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American Masters - Satchmo: The Life of Louis Armstrong


Written And Directed By Award-Winning Author And Jazz Critic Gary Giddins

Features Recordings, Footage and Interviews with
Tony Bennett, Dave Brubeck, Lester Bowie, Dexter Gordon, Wynton Marsalis and more

From the New Orleans Colored Waif's Home for Boys to Hollywood, Carnegie Hall and television, the tale of Louis Armstrong's life and triumphant six-decade career epitomizes the American success story. His trumpet playing revolutionized the world of music, and he became one of the 20th century's most recognized, and best-loved, entertainers. As an instrumentalist and a vocalist, he had an immeasurable impact on American music that continues to be felt since his death in 1971. And as a black man who lived and worked in a segregated society, he symbolized - and spoke out for - the civil rights struggle that was part of a changing America. "American Masters: Satchmo: The Life of Louis Armstrong," a 90-minute film by award-winning author and critic Gary Giddins, airs Wednesday, July 6, 2005 at 9 p.m. (ET) on PBS (check local listings).

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"This film paints an insightful and affectionate portrait of one of this country's greatest musicians. Today's artists could really learn something from Armstrong's contribution to both music and the changing world around him," said Susan Lacy, creator and executive producer of AMERICAN MASTERS, which has won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Primetime Non-Fiction Series for five of the last six years.

The film makes extensive use of recordings and footage of Armstrong's performances on television and in such films as 'Rhapsody in Black and Blue', 'Pennies from Heaven' and 'Jam Session', as well as interviews with friends, colleagues, and fellow musicians, including Tony Bennett, Dave and Iola Brubeck, Lester Bowie, Dexter Gordon, Wynton Marsalis, Milt Hinton, Arvell Shaw, Doc Cheatham, Milt Gabler, George Avakian, Bud Freeman, Marty Napoleon, Joe Muranyi, Barrett Deems, and Zilner Randolph.

Rare home movies, archival photographs, period footage, and Armstrong's own writings, many of which have never before been examined, round out a detailed and revealing look at a remarkable man who kept America and the world entertained for a good part of the 20th century.

Born in New Orleans on August 4, 1901 (the film debunks his mythical July 4, 1900 birthdate), Louis Armstrong was heir to the poverty suffered by Southern blacks at the turn of the century. Satchmo: The Life of Louis Armstrong takes viewers to his birthplace and to the site of his childhood home in New Orleans.

At the age of 11, Armstrong - in addition to hustling stolen newspapers - began to develop an interest in music, harmonizing on streetcorners and playing a toy horn. Reminiscences by fellow musician Zilner Randolph reveal the fateful events that led eventually to Armstrong's adoption of the trumpet as his means of expression. Arrested for disturbing the peace on New Year's Eve 1913, he was remanded to the New Orleans Colored Waif's Home for Boys. In and out of the home throughout his teenage years, Armstrong was taken under the wing of Peter Davis, who taught music there. Under his tutelage, Armstrong joined the band, and his talent blossomed.

Armstrong left the Waif's Home in 1914, and by late 1918 had married (the first of four times) and had replaced the legendary Joe "King" Oliver in Kid Ory's band. After further developing his skills playing in riverboat and honky-tonk bands around New Orleans, in 1921 Armstrong made the move to Chicago - then the cultural center of black America - at the invitation of King Oliver. There, he made his first recordings with the Oliver band.

In the 1920s, Armstrong performed with a number of different ensembles, most notably his renowned Hot Five and Hot Seven. It was during this first sojourn in Chicago that the young trumpet player began to revolutionize music by introducing the extended instrumental solo to jazz audiences. Prior to his arrival, jazz music was played either in highly orchestrated arrangements or in a more loosely structured "Dixieland" type ensemble in which no one musician soloed for any extended period.

Musicians everywhere soon began to imitate his style, and Armstrong himself became a star attraction. In Satchmo: The Life of Louis Armstrong, Doc Cheatham, a trumpeter in Chicago at the same time, says: "Whenever Louis would... stand up and play that solo in the Vendome... you couldn't hear what he was playing for a few bars because the people were screaming."

Armstrong's popularity was phenomenal. "You couldn't buy his records when they first came out," remembers Cheatham. "No one could; they were selling like hotcakes...even grocery stores were selling his records, and you were very, very lucky to get one."

That popularity continued to grow over the next 50 years of his career, as he continued to prove himself as one of the most versatile performers who has ever lived. When the big bands ceased to be popular in the mid-1940s, he made a triumphant return to smaller ensemble jazz with his All-Stars. Throughout his career, he recorded albums in every conceivable popular genre, from country to show tunes (he pushed the Beatles off the charts with his 1964 recording of "Hello, Dolly!"). He made dozens of movie cameos, often stealing the show from the films' stars. And with the growth of television, he rarely missed a chance to perform for a national audience, as demonstrated by clips of duets with such stars as Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and bebop trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. He sang, danced, trumpeted and acted, all with equal aplomb and humor.

As luminaries Wynton Marsalis, Dave Brubeck and Tony Bennett attest in Satchmo, Armstrong's influence as an entertainer has been felt throughout popular culture. "Louis is really the tradition," says Tony Bennett. "He was the father of jazz. Every musician that I know of worth in popular music or jazz music is stung by Louis Armstrong."

In one segment, other contemporaries such as Dexter Gordon and Randolph offer their colorful memories of Armstrong's use of marijuana - an activity common among musicians in the 1930s and '40s. Satchmo also investigates a side of Louis Armstrong's life that is often overlooked. Though his trademark ear-to-ear grin and burbling, gravelly voice are still recognized around the world, Armstrong's sensitivity to racial injustice often goes unnoticed, partially because of his unparalleled popularity with white audiences. That popularity sometimes drew accusations from blacks that he was an Uncle Tom.

With the onset of the civil rights struggle in the 1950s, Armstrong became the subject of serious controversy. When the governor of Arkansas barred a black girl from entering a Little Rock school, Armstrong publicly expressed vehement opinions against President Eisenhower and the governor for their handling of the situation. Record producer Milt Gabler also recalls that Armstrong later refused to patronize New York clubs from which he had been excluded in the era of segregation.

Perhaps the strength of Louis Armstrong's character - and his influence - is best summed up by Lester Bowie. "He was a hero of the black community," explains Bowie, "but he was a hero in the Japanese community also. And the French community, and the German community, and the African community... he had the same effect on all different people... His influence is undeniable, it's unmistakable, and it's eternal."

AMERICAN MASTERS Satchmo: The Life of Louis Armstrong is written and directed by Gary Giddins, based on his book of the same title, and is produced by Toby Byron. The film is a co-production of Toby Byron/Multiprises, CBS Music Video Enterprises, Beta Taurus Films, and Thirteen/WNET New York. Executive Producers are Fritz Diekmann, Jerry Durkin, Claus Hallig, Susan Lacy, and Debbie Newman. Susan Lacy is executive producer of AMERICAN MASTERS.

Satchmo originally aired on AMERICAN MASTERS in 1989. The film won the Vera Award for Best Music Video and the Best Music Video award from Jazz Times magazine. To take AMERICAN MASTERS beyond the television broadcast and further explore the themes, stories, and personalities of masters past and present, the acclaimed companion Web site (www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters), created by Thirteen/WNET New York, offers interviews, essays, photographs, filmmaker interviews, outtakes, and other resources.

AMERICAN MASTERS is produced for PBS by Thirteen/WNET New York. This acclaimed series, now entering its 19th season, has become a cultural legacy in its own right. The AMERICAN MASTERS film library is one of the most highly honored in television history with profiles of more than 130 artistic giants. In addition to six Peabodys, an Oscar and a Grammy, AMERICAN MASTERS has won 16 Emmys, including Outstanding Primetime Non-Fiction Series for 1999, 2000, 2001, 2003, and 2004. Most recently, the series won the International Documentary Association (IDA) Award for Best Continuing Series.

American Masters is made possible by the support of the National Endowment for the Arts and by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Additional funding for American Masters is provided by Rosalind P. Walter, The Blanche & Irving Laurie Foundation, Judith B. Resnick, Jack Rudin, Marvin and Mary Davidson, The Marilyn M. Simpson Charitable Lead Trusts, American Playhouse, The Andre and Elizabeth Kertesz Foundation, and public television viewers.