A packed theater in Chicago is in attendance to cheer on one of the most beloved musicians in town, Louis Armstrong. Armstrong walks to center stage, a devilish grin on his face; his eyes widen. He picks up his trumpet and begins blowing a tune from a current Broadway show. The audience goes wild at the mere sound of his horn. Armstrong creates a dazzling solo on the popular song, eliciting shouts from the crowd each time he hits a high note. As he finishes, he launches into a novelty number showcasing his talent as a singer and then transitions to a swinging scat interlude, his eyes closed. As he mugs ever so slightly, the crowd applauds his vocal inventiveness.
Armstrong disappears offstage and returns in tails, a pair of glasses and a funny hat. Impersonating a preacher, he tells some of Bert Williams’s finest vaudeville jokes and delivers a satrical monologue, before resuming on his trumpet. The band plays “Sugar Foot Stomp”—a good old one—and Armstrong swings out with chorus after chorus of blues playing. When he finishes, he bows and grins, closes his eyes, and unleashes a smile to end all smiles.
Was this 1957, or 1967—the latter part of Armstrong’s career when he was derided by some as an Uncle Tom? No, the year was 1927. The Broadway number was Noel Coward’s “Poor Little Rich Girl,” one of Armstrong’s big features with Erskine Tate’s orchestra at the Vendome Theatre. The novelty song he scatted was “Heebie Jeebies” and the preacher routine harked back to his childhood in New Orleans, where he won applause for impersonations and sermons at the local church. A 1927 review found among Armstrong’s personal scrapbooks read, “Erskine Tate’s orchestra at the Vendome Theatre last week was a ‘wow.’ Louis Armstrong, who is one of [Heebie Jeebies’s] pet writers, led the members of the popular orchestra in a ‘prayer’ with his cornet. During his ‘offering’ he wore a high silk hat, frocktail coat and smoked glasses. The fans are still giggling over the act as it was far the most amusing one ever seen here.” Such a review was not uncommon for Armstrong: “But when Luis [sic] Armstrong sang ‘My Baby Knows How,’ to Charles Harris, who slipped a wig over his head and played the role of the baby that Luis was singing about, the fans laughed themselves dizzy. The number was the best Tate had offered since Luis ‘preached the Gospel’ some weeks ago.” Yet another described him with admiration: “This talented musician plays, sings and dances.”
Louis Armstrong won audiences over with showmanship, laughter, and sublime music, starting as early as 1927. It is the Armstrong of that year who is usually made out to be the serious artist, celebrated for the groundbreaking Hot Five and Hot Seven—recordings that announced the singularity of jazz as a true American art form. So it was no surprise that Christopher Porterfi eld’s 2006 Time magazine review of Armstrong’s 1920s work exclaimed “Forget the Satchmo who sang and mugged his way through his later decades, wonderfully entertaining as he was. This is Armstrong the force of nature—exuberant, inspired, irresistible.”
The truth is, Louis Armstrong was a force of nature from the time he fi rst picked up his horn as a teenager until the day he died in 1971. Yet the myth of the “two Armstongs” continues: the young serious artist and the old entertainer. In fact, Armstrong had always been a master showman. Every aspect of his character, including love of entertaining, was formed during his childhood in New Orleans, singing and scatting in a vocal quartet before even learning to play the cornet. When he joined the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra in New York in 1924, Henderson only grudgingly allowed Armstrong’s Bert Williams vaudeville routines on stage, fearing it was too rough around the edges for the predominantly upscale audience. This rankled Armstrong for years: “Yeah, but Fletcher didn’t dig me like Joe Oliver,” Armstrong recalled in a 1960 interview. “He had a million-dollar talent in his band and he never thought enough to let me sing or nothing. He’d go hire a singer, that lived up in Harlem, that night for the recording the next day, who didn’t even know the song. And I’d say, ‘Well, let me sing.’ ‘Nooo, NOOOO!’ All he had was the trumpet in mind. And that’s where he missed the boat. In those days, all Fletcher had to do was keep in his band the things that I’m doing now.”
Even at age twenty-four, Armstrong was confident of his “million-dollar talent” to sing and entertain as well as play the trumpet. When he joined Erskine Tate’s symphony orchestra in Chicago in 1925, Armstrong’s popularity skyrocketed, leading to the vaunted Hot Five recordings for the Okeh label. The Hot Fives and the later Hot Sevens brim with funny bits, though the humorous songs are usually given short shrift.
This dismissal of Armstrong’s later years can be traced back to Gunther Schuller’s 1967 work Early Jazz, which systematically solidified the jazz canon of the 1920s. With a background in classical music, Schuller had no patience for Armstrong’s comedic tendencies and instead focused chiefly on his trumpet playing. Subsequent jazz histories followed Schuller’s lead, rightfully praising tunes like “West End Blues” and “Potato Head Blues,” but at the expense of less serious works such as “Irish Black Bottom” or “That’s When I’ll Come Back to You.” Twenty years later, Schuller followed Early Jazz with The Swing Era, in which he continued to praise Armstrong’s trumpet playing, but grew increasingly weary of his showmanship. By the time he addressed Armstrong’s later years, Schuller was despondent. “But the end was not what it should have been,” He wrote before suggesting that “as America’s unofficial ambassador to the world, this country should have provided him an honorary pension to live out his life in dignity, performing as and when he might, but without the need to scratch out a living as a good- natured buffoon, singing ‘Blueberry Hill’ and ‘What a Wonderful World’ night after night.”
Schuller was wrong. Armstrong didn’t resent singing “Blueberry Hill” every night. When asked in 1968 what single record he would take to a desert island, Armstrong responded, “I’d like to take ‘Blueberry Hill,’ ‘cause right now, it’s like ‘The Star- Spangled Banner’ in America when I sing it.” While Armstrong’s trumpet playing may have grown less exhibitionistic over the years, his singing, swinging, mugging, clowning, and playing the hell out of his horn were the same in 1955 as they were in 1925.
In a 1956 interview Armstrong discussed his longtime drummer Sid Catlett, but might subconsciously have been talking about himself. “Take a man like Sid,” he said. “He never did get his just praise like he should. He would get a write-up, sometime they’d say, ‘Well, he’s more showman now’—showmanship and blah blah. But they ain’t figuring out them notes are comin’ out the horn. And if you stand up there and play and don’t smile or something or show that you’re relaxing, then they call you a deadpan or—I don’t know.” Armstrong knew he was damned if he did and damned if he didn’t. In the late sixties, when riding the wave of “Hello, Dolly!,” Armstrong was asked about the critics of his style of performing. “Aw, I am paid to entertain the people,” Armstrong responded. “If they want me to come on all strutty and cutting up—if that makes ’em happy, why not?”
Some writers accused Armstrong of coasting in his later years, relying on the same songs every night, mugging excessively, not really playing the horn as he once did. Nothing could be farther from the truth. As Dan Morgenstern has said, this period was in fact the most taxing of Armstrong’s career:
He’s out there all the time. He is the master of ceremonies. He is the lead singer. He is the lead player. He’s there on everything. He will be sure to close those ensembles with something that demands a little bit in the way of chops and he’s there from beginning to end. So that happens at a time in his career when he’s already, you know, this is . . . what, 1947? So he’s already in his late forties. This is a time when . . . a brass player of his range and using the kind of, not a non-pressure system but the kind of embouchure and technique that he has, which is very taxing. It’s almost incredible what he can do, you know, and continued to do.
Armstrong once said, “I never tried to prove nothing, just always wanted to give a good show. My life has been my music; it’s always come first, but the music ain’t worth nothing if you can’t lay it on the public. The main thing is to live for that audience, ‘cause what you’re there for is to please the people.” Armstrong didn’t consider the venues he played or the size of the audience; he always gave everything he had. “I don’t give a damn how many come in, if it was one or one thousand,” he said in 1960. “I ain’t goin’ play no louder or no softer, and I ain’t goin’ play no less. I might play a little more, but always up to par.” According to Humphrey Lyttelton, the British trumpet player and author, “Those who worked under him would often declare that, if the curtain went up on a show to reveal only a handful of customers in the house, their hearts would sink. They knew that he was about to work them twice as hard.” When a reporter once made the mistake of assuming that Armstrong took it easy when confronted with smaller crowds, Armstrong replied indignantly, “You don’t take it easy, never! One of those guys might have hitch-hiked three hundred miles to hear your band for the first time. He don’t do that to see you take it easy!”
Armstrong lived for his fans, not for the hardened jazz critics who wanted to hear “West End Blues” every night. He was an international figure and the most beloved jazz musician of all time on the strength of his music and his personality, by being Armstrong “the artist” and Armstrong “the entertainer.”
From the Hardcover edition.