First, the man himself, who was born on January 14, 1928 of Hungarian descent, which he really embraced in his later life. He moved to New York in the 1950s and though he studied with Lennie Tristano, he immediately jumped into the city's dixieland and mainstream swing scene. So many people just think of his associations with Louis and Roy Eldridge but after spending time with him on a road trip in 2010, it was stunning to hear how many people he played with during this period: Max Kaminsky, Ed Allen, Red Allen, Eddie Condon...the names just kept on coming.
In the early 1960s, he was part of a dixieland band, the Village Stompers, that scored an unlikely hit with their instrumental recording, "Washington Square," which actually hit number 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1963:
Here's another one from the Village Stompers, "Midnight to Moscow," with a YouTube video featuring the original album cover in which you can spot Joe, dead center with his trademark glasses and moustache:
In 1967, Louis wasn't in the best of health. All Stars clarinetist Buster Bailey died in April and was replaced by Johnny Mince, but after only a couple of gigs, Louis came down with pneumonia and had to take some time off. When he was ready to go again in June, he needed a new clarinetist and Joe Muranyi was selected. Why Joe? Well, the Village Stompers were booked by Joe Glaser and Glaser always seemed to choose All Stars musicians from his roster. But Louis and Joe were also somewhat familiar with each other; when Louis visited Jack Bradley's short-lived nightclub "Bourbon Street" back in 1967, he snapped a picture of Joe sitting at a table with both Louis and Red Allen. Fast company!
Joe was a lifelong worshipper of Louis and a real student of jazz history so joining the All Stars was a dream come true. He told me about his first rehearsal with the group in 2006:
"I was quite nervous. The night before I played that Avakian Columbia record, ‘Ambassador Satch,’ a collection of all types of things, George told me. So I played that, that wonderful ‘Royal Garden Blues’ solo, you know, just a gem. I said, ‘Geez, how the hell can I play with a guy like that?’ So we ran down the thing and it went pretty good. I mean, there was no doubt that I fit in. I just did the best I could and by the end of the evening, Pops was smiling. And I remember ‘So Long Dearie.’ I said, ‘Well, I can get through the chorus but I don’t know the verse too well.’ So he blows his horn into my fucking face and plays it for me! It was wonderful! I was such a fan, I didn’t know what to do. I mean, I got to listen and try to learn and as it turns out, we never did ever play it, but he played it for me as to how it went which is marvelous."
Jack Bradley took the following photo of Louis and Joe from that first rehearsal:
"I got along very well with Pops," Joe told me. "I was the only one in the band that knew all the records and the history and stuff. There’s the one, on that 67, that first broadcast, we’re sitting back—I think it might, if you listen carefully it might be on the tape—he said, ‘How the fuck do you pronounce your name?’ I said, ‘Muranyi, like Ma Rainey.’ Oh, he loved that! He broke up laughing, he never forgot it. A lot of cats in the business call me, ‘Hey, Ma Rainey!'"
Joe made many recordings with Louis in his years with the All Stars. He told me his favorite was this version of "Cabaret" from the "What a Wonderful World" album:
Joe stayed until Louis's last engagement at the Waldorf-Astoria in 1971. When Louis was sick and had to stop performing from late 1968 to late 1970, Joe found another gig with a legendary trumpeter, Roy Eldridge, with whom he shared the bandstand with at Jimmy Ryan's for the next decade, even recording an album together for Pablo.
After Roy retired, Joe kept going, playing with everyone you could think of, including one of my all-time favorite groups, the Classic Jazz Quartet, with Marty Grosz, Richard Sudhalter and Dick Wellstood. He continued working steadily through the 80s and 90s, when he began making trips to Hungary, where he was treated as a hero of sorts. He remained an ambassador of Louis Armstrong, playing with other alumni from the All Stars, recording tribute CDs of Louis's music, performing at the Louis Armstrong House Museum and with David Ostwald's Louis Armstrong Centennial Band at Birdland and at the Louis Armstrong Jazz Festival in Bank, Hungary, where he became the star of the show. A flurry of videos from the 2009 festival show Joe in fine form, playing and singing with a variety of acts. Here here is with a great trumpeter, Herbert Christ, on Fats Waller's "Blue Turning Grey Over You":
But though Joe was so intertwined with Louis and though he took part in so many projects that revolved around Louis, when it came to talking about Louis, that's where he clammed up. Oh, he could talk about Pops; he had stories like nobody else. But early on, a few of his stories made it into James Lincoln Collier's "Louis Armstrong: An American Genius"....but they weren't attributed to Joe. They were stories he had told for years but when he saw them being told by others, he decided to save them for himself. If you were tight with Joe, he'd open up but always with the caveat that the stories were for HIS book that he was working on. He turned down many high profile authors who wanted to use his stories. Sure, he gave interviews about Louis all the time, but he had certain stories that he trotted out; the "good shit" as he called it was for his book and his close friends and that's all.
So you could imagine how I felt when in 2006, I--a complete nobody, just out of college--decided to write Joe to ask him for an interview for my book. I was petrified. I found his son Paul online and Paul gave me his e-mail address. I wrote a long "Dear Mr. Muranyi" fan letter, explaining my goals and the importance of the All Stars and how I wanted to change a lot of perceptions.
It only took one day for a return e-mail with the simple subject line, "Hi." Joe wrote, "Hey Ricky, Good to hear from you. Yeah I think that Pops later bands got short shrift from the Pops gurus. We had our moments with our band. I think Pops was the great Louis Armstrong until the day he died. So he didn't do new Cornet Chop Sueys ; he was the same guy who once did, though. Sure, call me..." The next day, I nervously called Joe, who told me that he had checked up on me and heard good things. To this day, I don't know who he talked to--I really only knew Dan Morgenstern and Michael Cogswell at the time--but that was fine by me and we set up an interview for October 25, 2006.
We had a ball that day. I stayed for hours and taped it all, transcribing the best of it (all in a 11,000+ words document). A lot of it made it into my book but most landed on the cutting room floor. Here's some beautiful words from Papa Joe that I never had the chance to publish: "Let’s put it this way: I really loved him. He always talked about Joe Oliver, playing with Joe Oliver in Chicago and he never thought and how honored and how wonderful. And I don’t equate myself with Louie but I felt that way about Louis Armstrong. I felt so thrilled and honored. Our first trip, we were in France or something and somebody was playing this song. He was backstage and I was backstage so we got to talking and I told him how much I appreciated me being with the band and I felt honored and I was such a fan of his and I went on a bit. I knew him well enough then but I just really wanted him to know, to tell him. And he flattered me and, I don’t want to get into details, but he put down some of his clarinet players, he said, ‘You know, I prefer you.’ And then I later found out that, Ira [Mangel] told me or somebody told me—you know, Barney Bigard was like a comet. He’d come and go, you know, he’d play for awhile and then something else and he’d always come back. But I think whenever he asked to come back, he would come back. And when I joined the band, he asked to come back and Louie said no, he preferred me. Isn’t that wild!? And the thing was, I wasn’t a fall-down drunk or anything and I had a couple of young kids and I’m a college graduate. I think it meant something to him that I had the wife and the two kids and I wasn’t coming from the, I don’t know what kind of milieu, a drug addict milieu or whatever, however, you know….He did not like cats being drunk or carrying on in the band. ‘Oh, he smokes pot.’ But it was very serious to him. Take care of business. And the line I heard him yelling at I think Buddy or somebody that was drunk and he says, ‘Don’t fuck with my hustle.’ Which is great. But in a way, the thing is he thought what he did was a hustle. It was just an expression, but it was like street smart. He certainly was street smart. I don’t know, I wish I could play with him now."
And here's some more insights from Joe that paint a beautiful picture of the offstage Louis Armstrong:
"I remember once, we were going to go to Europe. I don’t know where we were, I mean, New York or—it seems to me that maybe we were going to take an airplane that was going to take to New York to go to Europe. And we’re in the VIP lounge, sort of sprawled out and stuff. All over, newspaper, ‘Mr. Armstrong’…He says, ‘Excuse me, Josephus.’ He called me Josephus. I loved that. ‘Come here.’ And he walks to a corner. And you ever hear of Johnny Windhurst and Ruby Braff? I was always talking about Johnny Windhurst and Ruby Braff, you know. And he starts talking to me about me. And these guys are all wanting to interview him. It was really like great. He says, ‘Never mind about Ruby Braff, let me tell you something, never mind about Ruby Braff and Johnny Windhurst. You just play your own beautiful shit.’ And it went on like that in that vein. And I was like…the great man, you know? He’s actually thinking about me! It was wonderful, man, wonderful. I guess we hit it off sort of but the thing was, we’re all sitting around, going to go to sleep waiting for the airplane, and Louie nudges me and says, ‘Here. That’s a shoehorn. You know, when you go to sleep, your feet swell. You take your shoes off when your feet swell and you want to put them on, they won’t go on. You’ll wake up before me anyhow. When you’ve got your shoes on, let me have the shoehorn.’ You know? Oh man! The great Louis Armstrong. He loved my kids. He met them a couple of times. My son Paul and my Adrianna. I was so pleased that they met him….Pops loved kids. He really loved kids. So Pops changed my life in a lot of ways. He changed my life."
One of the most touching stories Joe told me that day was about "You'll Never Walk Alone.":
"When I was with him, he did that and he did some other slow one like that, the point was—this is one of my insights—he had that side of him that liked that bag, the pathos, the—that was just his special bag. And so he did that and I didn’t particularly care for it. Nothing much for me to do. But it was fine, it went over and he loved to do it. I tell you something. In 2003, I thought I was going to lose this place. I got into a very bad psychological state, very depressed and down. Just really bad, the end of my life...Really, I got very down and I can’t tell you. I think the only way was that my wife [Jorun] was in Europe and my little grandson, I’d grab him around and we’d roll around and that’d make me feel better. Anyhow, I’m in that shape. And there’s a thing on TV on Richard Rodgers, all about all kinds of stuff and everything. And I’m watching it and it was very interesting, it got my mind off my misery. I can’t tell you what I been through. It gave me great insight into people with emotional problems, people with suicides and all that kind of stuff….You’re never afraid of dying and suffering til the first time you feel the brush of the wings when you’re sick. Anyhow, there it is and I’m really down and stuff. And the last one, I think it’s from England, Pops doing [You'll Never Walk Alone]. And I’m sitting there and I start to cry cause he’s singing it to me because I’m feeling so horrible. And I’m playing the clarinet! That was so special to me, it was like literally Pops came to me. I believe, it was more than a coincidence, he was there. And it helped me a lot. I cried and I thought about it and it helped me a lot….When he, some of those things, the high notes, it’s like there’s such emotion, such feeling there, and it touches me so and I feel that there’s some sort of great truth there. It’s not words, it’s not eating, it’s screwing, flying high, it’s something very tangible yet intangible, so it gets to me. When he died, I was crushed, very down and stuff. For six months, he came to me in my dreams. And he wasn’t dead and it was wonderful. And it felt so good. I’d wake up in the morning and I’d feel good. And there again, I never had anything like that back then in my life, I was really set back. And I believed it. I said, ‘Well, he comes to me in dreams.’"
On and on we went that day. When it was over, he told me a helluva thing: "You know," he said, "you're the first person writing about Armstrong that I've ever given a real interview to." Wow, I didn't know what to say. He really opened up--but still, he alluded to some things and some stories that were going to be for his book and he couldn't tell them to me. But still, he told me more than any previous Armstrong biographer and that was good enough for me (though he did give an interview to Terry Teachout for his book, "Pops," shortly thereafter).
I had my quotes but now a friendship was born. We'd trade e-mails, I'd visit him every now and then, etc. When I started my blog in 2007, he'd catch up with it and e-mail me praise and comments. In February 2008, I was booked to give an Armstrong presentation at the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University. I invited Joe and was thrilled when accepted--except I'd have to pick up him up in the city and drive him out to Newark. So I did and had a wonderful car ride with him as I played all sorts of rare Pops and talked it over with him. Though I had a pretty set presentation ready for that night, I involved Joe as much as possible; towards the end, he got so passionate talking about his love for Pops, he welled up with emotion. It was beautiful to witness. Here's a picture I cherish of the two of us taken that evening:
At the end of 2008, I got my book deal with Pantheon. I signed the contract for it at Birdland with my agent and editor, attending a performance by David Ostwald's Louis Armstrong Centennial Band. David was a friend and he usually introduced me to the crowd, which we figured would impress my editor--but that night, David wasn't there! Joe was on clarinet but nobody else knew who I was. Vince Giordano was acting as leader and emcee, introducing some of the notable people in the crowd when Joe interrupted him and said, "Ricky Riccardi's here!" Vince, bless him, had no idea what Joe was talking about it but said, "Oh....he is?" Joe then grabbed the mike and proceeded to give me the greatest introduction I could have asked for, impressing the heck out of my editor. It was a charming moment my agent and I still talk about.
We continued keeping in touch and seeing each other occasionally, but in 2010 I got some bad news: Joe was battling cancer and it didn't look good. I grew very saddened and planned to make a visit to say goodbye--but then I heard that Joe fought it and was somehow doing okay. And then I got an e-mail from Joe himself saying he was back home! I couldn't believe, though I knew he wasn't 100%.
By this point, I was working for the Louis Armstrong House Museum, in charge of cataloging the Jack Bradley Collection. In October 2010, Michael Cogswell and I planned a trip up to Cape Cod to pay Jack a visit. Joe got wind of the visit and said he'd like to go because he had a place in Cape Cod that he wanted to check on because he hadn't been there in a while. We weren't sure his health would hold up, but he assured us he'd be okay. He was much thinner, didn't eat much, coughed a lot and had a hard time getting around but otherwise, it was a weekend I'll never forget. Even the drive up to and back from Cape Cod was an experience, listening to Louis and Joe point out things I had never heard, such as how Trummy Young perfectly complimented Louis's lead and stuff like that.
We eventually got to Joe's historic little Cape Cod home. I wasn't surprised to see this in one of the small rooms:
As we were leaving, we asked to take one more photo of Joe in front of his Cape Cod home:
And then it was off to Jack Bradley's house. I felt honored to be in the same room as Jack and Joe, two old friends for over 50 years. Michael Cogswell snapped these photos of me showing them all I had been up do at the Armstrong Archives:
This photograph has already become one of my personal favorites:
After the Cape Cod trip, Joe wrote to thank me for a wonderful time but with his health going up and down, I didn't hear from him often in the next year. But after my book came out and finally gave credit to the All Stars and Joe himself, he couldn't hide his pleasure with it. Before it came out, he wrote to me: "In the Collier book I get one mention in the index and when you look for it it's not in the book. And I'm sort of written out of Louis' story. A while back there was a traveling Pops exhibit- was it in connection with Giddens' book? It was quite nice and there wasn't one image or mention of me or the Pops band I played with. It really hurt because I had been there and was tight with the old man. I don't think I'm an important part of his story and career or another Ed Hall or Barney Bigard. But when I think of his introducing me to someone as 'My clarinet man.' Well, that means something to me; in a strange way I'm part of 'that number.' Nobody can take that away from me." It was my honor to help restore Joe back to his rightful place in Louis's story.
As 2011 turned to 2012, Joe's health continued to fail. But he seemed to rally again in March, when he was moved from a V. A. hospital into an assisted living facility. Word got around that somehow, he was fighting again and doing better than he had been. I called him up and indeed, he sounded better than I expected. I made plans to see him and visited him the following week. But when I got there, he said, "You came just in time; they're taking me to the hospital." He was having trouble breathing. Seconds later, two ambulance drivers came in and asked if I was family. No, I told them, just a friend. "But he's coming with me," Joe insisted.
And there we were in the ambulance back to the V.A. hospital. I held Joe's hand and though he spoke softly, we talked about Louis. He told me about his last dinner at Louis's house--July 2, 1971. Louis died on July 6. When we got to the hospital, I waited with him until a doctor came, said so long and said I'd see him soon. He smiled and held my hand. It was the last time I saw him.
Others visited in the following weeks, including David Ostwald, who played Louis Armstrong's music for Joe. But he was suffering and I almost felt relief when I got the call today that Joe had passed. At the same time, we're now in a world without Joe Muranyi. Another All Star is gone. There's only three left: Marty Napoleon, Jewel Brown and Buddy Catlett.
I cherished every moment I spent with Joe Muranyi; there'll never be another quite like him. He never did get that book out but I know drafts of it survive, with all those unknown stories about Pops. Maybe one day they'll see the light of day. But we do have Joe's music, which will live forever.
Once, he made a copy of an incredibly rare All Stars performance from the New Orleans Jazz Festival in May 1968. It wasn't even in the discographies. Because of that, Joe told me not to put any of it on my blog and I respected that. But now that he is gone, I think it's only fitting to end my personal tribute to Joe with his feature from that concert, something he was very proud of: "Just a Closer Walk With Thee." Goodbye, Papa Joe; you'll be missed.