What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years
By Ricky Riccardi
Bernard Shaw was tetchy about his first name: “Don’t George me,” he warned. So was the beloved trumpeter known as Satchmo. When he was recording “Hello, Dolly!” for the first time and came to “Hello, Dolly, this is Louie, Dolly” he shouted out, “It’s not Louie, it’s Louis!”
The ho-hum session vamped on, with Armstrong ridiculing this trifle he’d been asked to do. He and his band, the All Stars, forgot about this one-off session and went out on a Midwest tour. Suddenly they started getting requests for the song.
Unbeknownst to them, Jerry Herman’s 1964 musical had just opened back on Broadway. “Any of you guys remember this damn tune?” he asked, and no one could. The band boy had also lost the sheet music, so a record had to be flown to them. In the throes of rampant Beatlemania, vaudeville-flavored “Hello, Dolly!” became an improbable mega-hit for the Dixieland legend, reaching No. 1 on the singles chart, and soon Armstrong could not leave the stage without singing it.
This droll story is among many recounted in Ricky Riccardi’s new biography from Pantheon, What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years. Riccardi is young — he says the book began in 1995 when he was 15 and saw Armstrong in “The Glenn Miller Story,” but he was perfectly situated for this project, being a jazz pianist himself and the archivist at the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Corona, Queens. His Acknowledgments pages show he is tight with all the right aficionados, jazz historians and surviving members of the entourage (Louis died in 1971). Riccardi is, to borrow his own word, thoroughly “Satch-urated.”
Though his M.A. in jazz history is from Rutgers, there is a major CUNY connection here. Satchmo’s fourth wife, Lucille, who apparently was allowed to call him Louie, kept the flame until her death in 1983, and in 1994 the museum was formally established in the Armstrong house under the aegis of Queens College (it is both a National and New York City Historic Landmark). Its founding director was and is Michael Cogswell, and a new $15 million Visitors Center is scheduled to open across the street in 2013. Visit the website at www.louisarmstronghouse.org.
Riccardi’s admiration for Satch runs deep, and his study is well-timed to counter the often negative criticism that he suffered in his last two decades and in the two following his death, which tended to ac-cen-tchu-ate the negative (his alleged Uncle Tomming, his cartoonish happy-facing, his “tragic” life story, the derisive criticism from fellow blacks like Sammy Davis Jr. and Miles Davis). Riccardi calls the ’50s and ’60s “the most misunderstood period of the life of a genius,” and his goal is “to shatter the myths and wrongheaded assumptions that have distorted” how this period has been viewed.
He also argues that Armstrong “became a better technical trumpeter” in his later years, quoting his colleagues convincingly to prove his point. In his last pages, he calls the performances of the later years “epic,” and to underline his defense he quotes a Satch standard between 1947 and 1970: “Someday you’ll be sorry/The way you treated me wrong.”
The book focuses not on the rising meteor’s early New Orleans and Chicago days and the great Hot Five and Hot Seven bands, but on the period of the long fourth marriage to Lucille, which started in 1942; the residence on 107th Street, purchased in 1943; and the long, complicated relationship with his manager Joe Glaser, who lorded it over Armstrong’s gigs and finances but also gave him some blunt good advice that he appears to have followed: “Forget all the … critics … Play for the public. Sing and play and smile.”
Among the high points covered is the 1954 “Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy” for Columbia, which Riccardi calls “arguably the greatest album Armstrong ever recorded.” This is followed by the amusing story behind “Mack the Knife,” which appealed to Satch because he “knew cats like that in New Orleans. They’d stick a knife in you as fast as say hello.” Also hilarious is the vignette of Armstrong coaching Kurt Weill’s widow Lotte Lenya, who had no sense of jazz rhythm. Turk Murphy, the great Bay Area trombonist and bandleader (I actually frequented his Frisco joint Earthquake McGoon’s as a teenager), wrote the arrangement, but the session was almost ruined when Armstrong’s valet lost it.
Covered, too, are the famous tours as America’s jazz ambassador, notably the trip in 1956 to Africa’s Gold Coast, filmed for Edward R. Murrow. As The New York Times shrewdly opined, “America’s secret weapon is a blue note in a minor key.” Several well-received collaborations between Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald followed, part of their success being the “odd couple” vocal styles, defined by some as “whipped cream and sandpaper.”
There’s some solid trivia too. After his death, it was discovered he was not born on the patriotically convenient Fourth of July in 1900, but on Aug. 4, 1901. And he actually recorded four songs in Italian! (Check out “Mi Va Di Cantare” on YouTube.) He got his postage stamp in 1995, and the New Orleans Airport was named for him in 2001.
A serious running theme of What a Wonderful World is Riccardi exploding the bad rap on Armstrong’s supposedly excessive “ooftah” — a term among black activists for what black folks do to please white folks. Riccardi notes that the All Stars were an integrated band “from day one,” and he quotes some of Satchmo’s bitter antiracist private remarks and letters, as well as his reminiscences of racism during a lifetime of countless one-nighter bus tours.
An amusing running joke has to do with Armstrong’s avid proselytizing for the herbal laxative marketed as Swiss Kriss (it looked a lot like marijuana, another longtime taste of his). Later in life he would cheerfully pass out packets of it to one and all — fans and flight attendants. When he sent a telegram to President Eisenhower congratulating him on sending federal troops to Arkansas in an attempt to foil Gov. Orval Faubus’ refusal to integrate schools in Little Rock, his closing salutation was: “am swiss krissly yours louis satchmo armstrong.”
The book is rich in backstage moments, including the All Star colleague recalling everyone being back in their hotel and Louis still signing autographs until the last fan was standing; and Joe Muranyi, his last clarinetist, recalling, “He was very real. There wasn’t a phony bone in his body.”
Satchmo had a wry way with words, too. He described the phlebitis of his last years as “very-close veins,” and he had a little trouble spelling that most important part of a trumpet-player’s anatomy, the embouchure — trying “Embushure or Amberschure.” Fondly recalling his early mentor Peter Davis, he enthused: “You sure taught us the rudimentals.”
But nothing is more poignant than Riccardi’s pages on Armstrong’s heroic effort, despite doctors’ warnings, to fulfill the last gig of his life, a two-week run at the Waldorf, a harrowing testament to a ferocious work ethic and his dedication to his fans. The last song of the final show was “Boy from New Orleans.” The music was “When the Saints Go Marching In,” but the words rehearsed Armstrong’s life. The last lines he would utter from a bandstand were these:
Folks, I’ve had a ball,
Oh, thank you, Lord,
And I want to thank you all.
You were very kind,
To old Satchmo,
Just a boy from New Orleans.
To the shock of many, the Queens funeral, presided over by Lucille, featured no music at all. “Satchmo’s Funeral ‘White and Dead’ in New York, but ‘Black, Alive and Swinging’ in New Orleans,” Jet magazine reported. Muranyi brought his clarinet and never got to open his case, but multiple brass bands played in Louisiana for a crowd of 15,000.
Riccardi says a final “beautiful touch” closed the ceremony: A trumpeter performed “Taps” on the same battered cornet Armstrong learned to play on at the New Orleans Colored Waifs’ Home for Boys in 1913.
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