“Louis Armstrong, who was born July 4th 1900, the Back O’ Town section (Jane alley) in New Orleans.”
This was according to Louis Armstrong himself in the opening line of a book about his life that he wrote in 1969; admittedly not simply a straight forward narrative journey from his birth in the Crescent City to his red brick home in Queens, New York. It was also a series of moralistic homilies.
The only problem with what he wrote was that he got one vital thing wrong – the date of his birth. He was, significantly, neither born on Independence Day or in the opening year of the twentieth century. Yet Louis himself believed that he was for all of his life and celebrated every 4 July along with the rest of America, although they were mostly celebrating Independence Day.
It was almost two decades after Armstrong passed away that the truth about his birth was discovered. Someone looking at the baptismal records of a Catholic church in New Orleans discovered the truth. He was born on 4 August 1901, the son of “a handsome” nineteen year old William (Willie) Armstrong and Mary Ann Albert, who was known as May Ann.
Willie worked in a chemical factory while Louis’s mother was a fifteen year old who worked as a domestic servant having moved to the city from the nearby countryside to find work. Another thing that Louis did not know was that he was baptised a Catholic. What Louis did know was that his father had left his mother for another woman by the time he was baptised.
Did Louis Armstrong know his true birth date? It seems unlikely, but how come he picked on July 4th 1900 – apart than the obvious patriotic connection and the fact that somehow 1900 sounds a lot better than 1901. It was fashionable among poor Black Americans to adopt honorary birthdays, which seemed to give them a firmer sense of place, and this may well explain such a significant date of birth.
Today when you search the internet you will find both days given as his birthday, depending which article you read or so called definitive source; for a long time Wikipedia carried the 4th July 1900 date. Whatever his date of birth young Louis grew up at 723 Jane Alley, a stones throw from the French Quarter of New Orleans, the area that was central to the birth of jazz, a vibrant, buzzing, bawdy area that was so important in shaping his life and career.