Celebrating Satchmo's Centennial

Louis Armstrong in 1929
Throughout 2001, the world is celebrating Louis Armstrong's 100th birthday. To honor his centennial, reports Contributor Billy Taylor, CBS News Sunday Morning dug into the archives for some rare interviews and performances.

It seemed like Louis Armstrong was always on a first-name basis with the world. It was just "Louis," "Pops," or even "Satchmo," the nickname that was short for "satchel-mouth." And it was a mouth as big as his personality – and his heart.

Armstrong recorded more than 1,100 songs and has influenced more musicians than anyone else in the history of jazz. Many have tried to tell Armstrong's story, but no one could tell it the way he could.

Fortunately, CBS News Sunday Morning has uncovered hours of film clips and radio interviews made by Armstrong in the 1950s. Over the course of two years, Armstrong sat down with Edward R. Murrow to film a documentary about his life.

In the film, Armstrong recalls life in a New Orleans home for juvenile delinquents – then called the "colored waifs home." It’s where a caretaker named Peter Davis gave Armstrong his first formal instruction in music.

Making music was a dream Armstrong had from the start. He was raised without a father in the poorest of New Orleans’ neighborhoods, sometimes known as "The Battlefield." His one salvation was the music he heard out on the streets – the place where so much of his early life was lived.

The leader of Armstrong's favorite brass band was Joe Oliver, New Orleans' top horn player. His loyal fans called him "King," but to Armstrong, he was like a father.

"He’s my idol, and he did more for the young musicians in my area than anyone that I know of... We’d be walking up the street and run into Joe Oliver if there was ever a piece of music that was bugging us… I'd say, 'Papa Joe – how you divide that?' He’d stop, no matter where he was going, and show it to us… See, that’s why we all loved Joe Oliver."

It was Oliver who brought Armstrong from New Orleans to Chicago, opening up new horizons for the 21-year-old musician. Despite his budding talent, young Armstrong didn't know if he was ready to take the national stage.

Armstrong once said, "I remember when I walked into Lincoln Garden the first night, you know… I started to get back in the cab and go home. I said, 'I can’t play in that band!'"

But in just a few years, Armstrong developed his own sound – and discovered that he was ready for much more than blowing second-horn for Joe Oliver. He was ready to take the lead – on the trumpet, and in his life.

When Armstrong finally stepped into the spotlight, he transformed his music – and his identity - into something entirely new. By the 1950s, he was the world’s most recognizable musician – known around the globe as "Ambassador Satch."

In the Murrow interview, Armstrong explained, "Jazz is a variety of al music, and the only way to sum up music, there ain’t but two things in music: good and bad. Now if it sounds good to you, don’t worry what it is – you just go out and enjoy it. See what I mean? And anything you can pat your foot to is good music!"

During a 1955 European tour, Armstrong was hailed as a conquering hero in Zurich, welcomed like a native son in Palermo, and greeted like a long-lost friend in Paris.

Armstrong told Murrow, "Over in Europe, I used to sit in with different musicians, you know, in their bands, and it would sound just like the tail gates in New Orleans… Even the fans would be sittin’ there, and they could see every move we made."

Back in America, Leonard Bernstein brought Satchmo to the stage for a slightly bigger jam session – with the New York Philharmonic. At the time, Bernstein said, "When we play the Saint Louis Blues, we’re only doing a blown-up imitation of what he does. And what he does is rare, and true, and honest, and simple, and even noble."

No matter how high Armstrong rose, he remembered the people and the place where he came from.

And when Louis Armstrong wailed, he wasn't just playing a tune. He was telling the story of his life.

The official site of the Louis Armstrong House and Archives at Queens College is www.satchmo.net

Louis Armstrong House and Archives at Queens College: Email address is satchmo@qc.edu

Contributor Billy Taylor's Web site is www.npr.org/programs/btaylor/

Sony-Legacy has re-issued many of Armstrong's CDs:

Web sites: www.legacyrecordings.com and www.louis-armstrong.net

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