He was a grandson of slaves and born into one of the poorest neighborhoods of New Orleans. His father abandoned him and his mother became a prostitute. But despite all this, Louis Armstrong would go on to take the world by storm, ultimately leaving an indelible mark on it.
The Father of Jazz, who was married four times, was believed to have died childless. However, the world would soon be rocked when an unknown woman emerged from the shadows, ready to unveil a shocking truth….
When the name Louis Armstrong is mentioned, a myriad of associations undoubtedly come to mind. Personally, I connect him with jazz, viewing him as one of the greatest musicians of all time.
Even though 53 years have passed since the legend’s departure, his memory lives on, and his tunes continue to echo through the ages.
Louis Daniel Armstrong, affectionately nicknamed ”Satchmo”, ”Satch,” or ”Pops,” was not merely an American trumpeter and vocalist; he was a force of nature that transcended the boundaries of time.
His radiant smile and humility were forged during his childhood. His life story, meanwhilem unfolded in a different era, in a different America.
Being the grandson of former slaves, he was raised in poverty. Louis formative years unfolded in the hardships of New Orleans, specifically in the “back o’ town,” an African-American neighborhood that gave birth to the vibrant sounds of jazz.
His father’s early abandonment left Louis, just an infant at the time, and his younger sister under the care of different relatives. His mother Mayann, struggling as a prostitute, made stability a rare luxury.
To make ends meet, the young Louis took on some odd jobs, working as a paperboy and selling discarded food to restaurants. At the tender age of five, Armstrong reunited with his mother, but his father remained a distant figure Louis only saw in during parades in New Orleans.
At the age of six, Louis began his education at Fisk School for Boys, one of the few school institutions that welcomed black children in the racially segregated city of New Orleans. The school, which placed a significant emphasis on music and singing, was located in a hardscrabble neighborhood, renowned for honky-tonks and prostitution.
Louis lived right across the street attended classes barefoot.
It was at Fisk School that Louis started to encounter the vibrant world of Creole music. The genre, played by descendants of the French and enslaved Africans, incorporated elements from both cultures.
”Old Mrs. Martin was the caretaker of the Fisk School, and along with her husband she did a good job. They were loved by everybody in the neighborhood. Their family was a large one and two of the boys turned out to be good and real popular musicians. Henry Martin was the drummer in the famous Kid Ory’s band…,” Armstrong once said.
Sadly, Louis was forced to leave the school in fifth grade. The young boy needed to help his mother financially and once again took on odd jobs to support his family. He worked for the Karnoffskys, a Lithuanian Jewish family of junk peddlers. The job was to help the family gather ”rags and bones”.
Louis also delivered coal in Storyville, a district known for its entertainment and prostitution. During its ”heyday”, the area was home to some 260 brothels and more than 3,000 prostitutes. To announce the junk wagon’s presence in the neighborhood, Louis tooted on a tin horn that he had bought for a dime.
The Karnoffsky family virtually adopted Louis Armstrong. They fed him and encouraged him to keep playing music. Inspired by the cultural melting pot around him, Armstrong joined a quartet of boys who sang in the streets for money.
The rest, as they say, is history.
”Satchmo’s” journey from the impoverished streets of New Orleans to becoming a trailblazing jazz icon is still an inspiration for us all. The influential singer and skillful improviser was one of the pioneering African-American entertainers to achieve widespread acclaim and popularity with both White and international audiences, breaking barriers in the process.
He had very few, if any, enemies. The genial virtuoso possessed a unique blend of a voice resembling an instrument and an instrument echoing a voice.
Due to the initial support he received in music from a white family, he always maintained an openness and a willingness to express himself through his music to people of all races. Jazz, for him, transcended cultural or ethnic boundaries – it was not about black or white but a fusion of various elements and beyond.
“One thing that I couldn’t help but notice about the Karnoffskys was, poor as they were, they weren’t lazy people… They suffered so badly in their early days in New Orleans. I shall always love them. I learned a lot from them about how to live — real life and determination,” Armstrong shared.
Looking back on his own life, Armstrong said:
”I’m not looking to be on no high pedestal. I’m just appreciating what I’m doing, you know… I think all I can do is play the way I feel”.
Private life and unknown daughter
Louis Armstrong was vibrant and charismatic, as well as a renowned ladies’ man. Despite his marriages, the jazz legend was known for having relationships with other women throughout his life.
His charismatic personality, combined with his musical genius, made him a beloved figure in the entertainment world, attracting both fans and admirers.
Louis’ first wife, the hot-tempered Daisy Parker, was working as a prostitute when they met. He started an affair as a client and they later tied the knot, in 1919.
The pair did not have any biological children, but they made the compassionate decision to adopt a three-year-old boy named Clarence. This choice arose from a poignant circumstance – the boy’s mother, Armstrong’s cousin Flora, had passed away shortly after childbirth.
Tragically, Clarence Armstrong faced mental disability due to a head injury in his early years, and Louis dedicated the rest of his life to caring for him.
Louis and Daisy’s union only lasted four years, but during this time, Armstrong began to establish himself as a prominent figure in the jazz scene.
In 1924, Louis met Lil Hardin, a pianist and composer. She became Armstrong’s second wife in 1924. Their marriage significantly influenced his career, as Lil played a pivotal role in polishing his style and image. However, they divorced in 1938.
Shortly after his divorce from Lil Hardin, Armstrong married Alpha Smith in 1938. Their marriage was relatively short-lived, ending in 1942.
Louis’ fourth and final marriage was to Lucille Wilson in 1942. Lucille was with him until his death in 1971. Lucille was not only his wife but also his manager and a stabilizing force in his life.
A closely guarded secret
When Louis passed away, the public thought that he left this world without biological children. In fact, there were even rumors that he was sterile.
However, in December 2012, Sharon Preston-Folta, at the age of 57, stepped forward and claimed that she was his daughter from a 1950s affair between Armstrong and Lucille ”Sweets” Preston, a dancer from Harlem, New York.
In a letter to his manager, Joe Glaser, dated 1955, Armstrong expressed his conviction that Preston’s newborn baby was his daughter. He instructed Glaser to provide a monthly allowance of $400, equivalent to $5,462 in 2022 dollars, to both the mother and child.
All this happened when the trumpeter was married to his fourth wife, Lucille Armstrong. Lucille “Sweets” Preston, a accomplished dancer at the legendary Cotton Club, became Armstrong’s lover following the tragic death of her husband and dance partner, Luther ”Slim” Preston. Armstrong promised to support her and also said that he would leave his wife to marry her.
But according to Sharon and her memoirs, the world famous jazz icon couldn’t openly acknowledge a child born out of an extramarital relationship.
“For anybody back then in the 1950s and ’60s it was taboo,” she told WUSF.
“Just add the fact that Black people were not considered equal and were fighting for civil rights, it would take them back even further.”
Sharon’s birth was kept a secret from the public, although Louis acknowledged her and affectionately dubbed her ”Little Satchmo.” According to Sharon, her father bought their mom a home in Mount Vernon, New York. Occasionally, he would also visit them there, or invite them along on tour to see his shows. She says that he “loved her the best he could.”
But, of course, things were undoubtedly complicated, and it wasn’t easy for young Sharon to grasp the true nature of the situation. When she was younger, it seemed okay, but as she grew older, understanding why she couldn’t see her father whenever she wished became increasingly challenging.
The emotions of having a secretive, distant father were hard to navigate — despite her family’s material prosperity. At the age of 10, the truth finally dawned on her. Sharon was watching the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, where she saw her father discussing his marriage with Lucille.
“So it was really confusing, which led to anger, and then also led to, well, I need to be self-sufficient,” she said.
In 2022, Sharon shared her story again – this time on the screen in the documentary Little Satchmo. In the film, Louis Armstrong is heard talking about Sharon, and letters written from father to daughter are also showcased.
“Whatever college she wishes to go to I’ve got her covered,” Louis wrote to Sharon’s mom.
“All she have to do is finish high school and that’s where I step in. As long as Ol’ Satchmo lives, her happiness is assured. P.S. If I die, she will be straight just the same.”
Sadly, the contact between her mother and Louis dwindled in the final years leading up to his death. Sharon expressed her wish that the documentary will aid in conveying that her father was a multifaceted individual rather than a mere caricature of an entertainer.
“Remember the genius that he was, that he was a multi-dimensional human being, he loved deeply, and that my mother and I were a part of his life as much as anything else was in his life,” she said.
With his iconic songs and instantly recognizable rich, gravelly voice, Armstrong’s legacy continues to resonate, reminding us that greatness can rise from the most unlikely beginnings.