Such a simple, stupid little word. What does it even mean anymore? I know I overuse it like crazy in conversation; I recently described an experience with a pizza as “deep” (and it wasn’t even deep-dish pizza).
But every so often, something hits you between the eyes and you jump up and say, “Oh, now, that….THAT is DEEP.”
Dear readers, what I am about to share with you today practically defines DEEP. If you’re friends with me on Facebook or “like” the Louis Armstrong House Museum on any social media platform, then you already know this since that’s the word I kept coming back to the three times I posted this video last week. It’s the only word that suffices, once you catch your breath.
Backstory time: in September 1957, Louis Armstrong put his entire career on the line by blasting the United States government—and President Dwight Eisenhower and Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus in particular—for the way it was handling the “Little Rock Nine” high school integration mess down south.
As the story has been told so many times over the years, Louis finally lost it to reporter Larry Lubenow on September 17, telling him “The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell. It’s getting so bad, a colored man hasn’t got any country.” 50 years later, Lubenow admitted that Armstrong also called Faubus a “no-good motherfucker” and sang his own version of “The Star Spangled Banner,” with lyrics such as “Oh say can you motherfuckers see by the motherfucking early light..” Lubenow didn’t publish those words but he printed just about everything else, which exploded in newspapers across the nation on September 19.
It turns out that Lubenow wsan’t the only person Armstrong vented to about the incidents in Little Rock. Earlier this year, while working at my day job as Archivist for the Louis Armstrong House Museum, I stumbled across a tape Louis marked as a “special” one. On it, he sat down for two interviews, one in Spokane, one in Edmonton, Canada. Both times, he talked about Little Rock. Both times, he tape-recorded the results. Both times, his comments went unnoticed by the general media. In Spokane, he said, “Why do we have to suffer so much for people to realize we’re all right?” In Edmonton, he added, “I don’t feel so good about what happened this morning. I feel terrible….You can’t smile through all of that.”
Louis Armstrong was in Spokane on September 8. He was in Edmonton on September 10. He had been talking about Little Rock and blasting Faubus for almost ten full days before Lubenow’s words spread. Armstrong’s interview with Lubenow wasn’t a brief explosion brought on by injustice that rankled Armstrong that same day. No, it was the final manifestation of something that had been building for well over a week. Louis was going to keep talking about Little Rock until he was heard.
And boy, was he ever heard. The fallout has been chronicled in many books, including my own, so there’s no need going into all the details here about how Louis was criticized by both white and black figures and how those who had spent years calling him an “Uncle Tom” (such as Dizzy Gillespie, who called him that in Esquire as recently as May 1957) disappeared. On September 26, after Eisenhower finally sent the troops in to make sure the school children entered the high school safely, Louis wrote his famous telegram to the President, praising him and the United States in general.
But he didn’t take back a word he said about Little Rock. In fact, the most brutal column featuring Armstrong’s words didn’t run in the Pittsburgh Courier until September 28, which quoted the trumpeter as saying, “My people—the Negroes—are not looking for anything—we just want a square shake. But when I see on television and read about a crowd in Arkansas spitting on a little colored girl—I think I have a right to get sore…Do you dig me when I still say I have right to blow my top over injustice?”
The following night, September 29, Armstrong was set to make his first television appearance since the controversy on an episode of the DuPont Show of the Week titled “Crescendo.” He wouldn’t be alone. To quote one Internet description: “Rex Harrison is a visiting Englishman who takes a dim view of American culture. To overcome his skepticism, he is introduced to a wide variety of American musical styles and artists. During his tour he runs into Julie Andrews, Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Diahann Carroll, Peggy Lee, Eddy Arnold, Mahalia Jackson, Sonny James, Dinah Washington, Stubby Kaye, Stanley Holloway, Turk Murphy, Lizzie Miles and the Norman Luboff Choir.”
I had obviously known about this broadcast for years but didn’t think anything existed from it, until December 21, 2010 when a clip of Armstrong and Harrison doing “Now You Has Jazz” surfaced on YouTube in the worst quality ever. Still, it was quite an odd clip with Armstrong almost groping Harrison and Harrison, well, being Harrison. It did make its way around the internet, though (over 60,000 views in two years). I screened it for the first time at the Satchmo Summerfest this past August and people were screaming with laughter. See here:
After searching through the internet, I found a collector who offered it so I jumped and got it. However, my copy was 60 minutes and the original show was 90. I now had the Harrison clip but now I was missing the most tantalizing moment from the show, something that had been taunting me in discographies for years: Louis apparently doing a duet with Diahann Carroll on “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.”
Alas, I couldn’t find it. But earlier this year, again at work, I transferred one of Louis’s reel-to-reel tapes and sure enough, he taped the audio from the “Crescendo” show. I finally got to hear Carroll beautifully sing the old spiritual followed by Armstrong playing two choruses of trumpet. And at the start of the second chorus, he quoted “The Star Spangled Banner.”
Armstrong knew this was special. He dubbed it once, dubbed it again and then dubbed it a third time just from the trumpet solo. But we don’t share any of the audio of Louis’s private tapes at the Armstrong Archives and because I’m always drowning in work, it was one of those, “Wow, that’s great, too bad I can’t share it, time to move on to something else” moments.
And then last Wednesday, I woke up early and headed to the bathroom. Brushing my teeth with one hand and checking my iPhone with the other (21st century, folks), I saw my friend, the Italian Armstrong worshiper Simone Dabusti, posted on my Facebook page: a YouTube video of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen," uploaded by the user Rowoches. I had to watch it right then and there, the hell with it being 5:15 in the morning with everyone sleeping. Naturally, my wife opened the door when she heard the trumpet through the noisy fan and shot me a tired, "Are-you-nuts-the-kids-are-sleeping!" look. I got it and figured I'd wait until I got to work to really enjoy it (mostly because I didn't want to cry on the bus).
Wednesdays are the days I open the Armstrong House. After doing that and cashing in, I sat in the welcome center--two floors down from where Pops dubbed the audio to tape 56 years ago--and watched it. Watched this:
That's when it really hit me, watching it in silence in Louis Armstrong's house. My heart raced and I got chills. I watched it two more times and then began sharing it on social media. It seemed to wow my friends on Facebook but kind of died on the Armstrong House pages; indeed, after over a week, it only has about 390 YouTube views and all the comments revolve around Carroll's beautiful vocal.
But I'm sorry, I know I'm biased but it's Louis that gets me right in the heart. For one thing, he's sitting in a rocking chair, which I guess makes for nice scenery (oh, how I wish a better quality clip came along) but interestingly enough, Louis HATED sitting and playing. We have the unedited tape at the Armstrong Archives of Louis's 1954 Blindfold Test with Leonard Feather and he went on for some time about "lazy" players who sat down when they took a solo. But here he's sitting and I don't know, it kind of works, the rocking chair lending an extra heap to the proceedings, and perhaps inspiring Art Kane's beautiful shots of Louis in one from the following year:
Armstrong does slightly crack his first note but even that makes it all more vulnerable, more human. He then settles in and phrases it from the heart; gorgeous playing of a song he had just recorded for Verve in August and would remake for Decca in January 1958. Clearly, it meant a lot to him.
But that "Star Spangled Banner" quote....my, my, my. On live television. Talk about a statement. What was Dizzy doing on September 29, 1957? Where was Miles? Where was Mingus? Only Pops was on national television, incorporating the National Anthem into perhaps the most autobiographical song Armstrong ever touched. He doesn't open his mouth, but the message rings loud and clear: sometimes I'm up, sometimes I'm down, sometimes I'm almost to the ground. Oh yes, Lord.
As the camera pulls back and Louis goes into one of his slow, quiet endings, I tear up. I teared up at the Armstrong House. I teared up watching it for reference right now.
And if that's not DEEP, I don't know what is.
Armstrong's "Crescendo" appearance came and went but he was due back on the air in two weeks on an episode of Bing Crosby's Edsel Show with Frank Sinatra and Rosemary Clooney. The Dupont show aired on NBC but Bing's show was going to be on CBS and they still didn't want anything to do with Armstrong (and searching around Google, I did find reference to a newspaper column of September 20 where NBC tried getting Louis not to appear on "Crescendo"; can't find the full article, alas). As Gary Giddins tells it, Bing basically said, "If Louis doesn't appear, I don't appear." Louis appeared. The clips from that show have become pretty famous and the story of Bing's stance still gets told. But I've never heard a single person reference Louis's playing of "The Star Spangled Banner" on "Crescendo."
It's tempting to read something hopeful into Armstrong's quote of the National Anthem, especially since he just wrote to Eisenhower and called America "the greatest country." But I don't buy it. For one thing, Armstrong was taking a break from playing "The Star Spangled Banner," which he used to end his concerts with. Just a few weeks later, Armstrong was in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the first stop on an incredibly successful tour of South America (now being celebrated in an exhibit I curated for the Armstrong House). While in his hotel room, being photographed by the legendary Lisl Steiner, Armstrong received a phone call from the United States Ambassador to Argentina....asking him to play "The Star Spangled Banner." I interviewed Steiner in September while planning the exhibit and she remembered Armstrong's words vividly 56 years later: "Mr. Ambassador, you can go and fuck yourself because I can't even get a hotel room in Times Square!" He then hung up the phone and raised his hands triumphantly. Steiner snapped this photo:Armstrong taped many of his concerts on that South American tour, from Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, Caracas and other stops. He did not close any of his shows with "The Star Spangled Banner."
Like I said.