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Louis Armstrong’s at the Apollo | Jazz Inside and Out

Louis Armstrong’s at the Apollo | Jazz Inside and Out


Louis Armstrong’s at the Apollo

Finally Louis Armstrong has been honored by the Apollo Theater’s Walk of Fame in Harlem. The Apollo has long been a shrine to black music, and the sidewalk in front has plaques for James Brown, Ella Fitzgerald, Patti LaBelle, et al. It says something about the state of jazz that Quincy Jones got there before Louis. Anyway, my history with Louis goes back to when I was a kid. Here is some of it from my forthcoming memoir.

From 1938 to 1955 my parents, my sister and I lived in a grand but comfortable fourteen-room house in Highland Park, twenty-five miles north of Chicago. For me it was not always the idyllic spot it seemed in which to grow up, but I loved the place. Many potent memories have survived that represent a lifestyle very different from what my later life became.

My father and Earl Hines at the party.
There in 1950 my folks and another couple gave a house party that featured Louis Armstrong and his then-current All Stars: Barney Bigard, clarinet; Jack Teagarden, trombone; Earl Hines, piano; Cozy Cole, drums; Arvell Shaw, bass; and Velma Middleton, the large lady of song. About a hundred people showed up to applaud and fawn over Louis, who in turn fawned over them.

The band played on a gray slate terrace behind the house, transformed to a bandstand. Louis and Velma together sang “That’s My Desire” to great applause. I was fifteen, so preoccupied I didn’t notice my friends who snuck in uninvited and sat on the back lawn. Some older sons and daughters of my parents’ friends did get invited, however, which kind of special patronage I did not appreciate. But it was a summer night, and the music just sparkled.

The band, one of Louis’s very best in his later years, played the old familiars like “Muskrat Ramble,” “Mahogany Hall Stomp,” and “Royal Garden Blues” but with new vigor and imagination. You can hear a similar group (with the great Sid Catlett drumming but without Hines) on Satchmo at Symphony Hall (1947). But that night, Hines and Teagarden in particular set off and combined with Louis perfectly.

Jazz played live, outside, and at a house party always seemed to produce music of a higher order. Even though the event took place at my house, I forgot that fact and became just another spectator because the music predominated over everything else. The music had ensnared me.

During breaks, the band came in from the terrace for food and drink. I checked out Teagarden’s famous trombone case, which provided extra space for a clean shirt and a bottle of gin. Teagarden was tall and pallid, smiled but didn’t talk much. Hines charmed everybody. Louis told stories, laughed and mentioned his marijuana conviction years before. I had heard about marijuana by reading Mezz Mezzrow’s Really the Blues but was far from sampling it then.

There were few tunes then with lyrics as explicit as “Black and Blue,” which Louis frequently sang, as he did that night.

Cold empty bed, springs hard as lead,
Feels like ol’ Ned wished I was dead.
What did I do to be so black and blue?

Even the mouse ran from my house.
They laugh at you and scorn you too.
What did I do to be so black and blue?

I’m white inside but that don’t help my case. ‘Cause I can’t hide what is in my face.

How would it end, ain’t got a friend.
My only sin is in my skin.
What did I do to be so black and blue?[1]

As kids we heard and understood these words but didn’t take them very literally or seriously. They were part of a song we regarded as entertainment, and we weren’t out to change the world. We were out to enjoy it.

That party epitomized much about jazz in the early 1950s. It was still a very popular music, followed by young and old, rich and poor. It was good-times music. The overtones of racism were muted but beginning to be challenged. It was entertainment first, art second, but these categories often merged. A party like this, a friend told me, was like “something out of a movie.” It was how wealthy white folks could, if they were so disposed, enjoy jazz music. I did not learn how black folks enjoyed the music until I began to learn how black folks felt and lived.

[1] © Harry Brooks, Fats Waller and Andy Razaf. Lyrics © EMI Music Publishing, Warner/Chappell Music, Inc., Universal Music Publishing Group.



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