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As we say goodbye to July, let's jazz it up with 'Pops' and 'Rabbit'

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As the month of July comes to a close—with weather crises, political turbulence, and new COVID-19 variant concerns—we’re still here on #BlackMusicSunday with music to soothe a few of those ongoing worries away … if only for today.

While scrolling through a long list of jazz musicians born in July and the All About Jazz Birthday calendar, I was reminded that the most famous of them all celebrated his birthday on July 4, even if researchers now say he was born on Aug. 4. That man was “Pops,” as he was dubbed by folks in the music world; others called him “Satchmo.” We know him as Louis Armstrong.

Since I didn’t get to honor his birthday on the fourth, let’s open with Armstrong. We’ll close with today’s birthday celebrant, alto-saxophonist Johnny Hodges, who had several nicknames but was most frequently called “Rabbit.”

Back in 2013, I posted a celebration of Pops on July 4, explaining that it was a tradition at my old jazz radio station.

When I was the program director of WPFW-FM radio, Pacifica, Washington, D.C., we broadcast his music from 6:30 AM till midnight, interspersed with interviews with musicians who knew him and loved him.

Several musicians spoke of how he quietly took care of many older musicians financially, and not only did he sustain them while living, he took care of their funeral expenses and looked after their families. His close friends called him "Pops."

So July 4th, to me, is "Pops Day."

The July 4 Armstrong birthday celebration happens at other jazz stations as well, like New York’s WKCR. The Louis Armstrong House Museum has a bio of his life—listing Aug. 4 as his birthdate.

Louis Armstrong was born in New Orleans, Louisiana on August 4, 1901. He was raised by his mother Mayann in a neighborhood so dangerous it was called “The Battlefield.” He only had a fifth-grade education, dropping out of school early to go to work. An early job working for the Jewish Karnofsky family allowed Armstrong to make enough money to purchase his first cornet.

On New Year’s Eve 1912, he was arrested and sent to the Colored Waif’s Home for Boys. There, under the tutelage of Peter Davis, he learned how to properly play the cornet, eventually becoming the leader of the Waif’s Home Brass Band. Released from the Waif’s Home in 1914, Armstrong set his sights on becoming a professional musician. Mentored by the city’s top cornetist, Joe “King” Oliver, Armstrong soon became one of the most in-demand cornetists in town, eventually working steadily on Mississippi riverboats.

In 1922, King Oliver sent for Armstrong to join his band in Chicago. Armstrong and Oliver became the talk of the town with their intricate two-cornet breaks and started making records together in 1923. By that point, Armstrong began dating the pianist in the band, Lillian Hardin. In 1924, Armstrong married Hardin, who urged Armstrong to leave Oliver and try to make it on his own. A year in New York with Fletcher Henderson and His Orchestra proved unsatisfying so Armstrong returned to Chicago in 1925 and began making records under his own name for the first time.

The group formed in his “own name” was Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five.

For a more detailed dive into his life, and music, I suggest you read Louis Armstrong, In His Own Words: Selected Writings.

The book was written by Armstrong and edited by Thomas Brothers.

This unparalleled collection of Armstrong's candid writings reveals a side of the artist not widely known to his fans. With idiosyncratic language and punctuation that recalls his musical virtuosity, Armstrong presents his thoughts on his life and career--from abject poverty in New Orleans to playing in the famous cafes, cabarets, and saloons of Storyville; from his big break in 1922 with........

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