Many people know Louis Armstrong as a musician, singer, entertainer, and staple of jazz music. But not many people focus on Louis’ resilient spirit throughout his life. Louis spent his childhood in New Orleans in an area called The Battlefield and dealt with segregation, poverty, and the dangerous element that was frequent in his neighborhood. Even though he was faced with many challenges, he never let his circumstances define who he was. His personality and inner strength carried him through many difficult situations during his life and we can all learn from his example.
Louis’ childhood in New Orleans helped to set up the foundation of his uplifting demeanor. Growing up in segregated New Orleans meant that Louis dealt with racial discrimination in all aspects of his life. Later in his life, Louis recounted an incident in his childhood where he got on a segregated streetcar with a friend of his mother’s and was told to sit at the back of the vehicle. As a boy he didn’t understand what was happening, but he soon realized that because of the color of his skin he was being treated differently. He grew up not having access to good doctors, proper education, and the ability to go where he wanted to. As an adult, Louis faced racism from all places even after he became famous. One well known incident was at the Surban Gardens where a white announcer refused to announce Louis because of his race. But Louis decided to take the high road and announce himself. In the face of racism, Louis persevered and became one of the most famous musicians in history.
An early example of Louis’ strength was his experience in the Colored Waif’s Home for Boys as a young man. On December 31, 1912 Louis fired his stepfather’s gun in the air and was later arrested. Louis was sent to the Waif’s home and spent the next year and a half there.The man who ran the home, Captain Joseph Jones, was very strict and made life strenuous. Being away from your family and friends could make any person sad, but not Louis. He adapted to his environment and made lemonade out of lemons. While at the Waif’s home Louis learned how to play the cornet, and played in the band, under the direction of Peter Davis. The home is where he started his musical career and love of trumpet playing which he carried with him for the rest of his life. In his autobiography Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans, Louis spoke very fondly of the home,
“The place was more like a health center or a boarding school than a boys’ jail. We played all kinds of sports, and we turned out some mighty fine baseball players, swimmers, and musicians. All in all I am proud of the days I spent at the Colored Waif’s Home for Boys.” (p. 51)
Louis didn’t focus on the negative and fret over his stay. He knew that his circumstances weren’t permanent and he always kept his head up.
Throughout his playing career, Louis faced troubles playing and often wondered if his body could handle his concert schedule. Trumpet playing is hard on the lips and there were several instances where Louis’ lips seemed to give out on him. In the 1930s Louis had severe lip problems that forced him to stop playing for a year. To a musician, being told that you can’t play your instrument must have been heartbreaking. But Louis persevered and helped his lips heal well enough so he could play again. He also learned from that experience and started to take the necessary precautions to prevent his lips from giving out. He started using a lip salve called Ansatz, which he later received a lifetime supply from the owner Franz Schuritz. Louis also faced other challenges such as when he was stranded in Europe and was cheated by his former managers Johnny Collins and N.J Canetti. While touring Europe, Louis discovered that Collins was stealing money and Canetti was mishandling his business which left him without managers and money. He was left scrambling in a foreign place, with bandmates that needed to be paid, and business that needed to be conducted. To fix his problems, Louis hired Joe Glaser, a mob-connected business man, to smooth out his financial and professional problems. Glaser was the right man for the job and Louis took him on as his manager.
In the current time that we are living in, many people are worried about how to react in trying situations. We can all take a lesson from Louis about how to stay positive and calm in circumstances that are out of our control. His good attitude could spread easily and maybe yours can too. Towards the last years of his life Louis stayed positive even through his health troubles, so I want to leave you with a quote from Pops,
“Seems to me, it aint the world that’s so bad but what we’re doin’ to it. And all I’m saying is, see, what a wonderful world it would be if only we’d give it a chance. Love baby, love. That’s the secret, yeah. If lots more of us loved each other, we’d solve lots more problems. And then this world would be a gasser.”