Today is a very sad day for fans of Louis Armstrong and for fans of jazz music in general. Earlier this afternoon, I was notified by e-mail that Gösta Hägglöf, the Swedish oracle of Louis Armstrong, passed away. Gus, as friends knew him, had been ailing for well over a year but he never lost his spirit until the very end. He was a friend of mine and a frequent presence in this blog. It will not be easy, but I have to attempt to put into perspective how much he has meant to the legacy of Louis Armstrong. In my opinion, no one has done more to keep that legacy alive.
I admired Gus’s work from afar for many years. His Ambassador series of recordings will always remain essential releases for all serious Armstrong fans. Armstrong’s complete Decca recordings of the 1930s and 1940s will finally be collected in a Mosaic Records box set to be released this month. But until that day, the Ambassador label was the only way to chronicle this era in complete form. On top of that, Gus always managed to sprinkle in rare radio broadcasts into his discs, making them extra special.
As Gus wrote in his liner notes to one of his collections, The Happy Fifties, “In the 1980’s I became aware of the painful fact that most of the so called popular recordings of the 50’s by Louis Armstrong were not due for re-release on LP except for the most popular, best selling tracks. The same applied to CDs.” With that serving as his motivation, Gus started the Ambassador label. The Ambassadors were clearly a labor of love. On the back of each one, a message read, “Ambassador Records is a non-profit label dedicated to Louis Armstrong and his music.” Over the years, Gus released ten numbered volumes covering the 1930s and 1940s period, three more on the 1950s, one for Armstrong’s 1947 Carnegie Hall concert and another of rare Armstrong performances from the early 50s. Even when he was ailing, Gus was still coming up with ideas for future releases.
“When, at 15, in 1949 after having received ‘In The Shade Of The Old Apple Tree’ as a gift, I discovered the great Louis Armstrong, I had no idea that I entered a ‘love affair’ which will last for the rest of my life,” Gus once wrote.
Thus, I was aware of Gösta’s reputation from almost the beginning of my own “love affair” with Pops. I started this blog in July 2007 out of both love and frustration because, in my opinion, Armstrong didn’t seem to garner the same respect as many other jazz greats and a place to just celebrate the man and his music was overdue on the web. In the beginning, I think I had about four readers but you can imagine my surprise when on August 30 of that year, I received the following e-mail:
I want to get in touch with you. I am responsible for the Ambassadors and the Scandianvian 4-CD-set. I started my Pops research in 1949 and your writings have impressed me very much. Let me hear from you, please! I really, truly loved Louis not only as a musician but also as a human being. If God put angels on this globe, he was certainly one of them!
Red beans and ricely yours
He included the following photo of himself and Pops in 1965:
Naturally, I needed no introduction since, even in my first two months, I tireless advocated both the Ambassadors and Storyville’s “In Scandinavia” sets. I gushed back a reply full of admiration. And just like that, we struck up a correspondence that never let down until the beginning of this year. Gus’s letters hold a near and dear place in my heart, not only for the stories he shared but also for the pictures he attached. Almost every single e-mail he ever wrote me included a wonderful picture. I would like to relate his story today and I also would like to share many of the photos he was gracious enough to share with me...including this one of a very young Gösta by his radio in 1938:
In his first reply to me, Gus related to me the story of the impact of that first Armstrong record he received in 1949. “My life made a sudden turn and since then Louis is my great inspiration in whatever I do,” he wrote. “He also inspires me to be humble, empathic and generous.” When I read this passage, I knew that me and him were on the same wavelength: “I could go on forever telling what I do, with Louis in mind, but I use to say that I work on what he left us, as much as the people at Queens College, from 09.00 until 00.00 (midnight) except for meals. It never ends. New things and new questions turn up all the time. He really keeps me (and a lot of other people) going!”
(However, he knew I had a wife and made sure to deliver these instructions: “I wish you a good luck on your forthcoming book! BUT - please keep your wife happy. Women in general have little patience with their husband's important doings besides ordinary work. This I understood at an early age and therefore did devote myself to Louis and the music I love instead.” I’ve always kept that in mind and whenever the blog disappears for a few days or I’m not very quick with an e-mail reply, it’s because I’m trying to keep wife (and soon enough, daughter) happy.)
He concluded by writing, “I am a very lucky (and happy) man at 73 and have never regretted anything in my life - well maybe some things!”
From there, we were off, often trading opinions of all aspects of Pops. He seemed to never miss a blog and often made requests of songs he wanted me to cover. We definitely had a similar love of Armstrong’s later years, especially a lot of the Decca sessions the critics have written off as “commercial.” “It's really something mysterious,” he wrote me once about a post on “I Get Ideas,” “can't help thinking that Pops has something to do with it: Time after time you write about recordings and things that I too find remarkable.”
I always delighted in Gus’s stories about seeing Armstrong live in the 50s and 60s and how the two grew to be somewhat close. Gus first got to experience Armstrong live in October 1952 as the All Stars played three concerts in Stockholm (almost all of the concert can be heard over the first two volumes of the In Scandinavia series). “The music impressed me very much,” he wrote. “I was quite young - 18 years of age - and wasn’t a very experienced jazz listener at the time, but I can honestly say that these concerts strengthened my feelings for Louis Armstrong and the heartfelt beauty of his music.”
When Armstrong returned to Sweden in 1955, Gus once again caught all of Armstrong’s performances and even got his first Armstrong autograph outside of the trumpeter’s hotel, a story he told in the Happy Fifties liner notes. “I thought I was smart not trying to get it outside the concert hall where everybody else stood in line, but his hotel also seemed to be known to others because about fifty persons were eagerly waiting in the night. Louis’ car arrived rather late and was immediately surrounded. Slowly walking towards the entrance he kept on writing, asking, ‘How do you spell your name?’ He and the crowd entered the lobby--he was still writing-but the hotel personnel asked ‘the mob’ to leave. They did - together with Satchmo who outside saw to it that everybody got his autograph (the receiver’s name ‘correctly spelled’ of course) before he got back to the hotel for a well earned rest--after three concerts where he too had given his all. Show me any artist of today that humble and with such a big heart!”
Here’s a photo Gus sent me of the All Stars on that 1955 tour:
By this time, Gus was firmly entranced by Louis Armstrong’s aura. Around 1956, Gus wrote a letter to Joe Glaser, suggesting some tunes he wanted Armstrong to record. “We all know - I think - that Glaser wasn't very interested in music unless he could get money out of it,” Gus wrote. “I don't remember all the tunes but Stormy Weather, You Turned The Tables On Me, Home and Just One Of Those Things were among them.” Gus never received a specific response to his letter, but Armstrong recorded all four songs for Verve in 1957. “I like to think that when the Verve recordings were decided upon his eyes might have fallen on my suggestions,” Gus wrote me. “Or was it a coincedence? Perhaps he showed it to Louis and he liked it?”
As has been discussed frequently of late on this blog, Armstrong’s mammoth 1959 tour of Europe was really something to behold. Again, Gus was there and helped release some of the best music from that tour on the Storyville label.
Gus also saw Armstrong during his visits to Sweden in 1961 and 1962 but the 1965 visit always remained the most special. “I was President of the Federation of Swedish Jazz Clubs at the time and it was my dear duty to welcome the master at his hotel on June 8th (as I also did with Duke Ellington and Count Basie among others),” Gus wrote. “I presented him with flowers and a tape recording of his 1933 concert in Stockholm for his tape collection. As we exchanged some letters, I asked if he considered it a possibility to have time for a little chat before the evening concerts at ‘Grona Lund.’ He said, ‘Look me up backstage between shows, and we’ll spend some time together.”
This meeting was commemorated in the photo of the two I showed earlier, one that Gus rightly used for his “Classic Jazz” website (www.classicjazz.se). In one of his e-mails, Gus enclosed another photo of the meeting and wrote humorously, “I was 31 at the enclosed photo a month before I went by boat to N.Y. I was still 'young and beautiful' then. Nowadays I am only ‘and.’” In another letter, he wrote, “ You know I can still feel his hand in mine when we shook hands in 1965. His hand - the very hand that created so many master pieces - was very soft but firm (several days since the coal cart) and he had a funny way to grip - mostly around my fingers....or was it my ‘fault’?” Here’s another photo from the meeting:
Gus attempted to take Armstrong at his word and tried to meet him backstage but the concert’s producer stopped him. However, Armstrong’s valet, Bob Sherman, got Gus a set in the orchestra pit, right in front of the stage. Here’s a photo; Gus is all the way to the right:
“As the sound of ‘When It’s Sleepy Time Down South’ hit the air, Louis immediately recognized me, smiled and nodded as if I was an old acquaintance,” he wrote. “This was typical of Louis Armstrong: always making people feel comfortable in his presence.” During intermission, Gus finally got backstage and got to have “a pleasant time together” with Louis and Lucille, going over some scrapbooks Gus had brought. “Among other things, we spoke about the Clarence Williams recordings in which Louis participated in the 1920’s. I particularly mentioned ‘Are They Pickin’ On Your Baby’ (with racial overtones in the lyrics) from 1925, on which he played a wonderful but straight solo in the upper register. I asked why nobody played that kind of melody any longer, perhaps omitting the lyrics. His replay was, ‘Nobody listens to that kind of music now.’ And then he sang a chorus for me and smiled! Till this day I cannot understand how, 40 years later, he remembered the lyrics of a tune that he didn’t even sing himself at the time.”
Gus also mentioned that a lot of people who attended the concert were probably going to attend Armstrong’s next one. “Who was I to tell Louis Armstrong what to play?” Gus wrote. “But still I suggested some other tunes to be added to the program as requests. When he returned to the stage, he’d quickly arranged a medley or four of he tunes I had asked for! Before started he winked at me and smiled. Guess who wa puffed up with pride?”
In September 1965, Gus finally got to visit the United States. Unfortunately, Louis was performing in Las Vegas at the time, but he still got to pal around with Armstrong’s good buddy, Jack Bradley. Jack brought Gus out to Louis’s home in Corona and took his picture outside with Armstrong’s former valet, Doc Pugh, and Bradley’s wife at the time, Jeann Failows.
Jack even got to open up Pops’s garage and take a picture of Louis’s car!
Gus made the most of his visit, visiting spots like the Camden church where Pops made his 1930s Victor recordings (the church was gone) and meeting musicians who played with Armstrong such as Charlie Holmes and Keg Johson. He got to visit some recording studios, too, helping straighten out some titles and such on Armstrong’s recordings with the Dukes of Dixieland and even discovering an unissued performance, “Why Doubt My Love” in Victor’s vaults. With Bradley, Gus got to see the great tenor saxophonist Buddy Tate in Harlem:
And even got to visit Armstrong’s old drummer Zutty Singleton.
“I met Zutty first at Jimmy Ryans,” Gus wrote me. “I think he was a little shy. He bought me a whisky and suddenly they played Louis' Moon River on the loudspeakers. An American guy approached him and said: ‘Now there's a guy you should play with....’ Zutty didn't say anything but looked at me with a funny look in his eye. Later on I visited him at Alvin Hotel and met his lovely wife Marge - Charlie Creath's sister I think. They wanted me to tell them about Sweden and the jazz clubs. And I elected him as an honorary member of Club 78. He got a 78 pin to put on his jacket. You can spot it on the photo but I don't know why I look so worried, not my usual style.” Armstrong had written Singleton off years earlier, but according to Gus, Zutty “spoke very lovingly about Pops.”)
But the funniest visit during his 1965 trip came when Gus got to have a face-to-face sitdown with Joe Glaser. “For five years I was a president of "The Federation of Swedish Jazz Clubs,” Gus told me. “‘Jazz Clubs’ in Sweden at that time were only small listener groups getting together just to listen to jazz on records. I had of course a very impressing business card with my name, ‘firm’ and ‘president’ printed on it. I wanted to see Glaser because I was, as usual, working on my discography and wanted to pull as much information out of him about the old days and the future, new records, tour list and you name it. I also had ideas on which musicians he should hire for the All Stars. Naive or what? I phoned him, told him of my president title and he said he wanted to see me - I don't remember what time of day.”
“I showed up at his office handed over my card and was soon invited into his office. I didn't know then that a jazz club to Glaser meant a club where he could put Louis with a paying audience. If he had known what I really was, I doubt he would have been interested in seeing me (his loss). ‘What can I do for you?’ Well, I told my story. Frances Church, his secretary came in with a contract and Glaser, after a fast glance, said ‘Is there any money in it? If not I'm not interested.’ Then he turned to me and I could see that he could have been more focused...Instead he asked me to talk to Church and she would help me. I got a tour list but she didn't understand how anyone could be interested in ‘older days.’ She said we don't keep that kind of information. BUT nevertheless I got to meet with the mighty Glaser and Jack Bradley said that very few got that possibility.”
By the late 60s, Gus was doing everything he could to spread the joys of Louis Armstrong’s music. He even got a band together (he didn’t play) to record an LP, “Swingin’ The Louis Armstrong Song Book.”
Gus even sent Armstrong a copy, who was photographed digging it:
On February 10, 1971, near the end of his life, Armstrong wrote Gus a letter thanking him for the LP and even sent him an autograph:
Louis Armstrong died in July of that year but the phrase “Keep up the good works” inspired Gus to new heights. Once, when I complimented him again in an e-mail, he wrote back, “Please don't honor me too much. It is all Louis' doings as he is my inspiration in whatever I do. I just follow his advice in one of the letters: ‘Keep up the good work.’”
As seen in that letter, Louis would have loved to gone to Sweden to perform with Gus’s band. Though that never occurred, Gus began leading a smallish big band, the Royal Blue Melodians, dedicated to performing Armstrong’s music live. They were still giving concerts up to last year. Here’s a picture Gus sent me of the group (though he didn’t play an instrument, Gus was the leader and ran the show; he appears at the far right):
In the early 70s, Gus found a musician who was as close to Louis as they come in trumpeter Bent Persson. The two struck up a partnership that lasted until this morning’s sad news. Bent played in Armstrong’s style, without being a mere imitation, and he also had the musical know-how to write arrangements off of Armstrong’s old records. Gus brought the historical perspective and the ideas.
For example, in 1929, Armstrong was known to have recorded a song called “Look What You’ve Done To Me” with Carroll Dickerson’s orchestra. Unfortunately, it was rejected at the time and has never been heard since. That didn’t stop Gösta from going to Tulane University in 1973 and finding a stock arrangement of the tune. He brought it to Bent and told him to make any alterations he could to make it sound like the Dickerson band. Bent did just that and in 2001 recorded a version of the song for the disc For the Love of Satchmo fronting Gus’s Royal Blue Melodians. We might never know what Armstrong’s original record sounds like, but thanks to Bent and Gus, we have this terrific performance
But the pinnacle of Gus and Bent’s relationship started in 1974...and didn’t end for almost 30 years! In 1927, Armstrong “wrote” a music book for the Melrose company, “50 Hot Choruses For Cornet.” He didn’t exactly sit down and write out 50 jazz solos. Instead, he performed a bunch of different tunes accompanied by a pianist. The results were recorded and choice Armstrong choruses were transcribed and published. At this point, the original recordings were sadly destroyed and that was that.
In the 1970s, Gus and Bent had an idea to reconstruct the “50 Hot Choruses” idea. Bent would play the role of Pops and would perform full versions of original tunes, using different instrumentations to convey the different kinds of groups Armstrong played in throughout the 1920s: big bands, Hot Five and Seven-styled ensembles, duets with pianists, Clarence Williams-type small groups, etc. For each performance, Bent improvised in the style of Louis with some of Sweden’s finest jazz musicians, but always made sure to include Armstrong’s original transcribed choruses note-for-note as he played them. It was a fascinating concept that began in 1974 and didn’t end until 2002 with the release of three discs on Gus’s Kenneth label.
I love these works and wish they were better known. They’re important because they offer a chance to hear fresh Louis Armstrong solos from one of his prime years, 1927, but the rest of the music by Gus and the other musicians is top-notch. Gus told me his favorite was “Tia Juana.” It’s a 2:52 performance from 1979 done in the style of the Hot Seven. The two breaks played in the first chorus are exactly as Armstrong played them in the book, as is the entire 32-bar chorus and breaks in Am in the last chorus. Please give it a listen:
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Gus did much work as a producer, making swinging records with the likes of Maxine Sullivan, Doc Cheatham and Dick Cary. But finally, in the late 80s, discouraged by the scarcity of Armstrong’s Decca recordings, Gus went full-steam ahead with the Ambassador label. The Mosaic set is going to be terrific but I will never give up my Ambassadors.
He also continued to make recordings and concerts with his own Royal Blue Melodians. The aforementioned For The Love of Satchmo is one of my favorites and features Bent and the group doing a splendid version of Armstrong’s 1941 arrangement of “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South.” You can listen to it here:
The arrangements on the disc were copied from the original recordings but all the musicians improvised their solos, including Bent. As Gus wrote to me when he sent me the disc, “I don't know what you think of ‘re-creating’ these things, whoever could top the real thing but they were made out of love and that amounts to something. I don't think Louis would object - on the contrary.” Here’s a photo of the Royal Blue Melodians in concert with special guest Joe Muranyi (Gus is on the far right):
Gus was especially proud of that picture because, as he put it, “It was taken at Stockholm's Konserthus on October 3, 2005 exactly the place, day and time, 50 years after Louis stood there, when I myself breathless, sat in the audience and listened to Louis' with Edmond Hall et concortes all five concerts in three days. How could I know that 50 years thereafter I myself would stand there in front of 2000 people?”
In addition to recording new music, preserving Louis’s recordings and leading a band to perform Armstrong’s music, Gus even gave seminars of Armstrong’s career, lovingly playing his favorite recordings over the course of several weeks for the benefit of students young and old.
In recent years, the cost to distribute the Ambassador discs became too high so Gus began selling them personally off his website. I don’t know what will become of them now but they should remain in print until the end of time. And he kept writing me with new ideas all the time, projects he was working on and CDs he was making for himself. One project he put a lot of time and effort into was “Louis Armstrong In Philadelphia, Volume 1,” which would be the twelfth and, sadly, final, Ambassador disc.
I was honored beyond belief when Gus asked me to contribute the liner notes to the disc. As his health began failing, Gus began relying on me to keep Armstrong’s music in the public eye. He once began an e-mail to me with, “ Hi you, carrying the Louis banner into the future.” And another time, after I complimented him on how much he has done for Pops, he wrote back, “Likewise, but I have done mine mostly, for 58 years - you are the future!” Those words sent a chill through me and gave me a new level of inspiration to continue Gus’s work and never stop preaching the gospel of Louis Armstrong.
Gus continued working hard on the Philadelphia disc, spending ten hours in the studio in one day to clean the sound of recordings, made from the club Ciro’s in 1948, in the middle of receiving treatment for his illness. I continued worrying about his health, but even last June, he wrote me, “I am very grateful for my life until now and I think I am as happy as anyone can be - happier!” I eventually finished the Ciro’s notes and mailed them in. Gus designed the whole package but his health took a turn for the worse in January and now, I’m pretty certain it won’t ever be distributed widely.
However, one often notices strange coincidences surrounding the death of a loved one. My last blog was on “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” a title the definitely summed up what Louis Armstrong and Gösta Hägglöf were all about, as well as my own feelings towards Gus. And then yesterday, a package arrived from another Swedish friend, Peter Winberg. It contained a finished copy of the “Louis Armstrong In Philadelphia” disc complete with my notes, my first ever set of liners. My wife and parents were so proud and I kept Gus in my thoughts all day for giving me the opportunity. After my notes, Gus wrote, “The producer wants to thank Ricky Riccardi for his painstaking, wonderful work keeping Louis’ legacy alive and in the eyes of the world.”
The words made me want to cry and after learning of the news of Gus’s passing, I did just that today. No one has done more painstaking, wonderful work in keeping Louis’s legacy and spirit alive than Gus. I cannot believe he’s gone and I cannot believe I will no longer receive any more e-mails or stories or pictures or packages in the mail. He was such a generous man and he taught me a lot about being gracious and humble and about dedication. I will treasure every single word he ever wrote to me.
Our last serious correspondence in December summed everything up perfectly. I thought I had found some exciting new information about Armstrong’s Columbia recordings of the mid-50s. I eagerly wrote to Gus to share the information with him. Naturally, he was two steps ahead of me...not only did he know the information, but he attached copies of the documents I was about to send him! He knew EVERYTHING.
Thus, with your kind permission, I’m going to put “Mahogany Hall Stomp” on hold for a little bit. Gus deserves a long, loving memorial and later this week, I want to share more of the terrific photos of Pops that he was gracious enough to share with me. But for now, I’ll conclude with his Royal Blue Melodians performing “Thanks A Million” in 2001, one of Gus’s favorites, and one of mine, too, a number that sums up for my love and appreciation for Gösta Hägglöf.
Pops would have approved. I could only imagine what Gus and Louis are talking about up in heaven right now...