August 4, 2021

On Louis Armstrong’s Birthday

By Stuart Mitchner

Celebrating Louis Armstrong’s 120th birthday a week before August 4, 2021, I get in the car, put “West End Blues” on the stereo, and drive downtown to the library. For the first time in a locked-down year and a half, I’m returning to my favorite source with a mission. And as usual, I find what I’m looking for, driving off with three biographies: Terry Teachout’s Pops (2009), Ricki Riccardi’s What a Wonderful World (2011), and Thomas Brothers’s Master of Modernism (2014).

In the Phillipe Halsman photo on the cover of Pops, Armstrong stands facing forward, his trumpet tucked under one arm; he’s wearing a red bow tie, and he’s not smiling. If anything, he looks to be on the verge of tears, as if a lifetime of emotion were welling up inside him. The photograph was taken in 1966, when LIFE put him on the cover. Teachout calls it “the climax of his eminence.” Inside is a 14-page interview in which he says, “I don’t sigh for nothing. Sixty years is a long time and there ain’t going to be no more cats in the game that long.” He died 50 years ago, July 6, 1971.

Armstrong in the Sixties

When I get home, the first book I open is Pops, which begins with an epigraph from Brancusi: “Don’t look for obscure formulas, nor for le mystère. It is pure joy I’m giving you.”

“Pure joy” is something I instinctively associate with the music of the Beatles. In the sixties, I had no interest in Armstrong songs like “What a Wonderful World,” which I listened to just now on YouTube; it’s a version for cynics with a warm and fuzzy introduction from Louis addressed to “all you young folks asking how about all the walls, and the hunger, and pollution, how ‘wonderful’ is that?” And he tells them, “It ain’t the world that’s so bad, but what we’re doing to it.” When he sings of “trees of green” and “skies of blue” in his Times Square-on-New-Year’s-Eve voice, I’m smiling; when he gets to “the bright blessed day,” and friends shaking hands and saying “How do you do” when they’re really saying “I love you,” I’m thinking of the mob storming the Capitol on January 6, 2021, and the Delta variant, and the massive cloud rising from the ruins of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

Armstrong and the Beatles

According to Riccardi, whose subtitle is The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years, Satchmo’s “Hello Dolly” knocked the Beatles’ “Can’t Buy Me Love” off the top of the charts in 1964. In a 1965 Crescendo interview quoted by Riccardi, Armstrong says, “I buy the Beatles. Everything they put out. I got ‘em in my house and I put ‘em on tape. They’re good boys. Yeah, and they made a wonderful reputation, which they deserve. Because they put everything in it…They upset the world.”

Three years later “What a Wonderful World” was the number one hit in England, selling more than six hundred thousand copies. A 1968 interview Riccardi posted on YouTube has Louis fielding questions from an uptight British interviewer who seems unprepared for an outburst of enthusiasm inspired by the Fab Four. Shortly after blowing through a timidly posed question about changing his music (“Mozart never changed! Bach never changed!”), Armstrong says, “I go by my ear, what I hear. That’s why I buy records. Like the Beatles! Ain’t no record gonna top Hard Day’s Night!” A minute later he says it again, “In my library, ain’t nothing gonna top that Hard Day’s Night” A loaded pause: “Understand?”

Armstrong and Moby-Dick

After his emphatic endorsement of the Beatles, Armstrong talks about playing “with a symphony orchestra for the silent pictures in 1925. And we played everything those big orchestras played. In the Vendome Theater in Chicago. And we changed programs twice a week. With movies. We play our overture and then we go into the jazz climax.”

In Louis Armstrong: Master of Modernism, Brothers points out that Erskine Tate’s orchestra was praised “for taking movie accompaniment seriously,” and suggests that “it was probably the first time Armstrong had ever played for a conductor using a baton.” The musicians “had to be alert and in control of their reading. Armstrong liked to tell a story about playing for The Sea Beast, based on Moby-Dick and starring John Barrymore as Captain Ahab …. When the climactic scene came around, with the great white whale attacking the captain and biting off his leg, Armstrong couldn’t take his eyes off the screen and lost his place in the score. ‘Erskine Tate was swinging his arms everywhere and he turned to me and said, ‘Come on you.’ “ But Louis was lost. “I had sixty measures to count — I missed my count.”

Thanks to the Legacy/Columbia YouTube postings, you can hear Louis and the Tate orchestra performing “Static Strut” and “Stomp Off, Let’s Go.” If your eyes are up to it, you can also watch The Sea Beast in its flickering faded entirety and try to imagine what Louis would do with the storm scenes. Brothers quotes future bandleader and vibraphonist Lionel Hampton, who was a teenager when he saw Armstrong at the Vendome: “We were in the front row of the first balcony, and we could see the entire audience go crazy after his first, fifteen-minute solo.”

Future bassist Milt Hinton remembers Armstrong’s impact on the mind-set of the audience: “The people would come on Sunday … in their tuxedoes with the roll collars, and it was like, you know, white folks, like it was a big white theater, you know. Because they thought that this was the way it was supposed to be, that you were white and you were right and this was the only way it could be …. And Louis stood up and played one of his great solos, and you could see everybody letting their hair down. ‘Yeah, that’s the way it should be, this is it.’ So we were beginning to relate — ‘well, great to be like that, but this is what really relates to us.’ “

Beatles and Baseball

Now’s the time to admit I began this piece hoping that I could find a way to connect Louis Armstrong with some other pleasures I associate with the first week of August. Of course, it was good to discover Satchmo’s fondness for the Beatles, who recorded “Hey Jude” and the “Here Comes the Sun” side of Abbey Road in the first weeks of August 1968 and ‘69, having released the Help and Revolver albums in the first weeks of August 1965 and ‘66, respectively.

As for baseball, Armstrong was a devoted Mets fan, lived a stone’s throw from Shea Stadium, and wore Yogi Berra’s catcher’s mask for protection during encounters with Beatles-sized crowds of fans. According to Thomas Brothers, in summer 1931 New Orleans, Louis sponsored a team called Armstrong’s Secret Nine, “buying them equipment and uniforms with his last name written across the fronts of their shirts.” On August 16, the Secret Nine played the New Orleans Black Pelicans. The admission was 50 cents, “with ‘special accommodations for whites.’ “ When his own participation was announced, 1,500 fans came to St. Raymond Park to watch him pitch.”

“Star Dust” for Melville

Finally, the author of Moby-Dick, who was born August 1, 1819. Herman Melville would undoubtedly have been amazed and appalled by The Sea Beast, which ends with pegleg Ahab Ceeley in the arms of his sweetheart, played by Barrymore’s real-life lover, Dolores Costello. One way I can imagine Melville enduring the travesty would be if Louis Armstrong stood up ahead of the absurd ending to play and sing “Star Dust” exactly the way he does with his orchestra in 1931. Between the two trumpet-glorious summits, with the orchestra rowing him, stroke by stroke over the ocean to the stars, the giver of “pure joy” sings of lonely nights and dreams and melodies and love’s refrain, offering mellow consolation in “the stardust of a song.”

I imagine Melville closing his eyes, thinking back to perhaps his most memorable birthday, August 1, 1850, when he and Nathaniel Hawthorne met during a picnic in the Berkshires, where witnesses say the two authors tossed a ball back and forth. A year later, Moby-Dick was published and dedicated to Hawthorne. In his journal, August 1, 1851, Hawthorne wrote: “Melville and I had a talk about time and eternity, things of this world and of the next, and books, and publishers, and all possible and impossible matters that lasted pretty deep into the night.”

One such possibly impossible matter concerns whether Louis Armstrong ever read Melville’s masterpiece. It’s a fact that the 1930 edition of Moby-Dick, with its vivid Rockwell Kent illustrations, was among his books when he died and is in the collection of the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens.