I rediscovered Armstrong a couple of years ago by reading Pops by Terry Teachout . Teachout is the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal and worked as a jazz bassist before becoming a writer, giving him a unique perspective for his biography of Armstrong.
Pops is a wonderful book about a man who, as Teachout says, "lived life in a major key".
Reading it you realize that his stage persona was actually not a "persona"; it was what the man was really like. Armstrong said of his stage presence "That's me and I don't want to be nobody else. They know I'm there in the cause of happiness". The warmth and generosity of spirit he radiated while performing (I remember watching him on Ed Sullivan in 1964 performing Hello Dolly - he knocked the Beatles out of the #1 spot with the song) was the essence of Armstrong. Teachout doesn't shy away from the tougher aspects of his life - troubles with his wives and connections through his manager with the mob - but you come away with renewed admiration for Pops, not just for his music (of which more below) but for what he overcame and how he handled himself as a person.
Starting out as the illegitimate child of a 15 year old girl who gave him up to her mother to raise in Storyville, the desperately poor black district of early 1900s New Orleans, Louis Armstrong rose to become the most celebrated American musician in the world and along the way help to invent and popularize jazz. Who would have predicted this of a 12-year old boy growing up on the streets and arrested for discharging a revolver. But that may have been fortuitous. Armstrong always said that it was his time in The Colored Waif's Home for Boys where he learned discipline, was introduced to the cornet and, for the first time, played in a band, that helped make him what he was.
Race permeated much of his life, as it did for all African-Americans of that time. Growing up in the heart of a harshly segregated world he moved to Chicago in 1919 where the legal limits on blacks were less but the social limits were very much the same. He encountered with racial prejudice throughout his life. Teachout recounts an incident as late as 1960 when a touring Armstrong not admitted to a restaurant in Connecticut. With his seminal late 1920s recordings, Armstrong began to come to the notice of white performers who were attracted to jazz. In 1936 he became the first black to be the co-star with a white actor in a Hollywood film. It was Pennies from Heaven with Bing Crosby, a great admirer of Armstrong. Crosby, who co-produced the film, stipulated that Louis be cast and on his co-star billing. In later years, Armstrong's quiet approach to racial issues netted him criticism from many younger black musicians. Dizzy Gillespie called him an Uncle Tom, a remark for which he apologized several years later.
Most of what little I knew about Armstrong and race was consistent with the summary in the paragraph above. For that reason, one of the big surprises in reading Pops was the story of his denunciation of President Eisenhower. By the mid-1950s Armstrong had represented the United States in a number of State Department sponsored tours in Europe and had been asked to go on its behalf to the Soviet Union. In September 1957, he was on tour in Grand Forks, North Dakota. At the same time an attempt was being made by nine young black girls to desegregate Little Rock, Arkansas' Central High School. A stalemate had occurred at the school, Armstrong was infuriated at seeing the children denied access and when a young reporter from the Grand Forks Herald showed up at Armstrong's hotel room, he let loose. The interview was so explosive that the reporter's editor refused to publish it without ironclad proof that it was really what Armstrong had said. The reporter showed Armstrong the draft, he scribbled "solid" and signed it. The article quoted Louis as saying the President "had no guts" and calling the Governor of Arkansas "an uneducated plowboy" (actually he called him something strong than that but they couldn't publish it) and that he had given up plans to go on the State Department sponsored jazz tour to the Soviet Union. The story ran in every major paper in the United States and was reported on the nightly network TV newscasts. Five days later, Eisenhower ordered the Governor to admit the girls, federalizing the Arkansas National Guard and sending the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock to enforce his order.
One of the things that best reflected Armstrong's personality was that if you wrote him, he wrote you back. In fact, he often ended up corresponding with fans for decades. In an interview Teachout spoke about meeting people while on his book tour who had once written or met Armstrong and became lifetime friends who he would call and invite to dinner when he came to their town on tour.
Here's one of his letters (published at Letters of Note) that gives you the full feel of undiluted Armstrong. He wrote this in 1967, in response to a fan letter from a Marine stationed in Vietnam. I've included the whole thing because - well, just read it and you'll see why.
Corona New York'
Dear L/Cpl, Villec"
I'd like to 'step in here for a 'Minute or 'so' to ''tell you how much—I 'feel to know that 'you are a 'Jazz fan, and 'Dig' 'that 'Jive—the 'same as 'we 'do, "yeah." "Man—I carry an 'Album, 'loaded with 'Records—'Long playing 'that is. And when I am 'Shaving or 'Sitting on the 'Throne with 'Swiss Kriss' in me—That Music 'sure 'brings out those 'Riffs' 'Right Along with 'Swiss Kriss, which I 'take 'every night or when I go to bed. 'Yeah. I give myself a 'Concert with those 'records. 'Music is 'life it'self. What would this 'world be without 'good music? No matter 'what kind it is.
It 'all came from the Old 'Sanctified 'Churches. I can remember—' way back in the 'old days in 'New Orleans, La—'My home town. And I was a little Boy around 'ten years old. My Mother used to take me to 'Church with her, and the Reverend ('Preacher that is') used to 'lead off one' of those 'good ol good 'Hymns. And before you realized it—the 'whole 'Congregation would be "Wailing—'Singing like 'mad and 'sound so 'beautiful. 'I 'being a little boy that would "Dig" 'Everything and 'everybody, I'd have myself a 'Ball in 'Church, especially when those 'Sisters 'would get 'So 'Carried away while "Rev" (the preacher) would be 'right in the 'Middle of his 'Sermon. 'Man those 'Church 'Sisters would 'begin 'Shouting 'So—until their 'petticoats would 'fall off. Of course 'one of the 'Deacons would 'rush over and 'grab her—'hold her in his 'Arms and 'fan her until 'she'd 'Come 'to.
Then there were those "Baptisms—that's when someone wants to be converted by Joining the 'Church and get 'religion. So they have to be 'Baptized. 'Dig this—I remember 'one Sunday the 'Church had a 'great big Guy they had to 'Baptize. So these 'Deacons all 'Standing in this 'River—in 'Water up to their waist in their 'white 'Robes. They had 'Baptized 'several 'women and a few 'Men—'saved their 'Souls. When in 'Walks' a 'Great 'big' 'burly 'Sinner' who came down the line. So—'these 'Deacons whom were 'very 'strong 'themselves, they grabbed 'hold of this 'Cat and said to him as they 'ducked him down into the water, as they let him they asked him—"Brother 'do you 'Believe?" The Guy didn't say 'anything—Just looked at them. So they 'Ducked him down into that 'River again, 'only they 'held him down there a 'few minutes 'Longer. So when the 'Deacons looked in the guy's eye and said to him—"Do you 'Believe?" This Guy finally 'answered—he said "Yes—I Believe you 'Son of Bitches trying to 'drown me."
P.S. I guess you think I'm 'Nuts. 'Nay 'Nay. I only 'mentioned these incidents because it all was 'built around 'Music. In fact, it's 'All Music. "You 'Dig? The 'Same as we did in my 'Home Town 'New Orleans'—those 'Funeral Marches etc. "Why ' Gate" 'Villec, we 'played those 'Marches with 'feeling from our 'hearts. 'All the way to the Cemetery—'Brass Band of course. The 'Snare drummer would put a 'handkerchief under the 'snares of his 'drum to 'deaden the 'Sound while 'playing on the way to the Cemetery—"Flee as a Bird." But as 'soon as the 'preacher 'say "Ashes to 'Ashes—'Dust to 'Dust"—the "Snare Drummer Commence 'pulling the handkerchief from his 'drum, and make a 'long roll' to 'assemble everybody, including the members of the 'dead man's 'Lodge—or 'Club. 'Then we'd 'return 'back to the 'headquarters 'playing "Didn't he 'Ramble" or "When the Saints Go Marching In." You 'See? 'Still Music."
I said 'All of that to Keep 'Music in your 'heart the 'same as 'you're 'doing. And ' Daddy—you 'Can't 'go 'wrong. 'Myself and my 'All Stars' are 'Playing here at the 'Harrods 'Club (Reno) for 'Three weeks. My 'wife 'Lucille as 'joined me here. The 'rest will do her lots of good. She was 'operated on for a 'Tumor, about the 'Middle of 'July. She's improving 'very 'Rapidly. Her 'Doctor who 'operated on her at the 'Beth 'Israel Hospital' in New York told her—'She could go to 'Reno and 'spend some time if 'you (Lucille) + your 'husband (Satchmo) 'promised to 'behave 'yourselves and 'don't try to 'do the "Vonce" ("meaning 'Sex). I 'Said—"Doc I 'Promise—But I'll 'Just 'touch it 'lightly every 'morning—to see if it's 'still 'there. 'Ha 'Ha. 'Life's 'sweet. 'Just the 'thought that 'Lucille is 'through with her 'little 'Hindrance—and "soon "be well and 'happy—'be 'her 'lil 'ol 'cute 'self 'again—'Just "knock's' me out.
'Well 'Bre'r 'Villec, I guess I'll ' put it 'down, and get some 'shut eye." It's the 'Wee 'hours in the 'Morning. I've 'Just 'finished 'Work. I am too 'tired to 'raise an 'eye 'lid. Tee hee. So I'll leave this little message with you. "Here goes'.
When you 'Walk—through a 'Storm—
Put your 'Head—up 'high—
And 'Don't be Afraid of the 'Dark—
At the 'End of a 'Storm—
Is a 'Gol-den 'Sky—
And a Sweet Silver 'Song—
Of a 'Lark—
'Walk—'on—through the 'Wind—
'Walk—'on—through the 'Rain—
Though your 'Dreams be "Tossed and 'Blown—
With 'Hope in your heart
And 'You'll 'Nev-er 'Walk 'A-'lone—
You'll 'Nev-er 'Walk A-lone—
(one more time)
'Walk—'on—'Walk—'on—with 'Hope in your 'heart—And 'you'll
Nev-er 'Walk 'A-lone—'You'll 'Nev-er 'Walk—'A-lone—. "Savvy?
Give my regards to the fellows that's in your company. And the other fellows too. And now I'll do you 'Just like the 'Farmer did the 'Potato—I'll 'Plant you 'Now and 'Dig you 'later. I'll 'Close now. It's a real 'Pleasure 'Writing—'You.
Now the music. I learned a lot from Pops (plus Teachout provides a list of Thirty Key Armstrong recordings from 1923 to 1963) which gave me a much better understanding of how revolutionary his horn and singing styles were in the 1920s. Teachout describes him as "the first great influence of jazz" - everyone wanted to sound like him. And his influence lasted; Miles Davis said "You can't play nothing on trumpet that doesn't come from him, not even modern shit'". Teachout writes:
"What spoke to these artists, as it speaks to all hearing Armstrong for the first time, is the combination of hurtling momentum and expansive lyricism that propelled his playing and singing alike. The four staccato quarter notes that he raps out at the start of West End Blues , his most celebrated recording, proclaimed the coming of a new way of thinking about rhythm."And Armstrong had influences outside of the music he grew up with. He was a huge opera fan and listened to it all the time when he was on the road. As he told Orson Welles, "I like that deep stuff, also - it gasses me to no end".
Some Armstrong music to listen to:
West End Blues (1928)
Ain't Misbehaving (1929)
Struttin' With Some Barbecue (1938)
It Don't Mean A Thing - with Duke Ellington
How Long Has This Been Going On? (1957) - I could only find a 1 minute clip of this 5 minute song which features an amazing vocal by Armstrong and Oscar Peterson on piano. Go get the whole thing from iTunes - it's worth it.
Mack The Knife (1965)
Next up for us is a visit to the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Corona, Queens, NYC, Armstrong's home from 1943 till 1971.