Story reveals early Louis Armstrong playlist
Louis Armstrong was a blossoming musician as 1913 drew to a close, having been the leader since that spring of the band at the Colored Waifs Home, an institution for delinquent, orphaned and neglected black children to which he had been sent at the start of the year.
The young musicians had paraded through the streets of the city in May and in November provided the accompaniment for a play staged at the Crescent Theatre, receiving favorable reviews in the local press for both.
At Christmastime in New Orleans, Armstrong, then 12, was doing what many performers do on the holidays: working. He and the Colored Waifs Home band played two shows on Christmas Day before thousands of people, at venues at the very heart of early jazz in New Orleans, according to newly discovered stories from local newspaper archives that shed light on Armstrong's early music training.
That morning or early afternoon, on the second floor of the Pythian Temple, a building that still stands on Loyola Avenue near Gravier Street, the Colored Waifs Home band had its first show of the day at The Times-Democrat's holiday gift fund giveaway for needy black children.
This is from the Dec. 26, 1913, Times-Democrat. The band comprises Peter Davis, trainer, cornet; Louis Armstrong, leader, cornet; S. Johnson, cornet; Richard Williams, trombone; Henry Rainey, alto (presumably Henry Rena, an early jazz figure better known as Kid Rena); Isaac Smoot, bass drum; Charles Dejon, James Brown and Louis Smith, tenor drums.The Times-Picayune archive
"Music was furnished by a band from the Colored Waifs' Home," wrote The Times-Democrat, a forerunner to The Times-Picayune, in a story about the event published Dec. 26, 1913. "It was at the suggestion of T.H. Agnew, superintendent of the training school of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, that the services of the band were enlisted, and Mr. Agnew himself was among the spectators who enjoyed the spectacle."
The story names each of the band members, starting with the founder of the Colored Waifs Home band, and even lists some of the tunes they played, perhaps the earliest documented collection of songs performed by Armstrong.
"The band comprises Peter Davis, trainer, cornet; Louis Armstrong, leader, cornet; S. Johnson, cornet; Richard Williams, trombone; Henry Rainey, alto (presumably Henry Rena, an early jazz figure better known as Kid Rena); Isaac Smoot, bass drum; Charles Dejon, James Brown and Louis Smith, tenor drums.
"The band played 'Little Bunch of Shamrock' (sic), 'Dixie,' 'Maryland, My Maryland,' 'America' and other selections."
According to the rival Daily Picayune, the band later made its way around the corner to another toy giveaway, this one organized by the Mystic Order of Hobgoblins, a black social aid organization whose members included Capt. Joseph Jones, a Spanish-American War veteran who operated the Colored Waifs Home. This event was in the Masonic and Odd Fellows Hall near Perdido and South Rampart streets, a building adjacent to the Eagle Saloon, a famed early jazz venue where Buddy Bolden had once played.
The Picayune report was not as detailed as The Times-Democrat's, but it did note that "the band from the Negro Waifs Home played excellent music, and the services of the young musicians were much appreciated. Hymns were mingled with other selections."
Ricky Riccardi, the archivist at the Louis Armstrong House and Museum in New York and author of "What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong's Later Years," described the discovery of new details about the songs Armstrong learned as a budding musician as sensational.
"The choices of 'Dixie' and 'Little Bunch of Shamrocks' show Louis already being trained in the popular music of the day," Riccardi said in an email last week. "We know from interviews that his vocal quartet featured numbers such as 'Down on the Amazon (My Brazilian Beauty)' and 'Shine On Harvest Moon,' so it's telling that Armstrong was already learning to embrace all kinds of music at such a young age, something that would help his career skyrocket when he found success in the 1930s recording everything from Stephen Foster tunes to Hawaiian music to 'La Cucaracha.'"
An estimated 12,000 children received gifts at the two toy giveaways on Christmas in 1913, according to the newspapers.
"It was a significant event — this distribution of gifts to the needy negro children — significant for the spirit of the giving and for the spirit of the receiving," The Times-Democrat wrote.
Armstrong and his band, as you might guess, were a hit.
"At the close, a 'nickel collection' was taken among negro citizens present," The Times-Democrat wrote of the Pythian Temple show, "and the musicians received a veritable coin shower."