Louis Armstrong: the warmth and wit of the legendary jazz artist

In this personal long read, Martin Chilton looks back at the book his father co-wrote about the legendarily sassy trumpet player and salutes a one-of-a-kind who was as generous as he was witty

Tuesday 06 July 2021 15:20
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<p>Louis Armstrong in London, 1956, with future biographer John Chilton far left</p>

Louis Armstrong in London, 1956, with future biographer John Chilton far left

“Tell my story like it wuz, boys”, Louis Armstrong said in 1970, when he suggested that Max Jones and my late father, John Chilton, write his “full-scale” biography. The famous trumpeter had been so pleased with their tribute publication, Salute to Satchmo (“Wow, some book,” he wrote), that he insisted that the jazz historians could ask him whatever they liked to tell his remarkable story.

Armstrong, who died on 6 July 1971 at the age of 69, was in poor health at the end. After two spells in intensive care – with heart and kidney trouble – he was thinking back on a momentous life. As well as sending frequent letters to England, he spent many hours in July and August 1970 reminiscing for them, and for his personal library, on reel-to-reel tapes, made on the state-of-the-art Tandberg deck his wife Lucille bought for the newly-renovated den in his New York home.

The ensuing biography, Louis: The Louis Armstrong Story – which Jones’s son Nick is hoping to republish –had its share of “scoops”. He’d previously told them the anarchic story of his time in a California jail, and he agreed to go on the record for the first time about his arrest for smoking marijuana in March 1931. In his inimitable style, Armstrong recalled that he and drummer Vic Berton were “blasting a joint” outside a nightclub in Hollywood, when “two big healthy Dicks [detectives] came from behind a car – nonchalantly – and said to us, ‘We’ll take the roach boys’.” Armstrong spent nine days in the Los Angeles City Jail, where fellow inmates kept hollering out for him to sing “Old Rockin’ Chair”. He was popular with his two cell-mates, even though they disliked each other. One day, after telling him “move out of the way ‘Pops’, we don’t want to hurt them chops,” they began a vicious brawl that ended with “one of them biting the other’s finger off”.

Despite the prison experience, Armstrong remained a fan of weed. When Jones stayed in the same French hotel as Armstrong in the early 1950s, he was surprised, and mildly tickled, to discover a “stick of pot” materialise under his door one night, a gift from his idol.

During his arrest, Armstrong’s main fear was that the police would hit him in the mouth, damaging his embouchure, which is crucial for controlling the sound of a trumpet. He recalled pleading, “please don’t hit me in my ‘chops’.” As it happens, “always keep your chops in shape” were the first words of advice Armstrong offered to my father, when the 23-year-old aspiring trumpeter, then working for a newspaper, met his hero for the first time, at the Savoy Hotel in London, 1956.

He was struck by how remarkably friendly the famous musician was to a young fan, and how willing he was to talk about his trade, recalling: “He talked to me about the scars on his lips, created by years of intense pressure from his mouthpiece, then held out his hands and said, ‘I’ve also got corns on my fingers and thumbs through gripping the trumpet hard for these past 45 years.”

When my father was in his eighties, battling the Parkinson’s disease that would play a part in his death, one subject guaranteed to lift his spirits during long periods in hospital waiting rooms was talking about his memories of Armstrong. He told me about another meeting with him, in the summer of 1968, when he spent a day with the trumpeter and his wife Lucille at the Dorchester Hotel. Armstrong had an impressive memory and regaled my father with tales of the 1920s, including stories about jazz and blues legends Fats Waller, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Sidney Bechet. He was less complimentary about a member of Fletcher Henderson’s band, calling him a “big-headed mother***ker”. They talked at length about mouthpieces, trumpets and Armstrong’s dislike of rehearsing. Armstrong was an avid keeper of memorabilia and was touched when my father told Armstrong that he’d had pride of place in the scrapbook he compiled as a 12-year-old wartime evacuee.

On this same afternoon in 1968, the BBC sent a crew to interview Armstrong. As they were setting up, there was general panic when part of the camera equipment caught on fire. “Louis was the coolest man in the room,” my father recalled. “He rose slowly, took over a jug of water and put out the flames, laughing uproariously. When I complimented him on his calmness, he said, ‘That’s nothing, John’”, and proceeded to tell him about the time he’d been performing at the Showboat Cabaret in Chicago, during the Al Capone era. Rival mobsters began fighting and gun shots were fired. “What did you do?” my father asked. “I carried on blowing… but some of the cats dived under the piano,” Armstrong said.

Armstrong also told my father about the Yorkshire food he’d tried during a recent residency in Batley and joked about his long-term trombonist James ‘Trummy’ Young’s habit of eating half a dozen hard boiled eggs every day. Armstrong then quizzed my father about his diet, later sending him a sheet called ‘Lose Weight the Satchmo Way’, which he’d written for Harper’s Bazaar. This recommended a diet of raw apples, stewed celery and stewed tomatoes. It also contained the suggestion that “a laxative at least once a week is very nice”.

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Armstrong used laxatives all his life – starting with Pluto Water as a child – and was a fanatical advocate of a herbal product called Swiss Kriss. He sent a box to our London home, along with a promotional photograph that showed Armstrong seated on a toilet in his Corona, Queen’s house, with the slogan “Leave it All Behind Ya”. I still have the Swiss Kriss packet, unopened. Neither my father nor mother took up Armstrong’s suggestion of consuming the powerful laxative. Jones’s wife Betty did try some, unfortunately. Despite ingesting a tiny portion, she spent most of the next three days on the throne. “With plenty of time to curse and reflect, she eventually marvelled at Louis’s constitution and ability to withstand such digestive dynamite,” her son Nick told me. Armstrong laughed about it the next time he took Max and Betty out for a Chinese meal in London. Generous to a fault, Armstrong always paid.

Louis Armstrong’s favourite laxatives along with a promotional photograph

Max Jones had been close with Armstrong since 1949. The musician was astonished and impressed when the young writer turned up at Heathrow (then called London Airport) with a portable wind-up gramophone and played him “Blue Yodel No 9” by Jimmie Rodgers. The 1930 tune puzzled jazz fans for decades, because the trumpet player was unlisted. Jones believed it was Armstrong playing (along with his second wife Lil Hardin on piano) on the Victor record. Armstrong laughed and confirmed it was his contribution, explaining that he was under contract to Okeh Records at the time and had played anonymously.

It was with Okeh, of course, that Armstrong, then just 24, made the celebrated recordings with his Hot Five and Hot Seven bands in the 1920s. “The bottom line of any country in the world is what did we contribute to the world? America contributed Louis Armstrong,” celebrated singer Tony Bennett told the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation. Those masterpieces – including “West End Blues”, with its ingenious opening cadenza, and “Potato Head Blues”, on which he played a remarkable stop-time chorus that became a test-piece for all aspiring young trumpeters – would have been enough to secure his legacy. He established the whole structure and technique of jazz improvisation. Miles Davis, hero of the bebop era, conceded that “you can’t play anything on a horn that Louis hasn’t played”.

Although his 1920s work remains perhaps his most revered, some of Armstrong’s early 1930s work (on magnificent tunes such as “Lazy River” and “Sweethearts on Parade”), his Decca recordings, his work with his integrated All Stars band (including the brilliant 1956 album Live At The Hollywood Bowl), his duets with Ella Fitzgerald and the moving late hits “We Have All the Time in the World” and “What a Wonderful World”, are evidence of a career of sustained brilliance over more than half a century.

Armstrong’s wife and pianist Lil Hardin played a big part in Armstrong’s rise, engineering his career as a star soloist and vocalist. Although they fell out in later life, not speaking for a decade, in the letters to Jones and Chilton he gave her full credit for changing his fortunes. Armstrong’s former bandleaders disliked his singing voice, but on his 1920s recordings, he showed the world how to swing, improvise… and scat. Wordless singing was an absolute novelty when Armstrong introduced it on “Gut Bucket Blues” and, by breaking all the rules, he changed vocal recording forever. Armstrong later said that he dropped the sheet with the lyrics in the middle of the recording and suddenly remembered using his voice as a kid to imitate instruments.

Humour and stage banter were a key part of Armstrong’s performances, and his outgoing personality was evident in his correspondence, which always included a witty adverbial sign-off. Among those he used regularly (signing as Louis, or using his nicknames Satchmo, Ol’ Satchmo, Satch or Pops) were “Dietingly yours”, “Red beans and ricely yours”, “Brussell sproutingly yours”, “Swiss Krissly Yours”, “Am Ricely & Chickenly Yours”, “I am Trumpetly Yours”, “Am Trumpetblowingly Yours”, “Am Musically Yours”, “Yours Soul Foodly” and, occasionally, “Here’s swinging ‘atcha”.

One of his most oft-repeated jokes was about a wake in New Orleans, when a mourner lays his hand on the brow of the corpse, only to find it feeling a trifle warm. When he informed the widow, she replied, “hot or cold, he’s going tomorrow afternoon”. And Armstrong may have been the only man in the world who could get away with cracking risqué jokes with Pope Pius XII in 1949. Armstrong later told Jones that the Pope was a “little bitty feller” who’d asked him if he had any children. “Not yet, but we’re having a lot of fun trying,” Armstrong replied. When the Pope laughed, the trumpeter told him a few more jokes. “I floored him with a couple of belly laughs, Max,” he recalled.

I spent all my young days around whores, pimps and gambling fellers and some of the baddest people that were ever born

Louis Armstrong

Armstrong was born on 4 August 1901 – a date discovered in 1988 by researcher Tad Jones, using the baptismal records of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in New Orleans. His birth date was previously thought to be 4 July 1900, the apocryphal, symbolic date Armstrong used all his life (and may have believed). His father Willie was illiterate and Armstrong grew up in the rough Storyville red-light district of the Louisiana city. “I spent all my young days around whores, pimps and gambling fellers and some of the baddest people that were ever born,” he told his biographers. Armstrong, who started out playing on Mississippi riverboats, later became an inveterate gambler, telling Jones that he was thinking about buying land to build on near Las Vegas.

Armstrong’s Independence Day birthday celebrations were a feature of his adult life. On what was thought to be his 70th birthday, a musical tribute was held in the UK with a Melody Maker-sponsored concert at the Southbank’s Queen Elizabeth Hall, featuring Humphrey Lyttelton and The Wally Fawkes–John Chilton Feetwarmers. Lyttelton was the support act when Armstrong played on a giant revolving stage at the Empress Hall in Earl’s Court in 1956. He spent a couple of days making a crown out of cardboard, Woolworths jewellery and ping-pong balls, inscribing it “King Louis”. At the end of the final London show, Lyttelton placed it on his hero’s head and announced: “On behalf of all British musicians, I crown Louis Armstrong the undisputed King of Jazz.” A couple of days later, in Manchester, Lyttelton casually asked him if he still had the crown. “Of course I have – I had it shipped back home. I’ll always keep that – you gave it to me,” Armstrong replied.

Clarinet player Wally Fawkes, who was also known as the newspaper cartoonist Trog, remembered that on one “night off” during that London run, Armstrong popped down to The Humphrey Lyttelton Club – later called the 100 Club – in Oxford Street to have a jam. When I was writing this article, I asked Fawkes, now 97, what it was like to share a stage with Armstrong. He lit up. “It was fantastic. It was like being plugged into the mains. The power, intensity and tone of his playing was simply marvellous. We played ‘Struttin’ with Some Barbecue’. I still have such wonderful memories of that night.”

Jones said he witnessed Armstrong handle “potentially dangerous situations with courage and obduracy” in a number of private situations – something my late mother Teresa also saw for herself during that 1956 tour. She was then a 21-year-old photographer, making her way in the unforgiving male environment of the time. She went in hope of getting her own photograph of Armstrong before a concert. The influential promoter Jack L Higgins, working with Harold Davidson, blocked her way, and was rude and aggressive. When Armstrong, a wiry, small man, saw what was going on, he rushed out of his dressing room and yanked Higgins away with such force that he ripped the promoter’s shirt. Armstrong later invited Teresa to take a portrait of him, allowing her to capture him in an unusually reflective mood.

Louis Armstrong in London, 1956

By the time Armstrong returned to the UK in 1962, bebop had taken root and Armstrong was being branded out of date. The celebrated bebop trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie had even dismissed his “Uncle Tom sound” (an insult he later retracted), while critics were claiming that Armstrong’s “mugging” on stage (showing his teeth and rolling his eyes) was demeaning. When asked about the “Uncle Tom” insult, Armstrong replied: “They couldn’t have made it through what I went through.” As well as ignoring his upbringing – he was a product of the vaudeville era – the criticism unfairly overlooked Armstrong’s public stands against racism, including the time he publicly called out the president.

Armstrong knew as well as any black person of his era what racism meant. “Armstrong grew up seeing lynchings, being chased by race mobs, and dealing with the dehumanising ramifications of segregation. Armstrong knew he could be killed or arrested at any minute,” Ricky Riccardi, director of research collections at the Louis Armstrong House Museum, told me, adding that “he was even called the n-word by his manager, Johnny Collins”.

Armstrong finally publicly snapped in September 1957, when he cancelled a State Department tour of the Soviet Union in protest at the treatment of African-American high school children in Little Rock, Arkansas. Armstrong was enraged by television footage of a man spitting in the face of a little girl as she walked timidly towards the school gates. Armstrong was staying in Grand Forks, North Dakota, at the time. Larry Lubenow, then a 21-year-old college student moonlighting for The Grand Forks Herald, approached Armstrong for an interview, ignoring his editor’s instruction for “no politics”. They chatted about events in Little Rock and the musician denounced President Dwight D. Eisenhower, calling him “two-faced”, saying he had “no guts” and was being pushed around by local racists.

Armstrong also described Arkansas governor Orval Faubus as “a no-good motherf***er” – which the reporter later admitted was altered in the copy to say “uneducated ploughboy” – and revealed he would no longer tour as an ambassador for the government. “It’s getting almost so bad a coloured man hasn’t got any country,” Armstrong said. “The way the government are treating my people in the South, they can go to hell.” The paper’s editor, realising the incendiary nature of the quotes, asked Armstrong to sign a letter confirming the words were genuine. “Don’t take nothing out of that story,” Armstrong declared. “That’s just what I said, and still say.” He then wrote “solid” on the bottom of the yellow copy paper, and signed his name.

When the story was syndicated around the world by the Associated Press, it had, in the words of a Chicago newspaper, the “explosive effect of an H-bomb”. Sponsors including the Ford Motor Company threatened to boycott television shows featuring Armstrong and radio stations in the South destroyed his records. Newspaper headlines referred to “Satchmo’s Sedition”. Fellow entertainer Sammy Davis Jr even turned on Armstrong, saying the jazz musician failed to grasp civic events. “I understand lynching, and that’s a civic event,” the unrepentant trumpeter told The New York Times.

“No one in the jazz community publicly spoke out in favour of Armstrong’s stance. This hurt Armstrong tremendously, a wound he carried with him for the rest of his life,” said Riccardi, author of the excellent 2020 book Heart Full of Rhythm: The Big Band Years of Louis Armstrong.

Louis Armstrong with his wife, Lucille, at London Airport in 1956

It took guts to stand up to the president and Armstrong held his ground. On 24 September – a week after Armstrong’s interview and on the day Lubenow was fired from The Grand Forks Herald paper – Eisenhower finally ordered 1,200 paratroopers from the 101st Airborne into Little Rock and the next day soldiers escorted nine black students into Central High School. “If you decide to walk into the schools with the little colored kids, take me along, Daddy,” he wired Eisenhower. Armstrong later admitted to Jones and my father that the flak over the incident had been difficult, but he’d been heartened when a “lift boy” in his hotel told him, ‘“Mr Armstrong, that will be in the history books’.”

That autumn, Armstrong toured South America where his behaviour was monitored by the State Department. In Buenos Aires, during a photo-shoot by Lisl Steiner, Armstrong received a phone call from the United States ambassador to Argentina, asking him to play “The Star Spangled Banner” at that evening’s concert. “Mr. Ambassador, you can go and f*** yourself because I can’t even get a hotel room in Times Square,” Armstrong replied, in an account Steiner later gave to Riccardi.

It was not the last time Armstrong took a stand against racism. He refused to play in New Orleans for 10 years while the city upheld its ban on integrated bands, and frequently donated funds to civil rights movements. In March 1965, after seeing the police brutality against Martin Luther King and his fellow marchers in Selma, Alabama, he landed in Copenhagen and was asked by the Herald Tribune about the violence. “They would beat Jesus if he was black and marched,” he replied.

Armstrong’s statement about Selma is just one that is sometimes overlooked when considering his contribution to the fight for racial equality. He was also proud to be the first African-American jazz musician to publish an autobiography (with Swing That Music in 1936), and the first African-American to host a nationally syndicated radio show. Shortly before his death, he reflected on his record of opposing racism, commenting, “I am just a musician but I think that I have always done great things about uplifting my race, but wasn’t appreciated.” The misconceptions about his political actions are addressed in an Apple documentary, currently in production and due out in 2022, called Black & Blues: The Colorful Ballad of Louis Armstrong, directed by Sacha Jenkins and co-produced by Ron Howard.

The last time Jones and my father met Armstrong was at the end of October 1970, when the ailing musician made it to London for the final time to play a charity concert at the Finsbury Park Astoria, on behalf of the National Playing Fields Association. He told them he could not wait to read their biography. Sadly, he never got the chance.

‘His last nine months were tough’ – Louis Armstrong in 1970, the year before his death

Armstrong’s last nine months were tough. In March 1971, he had a major heart attack and was back at Beth Israel Hospital. He was clinically dead for 30 seconds, saved only by a tracheotomy. After recovering, he lived quietly back in the Corona home he always called “my castle”, and now fitted with an electric stair chair, taking delight in maintaining his scrapbooks and keeping up with his beloved Mets baseball team.

Armstrong was always the most accessible of superstars and loved living in such a multicultural neighbourhood, “right here with the rest of the colored folk and the Puerto Ricans and Italians and the Hebrew cats… What the hell do I care about living in a ‘fashionable’ neighbourhood?” There is a touching moment on one reel-to-reel tape when he pauses to mention the children playing outside the house in which he’d lived since 1943. It was the children of Corona who were on his mind when he sang “What a Wonderful World”.

One of my father’s proudest moments, when he was nearing the end of a three-decade collaboration with singer George Melly, was being invited to be a guest speaker at the Louis Armstrong Centennial Conference in August 2001 and getting the Freedom of New Orleans for his work on Satchmo. He loved that his first grandson was called Louis, named after a man whose legacy was described by Wynton Marsalis as “like a shining light to the world”. In one of the many letters he sent to London, Armstrong summed up his time on Earth. “I must tell you that my whole life has been happiness,” he stated. “Through all of the misfortunes, etc, I did not plan anything. Life was there for me and I accepted it. And life, what ever came out, has been beautiful to me, and I love everybody.”

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