Friday, November 18, 2011

In Loving Memory of Jos Willems

The last time I wrote a blog with the phrase "In Loving Memory of" in the title, it was after the 2009 death of my friend Gösta Hägglöf. I wish I never had to do it again, but alas, I must, this time to report the passing of another person who was extremely important to me, to this blog and to Louis Armstrong's legacy: the Belgian discographer, Jos Willems.

If you have been with me for any length of time, you'll know my fondness--and reliance--for Willems's opus, All of Me: The Complete Discography of Louis Armstrong. I still don't quite remember what I did before it was published in 2006. I relied on Hans Westerberg's groundbreaking discography, "Boy From New Orleans," during my years researching at the Institute of Jazz Studies, but that work was published before the compact disc era so it was a little out-of-date by the time I got immersed in all things Louis.

When "All of Me" was published in 2006, I immediately began referring to it as my bible. It was so tremendously thorough and pointed me in the direction of numerous CDs I never would have known existed otherwise. When I started this blog in 2007, I began plugging the book from day one. Of course, a book of such magnitude could not have been compiled by one man alone. Two of the great contributors to the book, Håkan Forsberg and Gösta Hägglöf, contacted me in the early days of the blog to pick my brain, trade information and eventually trade CDs and DVDs.

But nothing prepared me for how Jos Willems introduced himself to me. It was January 2008 and I went out to my mailbox and saw a giant, partially folded, bumpy envelope (always a welcome site). Inside were about a dozen CDs--discs I had never asked for but had only dreamed about: Louis live at Carnegie Hall in November 1947, at Keesler Air Force Base in 1959, in Amsterdam in 1955 and so many more. I just shuffled through the CDs over and over and until I finally got to the letter in which Jos introduced himself. What an introduction!

In his letter, Jos complimented me on the blog, was excited about my research into Louis's later years and offered to help if there were any recordings I wanted to hear, basically turning "All of Me" into a personal catalogue. I immediately wrote him back on January 23, 2008 to thank him. Alas, the e-mail went right into his spam filter. Thinking I was ungrateful, Jos composed a somewhat bitter letter (which would have been appropriate if I hadn't thanked him) and sent it to me....along with 17 (!) more CDs of unissued Armstrong! After he sent the letter, he found my e-mail in his spam folder, wrote me an apology and just like that, a friendship was born and a series of correspondence commenced that ended only with Jos's passing on November 1.

There plenty of pauses, however. In his first letter to me in January 2008, Jos told me he was recovering from a stroke and on February 27, 2008, his wife Josée wrote to tell me that he had broken his hip and would be out of communication for a while. To lift his spirits, I wrote a blog in tribute to "All of Me" (which can still read here). Fortunately, my little gappings had the desired effect on Jos, who finally wrote me back on April 16. His e-mail was pure Jos: appreciative, warm, funny, generous (another offer of more unissued Armstrong) and informative, keeping me abreast of the latest discographical news. Check it out:

Dear friend Ricky

I think you have started to feel completely abandoned -- a motherless child.
We approach four weeks till you wrote me the kind words below.
As the French proverb says -- in French of course -- excuses are made to be
used...
All I have to do is thank you for that flattering Blog about All of Me from which my
wife brought me a copy while I was still in hospital.
It really moved me, man...

Now concerning "unissued" Louis: I have still many (and many is a huge heap)
CD's to be copied. Just look in AOM what you're missing and what you'd like
to have.
And yes please, fire of your comments and questions.

According to the latest X-rays, and my surgeon, the new hip is fitted very
well and will last for at least 25 years. I will be 97 then, age which I
hope to reach to beat my father's record, who died at 96.

In AOM, please delete the June 3, 1948 Ciro's. It doesn't exist. Also
Confessin' is from Empire and the Milenberg is a mystery. Gus, Håkan and me
are trying to pinpoint it, but it isn't easy as apart from Pops, only Bigard
is clearly recognizable. This may mean whatever...

Best from old Belgium

Jos


In future correspondence, Jos proved to have a better grasp of the English language then myself! (It was his third language.) He'd point out typos and other little slips, such as as when I said that I couldn't believe how much Louis's early November 1947 Carnegie Hall concert sounded like the later Symphony Hall show. "Nuance," he wrote. "I'm not similar to my son... It's Symphony that is similar to Carnegie." And he also let me glimpse his philosophy that allowed him to be so generous. When I asked if he knew if any other footage survived from a concert in Amsterdam in 1959, he wrote, ""No I haven't. I know a Dutchman who has everything -- for sale at high price. Therefor he is no contributor to All Of Me." Wow, I thought to myself, this guy is the real deal. We all know those collectors out there who hold on to their gems, never parting with them and if they do, only for a buck. Not Jos....and not Håkan and not Gösta either, for that matter. I soon discovered that this was the way of the world with Louis nuts. The spirit of the man led these beautiful cats to just copy and trade everything at will, just to be able to spread the joy of Pops. I followed their lead and they were pleased when I began slipping these rare treasures into my blogs for the whole world to enjoy.

14 more arrived in May 2008, followed by some cassettes and a batch of DVDs of Armstrong's European film appearances. As my reputation began to grow, I landed some incredibly rare Armstrong treasures of my own here in the states and I was only too happy to be able to share them with Jos and the Swedish contingent (whom I dubbed "The Swedish Hot Four"). It was an honor to be dubbed by Jos, "In such a short time you have become the 'Master Supplier' of unissued Armstrong treasures." By the end of '08 things had slowed down a bit--after sending me about 40 CDs, how could it not? But he still tracked my every move. When I wrote about Louis's famous appearance on a Martin Block radio show with Fats Waller and Jack Teagarden, I speculated about the order of performances but wasn't quite certain. About a week later, there was a package from Jos in the mail....with a scratchy acetate transfer of the complete broadcast, complete with chatter and introductions and all the tunes in the original order. Incredible....

By early 2009, Jos's e-mails began slowing down, in part due to fluctuating health. But he could still make me laugh--and read my mind--such as when he received an e-mail about Sony once again opening the vault for Miles and releasing a souped up, expanded "Kind of Blue." Here's what Jos wrote:

Look what Columbia has done for Miles!
False starts, breakdowns, alternative takes, and all...

I agree that "Kind of Blue" is a masterpiece and it's amongst my favorites.
But what about our Louis?
And about Louis plays W.C. Handy ... and Satch plays Fats?

Angry Jos


When my first daughter, Ella, was born in April 2009, Jos had one of the sweetest replies to that news:

Ella, est là; that's a French play on words. When you pronounce it it says: Ella, Ella...meaning Ella has arrived. There's even a cute song about Ella, est là.

Hello Margaret, Ella and Papa Dip, Ricky.

Congratulations to you all.
Fine to hear that mother and daughter are doing well. The father is in such cases but the "third man".
But remember, Ricky, Ella's birth is the most beautiful moment of your life. It can only happen once.

See how life goes? Gösta leaves, Ella arrives.

Best regards to the three of you.

Jos


Unfortunately, after that April e-mail, correspondence with Jos became sporadic. I didn't hear from him again until September of that year and then it was another long wait until January 3, 2010. Then on March 12, he wrote to announce that he had been contacted by Storyville about an Armstrong boxed set. He opened his e-mail with, "I've been released from hospital yesterday, and I hope that the operation will bring some relief. The witchdoctors have taken away some precious parts from my old but beloved body. But most of all they made a big hole in my bank account." After giving the details of the Storyville box--which is now released (see my previous blog)--Jos ended by writing, "Time now to have my wounds cleaned....Pops for ever." And that was the last time I heard from him for over a year-and-a-half.

I wasn't alone. Other friends, such as Håkan Forsberg, also reported that Jos had stopped responding to his e-mails and must have been in dire health. But on June 1 of this year, as I sat in Pantheon's offices signing autographed copies of my book to send to my VIP friends, I took a chance and inscribed one to Jos, hoping he was well enough to receive it. Imagine my delight when I received this response on June 20:

Hi Ricky,

When I opened your parcel, I was so deeply touched – shivering to the bones.
In spite of this handicapped body and mind of mine I came out of bed to admire this wonderful present..
Thanks a million, thanks and congratulation for your magnificent piece of art.

Sorry but I have to return to bed.

All the beans to you...

Jos


I was dismayed to hear how badly he was ailing, but touched deeply for his kind words. And on September 18, I received one last surprise, a final generous gesture that so typified my Belgian friend: a package in the mail, containing a short letter praising my book and a new CD I somehow did not have of Louis live in Amsterdam and Germany in 1959, which he wanted me to know was a "gift." The mammoth Universal box had come out by this point, so I immediately returned the favor and promised to send him a few CDs of the rarities contained in that set. He actually responded fairly quickly, like the Jos of old, but added, "But don’t be worried if I disappear for a little while. 5 October I will have to go to hospital – yes again – . And I don’t know for how long.This time a few days if all goes well. But let this not prevent you from sending the CDs when ready." I did and on October 8, there was an e-mail from Jos with the subject line "Golden CDs." "What a delight," he wrote, "Being released from hospital and coming home; on my desk I found 3 golden CDs...originator Ricky. May I think you a million times, and I hope to be once in the occasion to do something in return."

That was the last time I heard from Jos Willems. Back home, he spent his final weeks continuing to tinker with "All of Me," which he never stopped updating after the minute it was published, referring to his updated version as "Hotter Than That." As he had been returning my e-mails with surprising speed, I hoped he was in the process of making a full recover. So did Håkan, with whom he traded e-mails with Jos concerning more new information for "All of Me." Apparently, they discussed the new Universal material I had sent to Jos and Jos was busy entering all the alternate take information into his online database. What will happen to that now is a mystery but I hope someone out there can continue Jos's work.

After Håkan broke the news to me, I wrote to Jos's son Jan on behalf of the staff of the Louis Armstrong House Museum. Jan confirmed to me that Jos was still working on his discography up to the very end, writing, "I know he was working on the new acquisitions he got from you ... a few days before his untimely death we talked about how it would take a couple of weeks of work before All of me was again updated. I hope his work will continue just like he started off from the old copy of Westerberg's book we took to each festival or record store ... with plenty of personal notes, additions and corrections All of Me can become a stepping stone for future discographers and historians." Amen, Jan.

So if you're a fan of Louis Armstrong, take a moment and silently thank Jos Willems for dedicating so much of his life to Louis Armstrong's legacy. It saddens me tremendously that Gösta Hägglöf and Jos are no longer with us; without them, my book, my blog and my understanding of Louis would be a shadow of what it is today. But I do hope they're with Pops now, cracking open a bottle of Slivovice....and questioning him about the possibility of a third take of "Star Dust." Thanks, Jos.

3 comments:

"Jazz Lives" @ WordPress.com said...

We become our fathers and our mothers; we hope to continue their loving work in our own way. Mister Ricky, you have become Gosta and Jos -- we mourn him, we celebrate you and it's all done in love.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Ricky and thanks "Jazz Lives" for that.

agrahamt said...

Quote "Jos was busy entering all the alternate take information into his online database. What will happen to that now is a mystery but I hope someone out there can continue Jos's work."
Hi Ricky,
Thanks for your heartfelt post
What did Jos use as his online database. I am glad to hear that he used a database in the creation of "All of Me," as that means that modern digital processing of it will be possible. I mentioned sometime ago an interest in creating a geospatial timeline of the very-documented Armstrong, all those dates and places could be added to something like that. Maybe I'll see if Rutgers knows more about it.
Regards,
Andrew Taylor, Rice University