JAZZ: Gary Giddins, W.W. Norton & Company
"Giddins on jazz"


As a college student did you ever encounter this Louis Armstrong personality?

Well, when I was in college in 1968 we had a - this was at Grenouille College in Iowa - and they had what's become a sort of legendary convocation of American intellectuals. They had, I don't know, two or three dozen of the most famous people in America: Ralph Ellison, Marshall McLuhan, Samantha [?], the artist Robert Rauschenberg, I mean just one celebrity after another. And the president of the school, since I was the social coordinator booking the concerts and the films, asked me to get somebody really significant to play the concert that would take place that week. So I thought immediately of Armstrong and Ellington but never thought that there was a chance that that would happen, and as it turned out, Armstrong was touring the Midwest and he had a Saturday night that wasn't booked. So we managed to get Louis Armstrong. It was incredible.

Believe it or not a number of students picketed the evening. Literally, walked around the gymnasium protesting that we didn't get a rock band. But, for me, it was a chance to meet him, um, and it was astonishing. He was in the - in those days, concerts were in the gymnasium and they used the men's locker room as a sort of green room to get ready. And I had already met some of the guys in the band including Marty Napoleon, absolutely delightful man who played piano with Louis for many years. It's interesting to note, incidentally, that unlike side men I've known all my life with various bands, the guys who played with Louis, they idolized him even after they'd been with him for 10 or 12 years. They never got over that feeling that they were in the presence of something that the world would never see again. I mean they were like kids. Marty Napoleon adored him and he could see that I adored him. So he ran back and he said, "Pops, there's this young guy here" - he already knew my name - "Gary Giddins, and he's a student here and he's the one who brought us and he'd love to meet you." So [Armstrong] was back with his doctor getting a physical, which he'd always do before he went on stage. Remember, this is three years before he died. So eventually, so Marty said, "He'll be out in a minute," and Louis comes over and I shake his hand and a jolt goes through my arm, even though it wasn't a strong hand, it was just - I don't know. And being up close was sort of alarming.

For one thing, he was about my height. I always thought of him as sort of giant, but he wasn't a tall man at all. His skin had a sort of grayish pallor to it but what was really sort of frightening was seeing his lip up close, because he had had skin grafts over the years because he had literally, in the 1930s, those high notes, he had destroyed his upper lip. I mean, he would walk off the stage night after night spurting blood. Until finally his manager said, "You don't have to prove anything anymore. Everybody knows you can hit those notes, you don't have to do it." But by that time, he had really done damage. So they had taken skin from other parts and they had grafted it, and when you're standing close, there was an alarming sight, that was a pretty raw piece of meat. His upper lip had literally been reconstructed and there was a scar that went through it.

Um, we talked for, I don't know, two minutes. I can't remember a word, I was just amazed to be in his presence, and then I said, "Well, you know, we're all looking forward," and I walked out to the floor where we were sitting and the stage went into, the room went - the lights went down. The door to the men's locker room opened and you can see them in the light coming through. The stage was also bathed in light but the space between the locker room and the steps - the four or five steps leading up to the stage were pitch black. And it was the most miraculous thing, we all noticed this - cause I was worried Armstrong wouldn't be able to perform. He seemed so weak and frail to me and when he walked out, he still looked like a frail man. And then he disappeared into the darkness . . . and walked up the stairs. And the guy who came into the light was another creature. It was Louis Armstrong, with the arms radiating a kind of muscular limberness and the big smile, that thousand-watt smile. And it was amazing to see what happened in that penumbra, that transformation. And then as you watched him you realized that he had all of this very planned because he had only the energy - he delivered 100 percent on every tune but he couldn't play three or four tunes consecutively. So they would do one tune, then he'd do a feature number, probably a hit like "Mack the Knife" or "Blueberry Hill" - something everybody knew, that he was famous for. And then he would say, "Now we're going to introduce our clarinetist," you know, Joe Muranyi or whoever it was - I think it was Joe Muranyi - and then Joe Muranyi would have an number and while he was playing his solo, Louis would walk to the back of the stage and he would sort of limber back and then he would come up and do another number. Brilliant. And then he would say, "We're going to introduce our trombonist, Tyree Glenn." Same thing, all night. So he paced himself.

Most of us felt like, here we are in Grenouille, Iowa. And he's playing, we felt like he was performing as if he was auditioning for a gig - I mean, he really did not give less than 100 percent. And, uh, it was a thrilling thing. And to this day, whenever I run into anybody that was at Grenouille at that time, it doesn't take two seconds before somebody brings that - you know, because let's face it, if that hadn't happened, none of us, none of those kids - most of whom were from the Midwest - would have ever seen Louis Armstrong alive. I mean this was an incredible gift, and we brought Ellington the same way. And that is something you can do in a college that you don't get to do in the rest of your life, and so they got to see a lot of musicians - you know, rock bands you could get on your own steam. But to see Duke Ellington's band or Cecil Taylor, who was first becoming, coming into his peak, and Armstrong, B. B. King before the white America even knew who he was, I'm very proud of that. I'm as proud of that as anything I've ever done.