More on Louis Armstrong and the Colored Waifs Home: 1910-1913

Fellow Louis Armstrong fans, historians and nuts: are you sitting down?

Read this:

I will give you a few minutes. Seriously. It's well worth your time. 

The story, written by James P. Karst, is one of the most important articles written about Armstrong in recent years, if not ever. Karst tells the story of documents from the Colored Waifs Home that ended up in the hands of one Allen Kimble. The documents including information about a previously unknown Armstrong arrest in 1910. That alone was enough of a jaw-dropper but Karst dug deeper and found TWO more mentions of Armstrong in New Orleans newspapers of 1910 and 1913, something that is astounding. "I have likened it to finding three needles in a haystack," Karst tweeted this afternoon. "I'm convinced there is more."

Again, Karst's story includes quotes from Kimball and 20 images, including copies of the Armstrong-related newspaper clippings and Waifs Home mentions. It also includes quotes from yours truly. When Karst contacted me and just hinted at what he had found, I called the results "mind-blowing." Late Friday night, I wrote him a long e-mail full of quotes from Louis and others on the subject. Naturally, Karst couldn't use all of it but I think it's worth sharing here to provide further context. I have added more information and edited it a bit to reflect some stuff even I learned from the final story. If you're looking for more background on the circumstances spotlighted in Karst's piece, the first thing you should do is read Armstrong's own Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans. But for even more, stick with me a bit. 

When I spoke to Karst on the phone last week, I told him I was going crazy because I had recently read somewhere about Louis being asked if he was ever in the Waifs Home multiple times. Finally, on Friday night, I found it in a slim, long out-of-print volume, "Salute to Satchmo" from 1970 and written by Max Jones, John Chilton and Leonard Feather. The passage in question comes from Max Jones's chapter. Here 'tis:

"Armstrong's references to 'that New Year's Eve of 1913' led to mistakes. But other factors make it hard to be positive about when he entered or was released from the Home. To mention one: the head of the New Orleans Jazz Museum asked if I knew that Satch was in the Home on two separate occasions. 'He was," said Clay Watson. 'He came out and went back again.' The truth may be that Louis was released in the care of his father, then taken back until he could stay with his mother. A sidelight is thrown on the matter by his description, in the Satchmo book, of the 'honeysuckles all in bloom' when he arrived at the Home. This would seem to be premature, even in a mild climate, if Louis was admitted in early January. On a taped interview, in which I tried to clear things up, he answered '1912, the first time' to a question about the arrest date. Then: 'Well, I went in January and I stayed all 1912, no, I stayed all of 1913, and I got out in June of 1914. So I stayed out there a year and a half.' In a follow-up answer, relating the incident in full, he wrote: 'New Year's Eve 1912--I was arrested for celebrating with my stepfather's big old rust 38. Shooting up in the air, blanks, cartridges, which everyone has fun on New Year's Eve. No crime. Of course Hell will break loose if you should get caught with a gun, let alone shooting one. Anyway it was New Years Day when they took me from the Juvenile Court to the Waifs Home. I don't remember being taken to the Waifs Home twice. Maybe my memory's bad. It has been so long."

So there you have it. Could he have really forgotten the 1910 arrest? Karst's final story shows he was picked up by his "aunt" (wonder who that could have been? A member of the Miles family?) after a month. A month is a pretty long time to forget but we have to remember just how much trouble Louis was in in tht period. Because he makes it clear that he was no stranger to trouble; hell, the "New Orleans Democrat" story from January 2, 1913 called him an "old offender." So I don't know what motive he'd have to hide the 1910 arrest. It's either a memory lapse or perhaps something he didn't want to talk about. He turned the New Year's Eve story into something cute, winning laughs with it on the television talk shows of David Frost, Mike Douglas and others. The newspaper's description of him being arrested "for being dangerous and suspicious" is so vague, it was either straight profiling that he forgot about by 1970 or something darker he didn't want to revisit. And if it was straight profiling, well, some things sadly never change..... (How many potential Louis Armstrong's out there were never saved by a "Waifs Home"?)

(Another interesting tidbit in Karst's story is the document for Armstrong's October 1910 arrest lists him as 9-years-old. That would give some credence to him being born in 1901, doesn't it?)

One page earlier in "Salute to Satchmo," Armstrong opened up to Jones about some of the trouble he was in as a youngster:

"A great many boys who ran loose and battled in the streets attracted the attention of the New Orleans police or juvenile courts. Louis was no exception. He has spoken of his quartet posting lookouts to warn of approaching cops, especially if the boys were venturing into Storyville. After selling coal and singing for hours he still had steam to let off. For Louis, the crunch came on the last night of 1912 when he was arrested for disturbing the peace. One New Orleans player suggested that the authorities had been after him for some time, probably because of 'unsatisfactory' home influences.' Louis admits that rough stuff had a place in his life, though he always preferred music. He told me: 'I remember running around with a lot of bad boys which did a lot of crazy things. As the saying goes, your environment makes you. My life has always been an open book. There's nothing for me to hide. I have respected everybody as best I could ever since I was a little shaver. Many a time I would be with kids in my neighborhood and they would play Follow the Leader. So if they would get into any kind of trouble, I would be in trouble also. If they would steal something and get caught, I was in trouble the same as they. Savvy? You must realize it was very shaky all the time during my days coming up in New Orleans. Especially those early ones. They were rough. You had to fight and do a lot of ungodly things to keep from being trampled on. Sure I had fights and did a number of rough things, just so I could have a little peace or elbow room as we used to express it.'"

Next paragraph:

"Touching on subsequent days, after he had learned to play trumpet, Louis spoke about a paramount fear that I have grown aware of since I got to know him. The possibility of injury to his lips. 'Sometimes I had to swing my dukes so I could keep blowing, you know, keep me and my horn comfortable. So's nobody won't take advantage of me and hit me in my chops and bust them for good. In those days, if a guy see where you are willing to fight an' can fight, huh ... they'd leave you alone. And just about become your friend. Not that I cared to do all these things, but I had no alternative. I was brought up in that atmosphere--lived in it all of my life-so what else were there for me to do?' Did this mean he had the reputation of a tearaway from a 'bad' area? Louis' answer was: 'All boys were bad in those days--you'd better believe it. The kids from the Third Ward were so bad until they carried their pistols on them in holsters just like those real cowboys. And you think they won't shoot to kill? Huh! Mayann used to tell me: 'Son, don't fight, don't fight.' So I was arguing with a boy one day in school and, thinking of what my mother told me concerning not fighting unless you had an excuse, I told this kid: 'O.K., since you want to start a fight, hit me.' And he did--right in the eye. Damn near blinded me. But where he made his mistake, he kept standing there to see what I was going to do, wile I was feeling for him because I could not see at all. Finally my hand touched him. Yes, you're right. I hung him. I swung on that so-'n-'so's jaw and head and etc. From that time on I got the name of being a bad boy.'"

All of this--Louis's recollections, the 1910 arrest, the 1913 news story--confirms how dangerous Armstrong's upbringing was. Actually, it does more than just confirm it; anyone familiar with Armstrong's tales from "The Battlefield" could already tell you that. These new findings underline that danger and now place "Little Louis" so directly in the middle of the action, newspapers were covering his multiple arrests. Sometimes people feel the need to roll their eyes at Armstrong's "rags to riches" story. It sounds almost impossibly cliched, a real-life Horatio Alger tale set in New Orleans. We always had Armstrong's words but now we have the reports of others and the ledgers of the Waif's Home making it crystal clear that Armstrong had to overcome a lot of turmoil in his ascendency to jazz's greatest genius.

Which is why the 1913 story about the parade is so important. There it is, in black-and-white, a measuring stick for how far Armstrong had already traveled in such a short period of time. From Louis Armstrong, "an old offender," to "Louis Armstrong, leader" in less than a calendar year.

Actually, that brings up another question: the parade was on Decoration Day, May 30, 1913, almost five months to the day of Armstrong's arrest. In Karst's final article, he quotes the always illuminating Bruce Raeburn on whether or not Louis was playing cornet and leading the band or if he was just a grand marshall of sorts. Louis always said he was depressed the first few weeks, joined the band, tried drums first, then bugle and finally cornet. All in all, he always said it took about six months for him to be the leader of the band. Could he have gotten good enough on the cornet in such a short period of time to become the leader by May 30, 1913?

This gets into another gray area of Armstrong's youth: when he started playing the cornet. He never wavered for much of his life: from his 1936 autobiography to every subsequent autobiographical manuscript, letter and television appearance, he never hesitated in saying that the first time he ever touched a cornet was at the Waifs Home. Meanwhile, during his lifetime, Bunk Johnson, Sidney Bechet and a few others alluded to him playing earlier. Finally, while in intensive care at Beth Israel hospital in 1969, Louis started his handwritten manuscript about the Karnofsky family. He was depressed, in bad shape and probably on some medication; there's a bitterness and despair in this document that seems to be a result of his environment. Anyway, at one point early on, he writes that the Jewish Karnofsky family made it possible for him to buy his first cornet at the age of 7. Armstrong wrote in 1969, "People thought that my first horn was given to me at the Colored Waifs' Home for Boys (the orphanage). But it wasn't."

People have run with that since it was first published in Gary Giddins's book "Satchmo" in 1988. But Louis was on, I believe, "The Mike Douglas Show" in 1970 and though he talked about and praised the Karnofskys, when Douglas asked him when he started playing the cornet, Armstrong answered the Waifs Home. So this is something that'll never be settled (unless Karst stumbles across another article!). I'm bringing it up because Peter Davis seemed to believe that Armstrong had natural talent from the first time he picked up the horn, which would make sense in his being named leader of the brass band so soon. In 1965, Armstrong and Davis appeared together on an episode of "I've Got a Secret." Both parts are on YouTube with Davis only appearing in the second part. Davis is a little tough to understand but he has some good stories: 

That story about Louis hitting the high notes on "Put On Your Old Grey Bonnet" sure rings true. And there's Louis talking about leading the brass band though his neighborhood--how wonderful it is to see that pivotal moment covered in the paper! While looking for stories of Louis and the Waifs Home, I came across a few quotes in Nat Hentoff and Nat Shapiro's "Hear Me Talkin' to Ya" that are relevant. First, drummer Zutty Singleton:

"The first time I ever saw Louis was when he was about twelve, thirteen years old. He was singing with three other kids in an amateur show at Bill and Mary Mack's tent show in New Orleans. Louis was singing tenor then, and they broke it up that night. The other three boys were Red Happy, Little Mack, and a guy by the name of Clarence. This happened just before Louis got sent to the Waifs' Home, and so I didn't see him again for a while. But I heard about him at the Home. Some of the fellows that were sent there would come back and say how fine this Louis Armstrong was playing. Then I saw Louis playing in a band at a picnic. He was marching along with the band, so we got up real close to him to see if he was actually playing those notes. We didn't believe he could learn to play in that short time. I can still remember he was playing 'Maryland, My Maryland.' And he sure was swingin' out that melody."

Then, right under Zutty, here's trombonist Kid Ory:

"The first time I remember seeing Louis Armstrong, he was a little boy playing cornet with the Waifs' Home band in a street parade. Even then he stood out."

So again, having that clipping about that parade is just a wonderful addition to Armstrong scholarship. People from his neighborhood, friends, musicians, future associates, pimps, prostitutes, they were all there….and so was the media. 

[Sidebar: Another mystery involves the photo of Louis in the Waifs Home band that originally accompanied the story. For decades, one photo of Louis with the Waifs Home band circulated--shared above--usually with an arrow pointing to where Armstrong was sitting. Then another photo popped up in recent years, one that's not on the website but got a huge reproduction in the print edition of the Picayune….and I'm not sure it depicts Louis. If you go to this website, you'll see the two main photos showing Louis in the band, plus a photo of Louis visiting the band in 1931. In the more famous 1913 photo, the bass drum says "Colored Waif's Home" on top and "Brass Band of NoLa" on the bottom. The Picayune article includes a photo of Peter Davis with a few members of the band and the bass drum is the same. But in the other photo with the kid who is supposed to be Louis, the bass drum is more ornate with a painting of an eagle and the words, "Municipal Boys Home of New Orleans" along the top. That bass drum is the same one that can be seen in the 1931 photo. Louis did say that they made so much money from tips during their parade through his neighborhood, the band was able to buy new instruments. And I suppose it's possible that they put the money towards a new bass drum with a new name and logo some time in late 1913 or early 1914. But I don't know, that drum, to me seems to tip it off as a later photo, meaning that wouldn't be Louis. Opinions?] 

Karst's article ends by quoting a letter Louis wrote to Captain Joseph Jones of the Waifs home in 1937. The two men remained in touch for years, as Louis often donated gifts to the Home each year at Christmas. In the summer of 1951, Louis was staying by his friends, the Anger family, in Hull, Canada when a letter from Jones to Armstrong came in. Armstrong made Mr. Anger read the letter on his tape recorder, a tape that now resides at the Louis Armstrong House Museum. It opens with Mr. Anger saying he wanted to read the letter. Louis says, "Yeah, well, before you read it, I'd like to let you know that Captain Jones is a great man to a lot of us kids when we was in the orphanage. He was the superintendent there. He come right out of the calvary, a young man himself, you know, and he sure did a lot for us kids. I see you have a letter he just wrote me and I sent him a telegram, you know, on his retirement. So suppose you read this letter."

Here's a transcription of the letter, as read by Anger:

Dear Son,

Just a line from your Pop, thanking you for your telegram. I was indeed sorry that you were not at the retirement celebration. The judge from the juvenile court, the chief of the juvenile division, the superintendent of Milne Boys Home and so many others were there. They presented me with an all leather chair and footstool, a three-foot high trophy, a Bulova wristwatch and band, a service button from the city of New Orleans and many congratulations and well-wishes. They spoke of you as my favorite son and wished you were there to join the festivities.

Louie, our new home in New Orleans--and when I say "ours," you know I mean Pop's, Mom's and your home--is at 5619 Baccich Street, just three blocks from the Boy's Home. We are expecting you home every time you strike town. Your spare room is waiting.

All of the musical cats, both whites and colored, ask me to send hello to the the king of them all, my favorite son, Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong. Mom sends special love to you and says that you ought to send her your photo.

Wishing you continued success.

Your Pop,

Captain Joseph Jones

New Orleans, LA

At the conclusion of the letter, Louis says, "Isn't that wonderful?" Anger replies, "That's a swell letter." Louis says, "That brings back memories to the last concert we played down there [in 1949]. Captain Jones brought that old cornet that I played in the orphanage. While the emcee was explaining about my childhood days in the orphanage, Captain Jones was back there trying to open up this old rusty cornet case and the audience was laughing! And finally, he struggled about ten minutes and he finally got it open and there was this cornet, never been touched since I left the orphanage." Anger says, "That's the one with the notches cut in the mouthpiece?" Louis excitedly responds, "Yes! At that time, the place was named the Colored Waifs Home for Boys. And I'm so glad you read that letter. I'll keep that forever."

At that point, another man, Ronnie Anger, tells Louis that he heard bassist June Cole also played in the Waifs Home. "Oh, they turned out a lot of good musicians," Louis says. "And we had a wonderful little brass band. That's why, since we're speaking of music, I think we should dedicate this whole reel to Captain Jones on his retirement." Louis adds, "This has been read from Hull, Canada." One of the Anger boys says, "That's a long way from New Orleans," to which Louis responds, "Yes it is!"

I've always said that Armstrong's New Year's Eve arrest was the greatest arrest in the history of arrests and seeing his reputation change from clipping to clipping is proof that without his being a "dangerous and suspicious" character in trouble with the police, he might never have ended up in the Waifs' Home and he never would have changed the sound of American popular music. What would we be listening to today if it wasn't for Armstrong's arrest?


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