Friday, January 18, 2013

Louis Armstrong and Kenny Clarke: A Lesson

People are continuously fascinated by Louis Armstrong's connection to marijuana. Yes, he pretty much smoked it every day of his life from the mid-1920s until about a year or so before he died in 1971. But a lot of people make the mistake of believing Louis performed while high. I see it all the time, especially on YouTube comments; viewers see Louis bouncing around the stage, screaming, mugging, smiling like mad and immediately assume he's higher than a kite. Not true, my friends, not true.

Well, perhaps it was in the early days. Zilner Randolph remembers Louis's catchphrase "code" when he was high was to shout, "I'm ready, I'm ready, so help me, I'm ready," and sure enough that crops up in a few different places. And Budd Johnson remembered Louis making sure the entire band was high before recording "Laughin' Louie" in 1933. But the following year, the bottom fell out of his career and lip trouble forced him to put down the horn for a period of time. When he came back to America in 1935 and hired Joe Glaser to be his manager, he became more serious about what he did on stage than ever before.

I knew that beginning in 1935, Louis stopped getting high before shows, saving instead as a way to relax afterwards or on long bus trips from gig to gig. I have a whole passage in my book where Jack Bradley describes Louis's pre and post-show routine, corroborating this. But I didn't have it coming from Louis. Until now.

While recently reading Mike Hennessey's biography, Klook: The Story of Kenny Clarke, a particular passage jumped out at me. Not only did it make me laugh out loud but it was nice to get a lesson straight from the man's mouth. Not many people know that young Klook was hired to replace Big Sid Catlett in 1941. Louis loved his work--and dubbed him "Little Gizzard"--but Glaser got rid of him because he wanted a higher profile name behind the drums. But while Clarke was in the band, this happend (I quote from page 33):

"Kenny and Satchmo got on together extremely well, it appears. As well as being superlative musicians they also had in common a pronounced partiality to pot smoking. Pops was a prodigious smoker of unbranded cigarettes all his life and Klook was always ready for a joint."

"Al Levitt remembers Klook recalling a gig with Louis when, in a rare loss of concentration, Kenny got behind with the beat. He had enjoyed a particularly potent smoke just before going on stage and it took its toll. After the gig, Satchmo came to Kenny's hotel room looking uncharacteristically solemn. Klook waited for the dressing down -- but it didn't come. Instead, Pops rolled two massive joints, handed one to Kenny and they then sat smoking away and making general conversation."

"Eventually Louis got up, said 'Goodnight' and left the room--but just before closing the door, he put his head round it and said, 'Klook--after the gig; not before.'"

Isn't that wonderful? Not only is it lesson in taking the music seriously--after the gig, not before--but as David Ostwald pointed out to me when I told him this story, it's a great lesson in how to be a good bandleader. Louis didn't browbeat him or make him feel small. In fact, he befriended Clarke first, hung out and then managed to get his point across without embarrassing him. That's how it's done.

So there you have it folks....after the gig, not before. Now sit back and enjoy some "Muggles" (the 1928 record, that is!)....


Phil said...

Thanks, Ricky, another god story. And I certainly enjoy Muggles, before, during, and after a gig. Can't get too much of Louis and Muggles.

Phil Lynch said...

Great post title, first of all - two names I don't connect in my head - until now.

This really has me thinking, Ricky, as a teacher and coach. Not the pot angle of course, but the coming-alongside someone, then offering correction.

This would be a great guest post on a leadership blog, though the Louis-n-pot thing would be off-putting to some.

Thanks, as always, for the blog.

Zac Harmon said...

Thanks for another fascinating post. I recently discovered your blog and rushed out to buy "What a Wonderful World". Both have been invaluable guides as I've worked my way through Louis's catalog.

Anyhow, just wanted to drop a line and say thanks and keep up the good work.