Louis Armstrong & black sheet music
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    A Louis Armstrong I didn’t know

    A couple years ago, I picked up a studio photo of Louis Armstrong with his first band the Hot Five from the 1920s. Armstrong was at the piano and seemed to be talking to the band members.

    It’s a demure image of him, long before the big trademark smile and the sweaty brow from his stage performances. The smiling Armstrong was the one that was embedded in my brain, but I walked away with a more earthy one over the weekend after seeing the one-man one-act play “Satchmo at the Waldorf” at a theater in Philadelphia.

    The play showed a 71-year-old Armstrong at the twilight of his career in the 1970s, body bent by both age and ailments. Watching actor John Douglas Thompson play Satchmo re-playing his life was like listening to fingernails scratching a blackboard. The experience was both painful – in much the way Thompson portrayed an old man whose body was failing him – and enlightening – I realized how little I knew about Armstrong beyond his stage persona.

    Louis Armstrong

    A Louis Armstrong photo in the lobby of the theater where I saw the play "Satchmo at the Waldorf."

    Thompson was excellent, shifting effortless from the stooped Armstrong to the brash manager Joe Glaser to the cool Miles Davis, without a change of costume.

    The play is based on the 20o9 book “Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong,” by Terry Teachout, drama critic for the Wall Street Journal. It is not about the “cuddly” Armstrong, Teachout said in an interview, but the “real man” as he contemplated his life in his dressing room at New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel after a performance four months before he died.

    The play tells of the good and the bad of Armstrong’s life – sometimes amusing, most times angry – taken from tapes that he recorded starting in the 1940s. The play focuses primarily on his relationship with his white Jewish manager Joe Glaser, who says in the play that Satchmo was like a son (Armstrong was born to a prostitute mother, and his father abandoned them soon after he was born in New Orleans in 1901). Glaser became his manager in 1935, and Armstrong took his advice wholeheartedly without question.

    Louis Armstrong

    An autographed photo of Louis Armstrong with his band the Hot Five in the 1920s.

    Here are some of the fascinating tidbits I learned about him:

    Wrote letters all the time

    In the play, the Glaser character railed about the incessant amount of letters he got from Armstrong (13-page letters, he fumed). The man seemed to write as much as he recorded. I found several letters on the web, including a 1933 letter to a friend that is expected to fetch $3,000-$5,000 at an auction next week. One of the props in the play was a typewriter; he apparently used a Corona.

    Tape-recorded everything

    Armstrong bought his first recorder in 1947 to tape his shows for study, but then he started taping conversations with friends, using it as a silent listener in the room. According to Teachout, he set’d it up “during a dinner party, in his dressing room, or in the bedroom, in a hotel room after the show and just lets it run. And whenever he wants to talk about, whatever the people who are with him are talking about is what gets taken down on the recorder.”

    The tapes (just as the play) are laced with profanity and street talk, as one reviewer noted.

    Louis Armstrong

    Some collages of Louis Armstrong. He decorated the boxes of his reel-to-reel tapes with them. From the Paris Review website.

    By time of his death in 1971, he had 650 reels in his home in Corona, Queens, in New York, which is now a museum. He took the recorder on tours in a steamer trunk and decorated the tape boxes with his own collages, an artistic outlet for him. On the stage at the play were reel to reel recorders that the actor flipped on and off as he talked.

    Loved his marijuana

    Armstrong starting smoking marijuana – which he called gage – in his 20s and never stopped. It “makes you forget all the bad things that happen to a Negro,” he said in real life and in the play. Just as religiously, he also took a laxative called Swiss Kriss (the character took a swig on stage). He spent a night in jail in Los Angeles in November 1930 after being busted in the parking lot of a night club smoking a joint with another musician.

    Called an “Uncle Tom”

    The Armstrong in the play agonized over musicians like Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie labeling him an “Uncle Tom.” They didn’t like his grinning face or his kow-towing  to white audiences in what they would likely chracterize as “Stepin Fetchit.” His performing and recording the minstrelsy and stereoptypical tune “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South” didn’t help much, either.

    In a 1963 Playboy interview, Davis said he admired Armstrong’s talents but didn’t like his Uncle Tom ways. A year later in another Playboy interview, Gillespie agreed, and Armstrong was saddled with that description through the 1960s. Armstrong was said to have financially supported Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and worked quietly behind the scenes.

    That description had dogged him even earlier. Billie Holiday had come to his defense in the 1940s, noting that “Of course Pops toms, but he toms from the heart” – as if it were the most natural thing to do in that era.

    Louis Armstrong

    The smiling faces of Louis Armstrong.

    Armstrong had always characterized himself as a performer who worked in the “cause of happiness.” His aim, as he apparently saw it, was to make people feel good when he was on the stage. He was also following the advice of Glaser, who had told him to smile for his audience.

    In 1957, he blasted President Eisenhower for being lax in protecting black students trying to desegregate schools in Little Rock, AR. Speaking candidly to a local reporter while he was on tour stop in North Dakota, he said: “It’s getting almost so bad a colored man hasn’t got any country,” adding “The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell.”

    In 1961, he spoke out to his critics in an Ebony magazine interview: “I’ve pioneered in breaking the color line in many southern states … with mixed bands – Negro and white. I’ve taken a lot of abuse, put up with a lot of jazz, even been in some pretty dangerous spots through no fault of my own for almost forty years.”

    Couldn’t remember the words to “Hello Dolly”

    Armstrong and his All Stars Band weren’t much into this ditty of a song when they were asked to record it in 1964. Glaser told him to do it as a favor, and he most always did what his manager asked. Someone at the session suggested he add the phrase “This is Louie, Dolly,” and he made it clear that his name was Louis, no Louie.

    Soon, he and the band went off to Puerto Rico on tour and forgot about Dolly. The song became so popular that Glaser called and told him to include it in his show. No one in the band, however, remembered much about it and they couldn’t find a record in the stores (in the play, Armstrong says the audience at a show asked him to sing it but neither he nor the band recalled the words). So, a record was flown out to them from New York, and they got eight curtain calls the first time they performed it on stage.

    The song was Armstrong’s biggest-selling hit, with him bumping the Beatles from the No. 1 spot on the pop chart in 1964 and him becoming the oldest person at age 63 to hit that mark.


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