Louis was a giant
Extracts from a
Ken Burns interview
Photo by Denis J. Williams
As regards Louis’ singing—it was not so much the timbre of his voice, but the feeling, because it was something that went deep inside. It came from inside. For instance, when he would do a tune like, "That's My Home", Louis sang, 'I'm always welcome back no matter where I roam, we call it home sweet home." But he could do that so much, and so help me, I'd have to fight back the tears. Certain things he did had such artistic feeling and emotion. He was much more than just a great singer. He didn't have a great voice, but his heart and his soul were there. Louis was a giant.
"Shine" was—well a lot of people said that was what they call "The Uncle Tom". But it was the way Louis did it. He always sang, "Just because my teeth are pearly, just because my hair is curly, just because I always wear a smile," And it would go like this, he said, "that's why they call me Shine." And he did it in such a way and with such taste, there's nobody could be offended.
Another thing people don't realize—in the forties came the thing, "Black Is Beautiful." Now back in the twenties, if one man called another man "black" that was fighting words. But Louis was the first man I heard say, "You're black, be proud of it. You're black, you're not white, you're not yellowyou're black. Be proud of it." He was saying that when it was so very unpopular That's how far ahead he was. And Louis, I never heard him say anything about any race, anything.
There were a lot of people who took offence at him for portraying the King of the Zulus, not just musicians. Well, that was so stupid, because this was an honour. He had a costume on, like the King of the Zulu's, he had the make-up on, he had the black face on. That had been going on for a hundred years, and nobody took offence to it until Louis did it. And that also hurt him. But, one of the things that happened I'll never forget. We were riding on the float during the parade. Oh yeah, when Louis was King of the Zulu's, we had the honour—they let us ride on the float with him. Oh, what an experience that was, because all of his fans had come from all over for the Zulu Parade. And this one year they had more people for the Zulu than the New Orleans Rex, because Louis Armstrong was King of the Zulus. People from all over the world came there and we're riding this float and it’s such a great feeling to see the people, and hear how much they were cheering him. They had designated stops where they would toast us with champagne and Louis would throw out coconuts to the people. Everybody would get a coconut from the King of the Zulus, that was a great thing This went on until we got to the Congo Square.
I'd never seen anything this beautiful in my life. They have some tribes—the black Indians of Louisiana. And it's been the custom for maybe two hundred years that the King of the Zulus must meet the chiefs of these tribes, and these tribes get together for a year before and make these unbelievable beautiful costumes with these full feathers. It would be maybe a thousand of them in these costumes that all come down, and then here comes the King of the Zulus with the band playing The Saints and they would meet and drink champagne. This was a beautiful thing, and such a beautiful day—too bad it had such an unpleasant ending.
After the parade we were supposed to play a concert that night and the City of New Orleans would not permit us to play because we had a white man in the band, Jack Teagarden, the great trombonist, and it hurt Louis so much that he refused to be buried in Louisiana. Every governor, senator, everybody that came since he died—they want to try to get him, to have his body laid where they named the park, but that hurt him so deeply he said he never did want to be buried there. But I suspect that one day they'll get his body back there. They will.
I was with him for a whole bunch of years and he thrived on performance. Louis, if he didn't play he would have died early. I can see now the way I am—sort of semi-retired. I'm what they call legally blind, but if I didn't get out and play, I wouldn't survive. That's a thing I've been doing all my life and that's the way he was. And he had so much music in him, it's no way he could have lived and not played. One of the worst experiences I had with him, I did the last three weeks with him. We were at the Empire Room at the Waldorf Astoria. Louis had been in intensive care—the doctor told him, "Louis, you don't do it, you can't do it." Louis said, "Well, I got a contract, I got to do it for my fans."' And they had to help him on and off.
Louis’ favourite music—well he loved Guy Lombardo, because Guy Lombardo got the record for drawing the largest crowd in the history of the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem. There was something about Guy's music that especially black people like, because he played the melody, and whatever he did, or played, it was sincere. Every year, the president of General Electric would hire Guy Lombardo and Louis Armstrong to put on a big convention. And the only thing he wanted was to hear Guy Lombardo's Band and Louis play, "When the Saints Go Marching In". He would stay there up to then, and as soon as we played "When the Saints Go Marching In" with both bands together, he'd get up and split. Every year we did that. Louis said he liked it. In fact, Louis recorded with Guy Lombardo.
But Louis liked all types of music. He had the first tape recorder, I think. Right after the war he had the first tape recorder I'd ever seen and we'd record some of the things. In fact, some of his tapes are in the Louis Armstrong Archives at Queens College. He recorded these things and listened to them—he'd sleep with them. I do the same thing, I sleep with the radio or the tape recorder on all night. I can't sleep without it—I guess I got that from him.
If the music went off he'd wake right up. He could be sound asleep but as soon as the music turned off he'd wake up.
A lot of people don't know that he smoked marijuana. Louis introduced marijuana to New York City. It's a herb. Now the only reason that marijuana is illegal is because it grows wild and the government cannot tax anything that grows without being cultivated. But the marijuana—he smoked it all of his life. He didn't overdo it or anything. He said it relaxed him and it made him slow down, because of the pace that he had to keep up with. I used to look at Louis and I'd say, "Louis how can you stand this pressure?" He’d say, "Well, I'm used to it.", because the press and everyone was on this man especially after the big hits. And I said, "How can you stand it?" He says, "Oh." He says pot helped him to relax and to bear this pressure.
There was a lot of pressure in '57—after the Littlerock schools were being integrated. I remember what happened.
Louis wrote a letter to President Eisenhower—that's why Louis Armstrong has never been to the White House.
He was very respectful. "Mr. President," he says, "I look at the pictures of these soldiers with these young black kids standing there. Mr. President, if you will go there and take these kids by the hand and lead them into the school, I will join you, I will be by your side." I never heard Louis go anywhere, I mean, political. He stayed away from politics, but this thing got to him.
The press wouldn't let him relent after that, but then he didn't want to. So, the next day Joe Glaser called a press release and said, "Louis Armstrong never said nothing like that", because he's thinking about those big fees. He said, "Louis Armstrong never said anything about that and he didn't say anything like that." Louis said, "Yes I did. I meant it, and I'll stand by it until my dying day. All I ask is for them to take those little kids into the school. Why can't they go to school? All they want to do is go to school. So, why they got soldiers to keep them out of school." And from then on, he never was invited to the White House.
How I started with Louis—I was just out of the Navy, and I was in the Navy band in Washington, and then in Quonset Point and then I was stationed on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific. But when I got back to St. Louis, Louis Armstrong was playing at a club they called The Club Plantation. The bass player he had before had to go back to Philadelphia, his home town, because his wife was expecting a child. So he called the union to ask them who was the best bass player in town and I was there and they sent me.
He didn't recognize me at first but the first job was in Kansas City, and I was scared to death, because they had guys in the band like Joe Garland, who wrote 'In the Mood' and 'Leap Frog' and they had Dexter Gordon and Big Chief Russel Moore. I opened the book, and the bass player had probably not opened the book in years and all the arrangements were in different places. The book was a complete shambles and I'm scared to death, and he calls the first set. The auditorium was packed with about three or four thousand people. I'm looking, trying to find the arrangements and Joe Garland who was the music director looked back and said—he didn't even remember my name—he said, 'Hey bass player, is anything wrong?' I said, 'Yeah—the book is all messed up.' And I looked around I look at Louis and Louis just looked back as if to say, What do we have here, and then he looked away.
So, I finally got the music together, we played the first set and then after we finished Joe Garland came back and said, 'What are you playing?' I said, 'Well, I'm only playing the arrangements here', because the bass player they had before hadn't looked at the music and he was playing his own notes. After about three weeks Louis said 'Would you like to do a few more weeks with us till he gets back?' I said, 'Of course.' And then after that he said, “You want the job?' And that was the beginning of my first job with Louis and it was a horrifying experience. I noticed that after the second set everybody in the band started looking back and kind of smiling and Louis looked back and nodded. That's all he did, but that set my whole life, that one little gesture he made.
Later he said, “Are you sure you’re from St. Louis? Are you sure you're not from New Orleans, cause you have a New Orleans beat." In other words—it's the New Orleans beat that comes from the funeral bands. That beat goes all the way off to New Orleans because the New Orleans mission musicians came up from New Orleans up to Memphis, up to St. Louis and up to Davenport. In fact Davenport is where Bix Beiderbecke lived and that's how Louis first met Bix.
Swing is getting the right note at the right time, not before and not after. But right on at the right time and keeping it there, don't speed up or slow down, keep it there, keep it constant and at the right time and go along, cause if the drummer and the bass player don't get together there’s nothing in jazz is going to happen. If you don't have a heart beat—the bass is the heart beat and the drum is the time—so in jazz, which is a rhythmic music, you've got to have the time and you've got to have the pulse—the bass is the pulse. If you ever listen to music without a bass it sounds empty.
So, that's why you gotta swing. Just keep that going, and believe me, when I tell you that's like a heart beat and you look at the audience, they all get it and you see them first start pattin' their foot, and then you're going to see them get up and start swinging around. That's what makes jazz so unique, so unique and so great, that's what makes it different from any other music.
Now, freedom, yeah! Freedom is relative—freedom means like when you're playing your chord change, you have the freedom to invert and change those chords any way, but you don't have the freedom to change tempo to go back and forth, that has to remain constant or else you're playing some other kind of music. See, there's the freedom. There's no such thing as complete freedom because complete freedom is chaos. The human race is not yet ready for complete freedom, that's my own personal opinion. We have to have a guide linewe have to have something constant.
This music of ours—this American jazz—says something about who we are. Yes it does. Why? Because it has the cultures of so many different races. It has European culture, African culture, a mix from the Indian culture—it's the true music of the world, of true music, of people, humanity. That's why it has travelled so far, and it keeps on travelling. It's the most played music in the whole world today. And that is because we can relate to jazz. There's one thing I noticed, playing with Louis Armstrong. We played some of the countries that are the most primitive and we played some of the most sophisticated, but the people react the same to the things we play, no matter what culture, or what race.
They react in the same way to the same things that we used to do with Louis. So jazz goes beyond race or culture, it goes to what we are, as human beings.
This music expresses life. That's the life that you've led, your experience, that's what you are as an individual performer—that's what it expresses. If you are sincere in playing this music, it will come out playing jazz. What you are inside, your heart, your love, your mental capacities, whatever—will come out because it requires all of that to play this music.