Today's "Encounter with Louis" comes from Facebook friend, Frederick C. Wemyss, who originally wrote this piece in 2010 and is gracious enough to allow me to share it here. Did you encounter Louis? Please let me know all about it by e-mailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Take it, Fred (and stay for the updated ending)!
I MEET LOUIS ARMSTRONG
The year before he died, Louis Armstrong made a surprise appearance at a
jazz concert at Walt Whitman High School here in Huntington, New York. I
was ten and got to see him. This was 1970.
My mother was a speech
teacher at BOCES. A friend of hers who taught at Walt Whitman High told
her about a charity event for autistic children. It was going to be a
concert featuring Arvell Shaw, a bass player. She gave my mother secret
information. Louis Armstrong was going to appear at the end. This was
very much on the Q. T.
I was just old enough to remember "Hello,
Dolly" as a hit single. My brother Bob and I
used to imitate Louis Armstrong's raspy voice whenever the song came on.
We loved the song. When my mother told us we might have a chance to see
Louis Armstrong we were very happy. We kept imitating "Hello, Dolly"
for two days. I was in my school band and played the cornet. I was
always listening to the Tijuana Brass, so I related to the trumpet (and,
hence, the cornet.)
Twenty-five years later, when I had become a
collector of Louis Armstrong music, I learned that Arvell Shaw was the
bassist in Louis Armstrong's All-Stars, the small combo which began in
I liked the concert, but, child that I was, I was
distracted, waiting for a surprise appearance by Louis
there was an intermission, I'm sure I began thinking he wasn't really
going to show. Word was he was ill. Putting it together, I imagine he
came in from Corona, Queens, where he lived. This was an hour away and
is now the Louis Armstrong House Museum. I imagine most of the audience did
expect him. It was not a capacity crowd. It was, if I remember, an
afternoon concert. There was a teenager in the audience with a huge
Finally, an announcement was made and suddenly Louis
Armstrong came out between two curtains. I can't remember if he had his
trumpet with him, but, whether he did or not, I am quite certain he
didn't play it. He sang "Hello, Dolly." The audience clapped along. I
can't remember if he sang anything else. I feel he only sang that. Then
he walked into the audience and sat down next to the kid with the
scrapbook. The kid showed him every page in it. It had pictures of Louis
Armstrong, newspaper clippings about him, placards and index cards, 8
by 10 glossies and Louis Armstrong signed every picture on every page,
talking to his fan in a quiet voice. My brother and I saw this from a
few seats away.
"I want to get his autograph," I said.
"I told you not to bother him," my mother said.
"I want his autograph, too," said my brother.
We took our flyers and ran to him.
watched him sign a few pages of the fan's scrapbook. "Can I have your
autograph?" said my brother. Louis Armstrong looked up, quietly took the
flyer, wrote a giant signature and handed back the flyer.
walked a little away and I walked up to Louis Armstrong. "Can I have
your autograph, too?" I said. Louis Armstrong signed the book a little
more and looked up at me the way he'd looked up at my brother. He signed
the flyer. I think I said "Thank you."
I had that flyer,
with the giant "L" at the start and the giant "A" for "Armstrong," for
twenty years. I moved from one room in my house to another and, somehow,
couldn't find the flyer when I'd finished moving. I used to open it up
and look at it. It was next to the mute for my cornet, an instrument I
abandoned at the age of thirteen.
The Christmas after he died, a
45 of his reading of THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS appeared at our
supermarket. My mother bought it. Each Christmas Eve since then, we play
that record. It was one of the last things he ever recorded, There's no
music on it, just the voice of Louis Armstrong, giving the poem a charm
and drama no one else had ever given it. I wonder if there had been a
plan to put music behind it. It's great the way it is.
years ago I dreamed there was a knock at my old bedroom door. It was the
room I'd lived in when I still had the autograph. I opened the door and
Louis Armstrong was there. He held out his hand and whispered
something. I took the flyer from its place next to my mute and handed it
to him. He looked at it, folded it up and put it in his shirt pocket.
He turned and walked downstairs.
I can hear his autograph, however, on those signature licks waxed during the lifetime of the great jazz pioneer.
Now, for the 2014 update, Fred writes, "At the end of the essay, I mention that I lost the
autograph. Shortly after I wrote it, I found it, and I'm including a
picture of it. (It is now somewhere in my stacks of books, CDs and what
have you. I wish I'd taken a picture of the reverse side of the flyer
Louis Armstrong signed, which shows that this was at a concert led by
Arvell Shaw at Walt Whitman High School in Huntington Station, NY in
1970.)" Here's the pic!