A very lucky man
Extracts from a
Ken Burns interview
Photo by Denis J. Williams
I'm very lucky man because I had a chance in my lifetime to play with a man that I admired, one of my heroes, and that's Louis Armstrong. When I was a young kid, the first time I saw him was when he came to the Comet Theater in St. Louis. In those days St. Louis was a completely segregated city—this is before the Second World War and they had this black theatre out in the black neighbourhood they called The Comet, where they used to bring all the big black bands and Louis brought his band to play. My father took me to hear him—I must have been about 8 or 9 years old. I'd heard a few records of Louis, but when he walked out on that stage and started playing an electric shock went up my spine. My father said, "I never seen you react like that to anything."
I never forgot that as long as I live, and to be able to have spent 25 years of my life later playing with this man, it was just more than I could hope for. I'm a very fortunate man to be able to do that, in my lifetime.
Everything that Louis did, and what he played came from within—it came from his heart and mind. It wasn't anything contrived—it was Louis. He was a completely honest man. Musically, and in every way that I knew about. He was also a very generous man. He believed in helping young people. Velma Middleton and I were the only two people he kept out of his big band when the All-Stars first started, and for some reason he took a liking to me.
The second time I saw Louis I was in the Navy and he came to play a dance in the auditorium one afternoon. There were very few people there, because it was an afternoon concert. Louis had a big band there. So I was in the Navy, I was in my uniform, and I stood in front of the bandstand for the complete four hours of the concert.
I didn't think Louis had been paid because there were two or three hundred people there, but for an auditorium that size, it was like no people at all. And I stood there during the whole four hours, even during the intermissions. Years later when I was with Louis, I said, 'Hey Pops, do you remember during the Second World War that you came to St. Louis and you played that afternoon dance at the auditorium in St. Louis and there were very few people there?' He said, 'Yeah I remember.' I said, 'Do you remember a sailor that stood there for the whole four hours?' He said, 'Was that you?' I said, 'Yeah that was me.' He said, 'I remember that, just like it was yesterday.'
If he got angry it was about something that was definitely wrong, but it didn't last. He would blow up and then that would be it, he held no grudge. And the anger would be something legitimate, like for instance, he hated for you to be late, because Louis Armstrong was always the first one on the bandstand, and he worked very hard and he paid you very well and he expected you to be serious if you worked with him. A couple of times when he really blew up, when somebody was just deliberately late or trying to do something wrong, then he would blow up, but he never did hold a grudge.
We used to record for Columbia Records, and Columbia at the time used a converted cathedral on 30th Street in Manhattan. The acoustics were magnificent, so the Philharmonic and the Met used to record there and all the big bands. One day we were in the studio getting ready to record, and in walked a very attractive lady, with a very soft German accent. She walked up to Louis and said, 'Mister Armstrong, it's been my life-long ambition to make a record with you: a duet with you. And this is one of the few chances I think I'll ever have. Since you are just about to record one of my husband's tunes I would like to make a duet with you for my private collection.'
The lady turned out to be Lotte Lenya, the widow of Kurt Weil. We did the record—she with her operatic voice and Louis with his voice. They did this duet together on Mack the Knife and it was hilarious. After it was over I never heard it but I've been told it was great. After that we made the commercial record and that record became one of his biggest hits.
As regards Hello Dolly—we were playing this club in Chicago called Chez Paris, and got a call from Louis' agent Joe Glaser to go into New York on our off day, Sunday. Louis said, 'Well, we’re working hard and we need some rest.' Louis, being the professional that he was, said, 'Well, we'll do it.'
We flew into New York on Sunday, got to the studio and they gave Louis the sheet music. Louis looked at it and heard it down and said, 'You mean to tell me you called me out here to do this.' He hated it But we made the record and went back to Chicago to finish out the engagement. Three or four months later we were out on the road doing one-nighters in Nebraska and Iowa, way, way out. And every night we'd hear from the audience, 'Hello Dolly, Hello Dolly.' The first couple of nights Louis ignored it, and it got louder, 'Hello Dolly'.
Louis looked at me and said, "What the hell is 'Hello Dolly'?" I said, "Well, you remember that date we did a few months ago in Chicago? One of the tunes was called 'Hello Dolly', it's from a Broadway show." We had to call and get the music and learn it and put it in the concert. The first time we put it in the concert pandemonium broke out because we were so far out he didn't even realize he had a big hit. But things like that happened. Especially with Louis.
That was his biggest commercial hit of his whole life, he never had a hit like it. It pushed the Beatles out of first place, and for a man who had been in show business for 57 years, that was unheard ofespecially playing our type of music—what they called Dixieland. Then What a Wonderful World became a big hit 20 years after the man passed away.
The Armstrong All-Stars was a very international band, we travelled all over the world many times, in fact, at times, we made a world tour twice a year. No matter where we went we always saw signs of Americans who were there before us. One was the Harlem Globetrotters and another one was Coca Cola, so we were the third Americans. That was very interesting—that we introduced American Jazz to so many places that had never heard it live before.
One of those places was Africa. I'll never forget that as long as I live. The first place we landed was in the Congo— Leopoldville and we got there two or three days after Lamumba was killed. We were the guest of Morshumba, who was then the prime minister, and we stayed at his place. We left the airport, went to his place, got through the gate and rode about 20 minutes before we got to his house. Every 50 feet or so one side was a tank, on the other side was an armoured car, all the way up to his house. When we got to his house and were getting ready to go in, we looked up a tree and there's a cat sitting up in the tree with a leopard skin on and a bow and arrow.
We said, "'What is that?" So, the guy said, "Well this tribe has been the protector and guard for the kings of the Congo for 5,000 years." This one tribe has always guarded the kings of the Congo. That was strange to see all this armour and then this guy with a bow and arrow, but it was a ceremonial thing Beautiful costume.
That night they gave a reception, a dinner for us, and this guy came up in his white coat —the summer tuxedo thing. With his British accent he said, "By Jove it was inspiring today—seeing you." And we said, "Why thank you, but were you there?" He said, "I was there. I was the guard up in the tree in the leopard skin." He turned out to be a wonder—he had all kinds of degrees from Oxford, but that was a ceremony— like the Beefeaters in London.
Well, first we did a concert for the VIP's—the diplomats and the press, and then we gave a concert that was paid for by the government, in a soccer stadium, which held over a hundred and fifty thousand people, one of the largest crowds I've ever seen. We started playing and Barrett Deems started playing his drum solo and the people got so carried away that they wanted to get close to Louis because they'd seen him on television and everything.
A hundred and fifty thousand people started moving forward and the police tried to push them back but they just kept coming forward. They were getting so close that they were backing the police and soldiers up against the bandstand. The bandstand started shaking, so we had to stop playing. That was the only thing that stopped them because it could have been a catastrophe. But that was the reception we got. Another incident was during the welcoming ceremony—the real welcoming ceremony the next day. We were down on the banks of the Congo River—they had all these stands set up—a ceremony they did for thousands of years. We didn't know what to expect, then, all of a sudden, we could hear all these drums off in the distance.
It kept getting louder and louder, we looked up the Congo River, and there were about four or five hundred barges with drummers from every tribe in the Congo coming down this river. They had Louis sitting on the stage, on a throne next to the VIP's, with all these tribes coming down playing these drums. The closer they got the louder it was. Each tribe had their own costumes and everyone said that they didn’t remember that happening before—must have been hundreds of years since anybody'd gotten a welcoming ceremony like that.
Louis looked very wistful. He said, 'Gee I saw a lady just looked exactly like Momma Lucy.' Then someone looked like his sister and after that somebody like his mother. He said, 'This is truly where I'm from.' That’s something that can only happen once in a lifetime.