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Larry L. King on Louis Armstrong, Smoking Weed, Life, the Universe, and Everything

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What follows is an article that I transcribed verbatim from a November, 1967 Harper's magazine, which I found at Half Price Books. It's the text of an article written about jazz legend Louis Armstrong by Larry L. King, one of my Texas literary idols. This is not THE Larry King, the famous journalist/interviewer whom you can still see on TV today, but rather the Texan who is most famous for writing the Broadway play "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas." Besides BLWIT, Larry L. King wrote thousands of articles for magazines and whatever else would pay the bills. He was a first rate journalist and is buried in the Texas State Cemetery in Austin.

 

 

EVERYBODY'S LOUIS

by Larry L. King

 

"When I blow I think of times and things from outa the past that gives me a image . . . A town, a chick somewhere back down the line, an old man with no name you once seen in a place yo udon't remember. What you hear coming from a man's horn, that's what he is."

Perhaps you have not heard of my singing with Louis Armstrong. Nobody reviewed us for Downbeat and we didn't get much of a crowd--just the two of us. This impromptu duet with Pops (also Satchmo, Louie, Dippermouth, "America's Ambassador of Good Will") took place last July in his suite at the Chalfonte, a resort hotel on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City, around five o'clock of a groggy morning.

For several hours we had been "stumbling over chairs"--Satchmo's euphemism for serious tippling--while he reminisced, smoked an endless chain of Camels, and poured with a quick hand. This mood carried him back almost sixty years to New Orleans' Storyville section where as a boy he delivered coal to the cribs of certain available ladies, lingering to monitor honky-tonk and sporting-house bands until "the lady would notice me still in her crib--me standing very silent, digging the sounds, all in a daze--and she would remind me it wasn't no proper place to daydream."

Storyville was wide open in those days. Liberty sailors, traveling drummers, cotton traders, and assorted bloods in hot pursuit of fun mingled with prostitutes, pickpockets, musicians, gamblers, street urchins, and pimps. It was located directly behind Canal Street and touching the lower end of Basin in the French Quarter, and it had everything from creep joints where wallets were removed from the unwary during sex circuses to Miss Lulu White's Mahogany Hall on Basin Street with its five posh parlors, fifteen bedrooms, and $30,000 worth of artfully placed mirrors. Miss Lulu hired "none but the fairest and most accomplished of girls," and Jelly Roll Morton played piano for her. In 1917 the Navy Department sent in a task force to clean up the district after too many sailors turned up robbed, drugged, or dead. Preachers railed against this sinkhole, but it was the place where jazz was born and where Daniel Louis (pronounced "Louie") Armstrong, literally before he was out of short pants, learned to play a little toy slide whistle "like it was a goddamn trombone." The boy strolled behind brass bands at street parades, funeral processions, or in horse-drawn bandwagons to tout their appearances at local clubs. "Two bandwagons would park head-to-head," Armstrong remembers, "and blow until one band was reduced to a frazzle." The Armstrongs lived in a cement-brick house on Brick Row. Armstrong's grandmother bent over a tin tub and corrugated washboard to scrub white families' clothes and his father, when he was around, attended turpentine boilers. There was a decrepit neighborhood tavern called the Funky Butt, which Armstrong remembers for its bands and its razor fights. A detective grabbed Armstrong for celebrating for eighteen months to the New Orleans Colored Waifs' Home. At nineteen he married Daisy Parker, the first of his four brides. One night she caught Louis with another doll and chastised him with a brickbat. "I ain't been no angel," Pops confessed that morning as we lounged in the Chalfonte, "but I never once set out to harm no cat."

Louis Armstrong's marvelous memory took me back to the night he arrived in Chicago in 1922, up on the train from New Orleans to join King Joe Oliver's Creole Jazz Band as second trumpet for $50 a week. "I was carrying my horn, a little dab of clothes, and a brown bag of trout sandwiches my mother, Mayann, had made me up. Had on long underwear beneath my wide-legged pants--in July. I am just a kid, you see, not but twenty-two years old, don't know nothing and don't even suspect much. When we pull into the old La Salle Street station and I see all the tall buildings I thought they was universities and that I had the wrong town. Almost got back on that rail-runner and scooted back home."

He spoke lovingly of old pals: King Oliver, Jack Teagarden, Kid Ory, Bix Beiderbecke, and a hot-licks bass drummer everyone recalls only as Black Benny. ("All dead and gone now, them swinging old cats-and I've took to reading the Bible myself.") Between dips into his on-the-rocks bourbon Armstrong hummed or scatted or sang snatches of his ancient favorites. "Hotdamn"--he would say, flashing his teeth in that grand piano grin--"you remember this one?" and out would pour "Didn't He Ramble," "Gut Bucket Blues,' " Blueberry Hill," "Heebie-Jeebies," and "Black and Blue."

Just how I presumed to sing with him remains unclear and possibly indefensible. Earlier, in a noisy penny arcade on the Steel Pier in Atlantic City, I had proposed to his traveling manager, Ira Mangel, that I perform on stage with Armstrong at one of his three-a-day shows. Mangel, a stoic man of generous figure, ate peanuts, staring, while I explained. I would describe both the elation and the dread of appearing with the most celebrated figure in a filed wholly alien to my talents, a man who has been called "an authentic American genius" for his contributions to jazz. Paul Gallico and George Plimpton had done the same thing in sports, I recalled to Mangel, boxing Jack Dempsey and Archie Moore, golfing with Bobby Jones, pitching to Mantle and Mays. Their first-person stories permitted the average sports fan to consort vicariously with champions. Out there on that stage, moving into the spotlight to join Pops in Blues in the Night or perhaps even Hello Dolly, I would represent all my peers.

Ira Mangel has been in show business almost as long as pratfalls. He is neither easily rattled nor easily amused. When my special plea was done Mangel gazed into my face, chewing all the while. When the peanuts ran out he smiled and walked away.

Now, days later, sitting at a table holding the wreckage of our midnight snack (sardines in oil, Vienna sausages, Chinese food, soda crackers, pickles, beer) Pops and I somehow cut into That's My Desire. My uncertain baritone mingled with the famous voice that has been likened to a "cement mixer ... rough waters ... iron filings ... a gearbox full of peanut butter ... oil on sandpaper ... a horn wailing through gravel and fog."

Once--when I came in on the break behind him at precisely the right point--Pops gave me some skin. He reached out his dark old hand just as he does on-stage when Joe Muranyi has ripped off an especially meritorious stretch on clarinet, and I turned my hand, palm up, as I had seen Muranyi do. Leaning across sardine tines and cracker wrappers Pops lightly brushed my open palm in a half-slap, the jive set's seal of approval, the jazz equivalent of the Congressional Medal of Honor. And there was good whiskey waiting in the jug.

We had already siphoned off generous rations, waving our arms a bit much, gently boasting and exaggerating. "Hey, Pops," my host said (it is his all-purpose salutation, as well as what friends call him, and saves everybody memorizing a lot of troublesome names), "this is the way I get my kicks. Having a little taste ... talking over the olden times in Storyville and Chicago ... remembering all the crazy sounds that always seemed to be exploding around you and inside you. Everything made music back then: banana men, ragpickers, them pretty painted streetwalkers all singing out their wards--oh, yeah! Everything rocking and bobbing and jousting and jumping." He grinned that huge, open grin again. "Ya know, Pops," he said, "my manager, Je Glaser ----- Papa Joe, bless his ole heart he's my man, we been together since we was pups, why to hear us talk on the phone you'd think we was a couple of fairies I say, 'I love you, Pops,' and he say, 'I love you, Pops' ----- well, anyhow, Joe and Ira and all them people don't like for me to talk about the olden days. All the prosty-toots and the fine gage and the bad-ass racketeers. But hell, Man, I got to tell it like it was! I can't go around changing history!"

(Often one gets the feeling that Pops prefers those "olden days" to the frantic existence that has become his life. He once told writer Richard Meryman, "I never did want to be no big star....All this traveling around the world, meeting wonderful people, being high on the horse, all grandioso--it's nice--but I didn't suggest it. I would say it was all wished on me. Seems like I was more content, more relaxed, growing up in New Orleans. And the money I made then--I lived off it. We were poor and everything like that, but music was all around you. Music kept you rolling.")

Thought two weeks earlier Louis Armstrong wouldn't have known me from any other face in the multitudes, we had reached a stage of easy friendship--all thanks to him. For tough I have known three Presidents and two wives, I sat down to face Armstrong that first night in Washington with a head full of wind and dishwater. There seemed nothing I was able to ask or say, not even banal comments about Washington's dreadful humidity, for on the couch beside me sat a living legend, a talent so long famous and admired that I considered him of another age and so was struck dumb in his presence--as if I had come upon Moses taking a Sunday stroll in the Gaza Strip or had encountered Thomas Jefferson at a Democratic National Convention.

Downstairs, I knew, Shriners offered hotel bellboys five-dollar bribes for Louis Armstrong's room number. No telephone calls were put through to him from the Shoreham front desk unless you knew a special secret. In Armstrong's suite (a palace of curved glass, rich draperies, soft carpets, and pillows of psychedelic hues) he sat wrapped in a faded robe. A white towel around his neck soaked up juices from the last of the evening's two one-hour shows, while Pops accepted photographs of himself from a thick stack presided over by his hovering valet, Bob Sherman. On each he scrawled, "Hello, Louis Armstrong" in a round, uneven hand. Ira Mangel asked his star if he would like a drink, a snack, another pen, a crisp handerkerchief. Mopping his brow, Louis declined with grunts and headshakes. "You go ahead," he said as I sat there tongue-tied and witless. "Ask me anything you wnt. Won't cramp my writing style. Just doing the bit for a few of my fans." Out of the silence Ira Mangel suggested that Armstrong discuss a recent TV tape cut with Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass: perhaps Armstrong would compare the two generations of music and judge the younger man's artistry. "Oh, yeah," Armstrong said. "He blows pretty, all right. Nice young cat." Mangel then prompted him to say something of his popularity with the public, his friendships in show business, the world figures who have toasted him. "Everybody's been real nice," Pops said.

Mangel's helpless shrug left me on my own. Finally I said, "Well, I seem to have come down with a bad case of buck fever. Can't think of a damn thing. Maybe I'd better run along and return another night." Quickly Armstrong cast aside his pen. A look of pain passed his face. "Aw, naw!" he said. "It ain't like that! We'll just loaf and chew the fat and have a little taste of bourbon and if we feel like stumbling over chairs--well, hell, we all over twenty-one! Ira, get my man a little taste." THen he launched into a story, and the generous act got me functioning again.

The men who handle Armstrong thought we got a little too chummy. Valet Bob Sherman, a dapper middleweight with a heavyweight's torso and a Sonny Liston scowl when one is needed, nailed me backstage at the Steel Pier. "You'd better cut on out tonight after about an hour," he said. "Otherwise, you're gonna wear Pops out. He needs rest." Later, when I tried to leave at a decent hour, Pops protested. "Man, I'm just starting to roll. Won't be hitting the sheets for some odd-hours on. Here"--he splashed liquid into my glass--"relax and have another little taste." Waiting in the wings for his introduction one matinee, mopping his face and carrying that golden trumpet, he waved me over: "Where'd you go last night, Pops? Had to stumble over chairs all by myself. Ira and them people keep you away from me?" Well, yes, I admitted. "Aw, they ought not to do that!" Armstrong said. "They know Pops is still gonna be unwinding when first light comes. Don't pay them people no mind."

Armstrong's associates can hardly be blamed for their vigilance: he is a most valuable commercial property. Last spring a two-month recuperation from pneumonia cost more than $150,000 in bookings. His sixty-seven years, his respiratory ailments, and his grinding travel schedule--Ireland, England, Denmark, France, Spain, Tunisia, New England, the Midwest, the West Coast and two major TV bookings in August and September alone--cause concern for his health.

He is not the world's most docile patient. He walked around with bronchial pneumonia for two weeks last spring before anyone knew it. His trombonist, Tyree Glenn, was one of his first hospital visitors: Pops coaxed him into rehearsing a duet he wanted to put in the show. Nurses managed to clear the room only after a one-hour concert. The Washington booking was the first to follow his illness. Yet he stayed up all one night reveling with me, another with old music-world cronies (Duke Ellington and Clark Terry turned up at the Shoreham on July 4th to lead the midnight-show crowd in singing Happy Birthday to him), and on his night off he dropped by Carter Barron Amphitheatre to catch Ella Fitzgerald's performance--and ended up doing several numbers with her. Pops played two shows of his own each night and one two-hour benefit for wounded Vietnam veterans at Walter Reed Hospital.

A week later in Atlantic City he stunted and cheered at a nightclub until dawn, and the following night railed-in vain--when he learned that Ira Mangel had wired a second club expressing regrets that Pops would not catch the late show as promised. "Damnit!" he complained. "All them cats over there live and breathe Louis Armstrong. They love Pops! If I go back on my word to them it's like, why hell, it's like the United States Marines losing a goddamn war!"

Armstrong has a zealot’s faith in certain old remedies. He is quick to offer his medical opinions: “Man, a heart attack is nothing but so much gas accumulated and bubbled over.” Armstrong on cancer: “Nowadays it has come in fashion to die of it. What they call cancer is merely the bodily poisons fermented because people is so full of fevers beating and working in the blood.” Germs: “I always carry my mouthpiece in my hip pocket—never pitch it around where germs can crawl over it and into its parts.” To rid himself of possible heart disease, crawling germs, or malignant tissues, Armstrong recommends the removal of “bodily impurities.” For this he relies on a laxative called Swiss Kriss. It is his old reliable among an assortment of wonder-working products that seems to unusual vigor. One dawn he gave me three Swiss Kriss sample packets. The following night, as we blitzed another midnight snack of sardines and supporting embellishments, Pops asked, “You take your Swiss Kriss yet?”

“Ah…well; not yet.”

“Get my man some Swiss Kriss,” Armstrong instructed Bob Sherman. “Be just the thing to clear him all up. Flush out the bodily impurities.” Sherman didn’t move a step. He dipped into his pocket and produced a thin packet of olive-drab substance.

“Lay it on your tongue,” Armstrong said. “Take it dry, then send some beer chasing after it. Beer all gone? Well, bourbon do it too.” I turned the thin packet in my hands to stall for time. “Active ingredients”—I read aloud—“dried leaves of senna. Also contains licorice root, fennel, anise, and caraway seed. Dandelion, peppermint, papaya, strawberry and peach leaves. Juniper berries—“

“Oh yeah,” Pops broke in. “Got all manner of elements in there. Lay it on your tongue.”

“—Juniper berries, centaury, lemon verbena, cyani flowers, and parsley for their flavoring and carminative principles.”

“Here’s your chaser, Pops.” Armstrong nudged the bourbon glass over while I frantically searched for something more to read. Bob Sherman celebrated my discomfort with a grin as Armstrong, hooting and exhorting like an evangelistic witch doctor, urged the treatment on.

I know not what it tastes like on the tongue of Louis Armstrong. In my mouth it registered flavors of creosote and licorice with slight overtones of Brown Mule chewing tobacco. It neither improves bourbon nor bourbon it. Just as the main body of surprise had passed my host reproved me:

“Looka here, Pops! You left half of it in the bag!” He poked the dose under my nose. “Don’t never do nothing halfway,” Pops said, “else you find yourself dropping more than can be picked up.”

“Take off your shirt” he ordered, suddenly.

“Beg your pardon?”

“Gonna teach you another little trick. Now this”—he grabbed a brownish bottle from a nearby table—“is called ‘Heet.’ H-e-e-t. Swab myself down with it when I come off stage all sopping wet. Cools me down and dries me out and steadies the skin….You ain’t got that shirt off, Pops.” Armstrong circled me like Indians attacking a wagon train, crying a sales pitch as he daubed my chest, ribs, back. “Don’t that cool you like rain?” he said. “Ain’t that a goddamn groove?”

“Now you take a man’s eyes,” he said, ominously. “You ever have any trouble with your eyes?”

“No…not really…”

“Must have trouble, else you wouldn’t be wearing them eyeglasses! This little remedy gonna pull all the bloodshot qualities right outa your eyeballs.” He brandished a new bottle. “Witch hazel. Now, I take these”—he was ripping into a package and extracting two gauze pads—“and I dab a little on there, like this, swoggling it all around. Now I put them babies on your eyelids and I won’t be thirty seconds until you feel it cooling up all the way back inside your cranium!” He marched about, rattling on, while I sat in darkness, feeling like ka man who has stumbled into May Clinic by mistake. “Take them pads off in another three minutes and you can feel heat on the underside like you had fried an egg there! So, quite nat-ur-ally—you gonna see clearer and sweeter and cooler than you ever did see before.”

“You use all sorts of nostrums, don’t you?” I said.

“Use whatever helps. You know, it wasn’t long ago I believed in all kinds of old-timey remedies like the voodoo people. Yeah! Various dusts and herbs and junk like that.” He laughed to think on days when he had been so medically unschooled. “Now I jjust use things do me some good, ya dig? And it works, Pops. Do you know I am the only one left from the olden days in Storyville still blowing? Oh yeah, lotta cats lost their chops. Lips split and goddamn the blood spurt like you had cut a hog and the poor cats can’t blow no more. Now, I got this lip salve I’m gonna expose you to. Keeps my chops ready so I don’t go in there and blow cold and crack a lip like I did in Memphis so bad I lost a chunk of meat.”

Armstrong snatched the pads away and leaned forward with his face almost against mine, pulling his upper lip outward and upward, trying ineffectually to talk under the handicap. I leaned in, much in the manner of a man judging a horse’s teeth for age, and saw in the middle of that talented lip a sizable flesh-crater. “My poor damn chops would be tender as a baby’s bottom,” Pops said. “Oh, no way to tell you how them chops could throb.” He poked a small orange tin at me. “I order this salve from Germany by the caseload. Bought so much the cat that boils it up named it after me. See, it says ‘Louis Armstrong Lip Salve.’ You write something nice about that cat for Pops, ya hear? Aw yeah, he’s fine!” He reached for my pen: “I’ll write it down so’s you don’t forget.”

He selected a cocktail napkin and printed in large, undisciplined letters: ANZACZ CRÈME MADE IN MANNHEIM GERMANY. He turned the napkin over and printed BY FRANZ SCHUITS. “That cat saved my lip,” he said. “Reason his salve’s so good it draws all the tiredness out. So—quite naturally—your chops rest easy. You oughta try some…only you don’t blow so it wouldn’t benefit you.” He daubed his own lips with the wonder potion. “Oh, yeah! I got this other little tidbit here! I see you got weight problems—now no offense, Pops, ‘cause most of us go around bloating ourselves up with various poisons which—quite naturally—causes some heavy stomping on the scales. All the sweets and sugars a person eats just goes right down there and hangs over your belt and looks up at you! Fat is made outta sugar more than anything else—you know that? Yeah! Why, a year ago I weigh two hundred and some pounds and now I’m shed off to a hundred and sixty-some and feel retooled. Between my Swiss Kriss and this Sweet ‘N Low—it ain’t like real sugar, you can eat a ton of this—I got no more weight imbalances which throws the body off center. Here”—he again sprang across the room to produce yet another packet—“it goes groovy on grapefruit. You want to try it? I got plenty grapefruit.”

When I demurred, Pops looked somehow betrayed. “Well,” he said, “you come on back tomorrow night. I’ll lay it on you then, Pops.

“Quite naturally,” I said.

Louis Armstrong is sophisticate and primitive, genius and man-child. He is wise in the ways of the street and gullibly innocent in the ways of men and nations. After four marriages, reform school, international fame and personal wealth, there is still a fetching simplicity about him. (Of his friend Moise Tshombe, kidnapped and facing a return to the Congo, he says, “I pray each night they won’t kill him. When I played Africa in [‘60] that cat was so nice to me. Kept me in his big palace and all…fed me good…stayed up all night gassing. I had this little tape recorder that cost me several big bills and Tshombe dug it so much I laid it on him. They ain’t gonan kill a sweet cat like hat, are they? So many he hung out with the wrong cats—that any reason to kill a man?”)

The on-stage Louis Armstrong is all smiles and sunshine, almost too much the “happy darky” of white folklore. When he has finished Hello Dolly in a spasm of body shaking, jowl flapping, and gutteral ranges, and has the joint rocking with applause, he sops at his ebony, streaming face with his white handkerchief and rasps, “Looka here, my Man Tan’s coming off!” Maybe his white audiences break up, but they no longer laugh at such lines in the black ghetto. One soon learns that this “happy” image is not all stagecraft; privately Pops is often full of laughter, mugging, instant music, irrepressible enthusiasms, and vast stories of colorful misinformation.

He is not Old King Cole merry old soul, however; his waters run much deeper. I have seen Pops swearing backstage between numbers, his face wrinkled and thoughtful and sad only seconds before he burst back on stage, chest out, strutting, all teeth, and cutting the fool. He can be proud, shrewd, moody, dignified—and vengeful. “I got a simple rule about everybody,” he warned me one evening. “If you don’t treat me right—shame on you!”*

[*Armstrong despises a couple of comedians who use their audiences or associates as targets in their acts. “Ain’t noting funny about putting another man down,” he judges.]

Cross him or wound his pride and he never forgets. My innocent mention of a noted jazz critic set off a predawn tirade. “I told that bastard, ‘You telling me how to blow my goddamn horn and you can’t even blow your goddamn nose.’” When he was young and green somebody gave him fifty dollars for a tune he had written called Get Off Katie’s Head. “I didn’t know nothing about papers and business, and so I let go all control of it.” Pops did not share in the money it made under another title. He has never performed the tune in public and never will. Of his father, Pops said, “I was touring Europe when he died. Didn’t go to his funeral and didn’t send nothing. Why should I? He never had no time for me or Mayann.”

He is big on personal loyalty. “Frank Sinatra—now there’s a man carries a lot of water for his friends. A most accommodating gentleman—if he digs you. My wife, Lucille, she’s another one that when she’s with you she’s with you one thousand per cent.”**[**Lucille holds the record as Mrs. Armstrong. They have been married twenty-five years, and live in Queens on Long Island.] And my mother, why she would work with you—laugh, cry, or juice with you. Oh, what a sweet and helpful girl Mayann was. Only tears I ever shed was when I saw ‘em lower her into that ground.”

He is generally a relaxed man, able to take a quick nap in strange rooms or on buses. “I don’t like nothing to fret me,” Pops said. “You healthier and happier when you hang loose. Business I don’t know nothing about and don’t want to. It must have killed more men than war. Joe Glaser books me, pays my taxes and bills, invest me a few bundles. Gives me my little leftover dab to spend. And that’s the way I want it. Don’t want to worry all time about that crap! I don’t even know where I go when I leave this pier until today I overhear Ira say something about Ireland and France and such places. I go wherever they book me and lead me.” (Both Armstrong and Joe Glaser are wealthy men. Armstrong commands top money—$20,000 to $25,000—for guest shots on television. He accepts eight to ten such jobs each year.)

Nothing worries Louis Armstrong for long. “Mama taught me,” he says, “that anything you can’t get—the hell with it!” This philosophy may be at the root of Armstrong’s rumored differences with militants of the Black Power generation. Nobody has flatly called him Uncle Tom but there have been inferences. Julius Hobson, a Washington ghetto leader, said during Armstrong’s Shoreham appearance last July, “He’s a good, happy black boy. He hasn’t played to a black audience in ten years. I’m glad I saw him though, but I wouldn’t come here if I had to pay. He’s an interesting example of the black man’s psychology but if he took this band”—two whites, three Negroes, a Filipino—“down on U street it would start a riot.” Armstrong, who remembers that not long ago everyone cheered him for having an integrated band, is genuinely puzzled by such comments.

He was not eager to talk civil rights. When I first mentioned the subject, as he dried out between shows in the dingy dressing room at Atlantic City, Pops suddenly began to snore. The next time he merely said, “There is good cats and bad cats of all hues. I used to tell Jack Teagarden—he was white and from Texas just like you—‘I’m a spade and you an ofay. We've got the same soul—so let’s blow.’”

One morning, however, he approached the racial topic on his own. “When I was coming along, a black man had hell. On the road he couldn’t find no decent place to eat, sleep, or use the toilet—service-station cats see a bus of colored bandsmen drive up and they would sprint to lock their restroom doors. White places wouldn’t let you in and the black places all run-down and funky because there wasn’t any money behind ‘em. We Negro entertainers back then tried to stay in private homes—where at least we wouldn’t have to fight bedbugs for sleep and cockroaches for breakfast. Why, do you know I played ninety-nine million hotels I couldn’t stay at? And if I had friends blowing at some all-white nightclub or hotel I couldn’t get in to see ‘em—or them to see me. One time in Dallas, Texas, some ofay stops me as I enter this hotel where I’m blowing the show—me in a goddamn tuxedo, now!—and tells me I got to come round to the back door. As time went on and I made a reputation I had it put in my contracts that I wouldn’t play no place I couldn’t stay. I was the first Negro in the business to crack them big white hotels—Oh, yeah! I pioneered, Pops! Nobody much remembers that these days."

“Years ago I was playing the little town of Lubbock, Texas, when this white cat grabs me at the end of the show—he’s full of whiskey and trouble. He pokes on my chest and says, ‘I don’t like niggers!’ These two cats with me was gonna practice their Thanksgiving carving on that dude. But I say, ‘No, let the man talk. Why don’t you like us, Pops?’ And would you believe that cat couldn’t tell us, Pops? So he apologizes—crying and carrying on. Said he was just juiced and full of deep personal sorrows—something was snapping at his insides, you see—and then he commenced bragging on my music. Yeah! And dig this: that fella and his whole family come to be my friends! When I’d go back through Lubbock, Texas, for many many years they would make old Satchmo welcome and treat him like a king.”

“Quite naturally, it didn’t always test out that pleasurable. I knew some cats was blowing one-nighters in little sawmill stops down in Mississippi, and one time these white boys—who had been dancing all night to the colored cats’ sounds—chased ‘em out on the highway and whipped ‘em with chains and cut their poor asses with knives! Called it ‘nigger knocking.’ No reason—except they was so goddamn miserable they had to mess everybody else up, ya dig? Peckerwoods! Oh, this world’s mothered some mean sons! But they try such stunts on the young Negroes we got coming along now--well, then the trouble starts. Young cats, they ain't setting around these days saying 'Yessuh' or 'Nawsuh.' Which I ain't knocking; everybody got to be his own man, Pops. No man oughta be treated like dirt."

"If you didn't have a white captain to back you in the old days--to put his hand on your shoulder--you was just a damn sad nigger. If a Negro had the proper white man to reach the law and say, 'What the hell you mean locking up my nigger?' then--quite naturally--the law would walk him free. Get in that jail without your white boss, and yonder comes the chain gang! Oh, danger was dancing all around you back then."

"Up north wasn't much to brag on in many ways. Not only people put your color down but you had mobsters. One night this big, bad-ass hood crashes my dressing room in Chicago and instructs me that I will open in such-and-such a club in New York the next night. I tell him I got this Chicago engagement and don't plan no traveling. And I turn my back on him to show I'm so cool. Then I hear this sound: SNAP! CLICK! I turn around and he has pulled this vast revolver on me and cocked in. Jesus, it look like a canon and sound like death! So I look down that steel and say, 'Weeelllll, maybe I do open in New York tomorrow.' That night I got every Chicago tough me or my pals knew--and it must have been eighteen hundred of 'em--to flock around and pass the word I wasn't to be messed with. And I didn't go to New York. Very Very shortly, however, I cut on out of town and went on tour down South. And the mob didn't mess with me again. They never wanted me dead, wanted me blowing so they could rake in my bread."

"You was running a very large risk to buck them mobsters and all the sharpies. They controlled everything. Cross 'em just so far--and BLIP! Your throat's cut or you're swimming in cement with lumps on your head. You needed a white man to get along. So one day in 193[5] I went to Papa Joe Glaser and told him I was tired of being cheated and set upon by scamps and told how my head was jumping from all of that business mess--Lil, one of my wives, had sweet-talked me into going out on my own to front some bands and it was driving me crazy--and I told him, 'Pops, I need you. Come be my manager. Please! Take care all my business and take care of me. Just lemme blow my gig.' And goddamn that sweet man did it! Sold his nightclub in Chicago where I had worked and started handling Pops."

"Sometimes Joe Glaser says I'm nuts. Says it wasn't as bad as I recall it. But then Papa Joe didn't have to go through it. He was white. Not that I think white people is any naturally meaner than colored. Naw, the white man's just had the upper hand so long--and can't many people handle being top cat."

"Passing all them laws to open everything up--fine, okay, lovely! But it ain't gonna change everybody's hearts. You know, I been reading the Bible this last little bit and them Biblical people had wars and riots and poverty and bad-asses among 'em just like we got. Nothing new happening!"

"It's much the same they talk about making marijuana legal. They think they're gonna do that and say, 'Everything's cool now, babies, it's all right and set square.' But how about them poor bastards already been busted for holding a little gage and have done their lonesome fifteen and thirty and fifty years? My God, you can't never never make it all right with them! Many years ago I quit messing around with that stuff. Got tired looking over my shoulder and waiting for that long arm to reach out and somebody say, 'Come here, Boy. Twenty years in the cage!' BLOOEY! Naw, they can't undo all the years of damage by passing a few laws."After a moment's brooding he said, 'That's why I don't take much part in all this fandangoing you hear about today. All I want to do is blow my gig."

Louis Armstrong’s first professional gig—as a substitute cornet player in a Storyville honky-tonk—brought him fifteen cents. He was fifteen years old. “But I sang for money long before I played for it,” he says. “When I was around twelve we formed this quartet—me, Little Mack, Georgie Gray, and Big Nose Sidney. We’d sing on the streets and in taverns—pass the hat; might make six-bits, a dollar. Good money. After hours all them prostitutes would be juicing, having a little fun, and they would offer us big tips to entertain ‘em. Carried their bankrolls in the tops of their stockings. Some would hold us on their laps and we would sniff the pretty scents and powders they wore.”

Though he had taught himself to play the little toy slide whistle and a homemade guitar, Armstrong really familiarized himself with musical instruments in the New Orleans Waifs’ Home. He began with the tambourine, then the snare drum, then ran through the alto horn, bugle, and cornet. Soon he was the leader of the Waifs’ Band, playing picnics and street parades. Old-time drummer Zutty Singleton, a boy then himself, was so astounded at hearing Armstrong’s horn that he moved closer to see if the boy was actually playing those fabulous notes. On his release from the home, Armstrong took one-night jobs filling in with bands until a few months later he landed a regular job at Henry Matranga’s in Storyville. “I wasn’t making no great sums so I kept on delivering coal, unloading banana boats, selling newspapers—though there never was any doubts I would follow music at that point. Had to work for extra bread, you see. For when I am sixteen I start hanging out with the pretty chicks and need operating money.”

King Joe Oliver took Louis Armstrong under his wing. “He was the best,” Pops says. “Laid a new horn on me when mine was so beat I didn’t know what sounds might come out of it. Advised me…took me home for red beans and rice feasts. Taught me about blowing trumpet, too. Lotta claims been made that Bunk Johnson put me wise to trumpet—Bunk hisself helped that story along. No such thing. Joe Oliver was the man.”

When King Oliver left Kid Ory’s brass band to go it alone, seventeen-year-old Louis Armstrong took his chair. In the eighteen months he played with Kid Ory at Pete Lala’s, Armstrong’s reputation grew. He was with the Tuxedo Brass Band in 1922, when King Oliver called him to Chicago—then the center of jazz as New Orleans once had been. In 1924-25 Armstrong was with the Fletcher Henderson band but quit because “The cats was goofing and boozing—not blowing. I was always deadly serious about my music.” From Henderson he joined Lil Hardin’s group (she was his second wife) and also worked in Erskine Tate’s pit orchestra at the Vendome Theatre in Chicago. Then he went to work at the Sunset Club for Joe Glaser—who immediately billed him as “The World’s Greatest Trumpet Player.” This title had been generally conceded to Joe Oliver—and King Joe was playing at a rival club nearby. It came down to a head-on contest between the two great trumpeters. “I felt real bad when I took most of Joe Oliver’s crowds away,” Armstrong says now. “Wasn’t much I could do about it, though. I went to Joe and asked him was there anything I could do for him. ‘Just keep on blowing,’ he told me. Bless him”

 

----- Larry L. King, Harper's magazine, November, 1967

 

Beauty is only skin deep but Texas is to the bone.

 
Posted : 29th December 2019 5:24 pm
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