He was living proof that a good man could transcend just about anything.
Little Louis was born into a poor family in New Orleans in 1901; just two generations earlier, his grandparents had been slaves. His father wasn’t around for long. The man abandoned his wife, son and daughter, but it prompted the Louis to become a wee childhood entrepreneur. The lad sold newspapers while still in grade school in order to bring some much-needed money into the family. He had hoped the extra coins would prevent his mother from having to work in the world’s oldest profession. It didn’t exactly work out that way, but the little boy certainly tried.
He turned what could have been his worst break into his greatest opportunity. Louis got in trouble with the cops after firing a pistol – not at anyone but just for the nice loud noise it made – one New Year’s Eve and found himself remanded to The New Orleans Home for Colored Waifs. The gentleman who ran the home taught the little boy to play a cornet and he played it right into musical history.
Louis, of course, was Louis Armstrong, one of the most beloved entertainers
that America was ever lucky enough to produce. The impoverished child who had tried to sell newspapers to support his abandoned mother would tour the planet playing his incomparable music and became known as “America’s Good Will Ambassador.” At a time when Black Americans were being regularly – and often heartbreakingly – marginalized, Louis’ jazz music and joyous, expansive personality managed to find its way into the hearts of everyone who became familiar with his work, and cut across plenty of prejudicial boundaries in the bargain. To see Louis play his horn and sing, whether live, on film or television, was to like him at once. He managed to open minds and hearts just by showing up.
One look at Louis and you knew he understood how to love life. You just might not have initially realized he’d learned that the hard way.
Louis once said, “When you play jazz, you don’t lie. You play from the heart. If ya ain’t got it in ya, ya can’t blow it out.”