The Life of Miles Davis Wasn't As Smooth As His Jazz Music


Considered “one of the most important musicians of the 20th century” by Rolling Stone, trumpeter Miles Davis never stopped growing as a musician. Throughout his 50-year career, Davis contributed to the world of jazz by creating the fusion sound, modal jazz, cool jazz, hard bop, and bebop. And among the music were many obstacles faced. Some would be external, but so very many were of the legend's own making...

The Birth of a Legend

Miles Dewey Davis III was born in Illinois, in 1926. His father was a prominent dentist, and his mother, Cleo, was a music teacher and a violinist. Cleo was also a talented blues pianist; however, after having children, she gave up performing in the blues clubs for good.


After a brief stint in Catholic School, David transferred to the all-black elementary school. From there, he moved up to a better school, where he excelled in mathematics, music, and sports. Lucky enough to be exposed to music from a young age, his interests included the blues, gospel, and big bands. Little did he know how much of an impact he'd make in the very same world.

An Idyllic Upbringing

Though many black musicians born during this era faced poverty, Davis had a more fortunate upbringing during his early years of life. Because his father was a prominent dentist, the family didn’t face the same financial woes as many others did. His father owned a 200-acre estate near Pine Bluff, Arkansas, where the children would spend their days horseback riding and hunting on the land in the summer.


In 1927, the family moved to East St. Louis, Illinois, where they lived in an apartment on the second floor behind Miles Sr.’s dental office. As the Great Depression took hold of the country, Davis’s father became consumed by his job, leaving less and less time for his children. As Miles grew older, he only saw his father one day per week.

The Great Debate

When Davis reached his 13th birthday, his mother and father entered into a big debate - whether their son should learn to play the trumpet or the violin. Ultimately, Miles Sr. presented his son with the brass instrument as his gift, causing Cleota to storm out of the room. Luckily, she soon accepted his decision.


Elwood Buchanan, a patient and drinking buddy of Davis’s father, was hired as his son’s first teacher. By high school, Buchanan was not only giving private lessons, but he was also the band teacher at Davis’s school as well. In one formative moment that stayed with Davis for the rest of his life, Buchanan stopped the music to compliment him on his vibrato, saying he had “enough talent” to create his own style.

The Teenage Years

While playing with the band, Davis was encouraged to enter the local music competitions by his then-girlfriend, Irene Birth. Years later, Davis recounted those days saying that because it was a predominantly white neighborhood, he felt discriminated against because of his race. He also added that those experiences inspired him to become an even greater musician.


By age 16, Davis was studying music theory and playing his music professionally at the local Elks Club in his spare time. A devoted brother, he used part of his earnings to assist his sister with her college tuition. With additional encouragement from Birth and Buchanan, Davis accepted a chair in the Rhumboogie Orchestra, better known as the Blue Devils. In retrospect, Davis said he considered that job the most important of his career.

Growing Up Too Fast

While playing with Eddie Randle’s band The Blue Devils for a year, Sonny Stitt recognized Davis's great talent and skill. In an effort to poach him, Stitt offered Davis a spot in Tiny Bradshaw’s band which was passing through town. Excited and eager, the high schooler approached his mother to ask if he could join them on tour.


Of course, Cleota quickly objected, insisting that her son finish high school and obtain his degree. Davis later admitted that he didn’t speak to his mother for a full two weeks after their conversation. He also quickly added that he didn’t go on tour either. The young musician did graduate in January 1944. The following month, he and Irene Birth welcomed their daughter Cheryl to the world.

He Was Accepted to Julliard

Once graduated from high school, Davis accepted a position at the Institute of Musical Arts in New York City, now known as Julliard. By 1945, he dropped out. In his autobiography, Davis recalled his time at the prestigious school as being boring, “white-oriented,” and “racist.” One example of his negative experience included a white female teacher who claimed that black people played the blues because they were impoverished and were cotton-pickers.


Davis’s response? He raised his hand and said, “I’m from East St. Louis, and my father is rich, he’s a dentist, and I play the blues. My father didn’t never pick no cotton, and I didn’t wake up this morning sad and start playing the blues. There’s more to it than that.” Davis had no regrets leaving Julliard behind. He was already entertaining audiences with jazz greats such as Charlie Parker.

A Disregarded Warning

Miles Davis had been a huge fan of Charlie “Bird” Parker since he saw him perform with the Billy Eckstein band in St. Louis in 1944. At the time, their third trumpeter, Buddy Anderson, had to quit the band due to a case of tuberculosis, so Davis was asked to stand in. The brief collaboration had Davis determined to move to New York and reunite with Parker once again.


While studying at Julliard, Davis frequented the jazz clubs hoping to track Parker down despite warnings from his friend, saxophonist Coleman Hawkins. Hawkins knew that Parker would be a bad influence on the young trumpeter because of his addiction to heroin. Determined to play with his idol, Davis ignored the warnings, befriended Parker, and eventually became his roommate for over a year.

On Track

Aside from Charlie Parker, Miles Davis had an appreciation for many musicians who played a wide range of instruments. After he left Julliard, Davis remained friends with a classmate there by the name of Herbie Fields, who had a band of his own. Fields asked Davis to stand in as sideman for the band, giving him his first experience recording in a studio on April 24, 1945.


Davis then formed a group of his own called The Fine Nine which later became known as the Miles Davis Nonet in 1948. The band consisted of nine musicians who played the trumpet, trombone, French horn, tuba, piano, upright bass, drums, as well as the alto and baritone saxophone. It was the collaboration between these musicians that came up with the tracks from his famous album Birth of the Cool.

Decisions, Decisions

Another of Davis’s idols was the legendary big band conductor Duke Ellington. By 1948, the trumpeter had gained a reputation for being incredibly talented and innovative. Though Ellington had never met Miles Davis, he sent him a message saying he liked his style and wanted Davis to join his band in the fall.


Flattered and excited, Davis arranged to meet this iconic bandleader. Upon his arrival, he found Ellington dressed casually in shorts with an attractive woman sitting on his lap. Davis explained that he couldn’t accept Ellington’s generous offer because he was already committed as the trumpeter in the band led by Gil Evans. While his excuse was legitimate, he also knew he would grow tired of playing the same music night after night should he accept the new opportunity. The two men never reconnected again.

Falling Prey to the Needle

Davis maintained a healthy lifestyle eating a vegetarian diet and avoiding alcohol and drugs in the early days. As time went by, however, he began to indulge in the same vices as many of the other musicians. By 1946, his alcohol and cocaine use was so intrusive that it drove a wedge between him and his partner Irene.


After abusing alcohol and cocaine for three years, Davis was depressed and uninspired. Because of his erratic behavior, work offers came to a halt. Influenced by his fellow musicians, Davis turned to heroin, and by 1953, those he collaborated with could tell it was affecting his music. Though Davis thought he was hiding his addiction well, during an interview with Cab Calloway, his heroin use was made public. While Davis never forgave Calloway for outing his problem, the unintentional intervention was the push he needed to get clean.

Quitting Cold Turkey

After the public announcement of his addiction, Davis left New York and headed to Detroit to try and overcome his demons. Sadly, his behavior became even more self-destructive in the motor city, resorting to what he called “pimping a little” to support his habit. After a heart-to-heart with boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, Davis left Detroit in 1954 to get clean.


The trumpeter-turned-addict retreated to his father’s house, where he locked himself in a room for over a week so he could go through withdrawals. In an interview, he explained he was sick and tired of using, saying, “You know you can get tired of anything. You can even get tired of being scared. I laid down and stared at the ceiling for 12 days, and I cursed everybody I didn’t like. I was kicking it the hard way."

Clash of the Legends

Though Miles Davis was a brilliant musician, he was not the easiest person with whom to work. He was a meticulous perfectionist who wanted to create music that had never been done before while collaborating with other musicians. If those fellow musicians did not live up to his standards, he was sure to let them know; just ask Thelonious Monk.


According to jazz pianist Charles Mingus, during a gig, Davis spent the entire time belittling pianist Thelonious Monk while accusing him of not knowing the correct chords to play. As his rage escalated, he eluded to Monk as a “non-musician” and then proceeded to threaten him. Apparently, Davis’s unprofessional and cruel behavior didn’t phase Monk. He went on to become one of the five jazz musicians to grace the cover of Time magazine and remains the “second-most-recorded jazz composer after Duke Ellington.”

His Idiosyncrasies

To explain his behavior with Thelonious Monk, we should take a look at Davis’s idiosyncrasies. First and foremost, Davis was notorious for avoiding rehearsals. Instead of practicing with the band to assure the performance was perfect, the musician would only give them a vague outline for the songs so they could improvise as they pleased. Despite his lackadaisical attitude towards rehearsals, the trumpeter had many unspoken rules when preparing to perform.


Davis would never shake hands before going on stage for fear that any oil or residue would hinder his playing. He also wore shoes that were one size too small with the laces pulled as tightly as possible. His last ritual was to avoid both food and sex before a performance. He felt it was important to feel “hungry and unsatisfied” while playing on the stage.

Ignoring Doctor’s Orders

Being a trumpet player comes with its own set of problems, one of them being nodes on the vocal cords. After experiencing symptoms in 1957, Davis met with a doctor who diagnosed him with the issue and scheduled him for surgery. While in recovery from the operation, the surgeon stressed to the musician that he must rest his voice for at least ten days to avoid long term damage to his vocal cords.


So what does Miles Davis do? Just two days after he received the instructions from the surgeon, the trumpeter lost his temper during a meeting with the record company. Instead of calmly making his point, Davis screamed at the agent, causing permanent damage. From that day, his voice had a raspy edge that continued until the day he died.

A Victim of Police Brutality

Though he was a successful jazz musician, Miles Davis rose to fame during an era where racism was rampant, whether he was a celebrity or not. On August 25, 1959, being a gentleman, Davis was escorting a white lady friend from the club to her taxi. A policeman intervened and aggressively instructed Davis to unhand the woman and walk away. When he tried to explain that he worked at the club, the policeman responded with a brutal beating.


Though he had done nothing wrong and was bleeding profusely in need of stitches, Davis was accused of assaulting an officer of the law and promptly arrested. In the end, he was acquitted a year later, even so, the incident left him feeling helpless, “bitter, and cynical.”

Happily Never After

By 1959, Davis had been dating aspiring dancer Frances Taylor for seven years after meeting her at Ciro’s club in Los Angeles. After popping the question in September, the couple was married in Toledo, Ohio, in December of the same year. Though he had kicked his heroin addiction, Davis was still consuming large quantities of cocaine and alcohol in an effort to reduce joint pain caused by sickle cell anemia.


The musician’s abuse of drugs and alcohol caused him to have hallucinations and violent outbursts usually directed at his wife. After one incident where he was “looking for this imaginary person,” he went after Taylor in the kitchen wielding a kitchen knife. This was the last straw. She packed her bags and left in 1965, with the divorce being finalized in 1968.

A Quick Decline

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, each of the albums Miles Davis released would typically sell around 100,000 copies. After recovering from a liver infection in the hospital in 1966, the musician wanted to try something new stylistically. He had grown tired of his typical jazz venues, so he decided to play for the college crowds, which resulted in a rapid decline in record sales. Columbia president Clive Davis confided in his client that his sales had gone from 100,000 to 40-50,000 in less than one year.


Davis knew things had to change when he read a press report disclosing his financial troubles and ill health, so he leaned on actress Cicely Tyson to help him cut down on his alcohol intake. Without the booze, the trumpeter felt creative again. This was just the beginning of his famous fusion phase.

Expanding His Taste

Though Davis had listened to gospel, blues, and jazz for most of his life, his musical interests expanded considerably when he met and married songwriter Betty Mabry in 1968. As a well-connected musician herself, Mabry introduced Davis to the musical stylings of Jimi Hendrix, The Byrds, Sly and the Family Stone, James Brown, and Aretha Franklin.


The combination of funk and soul made quite an impression on Davis, inspiring him to compose more works of fusion instead of his classical jazz riffs. While Mabry was a good influence on Davis creatively, the couple were not a good match romantically. Davis filed for divorce in 1969 after suspecting his new bride of sleeping with Jimi Hendrix.

A Close Call

By the time his divorce was finalized, Davis was dating multiple women, one of which was Marguerite Eskridge. In October 1969, the two lovers barely escaped with their lives after being shot at while driving in Davis’s car. Despite five shots being aimed directly at the vehicle, Davis only suffered a graze, and Marguerite left the incident unscathed.


Though police never uncovered the actual motive or a suspect, the incident may have been related to Davis’s drug addiction or his philandering ways. Luckily, both lives were spared as Marguerite gave birth to their son Erin less than a year later.

Sell-Out Or Creative Genius?

Davis’s new appreciation for rock-n-roll, funk, and soul inspired him to collaborate with artists who specialize in those genres. Instead of being the headliner at the jazz clubs, he accepted gigs being the opening act for groups such as The Steve Miller Band and Neil Young with Crazy Horse. This change was met with mixed reactions. Jazz musicians accused him of being a sell-out while the black press said he was bowing down to white culture.


Despite the negative reactions, he continued with the tours, which included the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival. It was there that he played in front of 600,000 people, the largest audience of his entire career.

Bring Back the Jazz

In 1972, Davis released one of his most creative albums, entitled On the Corner. Because of his newfound interest in fusing other genres of music with jazz, he collaborated with the highly regarded avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen to produce the tracks. His motivation behind this unique sound was to grab the attention of the young black audience who preferred rock, soul, and funk over what they considered old-fashioned jazz.


Upon its release, On the Corner proved to be a failure; however, as the years have passed, critics considered it a very bold and creative project on Davis’s part. Jazz purists saw the album as another attempt by Davis to please the white man. This harsh criticism caused the album to be hailed as the “most vilified album and controversial album in the history of jazz.”


Shortly after performing his set at the New York City Music Festival in 1975, Davis dropped out of the music scene and the public eye. From 1976 until 1981, the musician isolated himself in his Manhattan brownstone, causing wild speculations regarding his health. Rolling Stone magazine went so far as to write a piece on the trumpeter’s health, stating that they feared he was on his death bed. Fans began sitting vigil, with some amateur investigators rifling through his garbage for clues as to his well-being.


The truth was, Davis was in ill-health; however, on his death bed was quite a stretch. After the festival, he underwent surgery for an artificial hip transplant which led to a painful infection that required months of treatment. In addition, he had another polyp surgery, gallbladder issues, a bleeding ulcer, pneumonia, and chronic insomnia.

Hiding from His Problems

Aside from all of his health issues, Davis was also overwhelmed with legal battles during that time. While collaborating with five other artists, he arranged for Columbia Records producer Teo Macero to secretly record the session without the other musicians knowing. Upon discovering this betrayal, his potential bandmates walked away from his offer. At the same time, Marguerite Eskridge had him arrested for neglecting to pay child support for their son Erin. Davis was only released once he paid her the $10,000 he owed.


By 1979, Davis turned to the only person he knew who could help him find his passion again. He and actress Cicely Tyson married in 1981. With her by his side, the trumpeter was able to overcome his cocaine addiction and get back to work.

Tyson to the Rescue, Again

Just one year into their marriage, Davis relapsed and went on a bender while Tyson was on location in Africa. Because of the copious amounts of alcohol he ingested, the musician suffered a stroke that temporarily paralyzed his right hand. Of course, Tyson rushed home to care for her husband despite his reckless choices.


The actress convinced Davis to see an acupuncturist, and after three months of treatment, he regained the mobility in his hand. Tyson also helped him with physical therapy and encouraged him to play piano and draw, all of which strengthened his fingers so he could play the trumpet once again. Though Tyson loved and cared for Davis the best she could, by 1988, she was done with their tumultuous marriage. Their divorce was finalized in 1989.

Trying Something Different

While married to Cicely Tyson, Davis seemed to embrace projects outside of his norm. He and a number of other musicians rallied for a cause when they collaborated on the 1985 single Sun City. The song itself was in protest of apartheid and President Reagan’s support of the South African government despite its continued institutionalized racism. Though the radio stations steered clear of the controversial song, the single raised “more than $1 million for anti-apartheid projects."


In 1986, Davis agreed to compose the soundtrack for the film Street Smart that was to be released the following year. Though the movie failed at the box office, actor Morgan Freeman gained an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of the sinister pimp in the film.

Rumor or Fact?

In 1989, Davis shocked the audience in Madrid when he collapsed on-stage after playing a two-hour set. Once an announcement was made that the remainder of the European tour would be canceled, an edition of Star magazine claimed that the musician was suffering from AIDS. Though Davis’s manager released a statement the following day stating the trumpeter only had a mild case of pneumonia, another source claimed that Davis was prescribed azidothymidine, otherwise known as AZT, the primary pharmaceutical for the treatment of AIDS.


In an interview with 60 Minutes, Davis claimed that one of his ex-wives had started the rumor in an attempt to hurt him. Though he could have sued the woman for slander, he chose not to seek legal action.

A Random Conversation

Before his rise to fame, Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman worked as a lifeguard at New York City’s Metropolitan Tower pool. It just so happened that one of his favorite musicians, Miles Davis, was a resident there at the time. On one occasion, the musician sauntered onto the pool deck and struck up a conversation with one of his biggest fans.


Starstruck, Hoffman attempted to play it cool by pretending he didn’t know who this jazz legend was. For half an hour, these two men discussed New York, the properties Davis owned, former girlfriends, even former car accidents, “everything except music.” Per Hoffman, at the end of the exchange, the famous trumpeter said, “I’m Miles,” and simply walked away.

The Legend’s End

By 1991, Davis had suffered through several bouts of bronchial pneumonia. In early September, he checked himself into St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica, California, for routine testing on his lungs. When the doctor suggested he allow a tracheal tube to be implanted, Davis reacted aggressively, causing an intracerebral hemorrhage. Soon thereafter, he fell into a coma from which he never awoke. After several days on life support, doctors turned off the machines on September 28, 1991.


At just 65 years old, the cause of Davis’s death was attributed to complications involving his stroke, pneumonia, and respiratory failure. His funeral was held at St. Peter’s Church in New York City and drew nearly 500 people. His body was buried at Woodlawn Cemetary with his trumpet by his side.

His Legacy

As the news of his death circulated, critics, musicians, and composers all had something to say about his illustrious career. The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll described him perfectly by saying, "Miles Davis played a crucial and inevitably controversial role in every major development in jazz since the mid-'40s, and no other jazz musician has had so profound an effect on rock. Miles Davis was the most widely recognized jazz musician of his era, an outspoken social critic and an arbiter of style—in attitude and fashion—as well as music."


While alive, Davis was nominated for a whopping 32 Grammy awards, eight of which he won. Posthumously, he was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1998 and inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006. His album Kind of Blue is still the highest-selling jazz record of all time.

Up next, the life of another trumpeting legend...

Satchmo's Up and Downs: the Life of Louis Armstrong

Louis Armstrong was the world's most beloved jazz singing trumpeter who changed music forever. Yet it turns out his world wasn't so wonderful after all. Born into poverty in New Orleans, he fought racism, went on the run from the mob, and survived attempts on his life. Yet, somehow––against all the odds––he crossed the racial barrier to become the first African-American multimedia star.


Yet, even at the top of his game, he was loved and loathed by his own community and seen as a sell-out. Today, we bring you the tragic tale of jazz music's most famous musician. We'll begin with his childhood, examine his stellar career and even reveal a sixty-year-old secret.

The Jazz Singer

Louis Daniel Armstrong was born on August 4th, 1901, in New Orleans, Louisiana. But did you know that his name was pronounced 'Lewis'? The man himself later described how: "All white folks call me Louie!" Today, the area has been transformed into the Caesars Superdome, but at the turn of the Twentieth Century, the red-light district he was born in - known as 'the Battlefield' - was chock full with brothels, bars, and gambling dens, punctuated by the odd vaudeville theater.


Louis was born at home to sixteen-year-old Mary Albert. His father, William Armstrong, abandoned the family when Louis was just a child, so he was raised by his grandmother. At the same time, Mary was occasionally forced into prostitution to support her children. Eventually, when Louis was five, he returned to his mother, who was by then also raising William's daughter from another mother, Beatrice "Mama Lucy" Armstrong.

Rag And Bone Boy

When he was just six years old, Louis attended the Fisk School for Boys, one of the few New Orleans schools that accepted African-American children. The same year, he found work with a local, hard-working family, the Karnoffskys. The poor kid would be up at five o'clock in the morning collecting scrap metal, rag and bone, and bottles from the wealthier neighborhood streets.


During the days, he'd walk the streets next to the family's junk wagon. Then, he walked the red-light district by night, selling coal by the bucket. It's believed Louis Armstrong's first-ever musical performance may have been at the side of the Karnoffskys' peddler's wagon, playing an old tin horn to drum up business. Before long, little Louis had taught himself to play a tune to entertain other children.

Meeting The Mentors

As Lithuanian Jewish immigrants, The Karnoffskys suffered much discrimination yet still had enough love to show Louis much kindness. When he was seven, the Karnoffskys took the fatherless boy in and treated him like one of their own. Mrs. Karnoffsky would sing him to sleep with Yiddish and Russian lullabies, and Louis even became fluent in Yiddish.


The family introduced this future star to the horn and taught him to sing "with feeling." Morris Karnoffsky gave little Louis an advance so he could buy a $5 cornet from a pawn shop. And the rest, as they say, is history. He always remembered the Karnoffskys for their "wonderful souls" and wore a Star of David in memory of this family who had helped raise him.

Trouble Finds Him

In 1910, Louis and five other boys were arrested "for being dangerous and suspicious characters." He was sent to the "Colored Waifs Home," where Captain Joseph Jones ran a military boot camp and doled out corporal punishment––there were no mattresses, and meals consisted of bread and molasses. Then, when he was eleven, he dropped out of school and joined a singing quartet who busked in the streets for money. Cornet player Bunk Johnson claimed he taught Louis to play by ear at "Dago Tony's Honky-Tonk."


But in 1913, Louis was sent back to the boy's home after firing a gun into the air at a New Year's Eve parade. He spent his 18-month-long sentence learning to play the bugle, but music teacher Peter Davis took him under his wing and made him bandleader. The star performer soon attracted the attention of trombonist Edward "Kid" Ory. Louis later wrote: "I do believe that my whole success goes back to that time I was arrested as a wayward boy because then I had to quit running around and began to learn something. Most of all, I began to learn music."

Life Is A Battlefield

Louis was released in June 1914, at which point he sought work as a musician. Eventually, he found a job at Henry Ponce's dance hall, whose owner had connections to organized crime. Soon, Armstrong met drummer Black Benny, who became his bodyguard.


While selling coal in the smokey brothels and dance halls of Storyville, Louis accustomed himself to the early sounds of jazz and skiffle bands who made music out of household objects. If he'd have been born a few hundred miles north in the Mississippi Delta, he'd surely have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for playing The Blues like Robert Johnson. But Louis didn't sell his soul to the devil; he was about to sell his soul to the white man.

Steamboat Louis

Next, Louis landed a breakthrough gig with a riverboat band led by musician Fate Marable and played in brass bands and on steamboats on the Mississippi River. He described this time as "going to the University." Then, in 1919, he joined Kid Ory's band and played second trumpet for the Tuxedo Brass Band. By the time he was 20, he could read music, started singing, and began injecting his own personality and style into his extended cornet solos.


While performing in Louisiana, Louis met local sex worker Daisy Parker and started seeing her as a client. But when the smitten kitten went looking for Daisy's home, he was greeted by her husband. Nevertheless, he found her, and the next day, March 19th, 1919, they were married! Their marriage is described as a "stormy union marked by many arguments and acts of violence," but they adopted three-year-old Clarence, whose mother, Flora (Armstrong's cousin), had died. Clarence Armstrong was mentally disabled, and Louis spent the rest of his life caring for him.

The Windy City

Louis Armstrong's first-ever studio recording was with King Oliver (pictured) in April 1923, but it didn't go so well. The band traveled by train to Richmond, Indiana––the heart of Ku Klux Klan country––and the cramped studio comprised of crude recording equipment and lousy acoustics.



In 1922, Armstrong moved to booming Chicago, joined the influential Oliver's Creole Jazz Band, and made enough money to quit working day jobs. Prohibition, speakeasies, jazz, and Al Capone's racketeering mobsters all fed off each other. As such, Louis lived luxuriously in his own apartment, began keeping scrapbooks, and wrote to friends boasting he had his own bathtub, could blow two hundred high Cs in a row, and hung with white friends Bix Beiderbecke and Hoagy Carmichael.

Second Wife

Finally, Louis gained the reputation he deserved in cutting contests––the 1920s jazz equivalent of rap-battles. But his marriage to Daisy Parker ended in 1923, around the time he met King Oliver's pianist, Lillian Hardin. She impacted Louis in a big way. First, she believed he was too talented not to lead his own band and felt Oliver was holding him back. Next, she also encouraged him to play church music to broaden his skills. Finally, she made him wear more stylish clothes to offset his ever-expanding waistline.


Lil's influence slowly drove a wedge between Louis and King Oliver. Armstrong's mother visited Chicago during the summer of 1923 after hearing her son was "out of work, out of money, hungry, and sick," but he was back on his feet soon enough. Louis married Lillian Hardin in 1924, though they separated in 1931 and divorced in 1938. According to The New York Times, Louis told each of his four wives, "The horn comes first."

The Harlem Renaissance

Eventually, Lil had persuaded her husband to cut ties with his mentor, and Armstrong and King Oliver parted ways amicably. Armstrong joined Fletcher Henderson's Orchestra––New York's top African-American band––in 1924 and soon switched from the cornet to the trumpet. His passionate solos introduced the band to the concept of swing music.


Henderson and his arranger, Don Redman, began to integrate Louis' swinging vocabulary into their arrangements—transforming the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra into the world's first Big Band jazz combo. In doing so, Louis changed jazz music forever. Before Armstrong, you see, jazz music focused on collective improvisation. After Louis, jazz incorporated breath-taking, feverish, solo performances.

OKeh Dokeh

In 1925, Lil insisted her new husband return to Chicago to expand his career. But secretly, she knew her own band; the Lil Hardin Armstrong Band needed him. In fact, while he was performing in Harlem, she inked a deal behind his back to make "the World's Greatest Trumpet Player" a featured act at Chicago's Dreamland Café. Days after he arrived back in the Windy City, he made his first recordings under his own name with OKeh Records.


He formed Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five, and their records introduced the world to Louis's trademark improvised trumpet solos and scat singing. Indeed, "Heebie Jeebies" is one of the first-ever recordings to use scat singing. Legend says Louis' sheet music fell to the floor, and the music began before he could grab the pages, so he started singing spontaneous, random jazz nonsense. He thought the track would be discarded, but it became a hit!

The Famous Five Become The Magnificent Seven

"Heebie Jeebies" turned Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five into the country's most famous jazz band. They celebrated by becoming the Hot Seven and adding drummer Al "Baby" Dodds and tuba player Pete Briggs. ​​In 1929, Armstrong headed back to New York and a role in Broadway's Connie's Hot Chocolates. He performed nightly to white theatergoers in Ain't Misbehavin', but he soon found out that being famous was no bed of roses.


Mary Jane

The band recorded "Potato Head Blues" and "Muggles," a slang term for marijuana, which Armstrong described as "a thousand times better than whiskey." He also started calling people "Pops" when he forgot their names. In turn, he became known as "Pops." In 1930, he moved to Los Angeles and appeared in his first film, Ex-Flame (1930). Then, he and drummer Vic Berton were arrested for smoking reefer outside Sebastian's Cotton Club, Culver City, California. Armstrong served nine days in jail but continued smoking for the rest of his days and even asked for a permit to smoke marijuana anywhere in the USA. "It makes you forget all the bad things that happen to a Negro," he once revealed.


And speaking of bad things, in the early 1930s, the Great Depression hit America hard, even decimating the popular, upbeat jazz and dance scenes. The Cotton Club went into decline, finally closing its doors in 1936. To illustrate just how bad things got, Armstrong's one-time mentor, Kid Ory, returned to New Orleans to raise chickens. Meanwhile, Louis returned to Chicago and started dating Alpha Smith.

Mob Rule

One night at the Showboat Club in 1931, a mobster called Frankie Foster pulled a gun on Louis and told him he was playing in New York the following day. And when the mob tells you that you're getting out of town, you get outta town! So Louis returned to New Orleans…and a hero's welcome. He handed out money, bought a radio for his old orphanage, sponsored a baseball team (Armstrong's Secret Nine) and even had a cigar named after him.


Soon, Louis was on the road again… but he wasn't alone. The mob had followed him because his dodgy agent Johnny Collins owed them money. As a result, Louis spent the next few years on the run, never staying in one city for too long and finally hightailing it to Europe to wait for the heat to die down. In 1932, he recorded the first integrated vocal duet, "Rockin' Chair," with his friend, white singer Hoagy Carmichael.

Married to the Mob

After returning to the USA in 1935, Armstrong––now known as 'Satchmo' or 'Satch'––undertook several exhausting tours. Johnny Collins was leaking money, breaching contracts left, right, and center, and getting his client into all sorts of trouble with gangsters. To make matters worse, Armstrong's soon-to-be ex-wife, Lil, was also suing him!


So Louis turned to mob-connected Joe Glaser and asked him to make his troubles disappear. In the time it takes to sing Ba-doodly-beep-bop-dop-dop-ski-wah, Glaser had straightened out his debts and legal problems and made his mob troubles vanish. Next, Louis had a new big band and contract with Decca Records. But Joe also ran nightclubs for Al Capone. Soon, a mutually beneficial relationship would spring up: Glaser protected Armstrong, and Armstrong packed the house every night for the mob.

Blow Hard Louis

Due to his unorthodox playing style, Armstrong began developing problems with his lips and fingers. ​​His lips were covered with hard calluses that he regularly took a razor blade to in order to remove the worst of the scar tissue. The lip condition is common among trumpet players, and even today, it's still known as Satchmo Syndrome.


To combat this, he used Ansatz-Creme, invented by trombonist Franz Schuritz, and concentrated more on singing and acting. He appeared in more movies, including Bing Crosby's Pennies from Heaven (1936). Sounds good, right?

Sell Out

Well, in Pennies from Heaven, Louis portrayed a simple farmer who couldn't count. Back in Rhapsody in Black and Blue (1929), he had worn a Tarzan cape, and he later played a character called Uncle Tom. Then, in 1937, Armstrong clawed back some respect when he stood in for Rudy Vallee for 12 weeks on the CBS radio network. In doing so, he became the first African-American to host a national broadcast. However, Louis embracing his roots was often a case of one step forward, two steps back.


When he began working with svengali producer Joe Kapp, he waved goodbye to respected Dixieland jazz in favor of "Bing Crosby collaborations, Hawaiian instrumentals, syrupy romances, Iberian mariachis, and B-list comedy movies." Crossing over to white audiences made him the first African-American multimedia star, but he was loved and hated in equal measure for selling out in his own community.

Fourth Time's A Charm

Louis's relationship with his third wife, Alpha, was unhappy, so they split in 1942. That same year, he married his fourth wife, Lucille Wilson––a singer and dancer from New York's Cotton Club. The early 1940s saw a widespread renaissance of 1920s jazz, but Lucille soon grew tired of living out of a suitcase, so she convinced Armstrong to buy a family home in Queens, New York. The couple lived there for the rest of their lives, but Louis kept a shocking secret.


The Swing and Big Band eras were winding down by midway through the decade, so Armstrong scaled down to a smaller six-piece band, The All-Stars. In 1949, he became the first jazz musician to appear on the cover of Time magazine. By the time the 1950s swung around, Satch was a singer, trumpeter, bandleader, comedian, TV personality, and national institution.

Vilified By Bebop Musicians

He and Lucille had settled down in Queens, but for Louis, it must have seemed like he was back in the Battlefield of New Orleans. First, he was attacked from all sides from the mob-controlled music business to Tin Pan Alley. Then, jazz slowly began to die as big band and theater halls gave way to pop music, television, and growing racial prejudice. Oh, and the Cold War was also underway.


Even though his music crossed the race barrier to white audiences, younger post-war Black Bebop artists like Charlie Parker reviled him as a sell-out: Dizzy Gillespie said he had a minstrel-like "plantation image." Miles Davis resented his penchant for "clowning." But Armstrong was a throwback from another era––he was born into the Jim Crow South, and his wide-eyed act came from bygone vaudeville days. When the American civil rights movement gained momentum, he rarely spoke out against prejudice, angering his fellow African-Americans for not taking a strong enough stance.

The Tables Turned

Then, everything changed, and Armstrong suddenly took a firm stand against racial injustice. It may have been in 1955 when his hometown New Orleans banned integrated bands. He told Ebony magazine: "I can't even play in my own hometown, 'cause I've got white cats in the band. All I'd have to do is take all colored cats down there, and I could make a million bucks. But to hell with the money. If we can't play down there like we play everywhere else we go, we don't play ... If my people don't dig me the way I am, I'm sorry."


Or it may have been in 1957, after white supremacists threw dynamite from a moving car outside his concert in Knoxville, Tennessee. Either way, he finally spoke out––calling Dwight D. Eisenhower "two-faced" and "gutless" over the President's inaction during the Little Rock, Arkansas school desegregation conflict. Louis said: "The way they're treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell!" The FBI immediately opened a file on him.

War! What Is It Good For?

After appearing in more than a dozen Hollywood films like High Society (1956) alongside Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Grace Kelly, Louis became an ambassador for the U.S. State Department. At the height of the Cold War, he was sent on goodwill tours to improve America's image overseas. Louis Armstrong and the All-Stars took Africa by storm.


The New York Times wrote: "In Accra, Ghana, 100,000 natives went into a frenzied demonstration when he started to blow his horn … and in Léopoldville, tribesmen painted themselves ochre and violet and carried him into the city stadium on a canvas throne." From Cairo to the Congo, he was treated like a king. Indeed, in Congo, enemy combatants called a one-day truce so they could watch Louis Armstrong play. Satchmo later joked he stopped a civil war!

Hello Dolly!

From the 1940s to the late 1960s, Louis and his All-Stars had often played over 300 performances a year. But in 1959, on tour in Europe, Armstrong called his doctor to his room as he was unable to breathe. The official story was pneumonia, but his grueling, 2-shows-a-day worldwide tour had given him a severe heart attack. A few years later, he was hospitalized with swelling in his right leg and varicose veins, symptoms of poor circulation, and a steadily worsening heart condition.


In late-1963, Satch and his All-Stars recorded the title track for "Hello, Dolly!" When the Broadway musical debuted, the single soared to the top of the US Billboard charts, ending The Beatles' streak of three chart-topping hits in a row! Aged 62, Louis Armstrong suddenly found himself the oldest musician in American history to have a number one song. Louis went on to appear in the film version of Hello Dolly! (1969) alongside Barbra Streisand.

What A Wonderful World

Louis kept on touring and recording even though his kidneys, liver, and gallbladder were giving up. By the time he finally sought medical help in the late '60s, he oscillated between looking gaunt and being bloated. His lungs were filled with fluid, and he often had such difficulty breathing that he could barely speak. Yet somehow, in 1968, Louis scored a massive hit. Yet while "What a Wonderful World" performed well overseas, this beautiful and beloved song flopped in the States.


Then, Armstrong recorded "We Have All the Time in the World" for On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969). At the time, Louis was too ill to play his trumpet, so another musician took that role on. James Bond composer John Barry chose him to sing because he felt he could "deliver the title line with irony." The song title comes from 007's final words in the film, spoken after the death of his wife. No Time To Die (2021) also uses Armstrong's musical leitmotif.

When The Saints Go Marching In

In March 1971, Louis undertook a two-week engagement at the Waldorf-Astoria's Empire Room. Unfortunately, the strain gave him a heart attack. When he was finally released from the hospital that May, he planned to go back on the road. Louis Armstrong thought he had all the time in the world, but his saints finally came marching in when he died of a heart attack in his sleep on July 6th, 1971, just one month shy of his 70th birthday.


While many of his contemporaries reviled him for selling out, Louis Armstrong changed jazz music forever. His vocals influenced many Black and white singers, from Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald to Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. His music has deservedly stood the test of time, and this kid from New Orleans' Battlefield brought joy to millions. But he wasn't done yet; Louis left one more legacy to help make a slightly more wonderful world. A daughter.


Biographers maintained Armstrong's four marriages never produced any offspring for almost six decades. In short, they said Pops died without becoming a pop. But all that changed in 2012, when 57-year-old Sharon Preston-Folta claimed to be his daughter thanks to an affair with Lucille "Sweets" Preston, a dancer at New York's Cotton Club. This was proven by a 1955 letter to Joe Glaser in which Armstrong affirmed his belief that Preston's daughter was his, and he made his manager pay them $400 ($5,000 today) a month.


Sharon was born in 1955, and Armstrong continued seeing her and her mother until 1967. However, when Lucille Preston demanded Armstrong marry her, he refused and ended their relationship. In one of his final letters, Satchmo wrote, "Sharon may not realize now what I mean to her & doing for her. But I am sure as she matures, she'll dig Pops as the man who'll be loving her until the day he dies, or she dies. That's sincerity and from the heart stuff."

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