7 Unusual Things I Learned from Louis Armstrong

Louis

Today is 40 years to the day after Louis Armstrong’s death. I saw this photo of him. What the hell is a little kid who used to play trumpet at brothels in New Orleans, abandoned by his dad, his mom a prostitute, shoveling coal in his early years, trumpeting in front of the Sphinx in Egypt with his girl just lazily listening to him go at it. Is this just a dream? Can life be lived so large? Have I been able to live life so large?  To live to my fullest potential.

Life is truly owned by the people who dive into it, and make every experience special and unique. The masters of the world don’t let the oppressors, even our internal oppressors (who are the worst of all), drag us down. Instead, they create out of thin air the experiences, the situations, the magic that constantly exists around them. I want to be such a magician.

I hate jazz music and even though Armstrong might not be jazz I sort of lump him into that category. I remember pompous college students pretending to play an air drum while listening to “fusion jazz”. You know who I mean. The funky glasses, the guys talking about James Joyce or Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. The ones who were always laughing as if all the world was a joke being played on you but not them. I get it, though, that “blues” is not jazz. I get it that Louis Armstrong was not part of the pompous movement in jazz. And the photo is so beautiful it makes me think of several things, particularly when you think about his background:

–          Cataloging pain is more interesting than cataloging pleasure.  Its the moments when I’ve been so down and out I thought I would never be able to raise a family, find someone to love, start or sell a business, lose a father, lose a friend, lose a marriage, and on and on that I thought to myself: if I don’t figure this out, I’m going to just die disappear detonate. And I’d figure it out. And its one more notch that lets me LIVE. And it’s the moments when I’ve had the most pleasure that I’ve always managed to blow it, to lose my mind along with everything else.

–          Louis Armstrong took his early pains and processed them into music. Some of those pains: father abandoned the family when he was a kid, his mother abandoned him then became a prostitute, living through the Great Depression. I can’t even imagine. When I was five my mother threatened to me she would “run away”. She was joking, or just having a one day phase but 40 years later I still viscerally feel the terror in my body at the thought of it. Imagine actually living the terror day after day. He was totally abandoned. He worked as a little boy hauling coal to the red-light district of New Orleans where he first got his exposure to music, listening to it coming out of the brothels. And on and on. You don’t have to turn pain into music. But turn it into something. Write. Write ideas. Start a business. Get a job and blow that place away while you plan your evil plan of escape. Start today.

–          Have a sense of surrender. He was Jewish. Sort of. A jewish family took him in and treated him like their own son, knowing he was abandoned on every side. He wore a star of David around his neck for the rest of his life. We hang onto whatever we can believe in that gives us some sense of peace. It doesn’t matter what it is, whether its Buddha or Jesus or Moses or the yoga sutras. Something needs to give us a little bit of hope that there is something better out there than the spider webs gathering in the musky attic of our head. Every day I wake up and look out the window and say to whatever it is outside myself, “help me save a life today”. I don’t know who I’m saying it to. It doesn’t matter. Maybe there’s nobody out there. But it takes me out of my own worries and anxieties for a split second. It doesn’t require faith but a tiny amount of surrender. Ask this every morning about your friends, your lovers, your employees: how can I help them just a little bit more, with the simple resources I have.

–          Constipation is the root of all evil. Armstrong was obsessed with laxatives and even tried to invent a few. Really if we want to live forever, our intestines, kidneys, liver needs to be as clean as possible, however we can make that happen. Why live with shit backed up into our bodies until it touches our heart and brain? Armstrong purged as much as possible. Keep the inside of the body clean and the music that comes out of it will be clean. He even tried to teach the Queen of England this simple concept but I’m not sure if she listened.

–          Learn all of the history of your chosen field. I always wonder why all crappy bands sound the same but the bands that make it through history (whether you like them or not: the Beatles, U2, Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones, etc.) have such unique sounds. Part of it is by studying as much as possible the entire history of your chosen field. I keep telling my kids: if they want to learn to sing, or to tap dance, or draw manga comics, or to do anything, use YouTube or whatever to learn everything you can about all the masters in your field over the past 100 years.

Learn all of their styles, learn how to mimic them, learn their styles better than they knew them and what influenced them. Be able to recognize them at a moment’s glance. And only then will you start to develop your own unique style, which you can only then begin to master. Louis Armstrong did this, studying every musician he could, working with every musician he could, blowing on the trumpet every day for 60 of the 70 years of his life. That’s the only way to get good. To be better than the other six billion people on the planet who would like to be as good as you would like to be. How can you compete against that? Only hard work backed by true, sincere passion.

That’s how you become a magician, blowing music in front of the Sphinx.

–          Flexibility. Armstrong moved from trumpet to trombone, storytelling, singing, and so on. He made himself useful in every circumstance where music was wanted. He wouldn’t let “I can’t” slow him down. “I can’t play that instrument.” “I can’t sing.” He could do anything. He said “yes” to everything and then he became the best in the world at it because he knew how to become the best at something. You can only be good at so many things. But don’t limit yourself too much either. Always be looking for new opportunities to improve incrementally.

–          There’s always opportunity. In the Great Depression, every opportunity shut itself down. The money had run out. Some of Armstrong’s compatriots went back to New Orleans to raise chickens or to just disappear into factories or famine. Armstrong went to LA to play at the “Cotton Club”, drawing in the Hollywood crowd that was only vaguely aware that the rest of the country was in a Depression. There’s always money somewhere. Every day I hear too many people complain that the world is going down. Its not. Its not worse than the Great Depression when WW II started and everybody was down and out. And here’s someone who had every aspect working against him: poor, black, broken family, lost his job, hungry, a nationwide Depression, etc and he still built an amazing career on the back of that.

Armstrong died 40 years ago today. I barely know anything about the man. But I wish I could be 1/10 the survivor he was. Today I’m going to try.

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  • http://www.fangmarks.com Matt Fangman

    “We hang onto whatever we can believe in that gives us some sense of peace.” Well said.

  • http://www.fangmarks.com Matt Fangman

    “We hang onto whatever we can believe in that gives us some sense of peace.” Well said.

  • http://www.fangmarks.com Matt Fangman

    “We hang onto whatever we can believe in that gives us some sense of peace.” Well said.

  • http://www.fangmarks.com Matt Fangman

    “We hang onto whatever we can believe in that gives us some sense of peace.” Well said.

  • http://www.awkwardengineer.com AwkwardEngineer

    “Cataloging pain is more important than cataloging pleasure.”

    I think I made a comment a while back about an art teacher that said “All art is suffering, all suffering is art.”

    I think describing pain evokes an emotional response in readers, but I don’t want to believe that the above statement is true.  Making people laugh is certainly harder than making them cry, but I’m not sure you’d call it less interesting.
     

  • http://www.awkwardengineer.com AwkwardEngineer

    “Cataloging pain is more important than cataloging pleasure.”

    I think I made a comment a while back about an art teacher that said “All art is suffering, all suffering is art.”

    I think describing pain evokes an emotional response in readers, but I don’t want to believe that the above statement is true.  Making people laugh is certainly harder than making them cry, but I’m not sure you’d call it less interesting.
     

  • http://www.awkwardengineer.com AwkwardEngineer

    “Cataloging pain is more important than cataloging pleasure.”

    I think I made a comment a while back about an art teacher that said “All art is suffering, all suffering is art.”

    I think describing pain evokes an emotional response in readers, but I don’t want to believe that the above statement is true.  Making people laugh is certainly harder than making them cry, but I’m not sure you’d call it less interesting.
     

    • http://www.brookefarmer.com Brooke Farmer

      Making people laugh is SO much harder than making them cry. But even laugher is often rooted in earlier suffering. Some of the funniest things I’ve written (by other people’s accounts) have been about my brain tumor, my grandfather’s suicide, the worst date I’d ever been on, etc. 

      • Andrew Bruce

        True. But its funny how the brain works. Its much easier to make yourself cry than to find something funny. When Im in pain over something. Depression, negativity, lack of hope, why me, whatever. My smile or laugh is usually sarcasm. Its a twisted emotion and not genuine. Or if so, its not healthy! Learn to do what it takes to “check yourself before you wreck yourself”. Knowing somethings wrong is truly half the battle. Surrender.  Clear that colon and get that appetite up as well. 

        Thank you for another great post James. Very powerful advice and motivation for me personally. Courage! 

  • http://www.awkwardengineer.com AwkwardEngineer

    “Cataloging pain is more important than cataloging pleasure.”

    I think I made a comment a while back about an art teacher that said “All art is suffering, all suffering is art.”

    I think describing pain evokes an emotional response in readers, but I don’t want to believe that the above statement is true.  Making people laugh is certainly harder than making them cry, but I’m not sure you’d call it less interesting.
     

  • C. Martin

    Never knew this much about Louis Armstrong but I’m glad I do now. Very motivation post, James!

  • http://twitter.com/kamalravikant Kamal Ravikant

    Amazing post.  The first two paragraphs, what they conveyed and how they did it – magic.

  • http://twitter.com/ajaxjones ajax jones

    There u go. Brand new iPad and that’s my wallpaper. I’m not sure he would have minded

  • http://twitter.com/8020Financial Adam

    Typically great post James.
    Not sure if you’ve heard of this guy, but similarly inspiring:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ciYk-UwqFKA

  • http://twitter.com/8020Financial Adam

    Typically great post James.
    Not sure if you’ve heard of this guy, but similarly inspiring:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ciYk-UwqFKA

  • John H.

    “Cataloging pain is more interesting than cataloging pleasure.” Pure gold. I’m trying my best to stick to the Daily Practice while cataloguing some intensely interesting personal pain. The thing I’m having the most difficulty with is the passion. I feel I’ve never been more creative in my career or life – likely a direct result of just trying to survive. Yet even though I am coming up with solutions that are brilliant, I can’t find the passion to execute. Any spark I have during the day just seems to get pissed on. Any suggestions?

    Cheers, John

  • http://www.brookefarmer.com Brooke Farmer

    Your first point here about pain being more interesting than pleasure reminds me of Penelope Trunks repeated assertions that we can live an interesting life or a happy life, but not both. I think I swing wide from one to the other. I am sure this is at least partly my fault. 

    Surrender is something I’m no good at. The idea of letting go, putting it in God’s hands… how do you do that? I have tried for years to learn this skill. 

    • http://jamesaltucher.com James Altucher

      I don’t necessarily say “putting it in God’s hands”. I don’t really know what God is. But maybe just surrender to yourself, as in, “i’ve put in the preparation, i’ve got the creativity and the energy, NOW BRING IT ON” is a surrender that doesn’t have to be God-loaded. 

      I’m not so sure interesting and happy are exclusive of each other. I think it can be both. 

      • http://www.736hundred.tumblr.com 736hundred

        I haven’t mentioned this, but Claudia’s post (link below) helped me to
        understand surrendering. The vision of her standing at 46th, looking up
        and surrendering, has influenced me every single day since the day I first read it. 
        ——-“At some point around 46th Street I stopped dead on my tracks and
        in the midst of the bustle that is New York City I looked up at the sky
        and clearly stated out loud:

        ‘Dear God, this is a bit much for me.  I will keep on putting one foot
        in front of the other but    You take care of the big details cause this
        is frigging out of my range.’

        And then I did put one foot in front of the other, one breath following
        the previous breath, one moment following the other. I continued
        living.”——-

        http://tinyurl.com/63q9ybp

        Tell her “thank you” for me.  :)

        • http://www.brookefarmer.com Brooke Farmer

          I’m going to check out this post. Thanks for the link. 

      • http://www.brookefarmer.com Brooke Farmer

        I’m not really sure what God is either. I think that is where I tend to get caught up. I like the way you put it here though. 

        • http://www.736hundred.tumblr.com 736hundred

          Same here Brooke.
          I cringe a little when the word “god” is spoken or used while making a point.  I don’t know any so called “god” or any particular organize religion.

          I choose to place nature at the top of the life chain. Sometimes I call it “Mother Nature” however I have zero reason to believe one entity is in charge or has ultimate power controlling any living being’s fate.

          • http://jamesaltucher.com James Altucher

            “God” is so loaded in western culture. I avoid using it. But its possible to “surrender” without having anything to surrender to. Just know that it doesn’t have to all on you. That the world is in motion, you’ve done what you can, “I surrender now”. To you. 

          • http://www.facebook.com/people/Todd-Haugen/668927570 Todd Haugen

            I have often heard people struggle with the surrender concept and I have successfully used a metaphor to communicate the concept.  Its like you are standing on a rock looking at the water below, to jump or not to jump?  It looks like so much fun but…  Lots of buts come in here all are fear based.  All you can do is ask yourself is it important for you to jump?  And given you have a whole life’s experience to draw from are you prepared to take the jump?  If you answer yes to the questions you jump.  At this point you have surrendered.  You cannot go back, you cannot change your mind, you cannot get more experience, you are jumping.  Your only hope is to maximize this experience, give it your all, experience it to the fullest, feel the air in your nose and on your toes!  No questioning the decision just focusing all of your energy on making the decision the right decision.

            This is how I described my decision to marry my second wife.  There were so many unknowns, so many risks, had I done the hard work, all the BS, but in the end the only question is if not now when?  What is going to change to make me jump off that rock?  When I realized it was important to me that I married again and that there wasn’t anything I was going to learn that could take all my fears away I jumped.  I surrendered to the future, the unknown if our marriage would work, the known that I would do what ever I could on my side to make the marriage right for both of us, the knowledge my heart might get crushed one day by this woman I loved so dearly.  For all that fear I still jumped because it was important I jumped and I was as prepared I could reasonably get for this leap.

            The most important decision of my life!

          • http://www.brookefarmer.com Brooke Farmer

            I love this comment. Beautiful story and an apt metaphor. I think I need to sit with this for a while and consider some of the decisions I am facing. 

  • Jake Parker

    “Pain is the root of all happiness.  But it cannot stay buried.  It must be tended to and cared for
    faithfully.  This process will allow buds
    of hope and blooms of prosperity.”
     

  • Timothy Rogers

    Thank you for this post. 

  • TR_ryan

    that nigger too dumb to know laxative abuse can cause constipation

    • guest331

      the real person who is “dumb” is you and your blatant ignorance.

  • Saveus897

    funny joke
    why don’t jews work at PG&E? because they are allergic to the gas lol

  • http://businessmindhacks.com AlexSchleber

    Awesome post. And completely awesome photo, had never seen that before… “playing a song for the Sphinx”, that must be dangerous somehow…

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_U5G3EQIX6VVJJPUC22TJJFQCTE VWVagabonds

    Some of the most successful, interesting, happy people I know have used their failures, faults, flaws and fate as a trampoline.

    Some of the most unsuccessful, uninteresting, unhappy people I know use their failures, faults, flaws and fate as an excuse. 

    Armstrong had every excuse in the world had he chosen to use them, yet he looked around him and sang, “What a Wonderful World.”

  • http://economicdisconnect.blogspot.com/ GYSC

    Great post, much to take from this.  I always think of the start of this David Lee Roth video when constipation comes up:
    “My doctor says I have to take a laxative!”
    “Not in my store you don’t!”:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NsC7oEjCHAM

  • Anonymous

    Louis Armstrong will always be special to me because of ONE time he interacted with my wife when she was a little girl.  About 45 years ago (she was about nine years old), Mr. Armstrong played a concert at the University of Detroit.  This was before all the heavy security of today’s world.  My wife and her Dad got to the concert early.  While everyone else was getting seated,  her Dad marched right up on stage with her, they spoke with him, and she took a picture with him.  He was very gracious and made a BIG favorable impression on my wife.  She doesn’t remember much of the concert but she will never forget speaking with him.  I still love that photo to this day.

  • http://twitter.com/Themendous Themendous

    So cool!  we coincidentally JUST finished a realistic sculpture of Armstrong for an amusement park in NH:  http://www.flickr.com/photos/customcreationstheming/

  • JS

    I love this post. Keep inspiring people. No need to look far — your writing alone could be saving a life, for all you know.

  • Anonymous

    Incredible story – I had no idea.  Thank you.

  • Anonymous

    Louis Is one of my idols too! Excellent post!

    Man, could he play!

    He had a love that shone like a light in everything he did. Love is surrender.

    You are a treasure, James. I am inspired, delighted, and now I can sleep well this night.

    Good night and sleep well.

  • ZenPen

    Interestingly, Louis Armstrong was a lifelong pothead, smoking reefer everyday starting in the 1920s.

    Armstrong was busted for it in 1930, but continued until the day he passed away.

    Once, while in Japan, he ran into Richard Nixon at an airport and Louis got Tricky Dick to carry his case for him (which contained Armstrong’s stash).

    So much for the myths of cannabis as a “gateway drug” (Armstrong did nothing else, not even smoking cigarettes) and as a “destroyer of one’s potential.”

    • http://www.736hundred.tumblr.com 736hundred

      There’s nothing wrong with cannabis, or hemp for that matter. It’s crazy that we keep it illegal and waste all that money on the so called  “war” against drugs. 

  • ZenPen

    Interestingly, Louis Armstrong was a lifelong pothead, smoking reefer everyday starting in the 1920s.

    Armstrong was busted for it in 1930, but continued until the day he passed away.

    Once, while in Japan, he ran into Richard Nixon at an airport and Louis got Tricky Dick to carry his case for him (which contained Armstrong’s stash).

    So much for the myths of cannabis as a “gateway drug” (Armstrong did nothing else, not even smoking cigarettes) and as a “destroyer of one’s potential.”

  • Gregd

    was he not also the first man on the moon?

  • shmuli

    Very well written as always James!  Thanks!

  • Asd

    Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try. Yoda

  • Audentes

    Great Friday Post. Exciting way to start the day/weekend. What biography did you read of his?

  • http://twitter.com/demianfarnworth Demian Farnworth

    Not only did I not know so much about Armstrong, but I didn’t realize how thoroughly interesting he was–and how much I wanted. Way to go.

    The constipation comment is classic. Overboard, but classic. ;-) 

  • Anonymous

    My daily practice formed many years ago at the point when I knew I was building a company and a career and not just drinking my own kool-aid and doing anything to avoid having to work for someone and I kept that practice for a long time. Then came success and “losing my mind along with everything else.”
    These points were when my daily practice was gone and the spirit that it kept in place, you have described it as being mortalized at times and I understand that feeling.I tend to feel like I am over researching for my business but I did not go to college I started my business at 21 and now 15 years later I feel the need to be in “school” everyday. My point here is James your post today for me was a perspective needed to carry on the daily practice that keeps the body, mind and spirit clean and working to keep aspiring. The combination of your writing and the information I did not know about Armstrong in this post put things into great perspective for me.Thank you

  • Richard

    Love it James, great article.

  • Kevin M

    ” Instead, they create out of thin air the experiences, the situations, the magic that constantly exists around them.”

    If I had to pick a superpower, this would be high on the list, if not #1. How do you even get to that point other than hitting bottom and surviving?

  • TripleB

    He was immensely fond of good herb:

    Armstrong was a lifetime smoker, preferring weed to
    booze hands down: “The least hypocritical of men, [Armstrong] saw no
    reason to conceal the fact, known to all his friends, that he smoked pot
    nearly every day: ‘I felt at no time when ever I ran across some of
    that good shit, that I was breaking the law, or some foolish thought
    similar to it.'”

  • Alex

    Hiromi Shinya gives this advice for great digestion:

    – eat only raw fruits and raw greens/vegetables for the first half of the day (the bulk of fiber and raw enzymes are guaranteed to work by the next morning).

    – eat only whole grains (boiled brown rice or buckwheat groats etc.), fish, cooked vegetables, and fermented vegetables for dinner.  no gluten, no diary, no meat, no refined grains.  Human intestines are too long for meat, so it starts rotting inside before it gets out (if ever).  Having rotting inside you is bad.

    – drink plain water only. No sugared or diet drinks ever.

    – no coffee.  if you must have coffee, do coffee enemas (that’s a Yoga thing!)

    • http://jamesaltucher.com James Altucher

      Interesting about the coffee. In Mysore, Sharath Jois was saying something like “no coffee, no prana” and he had to drink it before starting his practice.

      I drink a lot of coffee each morning to kick in my writing. Maybe I have to cool it a little on that. Thanks for the tips.

  • Charles Aulds

    I’d like to state a simple thank you for taking the time to write and share this.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks again James!

  • http://twitter.com/agasani agasani

    dude, I like your melancholic humor. Thanks for the inspiration at work. “How to be the luckiest guy alive” has changed a lot in my life.

    • http://jamesaltucher.com James Altucher

      I’m glad

  • http://twitter.com/arianna Arianna O’Dell

    AMEN.

  • Searx

    James, L. Armstrong was an amazing individual as you so eloquently pointed out.

    I saw him in Montreal way back in the 50s when i was around 15. still remember his presence on that little stage in the Seville theatre.

    you write very well.

    • http://jamesaltucher.com James Altucher

      Searx, that must’ve been amazing me. If you can remember – does anything stand out about his performance?

      • Searx

        James,  it was the 1st live performance i ever saw of a famous person & i can remember his trumpet shining as the lights dimmed & the sheer exuberance of his performance.

  • ashish hablani

    I got goosebumps after reading this !

    • http://jamesaltucher.com James Altucher

      I know what you mean. I got them when I saw the photo.

  • Me

    You saved my life today. You’ve been saving it ever since I discovered your blog while at the rockiest, roughest time of my life. I don’t even know how to thank you. But thank you.

    • http://jamesaltucher.com James Altucher

      Me, thank you so much for this note. I hope things start to go well. As long as you’re able to think, to write, to breathe comfortably, and to thank the many good things around you then things will get better. They have to.

  • http://www.postcynicalseer.blogspot.com Jaliya

    Joy! — Satchmo was all about joy. My beloved grandfather introduced me to Louis’ music when I was four … and that was it; I was a goner. Then he introduced me to Ella Fitzgerald’s voice … and I’ve been swooning ever since.

    Heh — I get what you mean about not liking jazz. I feel that way about certain styles of music myself — but when your brain hooks into a sound that makes it purr … there’s a taste of heaven.

    I’ve just encountered your writing for the first time today, James — *Thank you*  :-)

  • http://ashleyscwalls.com Ashleyscwalls

    I thoroughly enjoyed this piece!

  • Anonymous

    My brother who had his own set of problems was a Louis Armstrong groupie.  Because Tom was almost seven feet tall, he stood out in a crowd and Louis always played one for him, I remember Louis with great fondness. 

  • http://www.thrivinginthe21stcentury.com Barbara Frank

    Thought-provoking post. If you’d like to learn more about Louis Armstrong, you might like “Pops” by Terry Teachout.

  • JP

    In addition to pretentious intellectual students, May there possibly be another reason for you to hate jazz (hate being a very strong word)? If not, could you have been conditioned too easy regarding aforementioned musical dislike?

  • jd

    Gary Crosby commented on Armstrong’s diet which was big on laxatives. Armstrong had a motto that went something like “the more I shit the thinner I get”.

  • http://www.seanMkelly.com Sean M Kelly

    Simply excellent!

  • Torsloke

    If there’s anything that unnerves me it’s dismissing an art form because you dislike the fans of that art form. Yeah, a lot of jazz fans are elitist snobs, and there’s quite a lot of jazz that’s self-indulgent noodling. But to write off the whole genre, by definition America’s art form, because you can’t listen to it objectively only hurts yourself. Listen to West End Blues, Potatohead Blues, Struttin’ With Some Barbecue, hell anything from the Hot 5’s or Hot 7’s. You don’t have to get jazz (and if you listen to it in the privacy of your own home you don’t have to encounter a single jazz fan) to hear that there’s genius at work. Armstrong transformed the whole of American music. Yes, his story of success and survival is inspirational – even moreso when you know how many others music has chewed up: Buddy Bolden, Bix Beiderbecke, Freddie Keppard, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, etc. – but it’s even more inspiring when you can also allow yourself to appreciate what he created. For all the college-educated composers and performers it was a nearly-orphaned waif from the poorest corner of New Orleans that somehow heard a sound no one else had heard and was able to bring that sound to the world – the sound of America.

  • uuhy

    froggy