Last week, on a weekday afternoon, I gave a presentation on Louis Armstrong and his influence on American popular music at a center for ailing senior citizens attached to a local hospital. I played WEATHER BIRD and I CAN’T GIVE YOU ANYTHING BUT LOVE, and the Bing Crosby-Lennie Hayton SWEET SUE Connee Boswell’s ME MINUS YOU (with an incendiary Bunny Berigan interlude), and some Rodgers and Hart by Tony Bennett and the Braff-Barnes Quartet. Returning to Louis, I decided to humor myself and played ON A COCOANUT ISLAND and then segued into I COVER THE WATERFRONT and DINAH from the 1933 Copenhagen film.
Not everything was cheering. The technology I was dealing with (someone else’s laptop and DVD projector) worked well enough but was balky, so there were periods that felt interminable while I was waiting for it to catch up. And many audience members seemed seriously oppressed by illnesses and were silent, although I kept reminding myself that it was a great good thing to play Louis’s music for them.
I got thrown several times by audience questions — “What is his first name? Is it Lois?” and someone kept insisting at length that Louis was playing a cornet rather than a trumpet.
But there were substantial rewards. At one point, after I had played ON A COCOANUT ISLAND, with the Polynesians and Lionel Hampton’s rocking drums, a few people timidly applauded. This was the first sign of enthusiasm, so I paused and told them: “I’m a sentimentalist. I believe that the dead know. So it would be a really nice thing if you wanted to applaud Louis and his music right now,” and they all took it up.
And good things happened right from the start in the front row, where there were two cheerful African-American women, dressed in bright colors, in wheelchairs. Before I began, one of them said, “I knew Louis and Lucille because I lived in Corona,” and I said, “OK! I’m going to want to talk to you later!” and she beamed. Her name was Thelma.
After I’d been introduced by the pert supervior, Cathy Mercadante, I was about a minute into my talk when I said that everyone called him “Lou-ee” but that he pronounced his name “Lew-is.”
“Oh, no,” said Thelma vigorously. “We didn’t call him that.”
“What did you call him?” I asked, not knowing where it would lead but enjoying having the presentation, for a moment, completely removed from my hands.
“We called him Satchmo,” she said triumphantly, and I acquiesced.
As I was playing one record after another and improvising commentary, fielding questions, I kept my eyes on another woman in the front row. Immobile in her wheelchair, she was tapping both one slippered foot and then the other. Keeping quite good time. Thank you, ma’am.
When I was through, another woman in the audience came up to me (with her fiftyish daughter cheerfully in attendance) and thanked me for playing Louis’s music. “I remember when she and her sister were young, we would play his records, and they would be hopping around the house!” Just the right response, I told her.
Then I chatted with Thelma, who told me about seeing Louis in the local bar / restaurant, Big George’s, and how Louis and Lucille would close the block off and have parties for everyone, how he loved the neighborhood kids. “Do you know about his son?” she asked. And I, thinking she meant his adopted son, said, “Oh, yes, Clarence?” “Not that one,” she said, “He wasn’t all right, so he had a lady to take care of him. But Louis had a real son — very few people know about him. It was kept a secret.” Then she told me of all the photographs she had had of Louis and friends, and Louis and her husband (a drummer) but that they were all stolen when she moved. I told her I would write her stories down, then gave her my card and my thanks. Maybe someone will show Thelma this posting, and she will know that I kept my word. Thank you, Thelma, for opening the door into Louis’s world!.