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c. 1940s-1950s

Backstage with Satchmo

He wasn't exactly a private man, yet he remained a mystery in so many ways

circa 1940: Jazz trumpeter and singer Louis Armstrong (1901 - 1971) backstage at Basin Street, New York. (Photo by Weegee(Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Getty Images)

Louis Armstrong was a true giant of jazz and can rightly be called an American Icon. Actually, that is perhaps to understate matters—in the 1960s, the US State Department sponsored his global tour, referring to him as “Ambassador Satch”. 

But, if you didn’t know Louis Armstrong—and who really did?—then these backstage pictures might come as a surprise to you, showing him backstage in various states of undress.

Unlike his appearance in these photographs, however, almost all Armstrongs’ defining characteristics were—and to some degree still are—covered up and cloaked in ambiguity.

Armstrong kept it that way. 

For example: was his name pronounced “Lewie” or “Lewis“? Was he born in 1900 or 1901? Was he a Baptist, or a Catholic? Did he have children? His lips—the tools of his trade, battered, ulcered and scarred—were tightly sealed.

No, he wasn’t saying—and whatever he was saying could change depending on who he was telling it to.

Or more to the point, whatever he said, he wasn’t saying definitively. Armstrong would embroider his autobiography as the mood took him. A generation of jazz historians would their hair out trying to get to the facts.

Not that Armstrong was a private an insular man. Far from it—Armstrong was larger than life, extrovert, and full of energy. 

Fuelled by a prestigious marijuana habit—which landed him in jail in 1930—he poured forth continuously to all, and especially on paper. On tour he picked up a pen and wrote and wrote, on anything that could be written on—including toilet paper—and about anything that occupied his mind … including his bowel movements.

And on that note—Armstrong was mildly obsessional about his weight, and continuously took and promoted laxatives. They feature throughout the diet book he published (yeah, Louis Armstrong published a diet book) called Lose Weight the Satchmo Way.

He harbored no embarrassment about this—Louis routinely handed out packets of his favorite laxative, Swiss Kriss, to anyone and everyone he met—including the British Royal Family.

c. 1940s
Louis Armstrong backstage at Basin Street, New York.
Weegee (Arthur Fellig) / International Center of Photography / Getty Images
c. 1940s
Louis Armstrong backstage at Basin Street, New York.
Weegee (Arthur Fellig) / International Center of Photography / Getty Images
c. 1940s
Louis Armstrong backstage at Basin Street, New York.
Weegee (Arthur Fellig) / International Center of Photography / Getty Images
c. 1940s
Louis Armstrong backstage at Basin Street, New York.
Weegee (Arthur Fellig) / International Center of Photography / Getty Images
c. 1940s
Louis Armstrong backstage at Basin Street, New York.
Weegee (Arthur Fellig) / International Center of Photography / Getty Images
c. 1940s
Louis Armstrong backstage at Basin Street, New York.
Weegee (Arthur Fellig) / International Center of Photography / Getty Images
c. 1940s
Louis Armstrong backstage at Basin Street, New York.
Weegee (Arthur Fellig) / International Center of Photography / Getty Images
c. 1940s
Louis Armstrong backstage at Basin Street, New York.
Weegee (Arthur Fellig) / International Center of Photography / Getty Images
1949
Armstrong in Milan, Italy
STF / AFP / Getty Images
1949
Armstrong in his dressing room at the Bop City nightclub, New York City.
Charles Peterson / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

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