Monday, December 22, 2014

More on Louis Armstrong and the Colored Waifs Home: 1910-1913

Fellow Louis Armstrong fans, historians and nuts: are you sitting down?

Read this:

I will give you a few minutes. Seriously. It's well worth your time. 

The story, written by James P. Karst, is one of the most important articles written about Armstrong in recent years, if not ever. Karst tells the story of documents from the Colored Waifs Home that ended up in the hands of one Allen Kimble. The documents including information about a previously unknown Armstrong arrest in 1910. That alone was enough of a jaw-dropper but Karst dug deeper and found TWO more mentions of Armstrong in New Orleans newspapers of 1910 and 1913, something that is astounding. "I have likened it to finding three needles in a haystack," Karst tweeted this afternoon. "I'm convinced there is more."

Again, Karst's story includes quotes from Kimball and 20 images, including copies of the Armstrong-related newspaper clippings and Waifs Home mentions. It also includes quotes from yours truly. When Karst contacted me and just hinted at what he had found, I called the results "mind-blowing." Late Friday night, I wrote him a long e-mail full of quotes from Louis and others on the subject. Naturally, Karst couldn't use all of it but I think it's worth sharing here to provide further context. I have added more information and edited it a bit to reflect some stuff even I learned from the final story. If you're looking for more background on the circumstances spotlighted in Karst's piece, the first thing you should do is read Armstrong's own Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans. But for even more, stick with me a bit. 

When I spoke to Karst on the phone last week, I told him I was going crazy because I had recently read somewhere about Louis being asked if he was ever in the Waifs Home multiple times. Finally, on Friday night, I found it in a slim, long out-of-print volume, "Salute to Satchmo" from 1970 and written by Max Jones, John Chilton and Leonard Feather. The passage in question comes from Max Jones's chapter. Here 'tis:

"Armstrong's references to 'that New Year's Eve of 1913' led to mistakes. But other factors make it hard to be positive about when he entered or was released from the Home. To mention one: the head of the New Orleans Jazz Museum asked if I knew that Satch was in the Home on two separate occasions. 'He was," said Clay Watson. 'He came out and went back again.' The truth may be that Louis was released in the care of his father, then taken back until he could stay with his mother. A sidelight is thrown on the matter by his description, in the Satchmo book, of the 'honeysuckles all in bloom' when he arrived at the Home. This would seem to be premature, even in a mild climate, if Louis was admitted in early January. On a taped interview, in which I tried to clear things up, he answered '1912, the first time' to a question about the arrest date. Then: 'Well, I went in January and I stayed all 1912, no, I stayed all of 1913, and I got out in June of 1914. So I stayed out there a year and a half.' In a follow-up answer, relating the incident in full, he wrote: 'New Year's Eve 1912--I was arrested for celebrating with my stepfather's big old rust 38. Shooting up in the air, blanks, cartridges, which everyone has fun on New Year's Eve. No crime. Of course Hell will break loose if you should get caught with a gun, let alone shooting one. Anyway it was New Years Day when they took me from the Juvenile Court to the Waifs Home. I don't remember being taken to the Waifs Home twice. Maybe my memory's bad. It has been so long."

So there you have it. Could he have really forgotten the 1910 arrest? Karst's final story shows he was picked up by his "aunt" (wonder who that could have been? A member of the Miles family?) after a month. A month is a pretty long time to forget but we have to remember just how much trouble Louis was in in tht period. Because he makes it clear that he was no stranger to trouble; hell, the "New Orleans Democrat" story from January 2, 1913 called him an "old offender." So I don't know what motive he'd have to hide the 1910 arrest. It's either a memory lapse or perhaps something he didn't want to talk about. He turned the New Year's Eve story into something cute, winning laughs with it on the television talk shows of David Frost, Mike Douglas and others. The newspaper's description of him being arrested "for being dangerous and suspicious" is so vague, it was either straight profiling that he forgot about by 1970 or something darker he didn't want to revisit. And if it was straight profiling, well, some things sadly never change..... (How many potential Louis Armstrong's out there were never saved by a "Waifs Home"?)

(Another interesting tidbit in Karst's story is the document for Armstrong's October 1910 arrest lists him as 9-years-old. That would give some credence to him being born in 1901, doesn't it?)

One page earlier in "Salute to Satchmo," Armstrong opened up to Jones about some of the trouble he was in as a youngster:

"A great many boys who ran loose and battled in the streets attracted the attention of the New Orleans police or juvenile courts. Louis was no exception. He has spoken of his quartet posting lookouts to warn of approaching cops, especially if the boys were venturing into Storyville. After selling coal and singing for hours he still had steam to let off. For Louis, the crunch came on the last night of 1912 when he was arrested for disturbing the peace. One New Orleans player suggested that the authorities had been after him for some time, probably because of 'unsatisfactory' home influences.' Louis admits that rough stuff had a place in his life, though he always preferred music. He told me: 'I remember running around with a lot of bad boys which did a lot of crazy things. As the saying goes, your environment makes you. My life has always been an open book. There's nothing for me to hide. I have respected everybody as best I could ever since I was a little shaver. Many a time I would be with kids in my neighborhood and they would play Follow the Leader. So if they would get into any kind of trouble, I would be in trouble also. If they would steal something and get caught, I was in trouble the same as they. Savvy? You must realize it was very shaky all the time during my days coming up in New Orleans. Especially those early ones. They were rough. You had to fight and do a lot of ungodly things to keep from being trampled on. Sure I had fights and did a number of rough things, just so I could have a little peace or elbow room as we used to express it.'"

Next paragraph:

"Touching on subsequent days, after he had learned to play trumpet, Louis spoke about a paramount fear that I have grown aware of since I got to know him. The possibility of injury to his lips. 'Sometimes I had to swing my dukes so I could keep blowing, you know, keep me and my horn comfortable. So's nobody won't take advantage of me and hit me in my chops and bust them for good. In those days, if a guy see where you are willing to fight an' can fight, huh ... they'd leave you alone. And just about become your friend. Not that I cared to do all these things, but I had no alternative. I was brought up in that atmosphere--lived in it all of my life-so what else were there for me to do?' Did this mean he had the reputation of a tearaway from a 'bad' area? Louis' answer was: 'All boys were bad in those days--you'd better believe it. The kids from the Third Ward were so bad until they carried their pistols on them in holsters just like those real cowboys. And you think they won't shoot to kill? Huh! Mayann used to tell me: 'Son, don't fight, don't fight.' So I was arguing with a boy one day in school and, thinking of what my mother told me concerning not fighting unless you had an excuse, I told this kid: 'O.K., since you want to start a fight, hit me.' And he did--right in the eye. Damn near blinded me. But where he made his mistake, he kept standing there to see what I was going to do, wile I was feeling for him because I could not see at all. Finally my hand touched him. Yes, you're right. I hung him. I swung on that so-'n-'so's jaw and head and etc. From that time on I got the name of being a bad boy.'"

All of this--Louis's recollections, the 1910 arrest, the 1913 news story--confirms how dangerous Armstrong's upbringing was. Actually, it does more than just confirm it; anyone familiar with Armstrong's tales from "The Battlefield" could already tell you that. These new findings underline that danger and now place "Little Louis" so directly in the middle of the action, newspapers were covering his multiple arrests. Sometimes people feel the need to roll their eyes at Armstrong's "rags to riches" story. It sounds almost impossibly cliched, a real-life Horatio Alger tale set in New Orleans. We always had Armstrong's words but now we have the reports of others and the ledgers of the Waif's Home making it crystal clear that Armstrong had to overcome a lot of turmoil in his ascendency to jazz's greatest genius.

Which is why the 1913 story about the parade is so important. There it is, in black-and-white, a measuring stick for how far Armstrong had already traveled in such a short period of time. From Louis Armstrong, "an old offender," to "Louis Armstrong, leader" in less than a calendar year.

Actually, that brings up another question: the parade was on Decoration Day, May 30, 1913, almost five months to the day of Armstrong's arrest. In Karst's final article, he quotes the always illuminating Bruce Raeburn on whether or not Louis was playing cornet and leading the band or if he was just a grand marshall of sorts. Louis always said he was depressed the first few weeks, joined the band, tried drums first, then bugle and finally cornet. All in all, he always said it took about six months for him to be the leader of the band. Could he have gotten good enough on the cornet in such a short period of time to become the leader by May 30, 1913?

This gets into another gray area of Armstrong's youth: when he started playing the cornet. He never wavered for much of his life: from his 1936 autobiography to every subsequent autobiographical manuscript, letter and television appearance, he never hesitated in saying that the first time he ever touched a cornet was at the Waifs Home. Meanwhile, during his lifetime, Bunk Johnson, Sidney Bechet and a few others alluded to him playing earlier. Finally, while in intensive care at Beth Israel hospital in 1969, Louis started his handwritten manuscript about the Karnofsky family. He was depressed, in bad shape and probably on some medication; there's a bitterness and despair in this document that seems to be a result of his environment. Anyway, at one point early on, he writes that the Jewish Karnofsky family made it possible for him to buy his first cornet at the age of 7. Armstrong wrote in 1969, "People thought that my first horn was given to me at the Colored Waifs' Home for Boys (the orphanage). But it wasn't."

People have run with that since it was first published in Gary Giddins's book "Satchmo" in 1988. But Louis was on, I believe, "The Mike Douglas Show" in 1970 and though he talked about and praised the Karnofskys, when Douglas asked him when he started playing the cornet, Armstrong answered the Waifs Home. So this is something that'll never be settled (unless Karst stumbles across another article!). I'm bringing it up because Peter Davis seemed to believe that Armstrong had natural talent from the first time he picked up the horn, which would make sense in his being named leader of the brass band so soon. In 1965, Armstrong and Davis appeared together on an episode of "I've Got a Secret." Both parts are on YouTube with Davis only appearing in the second part. Davis is a little tough to understand but he has some good stories: 

That story about Louis hitting the high notes on "Put On Your Old Grey Bonnet" sure rings true. And there's Louis talking about leading the brass band though his neighborhood--how wonderful it is to see that pivotal moment covered in the paper! While looking for stories of Louis and the Waifs Home, I came across a few quotes in Nat Hentoff and Nat Shapiro's "Hear Me Talkin' to Ya" that are relevant. First, drummer Zutty Singleton:

"The first time I ever saw Louis was when he was about twelve, thirteen years old. He was singing with three other kids in an amateur show at Bill and Mary Mack's tent show in New Orleans. Louis was singing tenor then, and they broke it up that night. The other three boys were Red Happy, Little Mack, and a guy by the name of Clarence. This happened just before Louis got sent to the Waifs' Home, and so I didn't see him again for a while. But I heard about him at the Home. Some of the fellows that were sent there would come back and say how fine this Louis Armstrong was playing. Then I saw Louis playing in a band at a picnic. He was marching along with the band, so we got up real close to him to see if he was actually playing those notes. We didn't believe he could learn to play in that short time. I can still remember he was playing 'Maryland, My Maryland.' And he sure was swingin' out that melody."

Then, right under Zutty, here's trombonist Kid Ory:

"The first time I remember seeing Louis Armstrong, he was a little boy playing cornet with the Waifs' Home band in a street parade. Even then he stood out."

So again, having that clipping about that parade is just a wonderful addition to Armstrong scholarship. People from his neighborhood, friends, musicians, future associates, pimps, prostitutes, they were all there….and so was the media. 

[Sidebar: Another mystery involves the photo of Louis in the Waifs Home band that originally accompanied the story. For decades, one photo of Louis with the Waifs Home band circulated--shared above--usually with an arrow pointing to where Armstrong was sitting. Then another photo popped up in recent years, one that's not on the website but got a huge reproduction in the print edition of the Picayune….and I'm not sure it depicts Louis. If you go to this website, you'll see the two main photos showing Louis in the band, plus a photo of Louis visiting the band in 1931. In the more famous 1913 photo, the bass drum says "Colored Waif's Home" on top and "Brass Band of NoLa" on the bottom. The Picayune article includes a photo of Peter Davis with a few members of the band and the bass drum is the same. But in the other photo with the kid who is supposed to be Louis, the bass drum is more ornate with a painting of an eagle and the words, "Municipal Boys Home of New Orleans" along the top. That bass drum is the same one that can be seen in the 1931 photo. Louis did say that they made so much money from tips during their parade through his neighborhood, the band was able to buy new instruments. And I suppose it's possible that they put the money towards a new bass drum with a new name and logo some time in late 1913 or early 1914. But I don't know, that drum, to me seems to tip it off as a later photo, meaning that wouldn't be Louis. Opinions?] 

Karst's article ends by quoting a letter Louis wrote to Captain Joseph Jones of the Waifs home in 1937. The two men remained in touch for years, as Louis often donated gifts to the Home each year at Christmas. In the summer of 1951, Louis was staying by his friends, the Anger family, in Hull, Canada when a letter from Jones to Armstrong came in. Armstrong made Mr. Anger read the letter on his tape recorder, a tape that now resides at the Louis Armstrong House Museum. It opens with Mr. Anger saying he wanted to read the letter. Louis says, "Yeah, well, before you read it, I'd like to let you know that Captain Jones is a great man to a lot of us kids when we was in the orphanage. He was the superintendent there. He come right out of the calvary, a young man himself, you know, and he sure did a lot for us kids. I see you have a letter he just wrote me and I sent him a telegram, you know, on his retirement. So suppose you read this letter."

Here's a transcription of the letter, as read by Anger:

Dear Son,

Just a line from your Pop, thanking you for your telegram. I was indeed sorry that you were not at the retirement celebration. The judge from the juvenile court, the chief of the juvenile division, the superintendent of Milne Boys Home and so many others were there. They presented me with an all leather chair and footstool, a three-foot high trophy, a Bulova wristwatch and band, a service button from the city of New Orleans and many congratulations and well-wishes. They spoke of you as my favorite son and wished you were there to join the festivities.

Louie, our new home in New Orleans--and when I say "ours," you know I mean Pop's, Mom's and your home--is at 5619 Baccich Street, just three blocks from the Boy's Home. We are expecting you home every time you strike town. Your spare room is waiting.

All of the musical cats, both whites and colored, ask me to send hello to the the king of them all, my favorite son, Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong. Mom sends special love to you and says that you ought to send her your photo.

Wishing you continued success.

Your Pop,

Captain Joseph Jones

New Orleans, LA

At the conclusion of the letter, Louis says, "Isn't that wonderful?" Anger replies, "That's a swell letter." Louis says, "That brings back memories to the last concert we played down there [in 1949]. Captain Jones brought that old cornet that I played in the orphanage. While the emcee was explaining about my childhood days in the orphanage, Captain Jones was back there trying to open up this old rusty cornet case and the audience was laughing! And finally, he struggled about ten minutes and he finally got it open and there was this cornet, never been touched since I left the orphanage." Anger says, "That's the one with the notches cut in the mouthpiece?" Louis excitedly responds, "Yes! At that time, the place was named the Colored Waifs Home for Boys. And I'm so glad you read that letter. I'll keep that forever."

At that point, another man, Ronnie Anger, tells Louis that he heard bassist June Cole also played in the Waifs Home. "Oh, they turned out a lot of good musicians," Louis says. "And we had a wonderful little brass band. That's why, since we're speaking of music, I think we should dedicate this whole reel to Captain Jones on his retirement." Louis adds, "This has been read from Hull, Canada." One of the Anger boys says, "That's a long way from New Orleans," to which Louis responds, "Yes it is!"

I've always said that Armstrong's New Year's Eve arrest was the greatest arrest in the history of arrests and seeing his reputation change from clipping to clipping is proof that 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. What would we be listening to today if it wasn't for Armstrong's arrest?

Friday, December 19, 2014

2014: The Year of the Mosaic

This has been one helluva year for me in the world of Louis Armstrong: lectures in Detroit, New Orleans, Jazz at Lincoln Center and more; TV appearance on ABC; radio appearance on Voice of America; met so many great people passing through the Armstrong House and Archives (especially the trumpet players!); curated a Jack Bradley exhibit that was covered by the Associated Press and the New York Times; hit my 600th blog entry; and more, I'm sure.

But really, I can sum up the whole year with two words: Mosaic Records. Okay, a few more words: The Columbia and RCA Victor Recordings of Louis Armstrong and the All Stars. (Both those links go to the same place.) What started as a crazy idea back in 2008 was picked up by Scott Wenzel in 2011 and edited to perfection by Andreas Meyer before being released in May of 2014. I've already written about a dozen posts chronicling the making and reception of the set but I wanted to bring it back one more time because the holidays are upon us and well, Louis Armstrong is the gift that keeps on giving.

This set was years in the making and one never knows how such a personal project is going to be received. Fortunately, I can state that every review I have found of the set has been a positive one. For me, this was a tremendously gratifying experience. When I was 15, my world changed when I encountered the music that George Avakian produced for Louis Armstrong in the 1950s. It didn't take long for me to start reading how this music was perceived in the jazz community: embarrassing, commercial, Uncle Tomish, shadows of a great artist who changed the world when he was a younger man. Yikes.

I never bought that narrative for a second and through my research, my blog, my book and now, the Mosaic set, I've worked for years to garner new respect for Armstrong's later years. That's a lot of "my, my, my's" and "I's, I's, I's" but don't think I'm patting myself on the back. My only motive has been to let Louis do the heavy lifting. By relying so heavily on Louis's own words in my book, by traveling around giving presentations based solely on footage of Louis and now, by producing these CDs of mostly unissued Armstrong recordings from the 1940s and 1950s, my goal has only been to get Louis out there. Exposure is the key. If you can read his words on race and then listen a complete All Stars show and STILL think he's an Uncle Tom who only recorded sappy showtunes, well, I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree....

Reading through all the reviews has been illuminating because many of the critics refer to how Armstrong's later years are perceived....before basically admitting that this Mosaic set blows those opinions out of the water. So, if you're still on the fence about the worth of this set, let me present--uncredited and in no particular order--some of my favorite snippets from the many reviews that appeared in 2014:

*"This nine-CD set spans 1947-58, an era when the rising tides of bebop, hard bop, cool jazz and what-not allegedly rendered Armstrong out of date. The ebullience of his solos, the radiance of his high notes and the unmistakable gravel of his vocals argue powerfully to the contrary."

*"Through a combination of intricate research and unbridled enthusiasm, Ricky Riccardi has become the 21st century's foremost expert on Louis Armstrong. His book, 'What a Wonderful World,' called for a re-evaluation of Armstrong's later years, and a new Mosaic set, 'Columbia and RCA Victor Live Recordings of Louis Armstrong and the All-Stars,' acts as a companion volume, amplifying Riccardi's fervent opinions through the music itself...In the final analysis, this Mosaic set will certainly validate Riccardi's assertions that Louis Armstrong's All-Star recordings rate with his early masterpieces."

*"It's interesting how time seems to serve an artist when offering a better perspective of a particular time period or body of work. Such is the case with Louis Armstrong. Critics often cite his earliest recordings as the be all and end all, as if he had never recorded another note past 1950. In fact, Armstrong was still a few years away from his 60th birthday when he was captured on tape at Newport doing what he did best-interacting with an audience."

*"All together, though, Mosaic’s assemblage (completed with extensive notes by Armstrong scholar Ricky Riccardi) contains no duds, and is a worthy addition to the jazz canon. Can’t its merit be taken for granted? It’s Pops, after all; who but a sociopath can listen for more than 15 seconds without smiling?"

*"When Armstrong broke up his big band that year and reverted to his Dixie roots, the jazz world cheered, even as it prepared to divest  its trad wing to the Dukes of Dixieland. Sonny Rollins and Miles Davis were creting a new modernity for a more elite auidience where Armstrong would be duly honored by thoroughly ignored. But he soldiered on, still a breathaking player, performing to millions on the music's periphery to whom he became the personification of substance and spirit."

*"In the late 1940s, fronting a big-band out of step with the times and recording best-selling but saccharine-sounding vocal platters, Armstrong was being scorned by jazz critics and despaired over by devotees of the earlier hot music he'd helped invent. The renaissance in his sound and reputation came in 1947, when the charismatic performer pared down his ensemble to a combo of "All Stars" for a series of concert-hall appearances that played to his strengths as a virtuoso trumpeter, an inspiring leader, and a witty and emotional singer. That period of reinvention is vividly presented on "The Columbia and RCA Victor Live Recordings of Louis Armstrong and the All Stars," an ear-opening, nine-CD Mosaic boxed set to be released next week."

*"A medley of "Bugle Blues" and "Ole Miss," as well as "Indiana," find the All Stars inspired for their '56 performance, Kyle's sparkling piano and drummer Barrett Deems' incendiary stick work booting things along with vim and vigor. So much for those critics who claimed Armstrong and crew were merely going through their paces."

*"There are still too many listeners — and writers, unfortunately — who hold to the great myths we so love in this century — the great narrative of Early Promise and Later Stagnation.  Louis has been a true victim of such mythography: people who don’t listen think that he stopped being creative in 1929, that the All-Stars’ performances were simply crowd-pleasing note-for-note repetitions of perhaps a dozen tunes. I do not write what follows casually: the music contained on these nine compact discs (over eleven hours of music) will be a revelation."

*In the final analysis, no better tribute could be given to Armstrong than the hard work given to restore this music to its rightful place among the trumpeter's discography." 

*"These recordings, many of which have been unearthed for public enjoyment for the first time, tell a triumphant story. Listening to Armstrong in command of his sound in a period when he was often written off is simply inspiring. He faced adversity with a smile, while committing loving acts of sonic heroism. "

*The Mosaic set is not a loving tribute to a failing Elder; it is an explosive package of evidence showing that Louis was truly powerful and energized in his forties and fifties, playing and singing wonderfully — full of life.   Louis plays, throughout this set, like a man on a fierce mission of joy. Forget the cliche of the small, stocky, tired man, sweating and grinning and mopping his face while he grins his way through some paper-thin song about what a wonderful world it is or some woman named Dolly or Mame.  What you hear on these discs is not tired, not ever."

*"The beauty of Armstrong is that he knew only excellence, which makes this set of 164 tracks a joyous journey back in time to moments when audiences yearned for an even earlier time. What we learn yet again is that Armstrong was and remains timeless. Jazz artists fall in and out of vogue and many wind up forgotten over time, but Armstrong is forever."

Hooray for Pops! However, there's still work. Many of the same reviews that produced the above accolades also included some head-scratching statements that illustrate that some of the criticisms of Armstrong's later years are still not ready to go away, even in the face of 11 hours of music. A sampling:

*"A hardened entertainer, Armstrong repeated some of his solos note-for-note across these performances--a suspect practice in jazz. But they were generally worth repeating."

*"Things were different by then. The All Stars had rotated in competent but lesser musicians like trombonist Trummy Young and clarinetist Edmond Hall. The music had settled into a pattern. "

*"In many respects, Armstrong's jazz was more rural than the newer, more urban sound. It centered on New Orleans, steamboats, banjos ringing, singin' folks and red robbins bobbin' along. Simpler music reminiscent of a pre-war era—before unspeakable war crimes, the destruction of entire cities and the spectre of atomic war. The All Stars were masters of a fading jazz form at its finest."

*"Having realized the stupefying achievement of creating a strain of Modernism that I would happily tout for in a battle with all of the giants — a Proust vs. Stravinsky vs. Matisse vs. Armstrong cage match — Armstrong retreated almost as quickly as he had innovated. And this is where the entire problem of his legacy lies."

*"...[H]e blended post-antebellum traditions with a touch of Disney as he crossed the country with his All Stars, a term that to just about everyone at the time meant baseball, the American sport by as a wide a margin as football now is. 

*"Deep inside this stage ace lived a great jazz band....If it was all undervalued then, however, it should not necessarily be overvalued today--merely appreciated as the work of a great artist who tried to give every audience the show it expected."

remember: all of those are from otherwise overwhelmingly POSITIVE reviews! I know every critic has to get a little actual "criticism" in there, but there's some stuff in there I'd fight. Trummy and Edmond Hall as "competent but lesser musicians"? A "hardened showman"--like that's a bad thing? The All Stars as a "rural band"? Fading jazz form? Hmmmm.....

So maybe I'm guilty of "overvaluing" this music? I don't think so. I think Louis Armstrong has been "undervalued" for so long that any effusive praise has to be tampered down a little bit almost out of force of habit. For years, Louis got blasted and only a chosen few--Dan Morgenstern, Gary Giddins, etc.--fought back. A few months ago, the "New York Times" published a negative review of the new John Coltrane Offering recording, criticizing Coltrane's late music in general. My goodness, the jazz social media world revolted. A couple of years ago there was the young musician who took a swipe at Wayne Shorter. He was almost burned at the stake. But there's still these little, almost subversive digs at Louis and the jazz community still accepts them as gospel. 

The generation that followed Bird, Diz and Miles away from Louis in the 40s and 50s became the next generation of major jazz educators. And for many of them, Louis was not something they were eager to teach. Sure, he made jazz a soloist's art and was an unquestionably influential figure.....but, well, here's "West End Blues" and let's move on. I gave a lecture a college class of Jazz Performance MASTER'S degree students in October. I opened by asking how many students in there had really given time to studying Louis; listening to more than one CD, maybe reading a book about him, doing a transcription. I was greeted with silence. It was frightening. 

So there's still work to do. And as the first batch of quotes illustrates, old stances are loosening. Last year, I complained that in the NPR Jazz Critics poll, the reissue I co-produced of Satchmo at Symphony Hall received one lowly third place vote. While I was writing this piece, the 2014 NPR poll came out and the Mosaic Pops box came in fifth overall in the reissue category, garnering a number of first place votes from respected authorities as Dan Morgenstern and W. Royal Stokes. That's what I'd call an improvement! (Of course, Louis came behind Miles and Coltrane and Charles Lloyd and Jimmy Giuffre, each of whom are more associated with "JAZZ" today than Mr. Jazz himself, Louis Armstrong.)

And in New York alone, I've befriended a number of top musicians on the exploding "hot jazz" scene, musicians in the 1920s and 1930s who have told me that their gateway into this world was Louis Armstrong. And not the Hot Fives; the Louis Armstrong of "Ambassador Satch," the Louis Armstrong represented in the Mosaic set, the Louis Armstrong that changed my life. Pops can do that to you if you only give him a chance. Exposure.

I'll close this little missive on an upbeat note. Bjorn Ingelstam is a trumpeter from Sweden still in his mid-20s. He's now living in New York and is starting to make a name for himself. His father, trombonist Hans Ingelstam, raised him on Louis and today, Bjorn says that Louis is the most important person in his life (after his mom and dad). He now attends the New School in NY, where he says almost none of his fellow students have checked out Pops. But Bjorn warms up by playing Louis's solos on "Mahogany Hall Stomp" and "When You're Smiling."

Last week, before heading back to Sweden for the holidays, he visited me at the Louis Armstrong House Museum's Archives at Queens College. I let him play one of Louis's Selmer trumpets from the mid-1940s. Inspired, he chose to play "Dear Old Southland," specifically mentioning his love of the 1947 Town Hall version (as heard on the Mosaic set). Here is his rendition:

The sound you hear at the end is me laughing. Pure joy. Pops's message isn't going anywhere in the 21st century. We've come a long way from the constant slings and arrows flung at Louis during the last years of his life. And there's still some distance to go. But thanks to the good folks at Mosaic Records, the distance has grown shorter. Thanks to anyone and everyone who has checked out this set this year and will check it out (hopefully) after the holidays. I'll say it again: Louis Armstrong....the gift that will never stop giving!

Saturday, December 13, 2014

85 Years of "Rockin' Chair"

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded December 13, 1929
Track Time 3:19
Written by Hoagy Carmichael
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Henry "Red Allen, Otis Johnson, trumpet; J.C. Higginbotham, trombone; Albert Nicholas, clarinet; Charlie Holmes, alto saxophone; Teddy Hill, tenor saxophone; Luis Russell, piano; Will Johnson, guitar; Pops Foster, bass; Paul Barbarin, drums, vibes; Hoagy Carmichael, vocal
Originally released on Okeh 8756
Currently available on CD: The JSP disc Hot Fives and Hot Sevens Volume 4 has both original takes. For the other 30 or so survivng versions, you're on your own!
Available on Itunes? Yes, on the above set

It has been quite a busy week, so I've only had time to squeak in this update of my original 80th anniversary post of "Rockin' Chair" at 8:30 p.m. on a Saturday least I made it! There's some updates scattered throughout, too, for the die-hards. Never too late--or early--to celebrate "Rockin' Chair." Here 'tis, one more once:


I've always wanted to do a blog on "Rockin' Chair" for a variety of reasons: the song is a classic and Armstrong's treatments over the years always contained some emotional trumpet playing and good laughter. But also, it's one of those songs where I really don't have to write a lot, I just have to let the different versions speak for themselves. And the way I've been going these days, that's just what I need. So grab a chair (it doesn't necessarily have to rock) and get ready to enjoy a little "Rockin' Chair."

The tune was written by Hoagy Carmichael, who was first bitten by the Armstrong bug when he heard Louis play with King Oliver at the Lincoln Gardens in 1922. I don't think the pair were best friends or anything but they definitely had a mutual appreciation society; an album of "Armstrong Plays Carmichael" would be guaranteed to feature nothing but winners.

2014 update: In fact, Armstrong recorded 14 Carmichael compositions (Pops also recorded 14 Waller tunes over the years; not a bad tie for first place!). Here they are:

1. Rockin' Chair
2. Bessie Couldn't Help It
3. Lazy River
4. My Sweet
5. Star Dust
6. Georgia On My Mind
7. Snowball
8. Ev'ntide
9. Lyin' to Myself
10. Jubilee
11. Poor Old Joe
12. Lazybones
13. The Nearness of You
14. New Orleans

"Rockin' Chair" was made during the stretch of sessions with Luis Russell's orchestra, beginning with "I Ain't Got Nobody" and "Dallas Blues" on December 10, then "St. Louis Blues" and "Rockin' Chair" on the 13th. For "Rockin' Chair," Armstrong apparently invited Carmichael himself to sing on the date, playing the role of the father while Armstrong would be the son. Early integrated jazz sessions are discussed frequently and of course we have the New Orleans Rhythm Kings with Jelly Roll Morton, the Eddie Condon "That's a Serious Thing" date, Armstrong's "Knockin' a Jug" and maybe a few more. But is "Rockin' Chair" the first time a black man and a white man sang a duet together on record? I can't think of any earlier instance, though please correct me if I'm wrong.

The original "Rockin' Chair" survives in two takes. The master is a classic, as will be heard in a minute. But if you really want to hear a fairly sloppy, warm-up, alternate take, listen to this one first:

Yikes! I guess they're mere mortals after all. The start is a mess as one of the second trumpet players (Red Allen or Otis Johnson) comes on a little too strong with his harmony part, causing Armstrong and the second trumpet player to stop abruptly. (You can hear them exchange glances.) Then it's off to the verse, which sounds like it's being read for the first time. Even Armstrong seems to be just noodling around, getting a feel for it. I wonder if they knew this was being recorded?

The vocal, though, is knocked out without any problems, Carmichael simply singing/half-talking his words with Armstrong simply repeating them, though the two add an extra order of ham in the last eight bars. Then after a simple vibes interlude (pre-dating Lionel Hampton), Armstrong comes in with his climactic trumpet solo, sounding strong as hell (good Pops Foster behind him). After Russell's crew takes the bridge, Armstrong takes it out with a series of searing high Ab's before a somewhat tentative closing cadenza. Not the worst performance in the world, but definitely room for improvement.

Fortunately, they nailed it two takes later. Here's the master:

Much better. Armstrong gets to play his lead uninterrupted in the first eight bars and he plays much more confidently during the verse. The vocal is very similar, with Armstrong providing all the responses. Carmichael's a little stiff but overall, you can sense the affection between the two legends. And if Carmichael was a little stiff, at least someone was present to take some notes for future use: trombonist Jack Teagarden, who didn't play on the date but according to Hoagy, was in attendence.

(Quick question that still has not been answered in 2014: on this and every succeeding version of "Rockin' Chair," Armstrong always responds to the phrase "Can't get from this cabin" with something that sounds like "What cabin, choking, father." What is Pops saying and what does it mean? Will Friedwald once posed this question to a mailing-list of top jazz researcher's including the likes of Dan Morgenstern and George Avakian and no one could come up with a satisfactory answer. Louis also slips in "chokin'" on "I Got Rhythm" from 1931 and a live "Accentuate the Positive" from 1945. Anyone out there want to take a stab at it?)

After the vocal, Armstrong takes over, in blistering good form, those repeated high Ab's even more expressive, while the cadenza is perfectly poised. Ladies and gentlemen, a hit record was born...

Armstrong didn't waste any time putting it in his live repertoire. In fact, photos exist from Armstrong's 1933 European tour of Armstrong performing the tune with trombonist Henry Tyree, complete with Tyree wearing a hat and a fake beard in playing the role of the father. By 1937, Armstrong's career was officially taking off. He was once again fronting Luis Russell's orchestra in 1937 when he hired to host a series of radio broadcasts for the Fleischmann's Yeast company. I've written about these sessions time and again and I'll never tire of recommending them, though as of this 2014 writing, the CD is out-of-print but it's still available as a download here. On that package is version of "Rockin' Chair" featuring trumpeter Louis Bacon in the role of the father. Bacon's a little dry (there's a pun in there somewhere), but this version, to me, is more notable for the dynamic trumpet playing:

That version opened with no trumpet, just the Russell band playing an introduction. Armstrong sounds particularly exuberant in the vocal, really selling his responses. Once the vocal's finished, the reeds play the simple little break Paul Barbarin originally played on the vibes. Now, though, it sets up a real treat: 16 bars of peak-form Armstrong played over a new arrangement, complete with some chord substitions and a pounding bridge that's worthy of a strip club. He still hands it over to band for the bridge, adding a church-like atmosphere with some righteous "Hallelujahs," singing along with the group, feeling the spirit. He finally picks the horn back up to play something very similar to his original 1929 solo with those Ab's. However, by this point, almost every Armstrong record for Decca ended with an extended cadenza of some sort. This broadcast of "Rockin' Chair" features a 40 second ending with the band holding a single chord as Armstrong takes his time and drives home some powerhouse glisses. One of my favorite versions of the tune.

Two years later, it was back to the studio to record it for Decca with the popular Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra. This time, Armstrong shared vocal duties with trombonist Pee Wee Hunt (when I first heard this version, I was convinced it was Jack Teagarden and that my C.D. booklet was wrong! I was 16, what do you expect?). Here's the audio:

Once again, the vocal doesn't really interest me, though there's nothing wrong with it. The later Armstrong versions are so damn funny, these early ones just come off as kind of dry (though Pops's reponses are phrased beautifully). The main event in this version is Armstrong's plum-toned trumpet solo. What a sound he gets on this record. It's quiet, yet huge, deceptively high with no sense of strain. The Casa Loma band gives him a relaxed backing, different from the pounding tom-toms of Russell's group. The great Clarence Hutchenrider takes the bridge on alto before Pops ends it with some new playing, building up to the final high Eb.

Alas, "Rockin' Chair" seems to have disappeared during the war years as there are no versions of it on the dozens of surviving broadcasts from 1940-1946 (this doesn't mean that Armstrong didn't perform it, it's just that I have no concrete evidence of anything from those years). But on February 8, 1947, it made its comeback in a big way. That evening, Armstrong fronted Edmond Hall's sextet for half of a performance at Carnegie Hall. Utilizing a small group, Armstrong called many numbers he originally made famous in his OKeh days, including "Rockin' Chair." For this version, Hall's bassist Johnny Williams stepped into the role of the father. Now, I thought Hoagy and Louis Bacon were a bit dull? Williams sounds like he's having trouble staying awake, something that Pops picks up one when he says, "Yeah, boy, you're in bad shape," breaking up the audience in the process. Here's a William Gottlieb photo of this moment:

But this is a historic for another reason: it's the first to feature Armstrong singing an entire chorus as the lead voice. Dig it:

For any Armstrong nuts familiar with Pops's later versions of the tune, it might be a bit stunning to see Armstrong's vocal chorus already cemented in stone. This is what makes me think he must have continued performing it during the war years. I mean every inflection, every phrase, even the fantastic ascending scat run in the middle of the bridge, it's all there. On top of that, Armstrong's trumpet is spectacular, though he's thrown for a loop for a second in his closing cadenza, perhaps worried that Jimmy Crawford was ending the piece too soon after the drummer's somewhat awkward accent. Pops pauses for half-a-second (again, you can hear him glance) before resuming on his way to a heroic finish. The only problem with the performance is Williams's boring father, offering nothing but a steady stream of "Mm-mm's" during Pops's chorus. Now if only Armstrong had an adequate partner for the song...

Well, that adequate partner was lurking right around the corner. And how! On May 17, 1947, Armstrong performed a similar concert at New York's Town Hall, fronting a small group for an evening of performances of Armstrong's early repertoire. On "Rockin' Chair," Armstrong called on trombonist Jack Teagarden to play the role of the father. Teagarden, whom Carmichael remembered as being at the original "Rockin' Chair" session, was more than up for the challenge. The mutual love and affection between these two musicians never shined brighter than on this performance. It's truly something special, pure magic, a lightening-in-a-bottle moment on an evening that had more than a few of them. Here is my all-time favorite version of "Rockin' Chair":

It seriously does not get any better than that. Teagarden's comebacks perfectly fit Armstrong's lead singing, and vice versa. The audience picks up on it, offering the kind of laughter that sounds positively giddy, the kind where you laugh in wonder of what you are watching, but consciously hold back a bit because you don't want to miss a word of it. They even break into spontaneous applause at one point, unable to contain their enthusiasm until the end. The two vocal choruses put me in such a happy state of mind that when Sid Catlett finally starts rattling his drums and Pops enters for the final trumpet solo, I can usually do nothing but cry. (Kudos to Bobby Hackett's second cornet part, too.) A magic moment.

The moment was so magical that it convinced Armstrong and Glaser to ditch the big band and start a small group, of which Teagarden would be the first man signed. Less than a month after the Town Hall concert, Armstrong brought many of that evening's stars into Victor's recording studios to cut four tracks, including "Rockin' Chair." It's a perfectly fine version but to squeeze it into three minutes of playing time, the tempo is a little too up, making the lazy interplay of molasses-slow pace of the Town Hall version sound a bit rushed. When I first wrote this in 2009, I skipped the Victor version but my pal Andy Viner Seiler has frequently urged me to include it, not only because it's a fine record (it is!) but because it includes the first utterance of a new gag, with Teagarden singing, "Fetch me my water" and Armstrong responding, "You know you don't drink water, father!" Here it is on're right, Andy, it's a good one!

Also, at this, I originally offered something I described as "much, much rarer": a previously unissued take from a November 1947 Carnegie Hall concert. Well, I'm thrilled to report that the concert is now a part of the Mosaic Records 9-CD boxed set that came out earlier this year! I still find this an interesting version because it's completely unissued, it's in great sound quality and it offers a true rarity: Armstrong with a sore throat! I know it sounds hard to believe, but it's true; Armstrong's so scratchy at one point, he totally eschews his steamrolling scat break during the bridge of his chorus. Perhaps because of this or because he was just in a great mood, Teagarden is unusually feisty (I like his response to Armstrong's line, "But you ain't going nowhere": "I had 23 year years of one-nighters, I don't care to go no place!"). Once again, Armstrong's trumpet playing is stirring, though interestingly, he passes the ball to a seemingly unsuspecting Teagarden at the finish, though he swoops in for a typical high note ending. Give it a listen:

Armstrong and Teagarden had a bona-fide showstopper with "Rockin' Chair" and they performed it as often as possible. All in all, I have 12 versions of "Rockin' Chair" with Armstrong and Teagarden between the years 1947 and 1951, all of them wonderful but not really worth sharing. The routine pretty much remained the same, though little lines and jokes came and went (on one version from 1951, Armstrong sings, "But I ain't got no gin, father," causing Teagarden to respond, "Well, I guess I'll take a 7-Up then."). The most interesting thing about these "Rockin' Chairs" is the change in structure over the years:

1947 - Ensemble intro, Teagarden vocal lead, Armstrong vocal lead, Ensemble close
March and April 1949 - Ensemble intro, Teagarden vocal lead, Ensemble close - no Armstrong chorus
August 1949 - Ensemble intro, Teagaden vocal lead, Armstrong vocal lead -no closing ensemble
September 1949 - Teagarden vocal lead, Armstrong vocal lead - no opening or closing ensembles
December 1950 - Teagarden vocal lead, Teagarden instrumental bridge, closing ensemble
January 1951 - Ensemble intro, Teagarden vocal lead, Armstrong vocal lead - no closing ensemble

It took four years, but the structure of the January 1951 version would serve as the template for all future versions. The bad news? The glorious trumpet playing of the earlier "Rockin' Chairs" was now a thing of the past, which is a shame. The Town Hall trumpet lead, those cadenzas, those Ab's, they were all retired as of the beginning of 1951. Why? Because the Armstrong-Teagarden vocal was officially bringing down the house and couldn't be topped. The image of Armstrong and Teagarden ending the song with their arms around each other's shoulders, smiling broadly and singing the final line together, it was a perfect high note to end on. Thus, the days of the actual perfect high notes--speaking of the trumpet--were over, but even without them, "Rockin' Chair" always killed.

Unfortunately for Louis, Teagarden left the band in the summer of 1951. He returned for one more concert in Pasadena in 1951 but Teagarden proved a little rusty. In their All Stars days, Armstrong would sing, "Your cane laying there by your side," causing Teagarden to respond, "I use it as a trombone sometimes." At Pasadena, Armstrong sang his opening line, "Old Rockin' Chair's got you father," but Teagarden, not really paying attention, responded with the "Well, I use it as a trombone sometimes" line, getting zero laughs (he had to repeat it awkwardly seconds later). Other than that snafu, it's a fine version and a fitting end--for now--to the great Armstrong-Teagarden partnership on "Rockin' Chair."

With Teagarden out of the band, it was time to hire a replacement. A lot of people assume Trummy Young jumped in at this point but in actuality, Teagarden was replaced by Russ Phillips, a musician out of Denver who once performed with the All Stars when Teagarden missed a Denver gig due to illness. Armstrong remembered his playing and suggested him as a replacement to Joe Glaser. Phillips was a good musician but to me, he was Jack Teagarden-lite. He even played one of Tea's features, "Baby Won't You Please Come Home" in a similar fashion but after Jack, it was awfully hard to hear anyone else perform that song with Armstrong. I think Armstrong wanted someone as similar to Teagarden as possible, which is why he personally sought out Phillips. But during Phillips's second month with the band, the All Stars visited Hawaii where Armstrong ran into his old pal Trummy Young. He immediately began asking Trummy to join the band and Trummy finally agreed, though not until he finished some prior commitments. He eventually joined in September 1952 as Phillips kept the trombone role warm during what was truly a rebuilding year for the All Stars.

Only a couple of hours of audio survives from Phillips's tenure with the band, but one broadcast from Boise in February captured an ultra-rare rendition of "Rockin' Chair." Let's hear how Phillips did:

Phillips is pretty good but he obviously learned Teagarden's lines pretty closely, right down to the "I use it for a trombone sometimes" line. It's fun and Pops sounds great, as usual, but really it's just a curiosity.

As mentioned, Trummy Young joined about six months later and it wasn't long before he was drafted into the role of the father on "Rockin' Chair." I have about ten versions of the tune with Trummy and they're all a lot of fun. Armstrong and Teagarden had a special bond but I think that Louis and Trummy were even closer, as Trummy spent years in the band as Louis's right-hand-man. Trummy's personality was more vivacious than Teagarden's and he could also ham it up and mug like mad when called to do so. Thus, Trummy's versions of "Rockin' Chair" lack some of the warmth of Teagarden's, but they're more energetic, a little hipper (Trummy peppered his responses with phrases like "so I could ooze along" and "there's a gang of it") and arguably funnier.

Trummy's personality also must have inspired Armstrong two make two permenent changes to his responses in the first chorus. One change actually started during the Teagarden era. Jack always sang, "Fetch me my gin, son," to which Armstrong would reply "I ain't got no gin, father." But on an episode of Bing Crosby's radio show in 1950, Teagarden went back to the 1947 studio recording for RCA Victor and sang, "Fetch me a drink of water, son." Pops now replied, "You know you don't drink no water, father," getting a big laugh in the process. It was a good line, but they didn't use it every time after that, nor was it present on the Russ Phillips version. However, with Trummy, the line became a permenant part of the routine.

The other new change came after Trummy's next line, "Son, I'm gonna tan your hide." Armstrong's new response was "My hide's already tan!" I think it's hysterical and audiences always loved it but I'm sure it was lines like that and routines such as "Rockin' Chair," with two black men mugging and cutting up onstage that drove the critics to their misery. I pity them.

Anyway, enough from me, let's listen to Louis and Trummy at the Crescendo Club in Hollywood, January 1955:

I find it amazing while listening to that version how fresh everything sounds. Armstrong is still putting everything into it and the laughter between the two sounds completely genuine, even though they had already been doing the routine for two years (well, in Armstrong's case, 26 years, but who's counting?).

There is one joke in there that I've never been able to fully make out. When Louis sings, "Looks like your cane laying there by your side," Trummy responds, "Oh man, I keeps it over there. That's my moral support!" Armstrong then mumbles something like, "You mean nut support," which causes Trummy to admonish him, "Watch your language!" The two kept it in for a couple of years but by 1957, Armstrong stopped mumbling his little joke. I suppose the slightly dirty "nut support" makes sense, but I have never heard it accurately and can't say for sure. Any help out there?

Though Armstrong and Trummy nailed "Rockin' Chair," Trummy always stepped aside when Jack Teagarden was present. Teagarden guested with Louis on "Rockin' Chair" twice in high-profile situations in the late-50s. One appearance was at the Newport Jazz Festival, beautifully filmed by Bert Stern for "Jazz on a Summer's Day." You should be able to find that easily on YouTube (and it's also on the new Mosaic box!) but I'm going to skip it because it's edited. On December 30, 1957, they performed it at the first Timex All Star jazz show on NBC with Armstrong sitting in with a group of former and future All Stars associates: Bobby Hackett, Peanuts Hucko, Marty Napoleon, Arvell Shaw and Cozy Cole. I thought about including this earlier with my discussion of Teagarden's versions, but Armstrong uses the lines from his duets with Trummy so I decided to keep it chronological. Either way, it's a magical television moment:

Armstrong and Trummy Young continued performing "Rockin' Chair" until Trummy's departure at the end of 1963. I'm not sure if his replacement, "Big Chief" Russell Moore, ever gave it a shot, but if he did, there are no surviving versions. Tyree Glenn joined the band in 1965 and but it took him some time to become Armstrong's foil. The two didn't begin performing "That's My Desire" until the summer of 1967. And regarding "Rockin' Chair," the first surviving version is from a BBC television show in July 1968, right before illness kept Armstrong off the stage for almost two years.

Fortunately, the 1968 version is a very good one, showing that routine still worked nearly 40 years later. Here's the audio:

I didn't want to spoil the surprise, but how about that opening trumpet bit??? Louis's chops were officially erratic during this period but when he was feeling good, stand back. He felt great on that July day and it shows at the beginning of "Rockin' Chair"; that might as well be a version from the 1950s, his tone sounds so strong and full. As for the routine, Tyree was also an energetic ham but sometimes he sounded like he was forcing it a bit and to me, I don't sense the same affection as on the versions with Teagarden and Young (the audience, too, doesn't seem to be laughing as much either, perhaps sensing that Tyree was just trying a bit too hard). Still, Pops sounds good and overall, it's a valuable version to have.

And finally, I've arrived at my final clip, which really brings us full circle: an a capella duet between Armstrong and Hoagy Carmichael from Armstrong's 1970 birthday bash at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. Hoagy was the emcee that evening while Armstrong got to enjoy all of the different bands while seated onstage in a--you guessed it--rocking chair. After introductions and some jokes, Carmichael coaxed Armstrong into singing one chorus of the tune. Hoagy begins it fairly straight as he had in 1929 but Pops, after years and years of perfecting it, has all of his jokes in place, drawing huge laughs with the "my hide's already tan line." Hoagy responds by eventually hamming it up a bit himself, but it's Armstrong's show, right down to the touching harmonies and scat finish. This clip is six minutes long but "Rockin' Chair" only takes up the first two minutes. Enjoy:

That concludes my look at Armstrong's history with "Rockin' Chair." Phew. I'll be back in a couple of days with another look at "Baby, It's Cold Outside" and then I'll once again tackle Armstrong's Christmas recordings next week. Til then!

Saturday, December 6, 2014

"Everybody's Louie" by Larry L. King - Conclusion

We've come to the conclusion of my reprinting of Larry L. King's 1967 Harper's profile, "Everybody's Louie." King originally broke it into six sections, but the sixth and final one consisted of only three paragraphs so I've included it here for the sake of completeness.

On a personal note, I've mentioned how much I love this piece a few times over the past week. It had a big impact on me when I first photocopied it at the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University in 2003. I was writing a thesis on Louis's later years and here was King, setting up what would be the themes of my master's work and my eventual book, followed by Louis expertly defending himself. Still touches me to this day. I hope this rare masterful piece of writing has affected you a fraction of the way it has affected me.


Armstrong first played New York in 1929, fronting the old Carroll Dickerson band at Connie’s Inn in Harlem. He arrived there with four carloads of sidemen, ten dollars, and after two car wrecks en route. “Blew four shows a day,” he remembers. “Wild stuff. Knocked myself out—blowing crazy and carrying on. Going in with cold chops. Wonder I got a dime’s worth of chops left.” In mid-1932 Armstrong made his first swing through Europe—and Europe flipped. By 1935 few disputed that Louis Armstrong was the king of jazz.

Though with the advent of television and smash hits like Hello Dolly** [**”The best-selling record of all time”—Ira Mangel] Armstrong became more popular than ever, jazz purists say that he is no longer inventive, that he is too commercial, too much the clown. A decade ago Raymond Horricks wrote that his trumpet playing “in recent years…has declined as a creative force on account of the contact with unsympathetic supporting musicians and of Louis’ own increased exploits dressed in he cap and bells of a court jester.” Even a dust jacket plugging a record Armstrong made with Ella Fitzgerald carries the curious advertisement: “Unfortunately, of late, Louis has confined himself almost exclusively to remaking the blues of an earlier age and pedestrian popular songs so that each impression was but a fainter and dimmer carbon of the original talent.”

He is impatient with this criticism. “Aw, I am paid to entertain the people. If they want me to come on all strutty and cutting up—if that makes ‘em happy, why not: For many years II blew my brains out. Hitting notes so high they hurt a dog’s ears, driving like crazy, screaming it. And everybody got this image I was some kind of wild man. Joe Glaser told me, ‘Play and sing pretty. Give the people a show.’ So now I do Dolly how many times? Six jillion? However many you want to say. Do it every show. And you got to admit, Pops, it gets the biggest hand of any number I do.

“There’s room for all kinds of music. I dig it all: country, jazz, pop, swing, blues, ragtime. And this rock ‘n’ roll the young people believe is a new sound—babies, it comes right outa the old spirituals and soul and country music and jazz. Like I have said, ‘Old soup warmed over.’

“Each man has his own music bubbling up inside him and—quite naturally—different ones will let it out in various ways. When I blow I think of times and things from outa the past that gives me a image of the tune. Like moving pictures passing in front of my eyes. A town, a chick somewhere back down the line, an old man wih no name you seen once in a place you don’t remember—any of ‘em can trigger that image. Or a certain blue feeling or a happy one. What you hear coming from a man’s horn—that’s what he is! And man can be many different things.”

Pops is right: if the critics have soured, the people have not. “Can’t even go to a baseball game,” he said one night. “Went to one Dodgers-White Sox World Series game and cats was climbing all over my box seat. Some of the players asked what in the hell was all that commotion up in the stands. Sometimes them big crowds can spook you. Get to pressing you and grabbing your clothes. You get a funny feeling they might trample on you. Especially in Europe. I draw a hundred thousand people over there blowing outdoors. And they go crazy.”

Each afternoon and evening a limousine with Pops and Bob Sherman in the back seat made its way slowly along the Boardwalk; police and firemen walked ahead to clear the massed crowd. “Hey! That’s Louis Armstrong!” someone would shout, starting a stampede of old women, small children, bald-headed men. (“Hey, Louie, looka me!” “Satchmo—over here!”) They clawed at the car, knocked on windows, snapped cameras in his face , tried to poke their hands inside for handshakes. Pops smiled and waved in return, seldom missing anyone , though he might be chattering away about Storyville.

Through the entire Atlantic City engagement a wizened, aged little man in hand-me-down clothes haunted the backstage area. After each show Pops courteously received him in his dressing room. “You really got your chops tonight, Pops,” the old man would invariably say. Armstrong would beam: “Aw, thank you, Pops. How you been?” After a few moments the old fellow would go away content. I later learned that he is known to Armstrong’s entourage as The Clipping Man. “He lives in Philadelphia,” I was told, “and anytime he sees Pops’ name in the paper he clips it and mails it to him. If Pops plays within a hundred miles of Philadelphia he makes the scene and hangs around for his two or three private moments after each show.” The Clipping Man was around so much that for days, seeing him standing patiently in the wings or sitting on a bench backstage, silent and pensive, I had presumed him to be a stagehand. One night he encountered me in the alcove outside Armstrong’s dressing room. “You know Pops long?” he asked. No, only a few days. “I been good friends with him for thirty years,” The Clipping Man said.


One night near the end of Pops’ ten-day Atlantic City run we dallied in his dressing room long past midnight, having a little taste while on video-tape heavyweight contender Joe Frazier repeated his brutal knockout of George Chuvalo. Freshly toweled by Bob Sherman, wearing a faded robe and a handkerchief tied around his head so that he resembled Aunt Jemimah. Pops bounced around the cramped room, grunting and grimacing as the gloves thudded against flesh, sucking in air and occasionally throwing an uppercut on his own.

After he dressed we walked along the Steel Pier, dark now except for a few dim lights on the outer walkway. The noisy crowds had been dispersed and the gates locked; a few sleepy night watchmen prowled the shooting galleries, fun-house rides, and endless rows of concession stands. Strolling the walkway, we could hear the ocean boiling beneath us. Pops peered up at a tall tower from which a young blonde on horseback plunges into a giant tank of water three times each day. He shook his head. “Ain’t that a hell of a way to make a living? And them cats in there fighting on the box—beating each other crazy for the almighty dollar. Pops, some people got a hell of a hard row to hoe.”

We paused at the end of the pier jutting into the Atlantic; Pops lit a cigarette and leaned on a restraining fence to smoke. For long moments he looked up at the full moon, and watched the surf come and go. The glow from his cigarettes faintly illuminated the dark old face in repose and I thought of some ancient tribal chieftain musing by his campfire, majestic and mystical. There was only the rush of water, gently roaring and boasting at the shore.

“Listen to it, Pops,” he said in his low, chesty rumble. “Whole world’s turned on. Don’t you dig its pretty sounds?”


I love that "Whole world's turned on" ending. And now a little laginappe, as New Orleans folks like to say. This is a family blog (even though I enjoy a colorful four-letter word every now and then) but I have to get x-rated right now so stop reading if you're sensitive to "adult" situations. I've included a little bonus at the end of each of my posts, but this one is really something else. In 1999, a work was published titled Larry L. King: A Writer's Life in Letters, Or, Reflections in a Bloodshot Eye. King's letters ended up at Southwest Texas University and the curator over there, Richard Holland, put together this anthology of King's private writings. Included is a July 12, 1967 letter to Willie Morris, Editor-in-Chief of Harper's.  King knew he was striking gold but he now had a story he knew could never see the light of day. Still, he needed to tell someone and that someone was Morris. This story has been published for the past 15 years, but I don't know how many Louis nuts know about it so here 'tis, one "lost" anecdote from King's time with Armstrong:

July 12, 1967

Mr. Willie Morris

Dear Wilie:
 I have marked this "very personal" out of a sense of protecting the sweet young things who secretary faithfully in your care, but just had to tell the story. Last night, after Louis Armstrong's show, I juiced with him in his suite until 4 a.m. and got some tremendous stories. One cannot be trimmed nor altered to make the Harper's scene, but I don't want it to go completely to waste:

"Man"--Louie says--"if there is one thing I try to be it is tolerant! But I can't stand squares--especially square chicks. Now, you get all turned on to some chick, see, and you think she's grooving with you and the next thing you know you in bed with her and all her clothes come off and you think, "yeah, Pops, crazy Man, everything gonna be okay.' Then you drop down and kiss a couple of inches below the navel, Man, and she sit up and cross her legs and look all bug-eyed and say in this hysterical voice, 'You ain't a cocksucker is you?' And all you can do with a square chick like that is either get up and put your britches on, or else say 'Yeah, baby, that's my bag' and get on with it. But she's already spoiled the fun."

"Pops" and I have, as you see, gotten down to the basics. . . .

Larry L. King died on December 12, 2012. Oh, if only I knew he was still around when I was doing my Armstrong research! Nevertheless, as much as he accomplished--and it was a LOT--I'm most thankful for the time he spent with Pops and the beautiful, humorous, unflinching, dramatic profile he turned in, turning the Louis Armstrong he knew into "Everybody's Louie."

Friday, December 5, 2014

"Everybody's Louie" by Larry L. King - Part 4

In many way, this is the main event of Larry L. King's 1967 Harper's piece, "Everybody's Louie." King sets up some of the criticisms being hurled at Louis in that period--some that still dog him to this day--and then, once Louis was ready to talk, just let him take over. Some of the following passages can be found in both my Armstrong biography, as well as Terry Teachout's Pops, but reading it all--in one almost entirely uninterrupted monologue--is a highly emotional experience.

A few notes: this section had a few asterisks, which I've maintained. I also changed one date, as Louis said he signed up with Glaser in 1931 when it was actually 1935. Also, as frank as Louis is throughout, there is one white lie: he says he "quit messing around" with marijuana "many years ago." King didn't touch it during Louis's lifetime but when he reprinted the piece in his 1985 anthology Warning, Writer at Work, he added a new asterisk at that point, stating, "In truth, Armstrong smoked grass until he died in the early 1970s; fearful of being busted, however, he had friends carry it for him and smoked only among those he trusted." Indeed, Louis continued smoking regularly until at least 1969, when two stints in intensive care finally convinced him to put it down.

Other than that, this is the real, true, unvarnished Louis Armstrong. As he says about King Oliver, bless him.


Louis Armstrong is sophisticate and primitive, genius and man-child. He is wise in the ways of the street and gullibly innocent in the ways of men and nations. After four marriages, reform school, international fame and personal wealth, there is still a fetching simplicity about him. (Of his friend Moise Tshombe, kidnapped and facing a return to the Congo, he says, “I pray each night they won’t kill him. When I played Africa in [‘60] that cat was so nice to me. Kept me in his big palace and all…fed me good…stayed up all night gassing. I had this little tape recorder that cost me several big bills and Tshombe dug it so much I laid it on him. They ain’t gonan kill a sweet cat like hat, are they? So many he hung out with the wrong cats—that any reason to kill a man?”)

The on-stage Louis Armstrong is all smiles and sunshine, almost too much the “happy darky” of white folklore. When he has finished Hello Dolly in a spasm of body shaking, jowl flapping, and gutteral ranges, and has the joint rocking with applause, he sops at his ebony, streaming face with his white handkerchief and rasps, “Looka here, my Man Tan’s coming off!” Maybe his white audiences break up, but they no longer laugh at such lines in the black ghetto. One soon learns that this “happy” image is not all stagecraft; privately Pops is often full of laughter, mugging, instant music, irrepressible enthusiasms, and vast stories of colorful misinformation.

He is not Old King Cole merry old soul, however; his waters run much deeper. I have seen Pops swearing backstage between numbers, his face wrinkled and thoughtful and sad only seconds before he burst back on stage, chest out, strutting, all teeth, and cutting the fool. He can be proud, shrewd, moody, dignified—and vengeful. “I got a simple rule about everybody,” he warned me one evening. “If you don’t treat me right—shame on you!”*

[*Armstrong despises a couple of comedians who use their audiences or associates as targets in their acts. “Ain’t noting funny about putting another man down,” he judges.]

Cross him or wound his pride and he never forgets. My innocent mention of a noted jazz critic set off a predawn tirade. “I told that bastard, ‘You telling me how to blow my goddamn horn and you can’t even blow your goddamn nose.’” When he was young and green somebody gave him fifty dollars for a tune he had written called Get Off Katie’s Head. “I didn’t know nothing about papers and business, and so I let go all control of it.” Pops did not share in the money it made under another title. He has never performed the tune in public and never will. Of his father, Pops said, “I was touring Europe when he died. Didn’t go to his funeral and didn’t send nothing. Why should I? He never had no time for me or Mayann.”

He is big on personal loyalty. “Frank Sinatra—now there’s a man carries a lot of water for his friends. A most accommodating gentleman—if he digs you. My wife, Lucille, she’s another one that when she’s with you she’s with you one thousand per cent.”**[**Lucille holds the record as Mrs. Armstrong. They have been married twenty-five years, and live in Queens on Long Island.] And my mother, why she would work with you—laugh, cry, or juice with you. Oh, what a sweet and helpful girl Mayann was. Only tears I ever shed was when I saw ‘em lower her into that ground.”

He is generally a relaxe man, able to take a quick nap I strange rooms or on buses. “I don’t like nothing to fret me,” Pops said. “You healthier and happier when you hang loose. Business I don’t know nothing about and don’t want to. It must have killed more men than war. Joe Glaser books me, pays my taxes and bills, invest me a few bundles. Gives me my little leftover dab to spend. And that’s the way I want it. Don’t want to worry all time about that crap! I don’t even know where I go when I leave this pier until today I overhear Ira say something about Ireland and France and such places. I go wherever they book me and lead me.” (Both Armstrong and Joe Glaser are wealthy men. Armstrong commands top money—$20,000 to $25,000—for guest shots on television. He accepts eight to ten such jobs each year.)

Nothing worries Louis Armstrong for long. “Mama taught me,” he says, “that anything you can’t get—the hell with it!” This philosophy may be at the root of Armstrong’s rumored differences with militants of the Black Power generation. Nobody has flatly called him Uncle Tom but there have been inferences. Julius Hobson, a Washington ghetto leader, said during Armstrong’s Shoreham appearance last July, “He’s a good, happy black boy. He hasn’t played to a black audience in ten years. I’m glad I saw him though, but I wouldn’t come here if I had to pay. He’s an interesting example of the black man’s psychology but if he took this band”—two whites, three Negroes, a Filipino—“down on U street it would start a riot.” Armstrong, who remembers that not long ago everyone cheered him for having an integrated band, is genuinely puzzled by such comments.

He was not eager to talk civil rights. When I first mentioned the subject, as he dried out between shows in the dingy dressing room at Atlantic City, Pops suddenly began to snore. The next time he merely said, “There is good cats and bad cats of all hues. I used to tell Jack Teagarden—he was white and from Texas just like you—‘I’m a spade and you an ofay. We've got the same soul—so let’s blow.’”

One morning, however, he approached the racial topic on his own. “When I was coming along, a black man had hell. On the road he couldn’t find no decent place to eat, sleep, or use the toilet—service-station cats see a bus of colored bandsmen drive up and they would sprint to lock their restroom doors. White places wouldn’t let you in and the black places all run-down and funky because there wasn’t any money behind ‘em. We Negro entertainers back then tried to stay in private homes—where at least we wouldn’t have to fight bedbugs for sleep and cockroaches for breakfast. Why, do you know I played ninety-nine million hotels I couldn’t stay at? And if I had friends blowing at some all-white nightclub or hotel I couldn’t get in to see ‘em—or them to see me. One time in Dallas, Texas, some ofay stops me as I enter this hotel where I’m blowing the show—me in a goddamn tuxedo, now!—and tells me I got to come round to the back door. As time went on and I made a reputation I had it put in my contracts that I wouldn’t play no place I couldn’t stay. I was the first Negro in the business to crack them big white hotels—Oh, yeah! I pioneered, Pops! Nobody much remembers that these days."

“Years ago I was playing the little town of Lubbock, Texas, when this white cat grabs me at the end of the show—he’s full of whiskey and trouble. He pokes on my chest and says, ‘I don’t like niggers!’ These two cats with me was gonna practice their Thanksgiving carving on that dude. But I say, ‘No, let the man talk. Why don’t you like us, Pops?’ And would you believe that cat couldn’t tell us, Pops? So he apologizes—crying and carrying on. Said he was just juiced and full of deep personal sorrows—something was snapping at his insides, you see—and then he commenced bragging on my music. Yeah! And dig this: that fella and his whole family come to be my friends! When I’d go back through Lubbock, Texas, for many many years they would make old Satchmo welcome and treat him like a king.”

“Quite naturally, it didn’t always test out that pleasurable. I knew some cats was blowing one-nighters in little sawmill stops down in Mississippi, and one time these white boys—who had been dancing all night to the colored cats’ sounds—chased ‘em out on the highway and whipped ‘em with chains and cut their poor asses with knives! Called it ‘nigger knocking.’ No reason—except they was so goddamn miserable they had to mess everybody else up, ya dig? Peckerwoods! Oh, this world’s mothered some mean sons! But they try such stunts on the young Negroes we got coming along now--well, then the trouble starts. Young cats, they ain't setting around these days saying 'Yessuh' or 'Nawsuh.' Which I ain't knocking; everybody got to be his own man, Pops. No man oughta be treated like dirt."

"If you didn't have a white captain to back you in the old days--to put his hand on your shoulder--you was just a damn sad nigger. If a Negro had the proper white man to reach the law and say, 'What the hell you mean locking up my nigger?' then--quite naturally--the law would walk him free. Get in that jail without your white boss, and yonder comes the chain gang! Oh, danger was dancing all around you back then."

"Up north wasn't much to brag on in many ways. Not only people put your color down but you had mobsters. One night this big, bad-ass hood crashes my dressing room in Chicago and instructs me that I will open in such-and-such a club in New York the next night. I tell him I got this Chicago engagement and don't plan no traveling. And I turn my back on him to show I'm so cool. Then I hear this sound: SNAP! CLICK! I turn around and he has pulled this vast revolver on me and cocked in. Jesus, it look like a canon and sound like death! So I look down that steel and say, 'Weeelllll, maybe I do open in New York tomorrow.' That night I got every Chicago tough me or my pals knew--and it must have been eighteen hundred of 'em--to flock around and pass the word I wasn't to be messed with. And I didn't go to New York. Very Very shortly, however, I cut on out of town and went on tour down South. And the mob didn't mess with me again. They never wanted me dead, wanted me blowing so they could rake in my bread."

"You was running a very large risk to buck them mobsters and all the sharpies. They controlled everything. Cross 'em just so far--and BLIP! Your throat's cut or you're swimming in cement with lumps on your head. You needed a white man to get along. So one day in 193[5] I went to Papa Joe Glaser and told him I was tired of being cheated and set upon by scamps and told how my head was jumping from all of that business mess--Lil, one of my wives, had sweet-talked me into going out on my own to front some bands and it was driving me crazy--and I told him, 'Pops, I need you. Come be my manager. Please! Take care all my business and take care of me. Just lemme blow my gig.' And goddamn that sweet man did it! Sold his nightclub in Chicago where I had worked and started handling Pops."

"Sometimes Joe Glaser says I'm nuts. Says it wasn't as bad as I recall it. But then Papa Joe didn't have to go through it. He was white. Not that I think white people is any naturally meaner than colored. Naw, the white man's just had the upper hand so long--and can't many people handle being top cat."

"Passing all them laws to open everything up--fine, okay, lovely! But it ain't gonna change everybody's hearts. You know, I been reading the Bible this last little bit and them Biblical people had wars and riots and poverty and bad-asses among 'em just like we got. Nothing new happening!"

"It's much the same they talk about making marijuana legal. They think they're gonna do that and say, 'Everything's cool now, babies, it's all right and set square.' But how about them poor bastards already been busted for holding a little gage and have done their lonesome fifteen and thirty and fifty years? My God, you can't never never make it all right with them! Many years ago I quit messing around with that stuff. Got tired looking over my shoulder and waiting for that long arm to reach out and somebody say, 'Come here, Boy. Twenty years in the cage!' BLOOEY! Naw, they can't undo all the years of damage by passing a few laws."After a moment's brooding he said, 'That's why I don't take much part in all this fandangoing you hear about today. All I want to do is blow my gig."

Louis Armstrong’s first professional gig—as a substitute cornet player in a Storyville honky-tonk—brought him fifteen cents. He was fifteen years old. “But I sang for money long before I played for it,” he says. “When I was around twelve we formed this quartet—me, Little Mack, Georgie Gray, and Big Nose Sidney. We’d sing on the streets and in taverns—pass the hat; might make six-bits, a dollar. Good money. After hours all them prostitutes would be juicing, having a little fun, and they would offer us big tips to entertain ‘em. Carried their bankrolls in the tops of their stockings. Some would hold us on their laps and we would sniff the pretty scents and powders they wore.”

Though he had taught himself to play the little toy slide whistle and a homemade guitar, Armstrong really familiarized himself with musical instruments in the New Orleans Waifs’ Home. He began with the tambourine, then the snare drum, then ran through the alto horn, bugle, and cornet. Soon he was the leader of the Waifs’ Band, playing picnics and street parades. Old-time drummer Zutty Singleton, a boy then himself, was so astounded at hearing Armstrong’s horn that he moved closer to see if the boy was actually playing those fabulous notes. On his release from the home, Armstrong took one-night jobs filling in with bands until a few months later he landed a regular job at Henry Matranga’s in Storyville. “I wasn’t making no great sums so I kept on delivering coal, unloading banana boats, selling newspapers—though there never was any doubts I would follow music at that point. Had to work for extra bread, you see. For when I am sixteen I start hanging out with the pretty chicks and need operating money.”

King Joe Oliver took Louis Armstrong under his wing. “He was the best,” Pops says. “Laid a new horn on me when mine was so beat I didn’t know what sounds might come out of it. Advised me…took me home for red beans and rice feasts. Taught me about blowing trumpet, too. Lotta claims been made that Bunk Johnson put me wise to trumpet—Bunk hisself helped that story along. No such thing. Joe Oliver was the man.”

When King Oliver left Kid Ory’s brass band to go it alone, seventeen-year-old Louis Armstrong took his chair. In the eighteen months he played with Kid Ory at Pete Lala’s, Armstrong’s reputation grew. He was with the Tuxedo Brass Band in 1922, when King Oliver called him to Chicago—then the center of jazz as New Orleans once had been. In 1924-25 Armstrong was with the Fletcher Henderson band but quit because “The cats was goofing and boozing—not blowing. I was always deadly serious about my music.” From Henderson he joined Lil Hardin’s group (she was his second wife) and also worked in Erskine Tate’s pit orchestra at the Vendome Theatre in Chicago. Then he went to work at the Sunset Club for Joe Glaser—who immediately billed him as “The World’s Greatest Trumpet Player.” This title had been generally conceded to Joe Oliver—and King Joe was playing at a rival club nearby. It came down to a head-on contest between the two great trumpeters. “I felt real bad when I took most of Joe Oliver’s crowds away,” Armstrong says now. “Wasn’t much I could do about it, though. I went to Joe and asked him was there anything I could do for him. ‘Just keep on blowing,’ he told me. Bless him”*

[*Years later, when Joe Oliver was on the financial skids, Armstrong several times helped him.]

This passage begins with King describing Armstrong in action while performing "Hello, Dolly!" live. Here is an unissued version from the Steel Pier in Atlantic City, broadcast on the radio on July 22, 1967:

King doesn't write about it, but Armstrong's chops were a bit erratic during the summer of 1967 and you can hear a few weak moments at the start of his "Dolly" solo. But he fights his way out of it and turns in an outing completely devoid of his set quotations from the period, such as "Japanese Sandman." Joe Muranyi told me about how Louis loved to change it up on "Dolly" and this is a good example of that. Once the trumpet solo is over though, Armstrong's personality takes over and you can really hear "the joint rocking with applause" in King's words.