Louis Armstrong

LOUIS ARMSTRONG AND his All Stars performed at UCLA’s Royce Hall in November 1965. It was the most important musical event I could imagine at the time and perhaps still holds that honor.

I was a freshman at UCLA so, as I recall, I paid no admission. I watched the show from the left hand side of the center section, in an aisle seat, about two-thirds back. I remember every musician in the band: Tyree Glenn played trombone, Joe Darensbourg clarinet, Billy Kyle piano, Arvell Shaw bass, and Danny Barcelona drums.

It was a decent show; not great. I remember feeling a little disappointed with the musicians’ performances. It was evident they had played the same tunes in the same way a hundred times before and the gig was just a way to earn a living. Even Louie was off his game.

That often happens when a band plays a long string of one-nighters on the road. The schedule can be hectic especially when, as often happens, a plane or bus runs late. Uncomfortable travel conditions and hotel rooms merely aggravate things, especially when the musicians have to sleep on a bus.

I badly wanted to meet Louie; he had always been my hero and I admire him to this day. Whenever I am unhappy with the way I play a tune I ask myself how Louie might have played it. That helps to simplify my approach and focus my concentration to bring out as much emotion as possible.

After the show I walked around the side of Royce Hall, found an open door, looked inside, and saw the band in a big, industrial green room. It was anything but elegant, even more utilitarian than a classroom. The musicians were taking off their ties and tuxedo jackets, relaxing, and starting to pack up.

A long, narrow platform a few feet to the right of the stage door extended along most of the front wall (directly opposite from where I walked in). It was no more than four feet deep and less than a foot above the linoleum floor. A little to the left of center was a wood box big enough to support a big wooden chair. A tall wooden table, about eighteen inches square, stood just to the right of the chair. Louie sat on the chair. At least a dozen pill bottles and related paraphernalia adorned the table. Nobody else was on the platform although I think, for a few moments, somebody sat on the edge to take off his shoes.

Louie slouched in the chair as though it were a throne and he an exhausted king. He wore his tuxedo pants and the ubiquitous white shirt, but neither a jacket nor a tie and he had undone the first two buttons of the shirt.

I walked up to him and introduced myself and told him I had grown up listening to his records, almost from the time I was born, and later watched him whenever he was on TV. He asked if I played an instrument and I told him I played jazz on the clarinet.

Louie obviously was tired but he smiled and listened and we spoke a little. I no longer remember what we talked about; it was inconsequential. What could a 17 year old say to a legend? I just remember he was very kind and it was as though I were talking to my grandfather. After a couple of minutes I ran out of words and Louie took a sip from a flask and I thanked him for talking to me and, as I left, he said, “Keep playing that licorice stick.”

That was one of the most memorable meetings of my life, including interviews with all kinds of politicians and celebrities when I was a television news reporter. Louie was as down to earth as anyone I’ve met.

The musicians I have known who came up in the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s were from a different world. Few people impress me but so many of the generation of Louis Armstrong and Artie Shaw do. Each was a gentleman. Every one I met or performed with understood the role emotion should play in music and exhibited an elegance, even an erudition, I rarely encounter in my own generation and someday hope to find in those younger. I am certain some people still have those qualities and look forward to meeting them.

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