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African American jazz great, Louis Armstrong (1901-1971), was in kinship care and a children’s home as a child. 

Louis Armstrong was the son of Willie Armstrong, whose mother, Josephine, was born a slave. Willie Armstrong abandoned his family when Louis was born in an impoverished and dangerous area of New Orleans known as “the Battlefield.”

Louis’ mother was Mary Ann, or Mayann, who was born in the early 1880s. Mayann also abandoned her son, living him to be cared for by his paternal grandmother, Josephine. 

The house they lived in was a one-story wood-frame cabin with clapboard siding and very likely unpainted… Josephine earned money by taking in washing, or going out to do it at other people’s houses; Louis remembered being taken along to what seemed to him then grand places (Collier, 22). 

When Louis was about seven, Mayann summoned him back to help when she became sick. By then she had another child to care for and was living in Storyville, New Orleans – the ‘red light district’ of that city. 

Louis Armstrong seems never to have been ashamed of his old neighbourhood. He had genuinely good memories of at least some aspects of it: the music, the sense of community, the feeling that he had a place where he belonged. It was his home (Collier, 25). 

Louis went to the local school but was often roaming the streets, hustling for money and selling newspapers. He formed a quartet and busked with other local boys. By the time he was in his teens, Louis was bringing in the largest proportion of the family income. 

It is unclear how Louis came to the attention of authorities, but in 1912 he was consigned to Joseph Jones’ Colored Waifs’ Home for around twelve months. At first, he was miserable, but after he adjusted to the more regimented life he benefited from the regular meals, cleanliness, and order. Moreover, Joseph Jones had a jazz band which played around the city to which Louis was attracted immediately.  

When Louis left the Waifs Home he lived briefly with his father. From there he moved back to his mother’s house in Storyville and began playing jazz in the local bands before he began to play with some of New Orleans best. 

Louis Armstrong became popular when playing with King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band in 1922 and he began recording his first solos while a member of the band, pieces such as “Chimes Blues” and “Tears” which he and his wife, pianist Lil Hardin, had composed.

Encouraged by his wife, Louis then quit the band, taking up with Fletcher Henderson’s band in New York City before moving to Chicago where he played with large orchestras.

By 1929, Louis Armstrong was famous and by 1943 was “one of the most recognizable entertainers in the world” (louisarmstronghouse.org), touring Australia on a number of occasions, including in 1956 and 1964.

Armstrong also appeared in films and television and on radio, and he wrote – two autobiographies, a number of magazine articles, and numerous letters.

Louis Armstrong was “one of the most important figures in twentieth-century music.” 

Indeed, a case can be made for the thesis that he was the most important of them all, for almost single-handedly he remodelled jazz and, as a consequence, had a critical effect on the kinds of music that came out of it: rock and its variants; the music of television, the movies, the theatre, [etc]…Without Armstrong none of this would be as it is. Louis Armstrong was the preeminent musical genius of his era (Collier, 3).

References: 

Collier, James. Louis Armstrong. An American Genius. Oxford University Press, 1985.

“Louis Armstrong.” Britannica, 2022. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Louis-Armstrong 

louisearmstronghouse.org https://www.louisarmstronghouse.org/ 

Image available here.