Louis Armstrong: Music, Memories, Marijuana and Laxatives…

June 21, 2015

in REFLECTIONS AND RANTS

(Originally published on February 28, 2011)

I’ve told this one too many times, and I might as well retire it now.

I’m a 21-year-old reporter, and I am in the Empress Hall, London, in May 1956 to see my hero, Louis Armstrong. My ticket has cost a week’s wages, plus train fare from the north of England, and a night in a dire bed and breakfast.

It’s hard to explain, on a different continent half a century later, how significant Armstrong’s appearance in Britain was. The hippest, hottest pop music in Britain at that time was called “trad” jazz — the attempt by British players to emulate the American classic jazz of the ’20s.  Today, only a small handful of bands keep the tradition alive; the audience and the players are, literally, dying off.

And the Godhead of classic jazz was — and indeed still is — Louis Armstrong. Born in New Orleans, front man of the hottest studio band ever (and those Hot Five and Hot Seven records still resonate, 80 years after they were recorded), crossover star of hit records and movies, and an instrumentalist with an immediately recognizable sound and the most distinctive of voices, Armstrong had not played in Britain since the early ’30s.

The promoters sadly underestimated his appeal and his popularity, and the first half of the show was a trial for the audience. We got a band led by one Vic Lewis that toiled in the dance hall circuit, we got a local trad band we could see for half a crown at any club in London, any time, and then we got Peg Leg Bates, a black vaudeville “entertainer” who was a tap dancer with a wooden leg (I kid you not). And after all of that Ella Logan, a fairly routine jazz pop singer, did a 15-minute set and finally, Jack Carter an American syand-up comedian — who was, by this time, facing the most hostile audience of his career.

As the lights went down after the intermission, the band assembled on stage in the centre of the arena, and Armstrong — making a spectacular entrance  — walks down from the top of the greys, playing arpeggios with that unique sound, recognizable anywhere in the world.

To be honest, I can’t remember much of the show itself. My guess it was the standard routine he performed, probably more than a thousand times, in the last 25 years of his life. I do remember the sheer joy of it, though, and the fact that I was watching and hearing jazz history in the making. When I left the building afterwards, I was at least a foot off the ground.

The singular value of press credentials

Outside, I suddenly come to my senses, and, waving my official National Union of Journalists’ PRESS card, I get back in the building, and finally stand outside the great man’s dressing room.

Eventually, I was admitted; the room was full of well-wishers and British jazz musicians I knew, at least by sight; there was an odd smell, but since it was a hockey arena, I thought it must be some kind of athletic liniment.

There were, however, things I did not know about Louis Armstrong. I did not know he was one of the most avid pot smokers of all time. Secondly, I was not aware that he credited his good health and long life to a Swiss herbal laxative, which he promoted at every opportunity.

Armstrong, sitting in front of a giant mirror, stripped to the waist and wearing only black track pants and a snow-white towel atop his head, grinned and beckoned me over.

“Mr. Armstrong,” I told him, “How wonderful that you are back in Britain, what a superb performance, such great playing…” I burbled on in this fashion until, impatiently, he cut in.

“So,” he growled, “Are ya regular?” He continued, filling my stunned silence (and the guffaws from the other musicians in the room): “Are ya reg’lar? Do ya have gas?” As I stuttered some sort of response, which I now forget, he reached over and presented me with a yellow advertising flyer.

It featured a keyhole picture of the great man, seated on the commode with his pants round his ankles and a big grin on his face.

The headline, in bold capitals, read: SATCHMO SAYS LET IT ALL COME OUT — SWISS KRISS. Using a fountain pen, with green ink, he signed his name with a flourish, and — still totally confused and near speechless — I left the building.

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Postscript:

I saw Louis twice in Canada before he died in 1970. Once was at a dance hall in Burlington, Ontario, and someone took a photograph of the two of us after that gig. It was a 2X2 snapshot, which my daughters found, and had blown up; there’s a framed copy on my wall at home. When visitors spot it, they inevitably ask who the geek is with Louis Armstrong.

The second time was at the venerable Kee to Bala, a dance hall in the Muskokas which now plays host, each summer, to the likes of Blue Rodeo, Kim Mitchell and David Wilcox. At the time I could not afford a ticket, so I sat on the steps at the back of the hall, leading to the dressing room, where I could hear the music quite well. At intermission, the trombone player (Trummy Young) came out for a smoke and a breath of fresh air. He asked me what I was doing there, and when I told him I didn’t have the cash for a ticket, he smuggled me in, and I caught the second half of the show standing directly in front of the stage.

There are many legendary stories of Armstrong’s fondness for marijuana, but the most famous one recalls the trumpeter returning  home after a U.S. State Department tour. On the plane from Europe, he sat next to then-Senator Richard Nixon; the flight was a pleasant one because both men were sports fanatics, and tales of baseball, basketball and football filled the time.

As they walked down the airplane steps, Armstrong turned to Nixon and said “Senator, I’m feeling tired, could you carry my horn for me?”

And that, of course, is how he got his stash through customs.

Years later, I met a clarinet player who had been a member of Louis’ last band, and asked if the story was true. “I don’t know,” he said. ”But it could be true, and as far as I’m concerned, it is!”

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Videos of the week:

Louis Armstrong, on stage, at Empress Hall, half a century ago. Trummy Young is on trombone, Edmond Hall on clarinet, Billy Kyle on piano, Squire Gersh on bass andBarrett Deems on drums. And what a polite audience we were!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GMNLGxmjS3c

 

And, from the same performance, his massive hit, “Mack the Knife.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YcgoJkU6t7M