Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Great Louis

Hanging on the wall above my desk here in the Berkeley house is a wonderful black-and-white photo of Louis Armstrong (look far left). He’s sitting on an elegant staircase, dressed in a tux, smiling that incandescent smile, holding his magical trumpet in his lap. The picture was taken on the set of “High Society,” the musical remake of “The Philadelphia Story,” music by Cole Porter, with a cast that included Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Grace Kelly and Louis. The movie came out in 1956, and my parents—who loved what has come to be known as the Great American Songbook—took me with them to see the movie. I was five, and remember walking out of the theater thinking Grace Kelly was the most beautiful woman in the world, except for my mother. And I thought Louis Armstrong was just great because he projected pure happiness. My father, a frustrated songwriter who should have gone to Juilliard, told me that Louis was the King of Jazz. I didn’t know what jazz was, but over the years I gratefully learned. And my dad was right: Louis was the King of Jazz. Actually, he was king of much more.
If anyone ever asked me what celebrated person in the 20th Century I most admired, the answer would come in a nano-second: Louis Armstrong. He was, of course, a one-of-a-kind musical genius whose immense talent spread jazz from his hometown of New Orleans to the world. He also was one of the great male vocalists of the aforementioned Great American Songbook. Also a gifted writer with a unique and honest voice. But above all these accomplishments, he was a man who brought such joy to anyone lucky enough to listen to his recordings or see him perform.
I was one of the lucky ones to hear him play live. It was sometime around 1967 or so. Louis was performing on a double bill with the Dave Brubeck Quartet, one of my favorite groups. Louis and his All-Stars came on first. The venue: the Singer Bowl, part of the ’64-’65 World’s Fair in Flushing-Meadows (ironically, the Singer Bowl was renamed Louis Armstrong Stadium after Louis, who lived in nearby Corona, died in 1971). In all likelihood, he played the songs he’d been playing for decades with the All-Stars. He would have been about 66 or so, singing more than playing after all those thousands and thousands of one-night stands and concerts had worn out those lips (he could still play, but not with the same gifts he showed in the 20s and 30s—or on some of those great albums made with producers George Avakian at Columbia or Norman Granz at Verve in the 50s (at this moment, I’m listening to Louis and Oscar Petterson collaborating on “You Go to My Head” from one of those Verve classics). Just seeing him on that stage was enough for me, a memory that never fails to make me smile.
Louis was a great human being, and now he has a great biography, “Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong” by Terry Teachout. Teachout, the Wall Street Journal’s drama critic (who gets extra credit for roving America and attending local productions to prove fine theater is not confined to Manhattan), has worked as a bassist, and his musical knowledge helps immeasurably when describing Louis’ historic recordings. He’s equally good at the intricacies of Louis’ life: the impoverished childhood, the rise to stardom, his four marriages, the many sidemen who played with him, the recording contracts, the Chicago and New York gangsters who wanted a piece of him, his lifelong love of good weed, and much more.
My one regret is that I never knocked on Louis’ door. Corona is but a few subway stops from Flushing-Main Street (I grew up in Flushing). Odds are he wouldn’t have been there given his commitments to performing on the road. But I wish I’d given it a try. That house is now a museum--and well worth the trip on the No. 7 train.
So read “Pops.” And listen to the amazing music, available on CD and through iTunes, and appreciate what musical genius is.
I guess I’ve been somewhat presumptuous in calling him Louis (that’s pronounced Lew-is, never Louie, BTW). But Louis had no pretensions, part of his greatness.
“Potato Head Blues” is playing now—and so is that smile on my face.


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