Sam Parkins, bless him, sent me the backstory (or is it “prequel”?) to his 1945 Louis experience, which I posted as LOUIS AND “THAT MODERN MALICE”:
A note from now – January 2009: It’s impossible to overstate Louis’ nearly-vanished position in the early 40s, when I came into jazz sentience. To us hep-cats he was only slightly more ‘there’ than Alphonse Picou (whom no one had heard of). We’d heard of Louis, but he hadn’t mattered for years. I did have a high school classmate who kept a wind-up Victrola and some 78s in the garage, but when he tried playing me some red-label Columbia Hot Fives they didn’t register so he gave up. Benny and Duke (oh all right – and Glenn Miller) were pretty nearly all there was.
So the following trip was – well – a trip: 1945 was a hell of a year. A half-dozen big things happened: I got drafted, Roosevelt died, VE day, I heard Louis Armstrong for the first and almost last time (drunk in Geneva – the other time – doesn’t count), VJ day, Bird and Diz first record, Stravinsky writes “The Ebony Concerto” for the Woody Herman band… I was let out of basic training end of March just after VE day and given a chance to go back to college for engineering. Seemed vastly superior to heading for the Pacific so I didn’t tell them I had already switched to a music major at Cornell, and fetched up at the University of Kentucky, where the girl/boy ratio was 5-1. Cool.
I’d been there three days – and met a girl acquaintance downtown on the main (and only) drag by the drugstore. Saturday afternoon. There’s no possibility of transcribing this but I’ll try: “Yawgnjlnnye?” It evolved that Louis Armstrong was playing at the Joyland Ballroom that night and was I going? Joyland was the classic American amusement park and ballroom, built by the trolley company, always at the end of line to get customers out on weekends. Think Coney Island. So I took her. At least I took her, bought tickets and got her in the door. Then Louis started to play and I was rooted to the floor in front of the stage, which was high, at shoulder level (a good idea if there’s a riot – and I’ve been in one, at a wedding where the bride was Irish and the groom Polish. High stage saved the band). Never saw the girl again. (But I did see one of the dancers. Barefoot guy, nearly seven feet tall, very long – past shoulder length – hair, in an era where that simply wasn’t done. Guy stood out. Jitterbugging like hell. Must have still been with girl; asked her “Whoozat?” “Oh – that’s a hillbilly. They come down from Harlan County.” Ferociousest lookin’ guy I ever saw).
Rooted to the floor with tears streaming down my cheeks. Louis could play one note and destroy me. Never ever let up. This was his traveling big band, one nighters all over the country, and this was the South, where by all accounts the going was rough for a black band. He could – and I think this was true all his life – only play and sing wide open. And that doesn’t mean loud. “Commitment and Abandon”? This is it.
I look over my long life in music and can think of only one comparable experience. Bob Palmer, our composition teacher at Cornell, took us – his class of four would-bes – up to Eastman to hear Frederick Fennell conduct the student orchestra in Bartok’s “Music for Strings Percussion and Celeste”. Bartok had just died, and his music immediately spread like a tidal wave everywhere. Erased everyone else for a few years. At the end of the performance Fennell asked the audience, “Would you like to hear it again?” Of course we would. At the end of the second go-’round I nearly fainted – had to be partly carried to the door. Too much emotion.
(And folks – tell me: can any of the other arts do that to you?).
Stoned: Like most bands in the ballroom era, Louis only took one break – no more that a half-hour. His arranger had his office across the hall from Big Nick’s studio over the Savoy in Boston; when I was about to leave for the army he said, “If you run into Louis on the road, say ‘Hi’ for me”. So at intermission I went back stage, found Louis’ road manager, flashed the arranger’s name (which I’ve forgotten) and asked for an autograph (on my gold-rimmed union card – issued when drafted, dues suspended). He disappears, comes back with Louis and introduces me. Louis reaches out his hand to shake, and I really shouldn’t try to transcribe this one. Guttural utterances, no recognizable words at all. I thing he was working on “pleasedtameetcha”. So wrecked he couldn’t talk. (Now you know why he needed Joe Glaser). But he could play and sing like an angel. (All sources including All-Star players I know agree that it was mostly pot. He did drink a little Slivovitz, but only at parties).
I asked my father (doctor) about this phenomenon and he told me about a colleague, brain surgeon, deep in the toils of senile dementia – and still able to do the most delicate surgery. Dad said that what ever you’ve spent your life doing day in and day out is so embedded in the brain (sounds like a back-up circuit) that it’s often available when everything else has packed it in. Regarding music against speech – nowdays we would say that speech is left lobe and music right, and right is apparently more durable.
So what do I close the 20th century with? Only Louis and his idol Caruso (played on a wind-up Victrola on the original discs please. Anything more modern destroys his soul; digital buries him) have the ability to by-pass hearing.
They go straight to the gizzard and shake it up mercilessly.
A note from a grateful reader: now you see why I praise Sam as a writer — intent, exuberant, apparently heedless but knowing what he’s up to all the time.