20 Years Later....

It all started 20 years ago today....I think (more on that below). I've hinted we're in the middle of a big anniversary period for me. 20 years ago in September 1995, I went to see the Preservation Hall Jazz Band in Atlantic City and saw Louis Armstrong in "The Glenn Miller Story," two crucial moments in the course of my life. I loved Louis's "Basin Street Blues" but needed to explore more. In October, my mother took me to the Ocean County Library and I made a beeline for their Armstrong cassette section. There was a bunch of "greatest hits" releases and I didn't know which one to choose so I grabbed this one, "16 Most Requested Songs." 

It turned out to be a compilation of Armstrong's 1950s Columbia recordings, produced and with liner notes by George Avakian. I still  remember being grabbed by opening, Louis intoning "Dig man, there goes Mack the Knife!" Then a few tracks later, "All of Me," my grandfather's favorite song! On and on it went as I really enjoyed the fireworks on songs like "Indiana" and the live feel of stuff like "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans" (Billy Kyle's piano interlude made an impression) and "That's My Desire" (where Armstrong's use of "chops" gave me a laugh). All was going well and I just knew that this was going to be the start of something.

And then IT happened.

Track 14.

"St. Louis Blues" from "Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy."


I don't think I had ever heard a 9-minute song before but this one got me from the start and didn't let go. As Trummy Young's solo built and built and Louis swooped in to lead the last two choruses out (again with Billy Kyle pounding away and Barrett Deems laying down those backbeats), I felt something shift in my brain. My heart was pounding. No music had ever hit me quite like this before. I would never be the same.

The cassette became a constant companion, even in car rides with my parents (my mom liked "Rockin' Chair," track 15, and I remember her telling family members over dinner about the lyrics to "Black and Blue"). I had had an obsessive personality from birth and I just knew I had to get back to the library and listen and read more about this guy. Not knowing what choose, I kept on going back to "later" Louis: a true "greatest hits" with "Hello, Dolly," the soundtrack to "The Glenn Miller Story" which also had "Otchi-Tchnor-Ni-Ya," a LaserLight budget release of Louis live. It was all great. And then I started reading Collier, Schuller and others at the time who passed along the narrative of "Louis was great until 1928....and then he lost it."

Hmmmm, all the music I had listened to was made after 1928 and it sounded pretty good to me! I finally read Gary Giddins's "Satchmo" and thought, "That's more like it!" Two months later, in December 1995, a family vacation to Florida landed me in a Borders bookstore in Coral Springs. My parents bought me an expensive 4-CD set, The California Concerts. The music--1951 and 1955 concerts by the All Stars--was tremendous but so were the liner notes written by someone named Dan Morgenstern. Hmmm....

Christmas came and as a gift, my parents got me another 4-CD set, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, covering Armstrong's 1923-1934 recordings. And there was that Morgenstern name again! This was a cassette set and I remember listening to it on the Amtrak AutoTrain home, knocked out by "Potato Head Blues" and Dan's description of it in the notes, "What joyous music it is!"

Joy. That was it. That's what spoke to me then and it speaks to me now. I don't need to sum up what happened next; my friend Mick Carlon already wrote the definitive profile of me for Jazz Times and the great Paul Leslie just did a similarly great job in getting me to tell my story on his radio show last month.

But whatever has happened since can really be traced back to that day when I listened to 16 Most Requested Songs, 20 years ago today. At least I think it was 20 years ago today. You see, I had to return that cassette back to the library but a few months later, I wanted to hear it again so I check it out once more. By then, Louis Armstrong had overtaken me and I knowing that this might be important to remember, I checked the checkout stamps to see the date of when I first brought it home. I saw it and said, "Great, I need to remember that." 

And for years, I did. But now, I guess age is taking toll and it's a little blurry but I'm fairly certain it's October 9. I originally thought maybe October 12 but that was Louis and Lucille Armstrong's wedding anniversary. I thought it might have been October 13 but that was the anniversary of my first day at the Armstrong House. I checked the 1995 calendar and saw October 9 was Columbus Day, which made me pause. But further research shows the Ocean County Library doesn't close on Columbus Day, so that would have been a perfect place for my mom to take me on my day off from school. So yeah, I'm  sticking with October 9.

Either way, it's been 20 incredible years. And as a postscript, I spent last week hanging with George Avakian and tomorrow night, Dan Morgenstern is coming to see ME play the piano at a restaurant in New Jersey. My parents will be there, too, still probably in disbelief at all the places Louis Armstrong has taken me in the last 20 years. 

So thank you, Pops. You are tops. Lots more to come.....


Mike T. said…
JOY defines it for me, too.
My first knock-me-out record of Pops was a 45 RPM "album" that my Dad, I forgot the label, but when I heard I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues (1938 version) and that was IT for me! That solo still give me chills and picks me up when I am feeling down. There also was Rockin Chair with Mr T, the Fifty Fifty Blues, Basin St Blues, and the tune where he introduces each band member ending with: "and there's me, excuse my crust, introduce myself I must. I'm Satchmo Armstrong don't forget, I got to give out on the ol' cornet!" and they cut it loose!!

Thanks for carrying the torch, man.

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