But which one? The sound on the records, the iconic image on the television screen, or the actual person?
In the spring of 1967, I was fourteen — someone who had been secretly listening to Louis Armstrong records for a few years. And I was fortunate enough to be alive when Louis was popular — HELLO, DOLLY! was still vivid in his repertoire and in people’s memories so that he appeared on the Hollywood Palace, with Danny Kaye, alongside Herb Alpert and the Tiajuana Brass, on Ed Sullivan, Mike Douglas, and Johnny Carson.
I don’t recall how I learned that Louis and the All-Stars would be playing a concert at the Island Gardens in Hempstead, New York, only a few miles from where we lived. But the Gardens were terribly far off for me: I had been to New York City but never on my own, and Hempstead had a bad reputation at night.
I begged my father to let me go to the concert, promising that I would not inconvenience anyone but would take a bus there and back. I think I was a particularly awkward child, myopic and naive, and I am sure that my father shuddered at the thought of me making my way in the bus station. Both he and my mother enjoyed a wide range of music, although not jazz, and they tolerated the loud rhythmic sounds that came through the floor of my upstairs bedroom. At least if I was upstairs playing Louis and the Dukes of Dixieland, they knew where I was. Other children were far more rebellious.
As a result of whatever behind-the-scenes negotiations I can’t imagine now, my father told me that he would take me to the concert, attend it, and take me home. I was delighted — and the memory of his generous impulse pleases me now. I wonder only why my mother didn’t want to join us. Perhaps it was frugality; perhaps there was something she wanted to watch on television that night; she might have welcomed a night to herself.
I was bad at waiting, but as the days ticked down to the concert, it ballooned in my thoughts. Although I had a pocket Instamatic camera (capable of poor pictures under most circumstances) I never thought of bringing it along. Perhaps I feared that my father would suggest to Louis that he pose with me (or the reverse) and I didn’t take much pleasure at seeing myself in pictures then. I hadn’t yet been introduced to the cassette recorder, so that was a number of years in the future. But I could and did spend a good deal of time obsessing over getting Mr. Armstrong’s autograph.
The problem was — in what format? I had a few of his records, but found reasons to undermine the idea. The soundtrack of THE FIVE PENNIES somehow didn’t seem appropriate, nor did SATCHMO’S GOLDEN FAVORITES or HELLO, DOLLY! I could have brought along my precious 10″ LOUIS ARMSTRONG AND GORDON JENKINS, or TOWN HALL CONCERT PLUS, or even my more recent acquisition, LOUIS ARMSTRONG AND HIS HOT FIVE, a Columbia record produced by George Avakian. I may have had a half-dozen more, but the idea got more and more complicated. I didn’t know how deeply Louis loved his own recordings, and I might have thought, “What if he says, ‘I don’t like this record,’ and that ruins the whole encounter?”
I had spent countless hours next to the phonograph’s speaker drinking in the 1927 STRUTTIN’ WITH SOME BARBECUE and its triumphant outchorus, the sweet ruckus of the 1947 AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’, the glorious melding of Louis and Gordon Jenkins. But one by one I dismissed them all. What would I do with an autographed record album? How would I display it? Would it evoke the proper response in Mr. Armstrong, in the one chance I had to approach him?
I’ve read of studies in how much choice people are comfortable with, the extreme end being placing a child at a breakfast table with ten or twelve boxes of cereal . . . and the result is a child in tears. I didn’t begin to cry at any point in my autograph-considerations, but ultimately I swept all the possibilities away and thought of the simplest situation: a plain unadorned piece of paper for Mr. Armstrong to sign. True, the 3 x 5 index card I chose lacked character, but it could cause no offense.
I don’t remember going to the concert, although I would guess now that I gave my indulgent father a journey-long informal talk on why Louis Armstrong was important. And I don’t remember him asking me to be quiet: he understood hero-worship even if he would have chosen a different object for it.
The Island Gardens, which may no longer exist, was a large hall with a semi-circular roof — rather like an elongated Quonset hut — and many rows of pale-grey metal folding chairs. I am sure we were there early, seated in the front row, and my father bought me the official concert program. (I may still have it. As a jazz irrelevancy, I remember that it listed Buster Bailey as the clarinetist, although he had died not long before.)
Then, with no fanfare, no massed bands at the airport, Louis and his musicians entered through a doorway to the right. I don’t remember what anyone was wearing, but they came in casually, with no one seeming to notice. They were chatting to themselves. Probably the bus was parked right outside the door, or had Louis been driven from Corona, perhaps a half-hour away? I am sure I said in a near-hysterical whisper to my father, “There he is!” and my father would have said, “All right, then, go up and get his autograph.”
Timidly, I got out of my seat, clutching my program and my blank index card. I remember approaching Louis, with Tyree Glenn standing nearby. I would not have made any particular impression on any of the musicians: I didn’t have a trumpet case; I wasn’t an attractive young woman. But this was going to be one of the great moments of my life up to that point: I was going to stand on the same ground as my hero and speak with him, and he would see me.
And (in retrospect) I wanted him to recognize the intensity of my devotion: “Mr. Armstrong, I might say, while everyone around me has been listening to the Beatles and Gary Lewis and the Playboys, I have been in love with your music. I know every note on this record, and this one, and this one. I have tape-recorded all your television appearances . . . I ask for your records for birthday presents!”
But when I got close to my hero, the unspoken telepathic communication didn’t happen. And I was not able to put my impassioned inner monologue into words. So I simply approached — noticing that he was smaller than I would have expected, having seen him only on record covers and television — and waited.
I hope I waited until he saw me, but I may have put my blank card in front of him and said, nervously, “Mr. Armstrong, would you sign this?” He barely registered that I was there. He signed his name and handed the card back, then continued the conversation I probably had interrupted. For forty years before, he had been signing his name on pieces of paper: what was an extraordinary experience for a little boy hovering in front of the great man was something the great man did every day of his life.
At fourteen I was anything but audacious, so I didn’t even think of saying, “Hey, Mr. Armstrong, what about me? I love your music!”
All I could do was to turn to Tyree Glenn and ask him for his autograph, which he neatly signed in the space Louis had left.
Disappointed, I went back to my seat and showed my father, who asked me, “Did he say anything to you?” “No, ” I said — not whimpering, but probably close to it. I didn’t embellish on that, as I recall, but I might have been thinking, “Here’s the man who seems to be continually having a good time, his features animated by a wonderful grin. He didn’t look at me. He didn’t look happy. Did I do the wrong thing?”
I don’t remember much about the All-Stars show that followed. Louis, I am sure, gave his all. He got the audience clapping along on HELLO, DOLLY! Tyree and he clowned around; Marty Napoleon rippled up and down the keyboard; Buddy Catlett and Danny Barcelona did their features; Jewel Brown (the performer who most intrigued my patient father) sang. I don’t remember the clarinetist at all, although Ricky Riccardi, my guide in such things, tells me it was probably Johnny Mince. And Louis? What I remember most is watching him sit, at the rear of the bandstand, sipping from a paper cup of water, while his All-Stars played. He seemed drained. I remember noticing this, but I was wrapped up in my own disappointment. My ears and eyes may have been so full of the iconic Louis that I was unable to take in the human man in front of me.
I thanked my father when it was all over and we went home. I had my program and my card (the latter of which I still have — an emotionally-charged piece of paper) and I never got to see Louis again.
The closest I came was being in New York City in early 1971 and seeing posters (two stapled together) around lampposts advertising his appearance at the Waldorf-Astoria, a place that was even more beyond my reach than the Island Gardens had been. Then he died.
I went on collecting his records, making myself even more of a worshipful Louis-acolyte, and musically he has rarely let me down: in fact, as I have grown older, I have come to hear more in his playing and singing, which both can bring me to tears.
But I have also harbored a small kernel of disappointment, even resentment — both of which are of course unreasonable, but hurt feelings are often not grounded in fact. How could I have expected Louis to see me, a nearly speechless child, and recognize, “This boy loves my music! This kid has been listening to my records for years! He loves me!” if I was unable to say so?
And Louis may simply have been exhausted. Ricky tells me that Louis’s health was none too good in early 1967, so perhaps he was gathering his strength for a night of exertion.
It has taken me a long time, as much as I revere Louis’s music, to forgive the man for looking right through me. But it is the adult’s responsibility to do so.
Certainly we expect far more than we should of artists: not only do we demand that they perform up to and beyond our expectations, night after night, but we also crowd around the stage door, asking to be seen, to be acknowledged, when all they may want is to unwind in peace.
Because of the larger-than-life persona Louis created through his music, I expected him to be more than human — to transcend his mortal self. And when he proved to be — to my eyes — ordinary, life-sized, I was disappointed. And I remained so, in a small corner of my self, for years. There is that child-self that is prone to such disillusionments, whether they come from our heroes or our families. With luck, we never quite leave it behind but it comes to govern us less.
I can imagine an alternate universe where I have stature, where I have brought my Hot Five recording, where the sight of it makes Louis beam — not only recalling the music, but beaming upon the child who has brought him such tribute, obviously a child who understands . . . But such incidents perfected after the fact are mere indulgences, and I must acknowledge that Louis is dead, 1967 is a long way gone, and I can only have what actually happened, not what should have.
But ultimately Louis was there that night in 1967. And he remains with us.