Satchmo's Clarion Memoir of a Big Easy Childhood

By Jonathan Yardley
Wednesday, September 14, 2005

An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.

Sometime around 1918, after a night on the town, a 17-year-old boy in New Orleans was brought home to his mother "dead drunk." She gave him "a good physic" -- patent medicine -- and a few days later took him to a few neighborhood honky-tonks so that "I can show you how to really enjoy good liquor." Her aim was to teach him how to drink properly, but as they made their rounds the mother got a good deal drunker than the son, to the point that when they got to Henry Ponce's saloon, "she fell flat on her face." Gabe, one of the boy's several honorary stepfathers -- men with whom his mother had enjoyed occasional relations -- came by to help out:

"He stopped to shake hands with Ponce and tell him what a swell gentleman he was. He thanked him for giving me the chance to play [in the saloon's band] when an older musician would have given better service. Ponce told Gabe that an older musician did not have what this youngster had -- sincerity and a kind of creative power which the world would eventually recognize. Gabe did not understand all those big words, but he thanked Ponce and went out supporting both mother and me with his strong arms."

By now you have figured out -- I certainly hope you have -- that the youngster was Louis Armstrong and that Henry Ponce should have been awarded the gold medal for prognostication. Even then Armstrong was known as Satchelmouth, or Dippermouth, and was playing cornet around New Orleans, but his home town wasn't big enough for him. Already he had played with the biggest names in New Orleans music, most notably Joe "King" Oliver and Kid Ory, and he'd been in Fate Marable's band on a Mississippi riverboat. He was soon to meet "a fine young white boy named Jack Teagarden" and "the almighty Bix Beiderbecke, the great cornet genius," and before long he was on a train headed for Chicago, to join King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band at the Lincoln Gardens.

That was in 1922, and it is here that Armstrong ends his story in "Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans," but, of course, that was only the beginning. By 1925 Armstrong was recording with his own small groups, first the Hot Five and then the Hot Seven, and in 1928 he made the recording that changed jazz forever, "West End Blues." The first four notes of his piercing introductory phrases, with their clarity, power and originality, are simply -- to this day -- astonishing. As Gunther Schuller has written, they "are as instructive a lesson in what constitutes swing as jazz has to offer." During the more than four decades between that historic moment and his death in 1971, Armstrong was what he remains to this day: the most celebrated, beloved and influential of all American musicians.

Armstrong wasn't just a musician of incandescent gifts and accomplishments, he was a remarkably gifted writer. A lovely photograph in Gary Giddins's exemplary study of the man and his music, also called "Satchmo" (1988), shows him at a cluttered dressing-room table, eyeglasses perched on his nose, a serious expression on his face, pecking away at the typewriter that was always with him. Giddins writes:

"Of Armstrong's many accomplishments, the least recognized is his prolificacy as a writer of autobiographical prose. He was by far the most expansive musician-writer jazz has ever known. . . . He was unschooled in spelling and grammar, but he had an ear for language and could express himself with enviable clarity in trim, speechlike cadences. Tallulah Bankhead wrote in 1952, 'He uses words like he strings notes together, artistically and vividly.' She was referring to his conversation, which was peppered with an inventive brand of slang, but the observation holds for his prose as well. Usually, he typed single-space and fast. Sometimes he would write dozens of pages at a clip in an always legible and authoritative hand. He favored yellow typing paper and pens with green ink."

Two books were published by Armstrong during his lifetime. "Swing That Music" (1936) is, as Giddins puts it, "so heavily ghosted as to be spurious." "Satchmo" (1954) is his own work, though fiddled with here and there -- nothing really serious -- by a priggish editor. In 1999 a wonderful compilation of his unpublished autobiographical writings, "Louis Armstrong, in His Own Words," was published, adding much to our understanding of his post-New Orleans days, but "Satchmo" remains the definitive work, not merely splendid in its own right but one of the essential American memoirs.

My parents gave me a copy at Christmas 1954; probably I asked for it, as my father turned up his nose at jazz and wouldn't have chosen it himself, though my mother liked "Fats" Waller and the big bands. I was 15 and had fallen in love with jazz about four years earlier. Somehow I'd gotten my hands on a 45 rpm extended-play "album" -- remember those? -- with four tracks by Jelly Roll Morton and His Red Hot Peppers, and from there it was a short step to Armstrong and his monumental recordings of the 1920s. A love affair had begun for me that will end only when I do, and though I subsequently came to love jazz in almost all forms, the music of its early years remains for me -- as for jazz itself -- the foundation upon which everything else rests.

It's the American music, and Armstrong was its most transcendently American figure. For years legend had it (legend aided and abetted by Armstrong himself) that he was born on the Fourth of July 1900, but that's too good to be true and it isn't; Giddins conclusively proves that he was born on Aug. 4, 1901, in what Armstrong describes as "the crowded section of New Orleans known as Back o' Town . . . the very heart of what is called The Battlefield because the toughest characters in town used to live there, and would shoot and fight so much." The neighborhood was black and poor, and New Orleans was rigidly segregated, yet there's not a scintilla of bitterness in "Satchmo." This isn't because Armstrong was an Uncle Tom -- he was anything but -- but because he always rolled with life's punches, as on a Mississippi journey with the Fate Marable Band:

"We were the first colored band to play most of the towns at which we stopped, particularly the smaller ones. The ofays [whites] were not used to seeing colored boys blowing horns and making fine music for them to dance by. At first we ran into some ugly experiences while we were on the bandstand, and we had to listen to plenty of nasty remarks. But most of us were from the South anyway. We were used to that kind of jive, and we would just keep on swinging as though nothing had happened. Before the evening was over they loved us. We couldn't turn for them singing our praises and begging us to hurry back."

Armstrong was tolerant and patient. He was also tough. Even as a fairly small boy, Armstrong "was pretty wise to things." He "had been brought up around the honky-tonks on Liberty and Perdido where life was just about the same as it was in Storyville [the famous red-light district and jazz hotbed] except that the chippies were cheaper." He was "spellbound" by the likes of "Black Benny, Cocaine Buddy, Nicodemus, Slippers, Red Cornelius, Aaron Harris and George Bo'hog," street characters all of whom were "as tough as they come" yet all of whom "liked good music" and encouraged him as he mastered first the bugle, then the cornet.

The bugle was put into his hands at the Colored Waifs Home for Boys, to which he was sent in 1913 after a boyish prank. He dreaded going there, but learned so much about music by playing in its band that upon his release at the age of 14 he was "proud of the days I spent" there, as he remained for the rest of his life. Back in the city, he continued with his music -- older musicians seem to have recognized him as a prodigy -- but he was "the sole support" of his mother, sister and his own adopted son (the boy's mother, Armstrong's cousin, was dead), so he took whatever jobs he could find. These included working on a junk wagon and helping on a milk wagon, but mainly he hauled coal for the place where Stepfather Gabe worked. On the day World War I ended he "put about three more shovels of coal into the wheelbarrow," then thought: "The war is over. And here I am monkeyin' around with this mule. Huh!" He dropped everything, said, "So long, my dear. I don't think I'll ever see you again" to the mule, and got on with the rest of his life.

It was, as no one needs to be told, an extraordinary life. Armstrong had no more than a fifth-grade education, but "with my good sense and mother-wit, and knowing how to treat and respect the feelings of other people, that's all I've needed through life." He led small bands and big ones (the small ones were best), recorded abundantly, traveled all over the world. It was my good fortune to hear him everywhere from clubs in New York to auditoriums in North Carolina to the Newport Jazz Festival, but there was nothing unusual about that: Everybody heard him. Among his many nicknames was "Ambassador Satch," because during the Cold War he toured the world on behalf of his country and came to embody, at a time when the world still loved America, this country at its best, not to mention its most swinging.

"Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans" is a quintessentially American story, and one of the best books ever written about New Orleans, which is saying something. Armstrong loved New Orleans more than any place on earth, and would have been shattered by what has just happened there. One can only pray that his spirit will guide those who labor to bring it back to life.

"Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans" is available in a Da Capo paperback ($16).

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