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Reflections from History and Faith: “What a Wonderful World”

  By Jeff Olson

After all, he wasn’t really all that ornery a boy. Of course he could be from time to time but not in a serious and consequential way- well, at least until New Year’s Eve 1912. The boy fired his stepfather’s shotgun in the air during a New Year’s Eve celebration and was promptly arrested on the spot. He was then remanded to the Colored Waif’s Home for Boys. So, they didn’t give him a break – or did they….?  

Daniel was born in New Orleans one hundred twenty years ago this month on August 4, 1901. He was raised in a neighborhood so rough it was called “The Battlefield.” His father was a factory worker and abandoned the family soon after Daniel’s birth. His mother would often turn to prostitution and leave him with his maternal grandmother. He had little choice but to leave school in the fifth grade to find a job to survive. 

Young Daniel had developed an interest in music and enjoyed harmonizing on street corners. He also found a second home with a local Lithuanian-Jewish family who hired him to do odd jobs for their business. The Karnofskys treated him as though he was their own child, often giving him food and even helping him purchase his first cornet. As a sign of his gratitude to his second family, Daniel began wearing a Star of David pendant around his neck. This he wore for the remainder of his life.

However, all this got interrupted by the shotgun incident, so now what would become of Daniel? What kind of future would he have? Well, it so happened that the Colored Waif’s Home for Boys had a band and an instructor named Peter Davis. 

Under Davis’ tutelage, Daniel learned how to properly play the cornet, eventually becoming the leader of the Waif’s Home Brass Band. That was where Daniel later claimed, “me and music got married. 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.” Daniel was released from the Waif’s Home in 1914, but continued playing in New Orleans’ honkytonks.

Joe “King” Oliver, the greatest cornetist in town, began mentoring the young Daniel, occasionally using him as a sub. It wasn’t long before Daniel became one of the most in-demand cornetists around. In 1918, he replaced Oliver in Kid Ory’s band, then the most popular band in New Orleans. Beginning in 1919, Daniel spent his summers playing on riverboats with a band led by Fate Marable. 

It was on the riverboat that he honed his music reading skills and eventually had his first encounters with other jazz legends, including Bix Beiderbecke and Jack Teagarden. In 1922, at Oliver’s invitation, Daniel moved to Chicago where eventually he had great success playing with Oliver with whom he made his first recordings in April 1923. That was also when he made his first recorded solo on “Chimes Blues.”

Daniel soon began dating the female pianist in Oliver’s band, Lillian Hardin. After they married in 1924, Hardin encouraged Daniel to leave Oliver and join Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra, the top African American dance band in New York City at the time. Daniel made some great contributions to Henderson’s band, essentially transforming it into what is generally regarded as the first jazz big band. 

While in New York. he also cut dozens of records as a sideman, creating inspirational jazz with other greats of the day. Still, he wasn’t happy there so after a year he returned to Chicago and  started playing with his wife’s band at the Dreamland Café.

It was also during this time that Daniel started recording under his own name for a change and switched from the cornet to the trumpet. In case you haven’t figured it out by now, his own name was in fact Daniel – Louis Daniel Armstrong. With OKeh Records, between 1925 and 1928, “Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five” made more than 60 records, including some with the “Hot Seven.” 

Today, these are generally regarded as the most important and influential recordings in jazz history. Throughout the 1920s, he was one of the most sought-after musicians in Chicago and New York. His improvised solos helped transform jazz from an ensemble music to a soloist’s art and his vocals on these recordings popularized wordless “scat singing.” By the end of the decade, the popularity of the Hot Fives and Sevens brought Armstrong back to New York, where in 1929 he appeared in the popular Broadway revue, “Connie’s Hot Chocolates.”

From there, Louis Armstrong was on his way to becoming an American institution. In the 1930s and 1940s, he toured extensively and continually, first in Europe and then throughout the U.S. It was what many consider to be one of the most grueling tour schedules in American music history. After about a one year hiatus to recuperate from the tour, He began recording again, fronting a big band and appearing regularly in movies. 

Armstrong set several “firsts” for African Americans. He was the first to have featured billing in a major Hollywood movie with Pennies from Heaven (1936). That same year he became the first jazz musician to write an autobiography: Swing That Music. He was also the first to host a nationally sponsored radio show. In 1937 he took over Rudy Vallee’s Fleischmann’s Yeast Show for 12 weeks. Armstrong continued to appear in motion pictures, but with the mid-1940s came the decline of both the swing era and that of the big bands which gave him pause about which direction to take next.

While he had been singing for many years already, it wasn’ t until the 1950s that audiences really began to appreciate his unique artistry as a singer. His signature “scat” style of singing became the international signature of jazz itself and his recordings during this decade are among the most popular of his career and the genre itself. 

He also was cast in several motion pictures during this decade, including two big band era biographies where he played himself: The Glenn Miller Story (1954) and The Five Pennies (1959). During the mid-’50s, Armstrong’s popularity overseas soared which gave many fans the idea to alter his long-time nickname, Satchmo, to “Ambassador Satch.”

The late 1950s saw the civil rights movement accelerate and it impacted Armstrong in some negative ways. Many blacks saw him as an “uncle tom” playing for primarily white audiences. 

However, Armstrong was actually a pioneer whose career opened the door for other blacks in the entertainment world, giving them more opportunity and respectability. During the height of the Cold War in the late 1950s, the U.S. State Department developed a program to send jazz musicians and other entertainers on goodwill tours to improve America’s image overseas. 

He was already known as “Ambassador Satch” for his concerts in far corners of the globe, but in 1960 he became an official cultural diplomat after he took off on a three-month, State Department-sponsored trip across Africa.

In late 1963, Armstrong and his All Stars recorded the title track for an upcoming musical called “Hello, Dolly!” Surprisingly to Armstrong, it soared to the top of the charts, displacing two songs by The Beatles who were then at the height of their popularity. 

At age 62, Armstrong became the oldest musician in American history to have a number one song. He had received many accolades during his long career, including three Grammy Award nominations, but his vocal performance of Hello, Dolly! earned him that Grammy in 1964. He was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1972 and in 2017 was inducted into the Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame. Both were posthumously. 

In 1967, Armstrong recorded a song which was first offered to Tony Bennett, but Bennett turned it down. While it met with a less than enthusiastic response in its first release it, has since become what many consider to be a classic and one of Armstrong’s signature songs.

The many years of constant touring and not taking care of himself began to exact a toll on his health. In 1959 he suffered his first heart attack and nine years later returned to intensive care at Beth Israel Hospital for heart and kidney trouble. 

Doctors advised him not to play, but Armstrong continued to practice every day and returned to performing in 1970. This was when he recorded for us a special introduction to that signature song I mentioned earlier, “What a Wonderful World.” Pops’ return to his music however was too much, too soon. 

He passed away on July 6, 1971, but this new recording left us with an even richer song, one which reminds us that our world is mostly what we make of it – through love, our relationships with others, our priorities in life, and our appreciation for the simple, common everyday blessings that we too often take for granted. 

Fifty years after his death, this song still reminds us that at the heart of Louis Armstrong’s legacy are his indelible, enduring and priceless treasures of music and love he left to us that made our world more wonderful – and even so now as I am reminded when I play one of my favorites of his records, “What a Wonderful World.”

Thank you, Pops!

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