A gunshot, an arrest and the birth of a jazz legend
It was New Year’s Eve 1912, and an 11-year-old Louis Armstrong decided to celebrate the occasion by firing a .38-caliber revolver into the New Orleans sky. It was not well-received. Armstrong was taken into custody by authorities and sent to the Colored Waifs Home. What seemed like a bad start to the new year, however, would prove transformative, as it was during his stay at the home that Armstrong started playing in the band, first on the bugle and then on the cornet. The rest is history.
Juvenile offenses notwithstanding, there is no New Orleanian who is more beloved — or more honored — than Louis Armstrong. The city’s international airport is named for him, as is a spacious park in Tremé. A summer music fest bears his nickname — the Satchmo Summer Fest — and his first cornet and last trumpet are on display in the Old U.S. Mint at the edge of the French Quarter.
- Armstrong’s musical instruction at the home came from Peter Davis, the band’s director. Also during his time there, Joseph and Manuela Jones became like parents to him, filling a gaping void in his life.
- It wasn’t Armstrong’s first time in the Colored Waifs Home. On Oct. 21, 1910, a 9-year-old Armstrong was one of six boys arrested on North Rampart Street “for being dangerous and suspicious characters,” according to a report in The Daily Picayune. At that time, though, the home didn’t have a band.
- As part of the Colored Waifs Home band, Armstrong played in performances in parades, at picnics and at other events around town. Upon his release around June 1914, he began booking his own gigs.
- “I’ve always said that Armstrong’s New Year’s Eve arrest was the greatest arrest in the history of arrests,” said Ricky Riccardi, an archivist at the Louis Armstrong House and Museum in New York, in a 2014 interview. “… Without his being a ‘dangerous and suspicious’ character in trouble with the police, he might never have ended up in the Waifs Home and he never would have changed the sound of American popular music.”
- Armstrong eventually left New Orleans for Chicago, then New York — and international stardom. In 1931, on his first trip back home, he stopped by the Colored Waifs Home and posed for a picture with the boys — and with Davis and the Joneses.
- The Colored Waifs Home evolved into the Milne Boys Home.
Anyone who appreciates 20th century American music can be grateful for Armstrong’s arrest. It was there that his talent was unleashed and he learned to play the instrument that made him world-famous. Armstrong credited the home with nurturing his musicianship, and he visited it frequently. “You both shall always have good luck,” Armstrong wrote to the Joneses in 1937, “because you’ve been wonderful to us all. You both shall be the ‘tops’ in my estimation always.”