When the jazz trumpeter with the sandpaper voice known affectionately as “Satchmo” or “Pops” died 40 years ago today, he left behind a legacy of a serious young musician and a clownish older performer.
But later explorations of Louis Armstrong found that the man who sang scat, turned the music of his hometown New Orleans funeral parades and honky tonks into his own art form, and improvised just about whenever he pleased, was as serious about his music at the end of his life as when he started.
Armstrong was also almost always goofy on stage, but he could be serious about the realities of the time period he dwelled in. In the late 1960s, during a performance at Basin Street East in Manhattan, the great pianist Erroll Garner greeted Armstrong with a “Hey, Pops, how’s everything?” Armstrong replied, without missing a beat, “White folks still in the lead.”
Armstrong performed almost until the day he died, hating that he had to pull back the number of shows because of ill health.
“His need to entertain,” the Post’s Jonathan Yardley writes, “was as powerful as his need to make music.”
Forty years after a failed heart took Armstrong away from his music, and from the fans who adored him, we are still listening to his gravelly voice, still trying to match his flashy trumpet playing, and still watching him entertain.
Watch Armstrong perform the most beloved of his works,“What a Wonderful World”:
Watch Armstrong play “La Vie En Rose,” backed by his band the All-Stars, in Belgium in 1959.
Watch Armstrong perform alongside Frank Sinatra in a 1950’s live show: