POP'S LAST BIRTHDAY BASH
A NATIONAL TREASURE
I had to talk Miles into going to the party just the same as I had to talk him into
going to Jimi's funeral and just the same as I had to talk him into letting me bring Mick
Jagger over to meet him. In Mick's case, Miles ended up not even letting us in the front
door, but that's a whole other story which I'll have to tell you some other time. This
birthday party I'm talking about was for Louis Armstrong. Probably, it was going to be his
So, finally Miles said OK and, as we were on our way, Miles told me a story which he said came from Tommy Flanagan, the keyboard player in Satchmo's band when Satchmo and his troupe were waiting in the VIP Lounge at Orly Airport in Paris for a flight to Moscow. Satchmo and his band were on a State Department "good will" tour when, all of a sudden, Richard M. Nixon, then America's Vice-President, walked into the lounge with his Secret Service guards. When Nixon saw Satchmo, the Vice President immediately rushed up to him, and, almost getting down on his knees, grabbed for Satchmo's hand as if to kiss it. Slobbering all over Satchmo, Nixon began telling Satchmo what a national monument Satchmo was.
"You're like the Statue of Liberty!" Nixon said. "You're a national treasure! I'm your biggest fan, Mr. Armstrong."
It turned out that Nixon was going to Moscow, too. When the flight was announced and everybody started getting up to board the plane, Nixon kept asking:
"Are you sure there's nothing I can do for you, Mr. Armstrong?"
The band had a lot of luggage. Louis picked up a couple of pieces and handed them to Nixon, saying:
"Yeah! Would you mind carrying these, Mr. President?"
And that, according to Flanagan, was how Louis' band got its stash past Russian customs on that particular trip.
"Pops used to smoke a joint before dinner every night," Miles told me.
To me, Miles, like Satchmo, was also a national monument, another Statue of Liberty and a national treasure, too. Like Satchmo, he was a trumpet player, one of the best who ever lived. I was proud to be going to the party with Miles. I was proud any time I went anywhere with Miles.
At the party, Miles called Satchmo "Pops." So did most of the other older musicians. They
The giants of Jazz
to honor 'Pops'
were all there when Miles and I arrived at the celebration, held in RCA's
brand, new Studio A. They were all there, the assembled giants of jazz. They had come to
pay homage to the ailing Louis Armstrong in honor of what he thought was his 70th
birthday. Like George M. Cohan, Louis always claimed to be a Yankee Doodle Dandy, born on
the Fourth of July, but then you'll have to forgive an illegitimate black kid from New
Orleans for not remembering his exact date of birth. Satchmo couldn't even remember the
exact year. He spent his whole life thinking he was older than he really was. Satchmo
always said he was born in 1900. But biographer Gary Giddins eventually unearthed a
baptismal certificate proving that Satchmo had been born on August 8, 1901. Still, when
you start hitting 70, what's another year more or less?
The party caught Satchmo by surprise. Why a party now? This was May 26, 1970, and there was still enough time to refloat Noah's ark before the Fourth of July would come around with what Satchmo thought would be his 70th year. The only appointment Satchmo had on his calendar on this particular date was to go to the first recording session he'd scheduled since he'd been stricken by a kidney failure almost two years before. What's another year more or less and what's another recording session more or less? Satchmo couldn't even begin to count the number of sessions at which he'd already played or sung during his 47-year career. But when he walked into RCA's brand, new Studio A for his first recording session since September of 1968, he found some two hundred and fifty of the greatest surviving giants of jazz waiting for him. Also waiting for him was an immense chocolate layer cake.
I remember thinking at first that there was something sad about this party, thrown by old men for another older man who obviously wasn't going to be around much longer. But these old men were all heroes to me. They had created a new and beautiful music, America's very own, which to me equalled the world's greatest classics by the world's greatest masters. These men, too, had achieved artistic immortality. Against crushing hardships, they had persevered. Somehow, they made me think of courageous sea captains ready to go down with their ships but their ships had stayed afloat. Their ships were their music. Here they were, as if with hats in hand, come to pay homage to Louis. Satchmo. Pops. Still, I wondered how many among them had at one time or another looked for a reason to condemn Satchmo. Why? For being too old-fashioned? For being too corny? For being too successful?
"God bless Louis!" Billie Holiday once said. "He 'Toms' from the heart."
No, Satchmo had never been a fiery black activist, but he was one of the first of the jazz innovators, taking that genre into the era of the featured soloist and perfecting the blues-influenced brass style of ensuing decades. As Amiri Baraka wrote in Blues People when Amiri was still LeRoi Jones, Satchmo's music "moved toward the considerations and responsibilities of high art."
It was Baraka who first really educated me about Louis Armstrong. As for me, I had never been a big fan of Dixieland. But, at a cookout at my house in Berkeley Heights, New Jersey, many years ago, Satch kept blowing from the outdoor speakers in a 24-hour marathon that a certain radio station was broadcasting as a tribute and I said I wished we could hear something else. Pointing out what a jerk I was and explaining why he could listen to Satchmo's music for a week straight and never once get bored, Amiri enlightened me about Louis Armstrong's contribtionto the world. All these jazz heroes at the RCA studio party were there because they knew Satchmo had paved a road for them and they owed him a debt.
"The whole industry is here!" crowed Ornette Coleman, one of the most radical of the jazz avant-gardists. What Ornette's music owes to Satchmo isn't easy for me to discern, but still he radiated reverence for Louis.
The whole industry wasn't exactly there, either, but the stars who showed up represented a variety of jazz extremities. This was a tribute Jazz with a capital J was paying to one of its most accomplished elders. With his success, Satchmo had opened doors for so many others. He also had succeeded in living long while making few enemies. He always bubbled with joy and his jolliness was contagious.
Jazz's young radicals might have disagreed with Satchmo's slick show bizzy style and thought he was too jolly "Tommin,'" Billie called it? But it was Louis who broke the show business color barrier, opening a door into which a black couldn't even stick a toe without maybe losing his foot. This was way back in the '20s, when Satchmo became America's first black musician to achieve white mainstream acceptance and acclaim, headlining in venues where no black musician had ever headlined before. Satchmo was the first black musician to star in his own sponsored, weekly radio show, The Fleischmann's Yeast Program. Did that make Louis Armstrong America's first black pop star?
It was with his talent, jolliness and charm that Louis Armstrong succeeded. Not only did he have the chops to turn Dixieland into big box office but he had a smile that could melt an ice cap and de-venomize a rattlesnake. Satchmo's philosophy was that he got better results with honey than with vinegar, with courtesy than with confrontation and with cuteness than with controversy. The only time Satchmo ever found it necessary to get vocal about being black was when Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus barred the door of a white school in Little Rock, Arkansas, preventing black kids from entering. Eisenhower was President at the time, and Satchmo, protesting that Ike should've gone down to Little Rock to handle the situation himself, registered his outrage by saying he would cancel an overseas good-will tour that the State Department had planned for him.
Such an angry public outburst wasn't typical of Satchmo, and his highly appalled business guru, jazz entrepreneur Joe Glaser, expressed disagreement. Glaser thought that this might be bad for Satchmo's image and hurt his business and Glaser tried to get Satch to claim he had been misquoted. Singer Eartha Kitt got into the act by booing Glaser and rooting for Satchmo to stick to his guns. Those were the most controversial headlines Satchmo ever made. That was the extent of Satchmo's black militancy.
Studio A had a Forty-Fourth Street entrance and when Miles and I walked in, Satchmo was sitting atop a stool with a padded back and armrests, looking a little like an egg in an egg cup that's waiting to be broken. A chocolate egg. He was singing into a microphone:
"Here is my heart for Christmassssssss. . ."
After his kidney failure, Satchmo had been in Beth Israel Hospital for five months and he had spent the next year at his home in Queens recuperating. As I said, this was his first recording session in nineteen months. Another reason all these giants had come to pay homage to Satchmo was that they knew they might not get another chance.
"What are all these people doing here?" Miles asked Louis' wife, Lucille.
"They come to see him fall on his face," Lucille joked.
"Well, if he does, it's about time," Miles said.
Satchmo himself was buoyant. When I asked him how he felt, he said:
"Satchmo never felt better and had less. . ."
His words danced out like happy bubbles in a toothpaste commercial.
"I'm back on the mound again," Satchmo said. "I'm waitin' for some word from the doctor about when I can play my horn again. But I play it anyway. Every night before supper."
The party lasted only about an hour and then Satchmo had to go to work. Oliver Nelson was
The plan was to put out the album on what was supposed to be Pop's 70th birthday, the 4th of July
conducting and the orchestra was a full one, with more pieces than I was willing to
bother counting. Bob Thiele was in the control room, producing. Bob was determined to put
out the album on what was supposed to be Satchmo's 70th birthday, the Fourth of July. The
album, on Thiele's Flying Dutchman label, was to be called Louis Armstrong And His Friends
and Satchmo eventually would receive a telegram from still another "friend,"
President Nixon. Didn't Nixon say Satchmo was a national treasure, a monument, the
equivalent of the Statue of Liberty? The album would end up with Satchmo singing tunes
like Give Peace A Chance, We Shall Overcome, The Boy From New Orleans and My One and Only
RCA's brand, new Studio A was immense, big enough to hold a couple of basketball courts. It had a stage, too. As the party dwindled, many remained as an audience for the session, and there were rows of folding chairs. Tony Bennett was sitting in one. Leon Thomas and Bobby Hackett and Eddie Condon also stayed. Ornette Coleman sat dangling his feet over the edge of the stage, sucking up a whistle every time he thought sick, old Pops hit a home run or made a shoestring catch. Miles told me that it was as if the songs, the arrangements and the register of the orchestra had been designed to make it easy for Satchmo. So easy that there was practically nothing left for him to do. He didn't have to expend any effort. He just had to crawl around the bases. He could sleep-walk his way across the finish line. But Satchmo fooled everybody by doing some unexpected fancy footwork.
"He don' sound like a dyin' man," Miles said.
To me, Satchmo's performance was the equivalent of George Burns doing cartwheels at the age of 100 while smoking a cigar, but then, what does a jerk like me know? Only a pro knows how to make hard things look easy and easy things look hard. Who else but Pops could have turned Hello, Dolly into another American anthem?
The first time I ever went to see Satchmo, I was only seventeen. It was hard for me to get a ticket. Satchmo was playing a dance on an amusement pier in Asbury Park and the place was packed. I still didn't know how to dance and I wasn't really one of his fans, but I had to get in to see Satchmo because my best friend was going. My remembrance of Satchmo on the pier is as clear as the sky on a lovesick night in Asbury Park, with a full moon hovering over the ocean. The dance was smoky and mobbed. I remember crowding up to the bandstand along with everybody else just to get a closer look at Satchmo. I remember catching glimpses of his head weaving and bobbing with his happy eyes bulging and his cheeks ballooning as he blew his trumpet. I can't remember the tunes he played but Satchmo always played the hits of the day. Still, he never played a song the way it was written and he never sang one as if it didn't belong to him. On the pier at Asbury Park, Satchmo sparkled. He was ebullient. His smile was contagious. The sound of joy came out of his trumpet. What I remember most about the dance that night was the happiness.
At the party in Studio A, somebody was telling how Satchmo had started out singing for pennies on the streets of New Orleans' Storyville section. The other kids called him Satchel Mouth because his jaw reminded them of the little valise doctors used to carry in the days when doctors made house calls. They also called him Gatemouth and Dippermouth. Although he could be heard calling his trumpet "Satchmo" on a 1930s record entitled You're Driving Me Crazy, Percy Mathison Brooks, editor of Melody Maker, England's leading music trade publication, is credited with giving him that name. Brooks was part of the welcoming committee when Satchel Mouth arrived with his band for appearances in London in 1932. Apparently trying to pronounce "Satchel Mouth" in Brooks' uptight English accent, Brooks came out with something that sounded more like "Satchmo," or so the story goes. Laughing, Satchmo's band started calling Louis "Satchmo," too. Soon, everybody was calling Louis "Satchmo," including Satchmo himself.
He'd been eleven when a musician named Bunk Jones first taught him to play the cornet in the back room of the Dago Tony Tonk, a New Orleans night spot. He hadn't been much older than that when King Oliver had sent for him to come join the King's band in Chicago. Soon, people started listening to King Oliver records mainly to catch Satchmo's solos. Before long, Satchmo was recording his own records on the Okeh label.
"Downbeat called me up to say something about Louis," Ornette said. "I said I think Louis is the most loved black man in a white man's society, and I think that's true."
There was a break between takes and Miles walked up to Satchmo, tickled him on the back and whispered into his ear:
"Isn't the orchestra too low for you?"
"You know I don't care about nothing. . ." Satchmo's voice trailed off and I couldn't hear the rest of what he said. Both Satchmo and Miles talked in rasps, gargles and hisses. Miles kept claiming that he and Satchmo both blew out their vocal chords the same way.
"We blew out our voices playin' for the people," Miles used to tell me.
I guess the kind of voice that both Louis and Miles had is an occupational hazard for trumpet players. I couldn't hear what they were saying and I don't know if they could hear what they were saying, either. When Miles headed back into the control booth, Satchmo turned on his stool and said:
"Always glad to see you, Miles!"
Back in the control booth, I overheard Newport Jazz Festival promoter George Wein boasting that Miles' presence added significance to the party. After all, Miles represented
the jazz revolutionaries. Miles had been a radical innovator since the Bebop
era. Miles was a giant of jazz styles that had long ago left Satchmo outdated. Still,
Miles had never had a hit single. Louis had had so many.
"They called Louis an Uncle Tom," Wein said. "Now, it's a different era. That man there," and Wein pointed toward Satchmo, "is true culture. Everything in music is traceable to him."
In a corner, I started talking to Lucille, who told me that her husband had never known how it felt to rest. Suddenly, the orchestra began to play Mood Indigo and you could hear Satchmo's voice rasping over the loudspeakers:
"Sure is a lot of gumbo in that one!"
Soon, Miles said he was ready to leave. As I followed Miles to the door, he told me:
"They take advantage of his age. When you're that old, they really drain you to make you sound as if you're in heaven. It don't matter. He's got so much soul, he makes it sound good anyway."
In the months after the party, Satchmo made a few TV appearances. He played at only one more recording session, held in Nashville in August of 1970, a session for a gimmick album of Satchmo singing country and western songs. Satchmo died on July 6, 1971, after suffering another heart attack. He died two days after celebrating what he thought was his seventy-first birthday.##
(Photo by CCR Consulting/Athena)
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