Whether you know him by his given name Louis Daniel Armstrong, his nickname Satchmo, the rhythm of his singular scat singing style or just the unmistakable peel of his trumpet, Louis Armstrong is one of the most indelible presences in music history. When the rest of the nation was segregated by bigotry and law, Satchmo’s popularity among all races was an important first step for the integration of music and society itself. Though there were always those who wished he did more, few entertainers had a more profound effect on race relations than Armstrong.

As a child in the dirt poor, turn-of-the-century South, Armstrong faced the toughest of roads. Abandoned by his father while still an infant, he saw his mother forced to turn to prostitution to ensure the family’s survival. Armstrong took odd jobs and sang in the street, trying desperately to help feed his family. A chance encounter with a Jewish junk-dealing family taught him that the ugliness of institutional racism that he had come to take for granted applied to more than those who shared his skin color.

Here’s Satchmo with one of his signature hits, “When The Saints Go Marching In.”

Honing his considerable playing gifts on corners, in taverns and on the decks of steamboats, Armstrong began to catch the eye of the major players. Job offers started coming that would free him from the need to work during the day, allowing him to live for his music. Growing into adulthood, he started to understand how the world really worked. He had long accepted that, while some audiences would never see him as anything more than another black man there for their amusement, the power of music was the greatest equalizer. His vocal and playing skills, as well as his megawatt smile and easy going demeanor charmed the hearts of all within earshot of his amazing performances.

Armstrong moved to the hub of the jazz world, Chicago. His emerging genius on the trumpet saw him performing with every up-and-coming horn player who came through town. Though he was content to finally be making enough money to survive comfortably, his wife Lil pushed him to seek more prominence among his peers, commensurate with what his impressive talents deserved. Following opportunities to New York and then back to Chicago, Armstrong finally began to play and record under how own name and make real money.

While his playing was blowing minds, his scat singing and vocal improvisations were quickly changing the very concept of singing. Coupled with his unmatched expressive playing style, Armstrong was a true force for music innovation. He led his bands with an assured sense of style and confidence that transcended the confines of recordings and live performances. As the decades progressed and tension between the races came to a boil, Armstrong found himself living in New York and missing his lost home, though he had never stopped writing his friends and family in New Orleans.

The only thing that made it all worthwhile to Armstrong was playing. “When I’m out there, and I’m blowin’ my horn or singin’ my songs, ain’t nobody can bring me down” he said when asked how he escaped the strain of expectations. His use of his star power to share the spotlight with Ella Fitzgerald and many of the other big names and rising talents of the day helped build the careers of his fellow players and provide an example to black youth who had never even considered the path of entertainer.

Watch Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald performing their classic duet, “Dream A Little Dream Of Me.”

The last decades of his life were marked by great civil unrest, and those at the forefront of that movement openly questioned Armstrong’s lack of commitment to the struggle for equality. Though he would never manage to speak his mind as plainly as some wished, through his playing he showed the world that the color of skin matters little next to the passion of the heart. It’s hard to imagine anyone living a life as much in the public eye at such a crucial time in history with as much restraint and dignity as Armstrong managed. Louis Armstrong was a true hero to more than just the music world…he was a hero for us all.

To close this piece, we’ll leave you with one more Armstrong ballad: “What A Wonderful World.”