Bobby Hackett and Louis Armstrong: The Cream and the Coffee

Bobby Hackett was born 100 years ago today, January 31, 1915. Whether on cornet or trumpet, Hackett possessed one of the most recognizable, gorgeous tones ever produced on any instrument. And being a self-confessed "freak about tonation," Louis Armstrong considered him one of his very favorite musicians.

The feeling was mutual to say the least. Interestingly, Hackett's breakout performance was at Benny Goodman's famous 1938 Carnegie Hall concert when Hackett was called on to perform a tribute to Bix Beiderbecke on "I'm Coming Virginia." Because of that moment, Hackett was immediately cast as an heir to Bix, something still following him to this day (Miles Davis loved Hackett and once said that he didn't listened to Bix but "I heard a lot of Bobby Hackett and he heard a lot of Bix.").

Surely, Beiderbecke had an influence on Hackett; on the surface, Hackett--who wasn't an upper register powerhouse player--might not seem like an Armstrong disciple. But if you look a little deeper, Hackett was a Louis man through and through. Hackett was a master of everything Louis valued--dedication to melody, tone, phrasing--and because of that, Louis never hesitated in speaking of his admiration of the Rhode Island cornetist. As he once said, "I'm the coffee, but Bobby's the cream." It's a great analogy (and not just from a black-white standpoint)--taken alone, Armstrong played beautiful melodies with a gorgeous tone but overall, was just so STRONG. Hackett lightened up Armstrong's attack but kept all those core values in place, producing a prettier, softer but still Louis-centric method of playing. As Michael Steinman has written, "I see it as something deeper [than a racial joke], the way two elements combine in a sweet synergy to create something that neither of them would have been, separate."

Armstrong's other famous quote regarding Hackett came when he was asked if he preferred Hackett or Billy Butterfield. Armstrong hated ranking musicians or listing his favorites but on this occasion, he couldn't help but respond, "Bobby. He got more ingredients." What a deep, informed, wonderful (and true) compliment. I don't get into issues of race much but I do find the connection between Armstrong and white trumpeters fascinating. If you asked him who his favorite trumpeter was, he'd usually say Bunny Berigan, though in later years, long after Bunny's untimely death, he'd answer Bobby. He also admired and seemed to have a bond with other white disciples such as Butterfield, Ruby Braff, Yank Lawson and Max Kaminsky. It's interesting because Louis inspired EVERYONE in the 1920s and 1930s but most of the black trumpeters who followed seemed like they felt that they had to do something different to get noticed. Jabbo Smith added speed. Red Allen went harmonically "out." Roy Eldridge added more speed and higher notes. Hot Lips Page focused on the blues. Jonah Jones was ALL Pops but later, found fame with "muted jazz," a concept alien to Louis, who didn't like using mutes. All these greats were "Louis men" but they all made sure to do something Louis didn't (and this is not a knock! I love them all.) But guys like Berigan and Hackett seemed cut directly from Pops's cloth; you could trace anything they did directly to Louis, which is probably why he seemed to admire them more than anyone else (and vice versa). I don't think it was a black-white thing or a rivalry thing (in some cases; I think Roy got under his skin occasionally), I just think Louis had more in common musically with what his white followers were putting down. Food for thought.

I wish I could do centennial tribute to Hackett's entire career--the Condon association, "Embraceable You," Jackie Gleason, Vic Dickinson, etc.--but for our purposes, I'm just going to stick to his relationship with Louis. For Hackett, it started early, as he told Whitney Balliett, "I heard my first Armstrong record in a Providence department store when I was a kid, and it turned me around. The sound has never left me." I'm sure they knew each other beforehand, but the first photographic evidence comes from the camera of Charles Peterson, taken at a Condon-centric jam session at the Walt Whitman  School in NY with special guest Pops (and dig Zutty Singleton beaming at the drums):

The first recorded meeting came two years later when Pops crashed a V-Disc session featuring Hackett and Jack Teagarden (among others) and stole the show with his earth-rattling playing on "Jack Armstrong Blues" and "Confessin'." Here's "Confessin'," with Hackett leading the harmonizing behind Louis's eloquent performance:

The V-Disc session pointed the way towards Armstrong future career as the leader of a small group, the All Stars. Another evening that pointed Armstrong in that direction was a Carnegie Hall concert on February 8, 1947, with Armstrong fronting a small group for one half and his regular big band for the second half. Armstrong's trumpet was stolen just a few hours before the show. Fortunately, Hackett was in attendance and Louis played the concert on Hackett's horn (though on his own mouthpiece; in a post-concert story, Hackett mentioned that Louis always carried his mouthpiece in his back pocket. "Smart," Bobby said.) This photo by Bill Mark was most likely taken backstage that day (because of Louis's somewhat unkempt hair; he had a slight, Afro-thing going on in this period). Hackett kept this one on his wall, along with another of just Louis inscribed to Hackett, "Best Wishes to 'Bobby.' They Don't Come Any Finer.":

The small group portion of the Carnegie Hall show was such a success, Ernie Anderson came up with the idea to have an entire evening devoted to Louis fronting a small group at New York's Town Hall on May 17, 1947. Anderson tagged Hackett as the musical director of the evening and Hackett responded by putting together a strong, Condon-style band with Jack Teagarden, Peanuts Hucko, Dick Cary, Bob Haggart and two drummers, George Wettling and Sid Catlett. Louis eschewed rehearsing that evening, so Hackett was left with the task of getting the band ready to perform many songs Armstrong himself hadn't performed live in years, and in some cases, decades. But everything came off without a hitch, a perfect marriage of Hackett's preparation and Armstrong's let's-take-some-chances mood. The results were recorded (and can be heard in better sound quality than ever before on last year's Mosaic Records All Stars box) and solidified the notion that the Armstrong and Hackett combination was a match made in heaven.

There is no better example of this than on the sublime ballad treatment of "Pennies from Heaven." Not only does Hackett play a superlative second trumpet role to Armstrong's lead, he contributes an obbligato behind Louis's vocal that simply knocked Pops out (on one of his tapes, he sang Hackett's part in a conversation with Leonard Feather). Here is that moment, one for the time capsules:

Bobby also got the chance to blow a little on another high point, "Ain't Misbehavin'," taking the last eight bars of the opening chorus and a typically lyrical 16 bars in the middle:

And now a bit of a treat. Famed photographer William Gottlieb was at Town Hall and took a famous photo of the band in action, one that has been published many times, usually with a mention that this is the only photo to have survived from the Town Hall concert. Not true! In Louis Armstrong's personal collection (held at the Louis Armstrong House Museum, where I am Archivist), there are two snapshots from the Town Hall concert that have never seen the light of day, until now. The quality is pretty terrible and I had to watermark them (and everything else from the Armstrong House) because if I don't, they're on Facebook in five minutes with no attribution as to where they came from. But here they are, two new glimpses at Louis and Bobby leading the way that historic evening:

The Town Hall concert was a tremendous success. The writing was now on the wall for Louis to break up his big band and form a small group. Hackett would be a part of the transitional phase. A few days after Town Hall, Louis was asked to reprise a few songs for RCA Victor with a small group featuring some of the musicians who appeared at the concert. Hackett was again named musical director, turning in a lovely chart for the first recording of Armstrong's composition, "Someday You'll Be Sorry." Almost every time Louis referred to this recording on his tapes, he made sure to give Hackett the credit for making it such a memorable recording:

And in June, Hackett was there again when Louis led another small group during a short concert at the Winter Garden in New York before the premiere of the film New Orleans. You can hear Bobby back there on this lovely, early version of that film's contribution to mankind, "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans":

And that was that. By August, Armstrong was ready to debut his All Stars and Hackett was ready to resume his already busy career. Throughout the ensuing years, both men remained close. Hackett appears on a fair number of Louis's private reel-to-reel tapes including one from the early 1950s, where the two men dub Louis's 1920s recordings. There isn't much conversation, but you can hear the enthusiasm and awe in Hackett's voice as he gives the titles, laughing in delight at the end of the Hot Seven "Weary Blues." (At the end of the tape, Louis leaves to warm up and Hackett stops the dubbing session and mentions that "Pops is in his practice room," capturing a few precious seconds of Armstrong's Herculean warm-up routine. Alas, Bobby goes back to playing records and obscures the sound of Louis's practicing....why, Bobby, why!) And I should also mention that Louis owned at least 10 Hackett LPs (many autographed by Bobby), as well as numerous recordings on tape, including some rare live gigs Hackett must have given him as a gift. They both loved listening to each other--can you blame them?

Michael Steinman was also the first to make this Bob Parent photo public, Louis dropping in at Bobby's gig at Childs Paramount on September 16, 1952. That is LOVE, my friends:

In the late 1950s, Hackett and Armstrong had a few reunions that were captured "for posterity." The first was on the very first "Timex All Star Jazz Show." Hackett was leading a band of All Stars alumni that just finished a storming "Struttin' with Some Barbecue" when Louis strode up to join Jack Teagarden on a reprise of their old routine on "Rockin' Chair." Bobby again resumes his role as ace second trumpet man but my favorite part of the entire video is his beaming face in the background and Louis and Jack do their thing:

That moment led to this warm remembrance Hackett offered to Whitney Balliett after Armstrong passed away: "Pops taught me so much. Once, on one of those Timex television shows, I was supposed to play a solo between his vocal and Jack Teagarden's. It was a slow, slow number, and the first time I tried it, I just stumbled. He leaned over to me and said, 'Play whole notes, Bobby, play whole notes.' And of course, he was right. And the reason I've finally switched from cornet to trumpet is that he was after me to do it for years. He kept saying that if the cornet was all that good, everybody would play it. Right again. He also taught me by his example that the key to music, the key to life, is concentration. When I solo, I listen tot he piano and the other instruments, and I try to play against what they're doing. But the ideal way to play would be to concentrate to such an extent that you could hear was yourself, which is something I have been trying to do all my life, to make my music absolutely pure. You either hit home runs or you strike out in this business. Anything in between, you're second-rate."

The following year, the All Stars appeared at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival in a scorching set now commercially available on the aforementioned Mosaic set. As a bonus, Louis held a little Town Hall reunion at the end of his set, inviting Teagarden and Hackett to do four numbers. And when it came time to feature Hackett, Louis had him do "Pennies from Heaven." In the ultimate sign of respect, Louis didn't blow a note, letting Hackett bask in the spotlight for a full-chorus solo up front and another ace obbligato behind Louis's vocal:

In January 1959, Louis and Bobby were reunited again on television for the fourth and final "Timex All Star Jazz Show." Again, illustrating how much respect he had for Bobby, Louis had him join in on the medley of "Old Fashioned Love" (featuring Barbara Dane) and "Ole Miss." Louis plugs Hackett's Miami gig in the introduction, lets him handle the obligato behind Dane and gives him space to blow two dynamite choruses before Gene Krupa solos and Pops shows the way home:

Milt Hinton was present for that occasion and took this photo at rehearsal. From left to right: Billy Kyle, Dane, Bobby, Louis, Jackie Gleason (on drums!) and Louis's friend Slim Thompson. I love this photo so much, a postcard of it resides at my desk at the Armstrong Archives:

In the 1960s, Armstrong and Hackett's paths rarely crossed musically, which is a shame. In 1964, Hackett did record Hello Louis: Bobby Hackett Plays the Music of Louis Armstrong, a top-notch tribute to his hero (and yes, Louis owned this one). Still, they frequently hung out when Louis was in New York. Here's Hackett again to Whitney Balliett:

"Later, I got to know him real well, and he was a saint. He was the softest touch in the world. Whenever I went into his dressing room at Basin Street, or someplace like that, it would be full of broken-down musicians and show-biz types looking for a buck. It finally got so that Joe Glaser, who managed Pops most of his life, but a twenty-dollar lid on each handout. Even so, I think he helped support hundreds of people. It was one of his greatest pleasures. He always made you feel relaxed, made you feel at home. Probably because his philosophy about life was, Man, it's all in fun. In fact, he told me once-that voice way down there in his shoes--'It's a good thing Joe Glaser don't know it, but I'd do all this for nothing.' I'd visit him in Queens whenever we were both in town. Once, he was finished playing at Freedomland, and I met him there when he was finished. We went to his house and he got into his Bermuda shorts. Then we went to some nightclub nearby, and walking in with Pops was like walking in with God. We went to a Mrs. Davenport's house in Astoria after and we ate. She had a Hammond organ, and Pops sat down and played for a good half hour, just ad-libbing and composing little things to himself. I think it was the musical highlight of my life. We went back to his house and we wound up in his bedroom, with him on the bed in his underwear and me sitting in a chair, and we talked about trumpet players. He always said good, nice thing about other horn players, like 'Sweets Edison should take that mute out,' but you had to read him close sometimes, because he'd get names and words all mixed up. Al Hirt always came out 'Milt Hoit,' after the organist Milt Herth, and he always called George Wein 'Ted Weems.'"

The good news of this period is that Louis connected with Jack Bradley of Cape Cod in 1959 and Jack snapped thousands of pictures of Louis in the last 12 years of his life, captured many of Louis and Bobby offstage and on. Every photo from here on out was taken by Jack, who I might add, also served as Hackett's manager when the two moved back to Cape Cod after Louis's passing. Here they are in the 1970s:

Jack was there for an epic evening in Chicago in 1967 when Louis dropped in on Bobby Hackett's gig and found another disciple of his, Jonah Jones, in the audience. Again, look at the love dripping from this photo:

And when Louis, after two years of recovery from illness, made the album Louis Armstrong and His Friends in May 1970, Bobby was there to cheer him on. Here they are at the session, with Louis greeting trumpeter Bobby Branca:

But the real last hurrah of this friendship came at the Newport Jazz Festival on July 10, 1970. Louis believed he had just turned 70, so George Wein dedicated an entire evening in tribute to him. Doctors still didn't allow him to blow his trumpet so just as in the old days, Bobby Hackett was called in to serve as the evening's music director. Again, Jack Bradley was there to capture a few touching photographs from the rehearsal:

During rehearsal, Louis and George Wein got into a little row when Wein suggested Louis walk on unannounced and do "Pennies from Heaven." Louis insisted on his theme song, "When It's Sleepy Time Down South." The whole sequence was filmed and though Louis, with a big assist from Tyree Glenn, eventually convince Wein to open with "Sleepy Time," my favorite moment is Hackett lovingly siding with Louis, telling Wein, "If that's the way he feels!" Click here to watch the segment, starting at the 11:50 mark. Louis won out and Jack Bradley caught this beautiful shot of Pops basking in the applause with Hackett right behind him:

Here's the footage of that moment. Hackett's tone just kills me. And after "Sleepy Time," it's very fitting that once again, they reprise "Pennies from Heaven." Their song.

Earlier that evening, Hackett presided over what was billed as the "Trumpet Player's Tribute," featuring performances and words of praise for Louis from Hackett, Dizzy Gillespie, Jimmy Owens, Wild Bill Davison, Joe Newman and Ray Nance. Hackett's segment is a fitting last clip to share on his centennial as he identifies himself as Louis's "number one admirer" and then plays an appropriate number: "Thanks a Million."

At the end of Hackett's performance, you can hear Louis assess his friend, Bobby. "I've got every one of his records and he's always been my favorite trumpet man as far as tonation and phrasing right now." I should also mention that on a 1968 episode of "Desert Island Discs" (which I'll have more about in my next post), Louis chose Hackett's 1955 recording of "New Orleans" as one of the eight records he would take to a mythical desert island. That's love.

As for Hackett, he took Louis's death pretty hard. When Whitney Balliett visited him shortly after, he found Hackett listening to nothing but Armstrong. Hackett told him, "That's part of a nine-hour tape I put together of Pops' stuff. It has recordings from the twenties to the sixties, and it's all mixed together. I play it all day when I'm here. I can't really feel that bad about his death. I mean, he isn't dead, because we're listening to him right now."

That goes for you, too, Bobby. The cream and the coffee. We'll be listening to them forever.


LOUIS said…
Thanks for that most heartfelt tribute, Ricky.
Obviously, love and friendship were as important a part of Louis' life as music. in fact, Louis was all about love.
LOUIS said…
Thanks for that most heartfelt tribute, Ricky.
Obviously, love and friendship were as important a part of Louis' life as music. In fact, Louis was all about love.
Unknown said…
Ricky --- You've absolutely floored me with this! - I wonder if anyone would like to make a documentary of it?!?!? --- I have never seen such a tribute of Dad!!! --- thank you SO much!!!!!
Bobby and Pops always sound great!
Unknown said…
Beautiful tribute to a beautiful player. Thanks for sharing some of the photos. Those always bring the feeling home for me.
Jim Denham said…
What can I add to what's already been said? A beautiful, moving tribute to a great musician and (by all accounts) wonderful human being. Well, two such people, of course: Louis and Bobby - brothers under the skin.
Unknown said…
God bless you for doing this Ricky. A terrific job. And Bobby so deserves it. Keep up the good work.
Unknown said…
Bobby is my man, after Louis!
Bobby Branca is in one of the photos here. I played in his group [teombone] in Florida
in the 90's and lost track of him. I assume he has passed on as have most of the musos
I know.
Unknown said…
wonderful article! - Thanks! --- I haven't heard from Bobby Branca in years! I would assume that he has passed on. He & I became very close friends in the early '70's on Cape Cod & worked together quite often!
Unknown said…
It's quite a thrill to get a response from Ernie Hackett! I have searched for anything about Bobby Hackett I can find on the Net and always enjoy reading, listening and thinking about the music of Bobby Hackett. I always tell anyone who will listen:
"If God plays trumpet, it will sound like Bobby Hackett!"

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