|New York, NY||August 25, 2013|
Hello, Louis! In August 2013, my father and I dropped by Flushing Cemetery in Queens, New York, to pay our respects to a musical giant. “If anybody was Mr. Jazz it was Louis Armstrong,” Duke Ellington opined upon the legend’s death in July 1971. “He was the epitome of jazz and always will be. He is what I call an American standard, an American original.” Richard Nixon eulogized “Satchmo” Armstrong in equally strong terms. “One of the architects of an American art form, a free and individual spirit, and an artist of worldwide fame, his great talents and magnificent spirit added richness and pleasure to all our lives,” the president said in a statement. Today, Armstrong remains credited as a pioneer of jazz.
What a wonderful plot the “Hello, Dolly” singer can claim. Armstrong’s smooth, black headstone is inscribed with gold-painted lettering. A separate stone, attached at the top, represents a trumpet, at rest on a pillow. When I visited in 2013, the plot was decorated with flags, rocks, coins, flowers, and jewelry left by admirers. Armstrong is laid to rest with his fourth wife, Lucille Wilson. The couple was wed from 1942 until Louis’s death nearly 30 years later. In an interview conducted in July 1970, the trumpeter told television host Dick Cavett that he did not get homesick while he traveled, because Lucille was with him. When Louis and Lucille were not on the road, home was in Corona, Queens. The house they shared on 107th Street has been open as a museum since 2003.
Armstrong transcended racial barriers that typified the United States in the first half of the twentieth century. Of particular note, the New Orleans-raised vocalist who led an integrated band was openly accepted in white social circles. Armstrong was not universally loved, however. In instances when he spoke against racial injustice, he was chastised by renowned African Americans both for saying too much and doing too little. Critics of his actions included entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr. and civil rights attorney Thurgood Marshall. Fellow trumpet player Miles Davis, who grew up watching Armstrong, complained that his elder’s convivial stage personality “was developed by white people wanting black people to entertain by smiling and jumping around.” In his review of Terry Teachout’s 2009 biography of Armstrong — titled, Pops — New Yorker contributor John McWhorter states, “Teachout excels at conveying the interplay between Armstrong the artist and Armstrong the entertainer, and at examining the particular challenge of his legacy. Armstrong survived into an era when his musical style seemed old-fashioned and his stage persona uncomfortably reminiscent of minstrelsy. A tragic by-product of his vaudevillian roots was that a man uniquely at ease with himself came to be dismissed by his own people as a fake.”
Armstrong stated that he was born at midnight on July 4, 1900, a date which is reflected on his footstone. However, his actual birthday was August 4, 1901. The discrepancy is attributed to his mother’s recollection that fireworks were being shot off the evening he was born. Baptismal records indicate the correct date.
Born: August 4, 1901 in New Orleans, Louisiana
Spouses: Daisy Parker Armstrong (m. 1919-1923); Lil Hardin Armstrong (m. 1924-1938); Alpha Smith Armstrong (m. 1938-1942); Lucille Wilson (m. 1942-1971)
Died: July 6, 1971 in Queens, New York, New York
Cause of Death: Heart Attack
Interment: Flushing Cemetery, Queens, New York, New York
"I never tried to prove nothing, just always wanted to give a good show. My life has been my music, it's always come first, but the music ain't worth nothing if you can't lay it on the public. The main thing is to live for that audience, 'cause what you're there for is to please the people."
- Louis Armstrong
Sources Consulted and Further Reading
Krebs, Albin. “Louis Armstrong, Jazz Trumpeter and Singer, Dies.” New York Times. July 7, 1971. https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/97/08/03/reviews/armstrong-obit.html.
McWhorter, John. “The Entertainer: Louis Armstrong’s Underrated Legacy.” New Yorker. December 6, 2009. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2009/12/14/the-entertainer.
Riccardi, Ricky. “I’m Still Louis Armstrong–Colored”: Louis Armstrong and the Civil Rights Era.” Louis Armstrong House Museum. May 11, 2020. https://virtualexhibits.louisarmstronghouse.org/2020/05/11/im-still-louis-armstrong-colored-louis-armstrong-and-the-civil-rights-era/.
St. John’s University. “Music Legend Louis Armstrong is Topic of Black History Month Lecture.” February 17, 2023. https://www.stjohns.edu/about/news/2023-02-17/music-legend-louis-armstrong-topic-black-history-month-lecture.
The Dick Cavett Show. “Louis Armstrong Visits the Dick Cavett Show! | The Dick Cavett Show.” YouTube Video, 16:45. July 6, 2022. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OusPn2SIerk.