Louis Armstrong

Jazz musician and entertainer. Born in New Orleans, Louisiana, the son of Mary Ann and Willie Armstrong. The date of his birth is questionable. Armstrong always claimed to have been born on July 4, 1900, a date he gave to a draft registrar in 1918. Several of his early associates insist he was born about 1898, a date that squares better with events of his youth. However, recent research strongly suggests that he was actually born on August 4, 1901, and it is this date on which many jazz scholars agree. Early chroniclers have given Daniel as his middle name, but Armstrong himself denied it.

His father, Willie, rose to become straw boss in a turpentine factory. Willie abandoned Armstrong's mother, probably about the time of his birth, and Armstrong remained bitter toward him until the end of his life. His mother (usually called Mayann) was about fifteen at the time of Armstrong's birth. She did domestic work and was probably a part-time prostitute as well. While Armstrong was still an infant, she moved into a rough vice district, leaving him in the care of his paternal grandmother, who worked as a laundress and domestic.

After the birth of his sister, when Armstrong was about five, he moved back in with his mother. Armstrong was raised in extreme deprivation, both emotionally and physically. Surrogate "stepfathers" came and went as Mayann changed boyfriends. Some were kind to Armstrong and some were not. At times he had to scavenge for food in garbage cans or eat remains of dinners scraped off restaurant plates by a stepfather who worked as a waiter. He went barefoot much of the time and owned little more than the shirt and pants he put on in the morning. Mayann was wayward and frequently left Armstrong to take care of himself and his baby sister.

Despite this rearing, Armstrong often spoke of his youth with fondness. He was apparently well liked, or made himself so, by the prostitutes, pimps, gamblers, and toughs of the neighborhood. He sang in a street-corner quartet for pennies, sold newspapers, ran errands, and apparently felt relatively secure in this rather vicious environment. It is worth noting, however, that he did not return to his hometown for nearly ten years after he left it and subsequently visited only for professional reasons.

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