tube’s marginally amplified output back to the input of the device where it was amplified over and over again. This technique is now known in the trade as “regeneration,” or positive feedback. Along the way, young Armstrong had made great strides in understanding the technology behind De Forest’s Audion tube, insights far beyond those De Forest himself had offered. While tinkering with the idea of signal regeneration in his bedroom laboratory early on the morning of September 22, 1912, he achieved much greater signal amplification from the Audion than was possible without using regeneration. The entire household was abruptly awakened by young Armstrong’s unrestrained excitement over his discovery.

Regeneration was patented by Armstrong in 1913/14 and was used, under license from him, in countless radios during the early years when radio sets with more than one tube were very expensive to produce, due to the high cost of tubes. By 1914, De Forest stepped forward to challenge Armstrong in court over Armstrong’s patent, claiming that he, De Forest, was the legitimate inventor of regeneration. The litigation in the court system over regeneration lasted twenty years, finally ending in the United States Supreme Court. Shockingly, De Forest was handed the final decision by the court, but the substantial body of radio engineers across the nation in 1934, who were well aware of the “radio art” and its history, were not buying De Forest’s claim. They fully supported Armstrong as the legitimate inventor. The twenty-year patent litigation battle over regeneration was the longest in U.S. patent court history.

Here is the historic account of his invention, written in Armstrong’s own hand around 1920, the first page of an eight-page account of his discovery of regeneration – undoubtedly used to document his court-case.

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At the bottom of the page, Armstrong sums up his triumph that morning:
“Great amplification obtained at once.”

Armstrong went on to make several major contributions to the radio art. The super-heterodyne receiver he designed in 1918 became the universal radio configuration for decades to come due to its superior performance. Through patent licenses with Armstrong, the super-het made RCA, the Radio Corporation of America, the biggest manufacturer in that highly profitable market, and it made Armstrong the largest stockholder of RCA during its early days of corporate glory and immense profitability in the mid-to-late nineteen-twenties.

Developing the System of FM (Frequency Modulation) Broadcasting

Incredibly, twenty-one years after harnessing regeneration, Armstrong went on to make yet another giant contribution to the radio art: FM (frequency modulation) broadcasting. In 1933, in the true tradition of the independent, lone-inventor, which he was, Armstrong introduced the entirely new system of FM broadcasting. Most radio engineers had said for years: “Radio static, like the poor, will always be with us.” The traditional AM (amplitude modulation) system of broadcasting suffered mightily in those early days of low transmitter power and poor reception from the annoying effects of static. Engineers had worked for years on the problem, to no avail. Armstrong took a very different and unlikely approach using wideband frequency modulation. In his revolutionary FM system, static was very greatly reduced. He, virtually by himself, designed and built the wideband FM system which was successfully demonstrated from the top of the Empire State Building in 1935 – essentially the same FM system we use today – a most remarkable achievement.

The Tragedy of Edwin Howard Armstrong

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Howard Armstrong was one of the last, great, lone-inventor/engineers. He was long affiliated with his alma-mater, Columbia University, and had extensive business/patent dealings with giant corporations, such as RCA and Philco, which drew their life-blood from his inventions and the industry which he helped to create.  Despite such wide-spread affiliations, he was, by temperament, an independent thinker in the lone-inventor mold. As radio entered the late nineteen thirties, men-of-action like Armstrong were becoming obsolete, increasingly overrun by corporate beauracracies and their in-house armies of engineers. Radio was now out of the hands of the lone-inventor, becoming the exclusive domain of the moneyed corporations with influence at the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) in Washington.

Armstrong increasingly found himself defending his legitimate patent rights against large corporations, battling their great financial resources and their legions of corporate lawyers. As he continued to lose rightful patent royalties due to corporate violations of his patents, he stubbornly fought back, dissipating his once-great financial security to fund the necessary lawyer’s fees. Armstrong was a man of principled integrity; he could have capitulated, retreated, retired comfortably, and lived out his life, but he chose to fight.

Ultimately, those ceaseless legal battles wore him down, bankrupted him, and destroyed his long marriage. On May 5, 1954, he stepped from his New York apartment window to his death thirteen stories below. In an ironic sense, he fell victim to the industry and the changing times he helped to create. He also was victimized by the very qualities which made him great: Intellectual independence, principled integrity, and the stubborn will to persevere. There are many lessons to be learned from Howard Armstrong’s life-story. The lone crusader was crushed by the corporate “Goliaths”  he helped create. 

Postscript and Recommendation: Ken Burns’ Empire of the Air

If you would like to know more about the early history of radio, De Forest, Armstrong, and David Sarnoff of RCA, the Ken Burns DVD documentary feature, Empire of the Air, is outstanding. The history of early radio unfolds as a back-drop to the fascinating stories of the three cited individuals – all of this presented with an historical emphasis on radio’s influence on America. The film is illuminating and highly entertaining, not merely as the history of radio, but as a commentary on life in early twentieth-century America. The DVD is based on the book of the same name by Tom Lewis – also highly recommended.

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In the Burns documentary, Armstrong’s niece is interviewed in her middle-age. As a young girl in 1912, she was awakened that night in the Armstrong household, the night he made his discovery of regeneration, and she describes the excitement. She added, “It makes me sad that his name isn’t better known. When I tell people my uncle invented radio….they ask, ‘Who was your uncle?’ When I say, Edwin Howard Armstrong, they say, ‘Who?’”

That makes me sad, too, motivating me to write this post – not just to benefit his memory, but to share his poignant story with you; there are so many life-lessons to digest. He was instrumental, through his genius and perseverance, in changing the way we live our lives today… big-time. Now you know.

A modern-day “wireless” fan (me) tuning-up the Crosley Pup!

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