“PLAY THE MUSIC THAT YOUR HEART TELLS YOU TO PLAY”

Letters from Louis to the youthful trumpeter Chris Clifton.

Paramount Theatre, Portland, Oregon, 6 February 1954:

“‘Man, – you haven’t the least idea – how thrilled, I am, to be able to sit down and write to a ‘Cat, who feels the same way that ‘I do about the greatest music on this man’s earth,—DIXIELAND… ‘Lawd-today…’Gate—you’re a man after my own heart… I’ve always said—Dixieland is Universal… From one end of the earth to the other–the music’s the same, so help me…..

“I’ll never forget the time when my All Stars and I landed in Italy and there was a little Jazz-Dixieland band standing there ‘justa ‘whaling Muskrat Ramble…And the sign over their talented little heads read like this——WELCOME TO ROME–Louis Armstrong and his All Stars…From the Romon New Orleans Jazz Band…. Which ‘Gassed Ol, Satch and his boys, no end… They were swinging the tune so well and relaxed, until, it made anyone of us, want to get some of it in the worst way…Tee Hee…

“Four days later, after we finished our concert one night, we went out to the little trumpet players home…And after ‘lorating a whole lots of that very very good Italian Spaghetti (wee) – myself and two – three of my boys – sat in with the little fine band and blew up a storm [...] Which again, makes my word come true, especially when I said – music is, er, wa, – Universal….. You yourself – could have done the same…Because, from the way that I dugged your very fine letter, – you take your horn serious the same as ‘I do…. God Bless Ya Son [...] And every country that we travel into, our music was the same… So you see in case you’d decide to make a tour to anywhere in the world, have no fear because our music (I’d say) is more of a Secret Order [...] real honest to goodness dixieland music will live for ever – without a doubt… There was a certain big time musician, who made a nasty crack, as to, Dixieland Music, is ‘first grade music… Now – maybe you dont pick up on this Cat…But, I, being in the game for over forty years, etc, can easily see, that this young man who said it, the reason why he said it because he hasn’t the soul enough to express himself in dixie land music like he really would like to… So, he’ll say those slurring words knowing that the country’s full of idiots (also) who will believe him for a while, thinking that there really is such things as to different grades of music for the world to abide by [...] Where I came from, there weren’t but two kinds of music, – good or bad [...] Anyway my friend…Don’t let no one change your mind…Play the music that your heart tells you to play…There will always be somebody to gladly live it with you… I am very happy to have met you [...] So I’ll close now… I have a pretty schedule before me for tomorrow… I’m to make an appearance on a TV tomorrow morning real–early, with my clarinet man-Barney Bigard…Cooking some of our real fine Creole dishes for these Oregan Fans, sorta, have ‘em, lickin their fingers, Tee Hee…There’ll be some red beans and rice on the program..And that’s for sure… So give a hello to your musicians, and our fans…And until we meet (which) I’ll be looking forward to, – take em slow…And as I said ‘be,fo don’t let no one change your mind into playing that awfull juzitsu music.. Am red beans and ricely yours…” 

Corona, New York., 24 January 1969.

“Thanks for keeping tab on me through Lucille. She tells me every time you called. And I want you to know that I am very happy over your being concerned about me. I am straight now. Lucille straightened me, with her touch & patiences, & stuff. So, I’ll soon be back on the mound, wailing just like nothing happened. Am glad to realize how well you like my home town. The people & musicians are lovely, aren’t they. I was sad to hear about George Lewis and his base player. Oh well we all have our number and there isn’t anything that we can do about it. That’s why I keep shitting – that helps to prolong life. My mother instilled it in me, when I was Five years old. She said Son, keep shitting. You may not have Wealth, but you’ll always have Health. How true it is. Regards to everybody. Your boy Satch — Louis Armstrong.”

Corona, New York, June 16, 1971 (less than a month before his death).

“Man I received your letter and as usual very happy to get it. The presents were beautiful. The photo of you Blowing with the Tuxedo Brass Band is very good of you. I see that you really enjoyed playing with them. That’s the Brass Band that I was playing with [when] I left New Orleans in 1922 to join King Oliver in Chicago [as second trumpetist with Oliver's Creole Jazz Band] and met Lil [Lil Hardin, Armstrong's second wife, from 1924 to 1932]. She was Blowing ["Playing" written in margin] with the King — Johnnny [Dodds] — Baby Dodds [Honore] Dutrey — and Bill Johnson. Man what a Band. They’ll live in my memories.

“… I am coming on better each day. Soon as my legs strengthen up a little more, I’ll be straight and I can put the cane aside. I am glad to hear about you doing so well with your horn. That’s right, Blow with everybody. And see for yourself you’ll be glad you did. Nowadays you just can’t depend on one certain bunch of musicians to back you up. And good musician[s] will be very glad to Blow behind a good Trumpet Man that plays like you. Because there aren’t too many, if any at all playing the way that you play. Understand? So keep it up Gate. Playing with Lil will do you some good. She’s from the old school and can do wonders for you, don’t you think so? I am looking to hearing you playing with your own Band some day. You have everything to work with, You are young & strong and knows your Horn, so there you are. Take advantage of it Gate. And you know that I am with you all the way. Lucille sent regards. Thanks again for everything. From your Boy, Satch Louis Armstrong.”

Chris learned well, as you can hear from this 2008 excerpt from a performance of MAHOGANY HALL STOMP:

But even those of us who don’t play the horn can learn something from those letters.

May your happiness increase.

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6 responses to ““PLAY THE MUSIC THAT YOUR HEART TELLS YOU TO PLAY”

  1. Great Louis note.

    Interesting that he calls the music “Dixieland”.

  2. Here’s a newly-found clip of the wonderful Nellie Lutcher on a 1956 “Today Show” with Dave Garroway: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sm02YKi6rOc

  3. Amazing letters to Chris Clifton — a legend still today!

  4. Michael Burgevin

    Nice to see here and know The King Of Jazz never hesitated to use the word Dixieland… and didn’t Art Tatum record a humdinger titled “A Dixieland Band”(?) – Such a beautiful post-toastie! A lift for our souls. Thank you, MS

  5. I think DIXIELAND had a meaning for Louis quite disparate from what that description came to imply: straw hats, striped shirts, banjo and tuba-laden two-beat commercialized product targeted to a Lawrence Welk demographic.

    On the other hand, the maternal advisory “Son, keep shitting…” is sage advise for ALL times and places.

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