Kojo looks back on the local impact of Dick Gregory, the legendary comedian and civil rights activist who adopted Washington as his home town.
Music lovers around the world celebrate Louis Armstrong as an American treasure. But during the later years of his life, Armstrong fended off a lot contemporary criticism from his peers for “selling out” and placating white audiences. Kojo chats with Armstrong biographer Ricky Riccardi, who argues that Armstrong died without receiving due credit for his work as a musician and an activist in the Civil Rights era.
- Ricky Riccardi Author, "What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong's Later Years" (Pantheon, 2011); Project Archivist, The Louis Armstrong House Museum (Corona, NY); and jazz pianist.
Louis Armstrong’s “When the Saints Go Marching In:”
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5, at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. There was Satchmo. There was Pops. Louis Armstrong earned his fair share of nicknames during his storied musical career. But in certain circles, Armstrong carried a different set of titles, like Uncle Tom and Sellout.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIToday's audiences are more likely to celebrate Armstrong as an American treasure, a trailblazer who broke down barriers for the likes of Miles Davis, John Coltrane and the giants of American jazz. But during the twilight of his career, Armstrong was dismissed by many contemporaries and so-called jazz purists as a buffoon, a once great artist who had developed into a plantation character and a commercial entertainer.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIRicky Riccardi is on a mission to shatter that myth of the two Armstrongs, and he says that, if you look and listen hard enough at Pops late in life, you'll find the true stuff of an American legend. Stuff that sounds like this...
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWell, you know who that is. Let me tell you who Ricky Riccardi is. He is the author of "What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong's Later Years". Ricky Riccardi is a jazz pianist himself and the archivist for The Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens, N.Y. Ricky Riccardi, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. RICKY RICCARDIMy pleasure.
NNAMDIAre you a member of the Louie or the Louis group?
RICCARDIYou know, for years, I was a Louie guy. And then I started working at the Louis Armstrong House Museum, and I kept running into more and more evidence of Louis, Louis, Louis. He liked Louis. Other friends called him Louis. So, now, I tend to gravitate towards Louis, but there's really no wrong answer.
NNAMDIRight. I'm a Louis guy. Louis Armstrong is one of the most celebrated and one of the most studied musicians in all of American history. His influence even extends to outer space. Astronauts have been waking up to the sounds of "What a Wonderful World" for years, but you write that Armstrong is one of America's great misunderstood characters and that his twilight years have been particularly misunderstood. Why is that?
RICCARDIWell, for years, the line of thinking has been Louis Armstrong in the 1920s was a maverick, was a genius. He had the hot fives, the hot sevens. This was serious music that changed the path of jazz. And then those same people look at later Louis, and they just glance at "Hello Dolly" and "What a Wonderful World." And they see him smiling on "The Ed Sullivan Show," and they say what happened to that poor guy? He went commercial.
RICCARDII had somebody a few weeks ago who didn't know I wrote this book. I told him I worked at the Louis Armstrong House Museum, and this fellow said, yes, it's a shame about Louis, what he was doing at the end of his career. He must have needed money or something, carrying on like that. And because of that line of thinking, which has been around since Louis was alive, a lot of people just always, when they come to Louis in the '50s and '60s, they just make a lot of assumptions. And they don't do the listening, and that's the mistake.
NNAMDIIndeed, so many people associate Louis Armstrong with the booming days of pre-World War II jazz. But you zero in on a different era, the post-war jazz era. What was it about those chapters of his life that you found so compelling?
RICCARDIWell, in 1947, the Big Band era was dying. Bebop was coming alive, and Louis Armstrong was doing well. He was still leading his big band. He was appearing in motion pictures. But he needed a little boost, and he got that in 1947 by transitioning to a small group which he called The All Stars. And he led this small group. The personnel changed all the time, but he led this small group until his dying day.
RICCARDIAnd it's in those last 24 years of his life where he starts recording hit songs, "Blueberry Hill", "Mack the Knife", the one we just heard, "A Kiss to Build a Dream On." He's appearing in "High Society." He's stopping civil wars in Africa and cracking the Iron Curtain and just -- he's at the height of his popularity and doing so much for music and humanity. And to not pay attention to those years, you're really missing out.
NNAMDIAllow me to find out what years the members of our audience were paying attention to. What music comes to mind for you when you think of Louis Armstrong? Does any of the stuff he recorded later in his career come into the picture? You can call us at 800-433-8850. Our guest is Ricky Riccardi, author of, "What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong's Later Years."
NNAMDIRicky Riccardi is a jazz pianist himself and the archivist for the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens, N.Y. You can also communicate with us by email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Where do you think Louis Armstrong fits into the pantheon of great American artists? Or you can go to our website kojoshow.org. Join the conversation there, or send us a tweet @kojoshow.
NNAMDIRicky, it's my understanding that you discovered Louis Armstrong as a 15-year-old yourself and that you considered this book to be something that you've been working on since you first heard him playing in the film, "The Glenn Miller Story." Let's take a listen to him there.
NNAMDIBy the way, who is that voice saying, "Louis Armstrong?"
RICCARDIIt was June Allyson and Jimmy Stewart.
NNAMDIExactly, right in that movie. What was it about the sound that pulled you into this lifetime love affair with Louis Armstrong?
RICCARDIIt was really the big bang for me. It was just the whole being. I got the whole thing. I got the singing, the trumpet playing, the personality, the scatting, even the faces, the comedy aspect. I had never seen so much wrapped up in one figure before. And as soon as that scene ended -- I don't even know if I finished the movie.
RICCARDII called my mother into the room, and I said, take me to the local library, and I need to listen to some more of this man. And that began the journey which, 15 years later, has resulted in this book.
NNAMDIIt's not very often that people at 15 years old can say, I have found my life's work in this movie.
RICCARDIYeah, pretty much.
NNAMDIThat's about it for you?
RICCARDIThat's it, yeah, the book and my day job. I mean, I'm somehow making a living in Louis Armstrong.
NNAMDIAnd, essentially, you're now the archivist, as I said earlier, for the Louis Armstrong House Museum in New York. You've got your hands on piles and piles of primary source material. What kind of a window has this work given you into who this man was and what he was about?
RICCARDIWell, I had done a ton of research at the Institute of Jazz Studies and at Rutgers and a lot of interviews, but the first time I visited the Louis Armstrong House Museum was in January 2006. I didn't begin working there, actually, until the end of 2009. But in 2006 I made my first trip there, and the first thing that caught my eye were Louis' private tape recordings. The man was a fanatic about reel-to-reel tape recording.
RICCARDIBeginning in 1950, he pretty much had a reel-to-reel tape going at all times. He would capture music and joke-telling sessions and rehearsals and conversations. And he would talk about racism and talk about other musicians and politics and, you name it. And, as he put it himself, he did all this recording for posterity. He knew that one day years and years, decades after he died, centuries after he died, people would find this interesting.
RICCARDIAnd I sure did. The first time I jumped and gone to those tapes, I heard Louis talking about some of his later recordings and how much he enjoyed making them and how he was playing the trumpet better than ever before. And, for the next three or so years, I made almost monthly pilgrimages to the Armstrong Museum to listen to these tapes. And that really made the book come alive because that's when I had Louis' own words talking about so many of these theories.
NNAMDIWell, it's one thing to make a monthly pilgrimage. It's another thing to get up and go to work there every day. Share with the members of our audience what time you get up in the morning to get there.
RICCARDIMy commute has become legendary. I wake up at 4 o'clock in the morning, and I live in Toms River, N.J., which is now on the map as being the home of MTV's "Jersey Shore," which we're trying to get it off the map. But I wake up at 4 o'clock in the morning, and I take a 5 o'clock bus. I get to Manhattan at 6:20, and then I take a subway into Queens. I get to Queens at 6:45, and then I take another bus to Queens College, where I'm at my desk at 7 o'clock in the morning, bright-eyed and smiling.
NNAMDIGets up at 4 a.m., gets to work at 7:00. He says this is a job I'll die at.
RICCARDIThat's the goal.
RICCARDIHopefully, not too soon.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number if you would like to join this conversation. We got an email from Mike in Beltsville. "I once saw a TV interview where Wynton Marsalis said that, as a younger man, he had little regard for Armstrong as a musical artist. Then Marsalis sat down and tried to duplicate what Armstrong had done on records. After a while, he put down his horn, realizing there's more to this music than I thought. Have other artists had similar reactions?"
RICCARDIOh, definitely, I think, a lot of people take Louis for granted. But once they have that Wynton kind of experience -- Wynton's story is so funny because it was actually his father, Ellis Marsalis, who made a cassette tape of Louis Armstrong, I guess, one of his 1920s recordings. And Wynton didn't even listen to it. He just paid it no mind. But as soon as he tried playing, he said his lips were shot, and, I think, that's the true sign.
RICCARDII've talked to other trumpet players who can get around the horn and can play Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker solos. But when they get to Armstrong, what looks so simple is actually incredibly difficult because Louis, he wasn't all about flying around the horn. He was about hitting a note, holding a note. Yeah, he had that range and that sound that sounds like nobody else.
RICCARDISo, you know, if you take Louis for granted, just grab a few of those transcriptions and call me in the morning.
NNAMDIYou wrote your book about an era when jazz was moving from the big band and swing sound to the Bebop sounds. Players like Miles Davis were on the rise. What do you think the shift meant for the audiences of jazz?
RICCARDIWell I think it drove -- unfortunately, it drove a lot of the audiences away because, in the swing era, jazz was dance music. It was the music to have a good time. And then, all of a sudden, Bop comes on the scene in the war years, and it was music that was demanding to be taken seriously. Yeah, listen to this. This is very complex. The temps are getting faster. It's becoming harder to dance to.
RICCARDII mean, don't get me wrong. I love the music of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.
NNAMDII was about to say Dizzy seemed to be able to dance to anything.
RICCARDIOh, yeah, yeah, there were people. You could dance to bop if you wanted to. But coming out of the swing era and the Lindy Hop and all that stuff, there was something else going on at the same time. And that was the rise of the vocal star. Frank Sinatra was exploding. And at the same time, there was the rhythm and blues explosion with Louis Jordan and, you know, Roy Milton and Wynonie Harris and those artists.
RICCARDISo a lot of the white community that listened to jazz music, they followed Sinatra and others of his ilk. A lot of the black community that listened to jazz, they followed Louis Jordan. And they went down the rhythm and blues path 'cause they wanted that music with that big beat and a lot of blues-driven music and innuendo lyrics and stuff like that. So that left the jazz -- you know, the jazz audience was dwindling.
RICCARDIAnd with each passing year, it got smaller and smaller, which is why it's kind of stunning that, with each passing year, Louis Armstrong got more and more popular.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, if you have already called, stay on the line. We will get to your calls. If the lines are busy, go to our website, kojoshow.org. Join the conversation there. Send us an email to email@example.com or a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is Ricky Riccardi. He is the author of the book, "What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong's Later Years." Ricky Riccardi is a jazz pianist himself and the archivist for The Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens, N.Y. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. But we have a bunch of calls, so you may want to go to our website to join the conversation. That's kojoshow.org.
NNAMDIOr send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'll go directly to the phones, starting with John in Capitol Heights, Md. John, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOHNI really appreciate what this gentleman is doing for Pops because, for a long time, he has been hid in the shadows. And most African-Americans really don't understand the era that he came through. And when I saw Ben Vereen play the young Pops, that's when my whole attitude -- I've never considered him an Uncle Tom. I always considered him trying to take everybody past their misery into a different realm of understanding that we're all here together.
JOHNWe can learn from each other. We can live together if we found common ground. And the common ground would be music and understanding and appreciating each other. I mean, so I really appreciate it. I was privileged to find some of his old records that he did back in the '30s on the big wide records.
JOHNAnd my father-in-law sat on them and broke them all.
JOHNAnd I had the original Five, the original Seven...
JOHN...all of those guys. And I found them at a collection up in Northwest Washington, D.C. And the lady gave them to me, and I brought them home. I was -- I really didn't know the treasure that I had until later on, after my father-in-law sat on them and broke them. So I thank you for what you're doing for him, and I hope that this generation can really come and to appreciate because everything we have now comes from him from some kind of way.
JOHNThank you very much.
NNAMDIAnd, John, I hope that you learn one day soon, to forgive your father-in-law for sitting on your records. Here is Tony -- care to comment on that at all, Ricky.
RICCARDINo, it was beautiful. He nailed it right on the head. That's what Louis was about, was a joy and happiness and, you know, living together. And it's a beautiful message.
NNAMDIHere's Tony in Alexandria, Va. Tony, your turn.
TONYYeah, thank you, Kojo. Back in 19 -- about '56 or '57, in a small town in West Virginia, my uncle and my father brought Louis into town. And it just so happens, he came into town on a -- the biggest snow storm of the year. And they still went on with the show. I was selling brochures, and I was about seven years old. And there was probably about a 100 people there. And the place held about 4- or 500.
TONYBut, let me tell you, he was such a tremendous act. It was unreal. At my age, it was the first live concert that I ever saw, and he put it -- his heart and soul in everything he played. I mean, you know, he could've not played at -- well at all because being disappointed at the size of the audience. But the man had such charisma. He really did and inspired me to go on and go to...
TONY...as many music concerts as I could.
NNAMDITony, I'm glad you mentioned 1956 or 1957 because in the break, I was telling Ricky Riccardi, that I saw Louis Armstrong perform in my native Guyana when I was in high school. And he said, "1957?" I said, "Yeah, that could've been the year he performed at the high school because that was the only performing space we had -- venue in which he could accommodate the kind of crowd he did at that time." So that was in the 1950s.
RICCARDIYeah, and he always -- Tony's story is a beautiful story, and there's many, many like that. I have actually one in my book where the British trumpet player, Humphrey Lyttelton mentions him. He talked to some of Louis's musicians. And they said that if they walked out on stage and the curtain opened and there was only a handful of people, their hearts sank because they knew Louis was going to play harder than he would've played if it was a full house.
RICCARDI'Cause his whole theory was, what if somebody hitchhiked 100 miles to hear you play and there's only five people in the audience? It's your responsibility to put on the show of your life for that person. He really (word?) for his audience.
NNAMDII'm glad you said that because when it comes to describing Armstrong's performing style, you like to invoke Jerry Seinfeld who basically says, "When I go to see somebody work, I don't want to see their new hour, their new material. I want to see the act."
NNAMDIWhy does the philosophy for performing resonate so well for you and how you see Armstrong?
RICCARDIWell, I think, Armstrong -- you know, a lot of jazz fans and jazz critics just get hung up on the solos and the improvisations and way -- what are you coming up with. But Louis, he was from show business. His big inspirations were vaudeville performers like Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and Bert Williams. And his whole life was about the act. I mentioned this reel-to-reel tape recorder.
RICCARDIHe would record his shows, almost every night, listen back to the show, listen to his own solos, listen to his jokes, see what songs worked, see what lines got a laugh. And he tailored each one of those shows to his audience. He would come out. If it was a college crowd and they were young and rowdy, he would play a lot of fast, crazy songs. If it was an older crowd, he would play, maybe, a medley of waltzes, like "Tenderly" and, you know, "Never Walk Alone."
RICCARDISo he was somebody who knew the importance of having an act. When you're traveling 300 days a year, you want to have a sure thing. And I wrote about that. I compared jazz and stand-up comedy. You know, Jerry Seinfeld, he talked about it. And it's coming from the same idea as Armstrong. When you go to see an act, you want to see something professional.
RICCARDIAnd Armstrong and his musicians were the tightest, most professional unit known to man. They would play the same song 300 nights a year. And every time they played it, it sounded like it was the first time they have ever tried it. And that's the mark of a real professional.
NNAMDILet's take a listen to what Louis Armstrong's act sounded like.
NNAMDIHe knew that's how people liked "Blueberry Hill," and he gave it to them that way over and over. What do you say to the argument that jazz is supposed to be spontaneous, improvisation and that hammering out an act or replicate it night after night is against the whole spirit of the music?
RICCARDIWell, that's the thing. Louis Armstrong wrote the rules of jazz. You know, you can't give him half the credit. You can't say, well, Louis Armstrong taught us how to improvise and he introduced swing and scatting and improvised solos, so we're going to take a little bit of this and a little bit of that. But we don't want the showmanship. We don't want working out a solo. We don't want working on an act.
RICCARDINo. You know, the man created the whole thing. And as he said himself, this is how it was done in the 1920s. You can deify those records as much as you want, but a record like "Cornet Chop Suey," which people have obsessed over for decades -- Louis recorded that in February 1926. He wrote it and deposited it at the Library of Congress in 1924.
RICCARDIAnd when you compare the written Library of Congress deposit and the Hot Five recording from two years later, it's almost identical. So even in his young, supposedly, trailblazing, maverick days, he was writing out solos and working on things. And his mentor, King Oliver, had a legendary solo on "Dipper Mouth Blues." And he played that solo, note for note, the same. So this is where Louis Armstrong came from.
RICCARDIHe always said, it doesn't matter, you know, what you play as long as you play it right.
NNAMDIHe said, when I improvise something, I don't forget it. If it's good, of course, I remember it, every note. That's why I play it again. Nearly everything I ever play, I improvised at sometime or another.
RICCARDIExactly. He had a song, "Back Home Again in Indiana." It was his standard opener. He started playing "Indiana" in 1951. It was at his last gig in 1971. Well, I listened to -- I must have hundreds of versions of "Indiana." And when you listen to the first five years of "Indiana," from 1951 to '56, no two solos are ever the same. You hear him improvising. But, all of a sudden, he has four bars that don't change. Then he has eight bars that don't change.
RICCARDIThen he has 16 bars that don't change. And he's playing with different ideas, and he's playing with different motifs. And after five years of tinkering with this darn solo, all of a sudden he had the perfect solo, and it didn't change. And critics knocked him for it, but to him it was almost a form of composing. He was going out on stage every night and composing in front of hundreds and thousands of people.
RICCARDIAnd when he had that solo worked out to perfection, he didn't feel a need to change it. And as one of our great geniuses, to sit in the audience and say, well, I want Louis Armstrong to play something else, you're lucky that you're in the audience watching Louis Armstrong. So just enjoy it.
NNAMDIYou listened to that stuff, didn't you? Here is Jessica in Washington, D.C. Jessica, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JESSICAHi. I was hoping that the author could speak about sort of -- it sounds like a precedent that Louis set for contemporary artists 'cause it sounds like even some of the things he was criticized for, being animated, being able to play to different audiences and different situations, these are things that are required to be successful in the industry today.
RICCARDIYou know, definitely. Louis was ahead of his time in many ways. And that's one reason why you kind of see this split between Louis and jazz music. Jazz was getting more and more isolated. You know, just playing 10 15-minute songs in small clubs and, you know, for a dwindling audience. But Louis knew to put on a show.
RICCARDISo when you go out today and you see Lady Gaga and she's -- she's doing a fast song then a slow song. She's changing costumes. She's, you know, talking to the audience. She's playing the piano. She's running all around the stage. Well, Louis understood that, too. He put on a show. He'd play a jazz song, then do a comedy number and then, you know, tell a joke right in the middle of the show.
RICCARDIAnd just -- it was nonstop entertainment. From the first note to the last note, the audience felt the warmth. And they heard beautiful music, and they laughed a lot. And it was more entertainment, I think, than any other jazz musician was putting on at that time. And if you just want to sit there and listen to the improvisations and the solos, well, they were there, too. But if you wanted to be entertained, like today's audiences want to be entertained, nobody did it better than Louis Armstrong.
NNAMDIAnd, Jessica, thank you so much for your call. Some of today's great bluesmen, like B.B. King, Buddy Guy, still take their acts around the world every year, and they're treated like elder statesmen. Let's take a listen to what B.B. King's act and the response to it sounded like 20 years ago when B.B. King was still a spring chicken at the age of, oh, 65.
NNAMDIB.B. King wasn't exactly playing that gig in front of a wine and cheese crowd. That was from a live performance that was recorded in San Quentin prison. Why do you think it is that bluesmen, like B.B. King and Buddy Guy, still get those responses from audiences and from their peers, that they never seem to have suffered the same kind of ripping that Louis Armstrong took in the jazz community as he got older?
RICCARDIYeah, yeah, the blues audience seems to embrace their elders. Well, I can't say that anymore 'cause now that jazz has become this cultural art form and all -- you have the NEA Jazz Masters. And now jazz does embrace Sonny Rollins and the late Hank Jones and, you know, all the great elders. But when Louis was alive, there weren't too many elders. He was hitting his 50s and 60s, and the rules were still being written.
RICCARDIAnd the critics didn't know what to make of him. They wanted him to do certain things and not to smile, not to laugh. And they were trying to put him in a box, and they just couldn't enjoy it. The blues was never like that. Muddy Waters, whom I love, he didn't have the world's largest repertoire, and he played a lot of the same songs. He had that one slow slide guitar solo that he would trot out in almost every slow blues he would play.
RICCARDIAnd young audiences went nuts. And the Rolling Stones had him out there, and he's playing concerts all over the 1970s. And he mentioned B.B. King. To me, B.B. King is the modern day Louis Armstrong. He has an act. I've seen it six times in about the last seven or eight years, same songs, same comedy routine with his trumpet player Boogaloo Bolden and same kind -- again, the audience clapping and all that stuff.
RICCARDIBut I look around every time, and there are people digging it immensely. And I love it, even though I know it's coming. I love it because it's all about being entertained. It's a professional band. It's a professional act. And B.B. still travels 300 nights a year. And if anybody knows B.B. King, send him a copy of my book because I think he would relate to a lot of it because he is...
NNAMDIThe book is called, "What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong's Later Years." We're talking with the author Ricky Riccardi. You write that Armstrong even took heat from a lot of people who praised him as a musician, people like Miles Davis. Duke Ellington even expressed some bitterness that Armstrong made business at the expense of embarrassing his race.
RICCARDIYeah, Louis and Duke were good friends. They made a beautiful album together, 1961. They always spoke very highly of each other. But there's one interview, it's the only one I could find. But I quote it in the book from 1964 where Ellington and his writing partner, Billy Strayhorn, are very down on Louis. And my argument is that it had to be some form of bitterness because the intrigue comes around the time of "Hello Dolly."
RICCARDIAnd here's Louis Armstrong knocking the Beetles off the top of the charts, 63 years old with this trite Broadway song. And he's smiling and playing on the Ed Sullivan show. And, I think, Duke Ellington looked around and said, Geez, you know, here I am, I'm still killing myself writing original compositions and traveling around the world. And I'm not smiling, and I'm not going out there like a fool. And Louis Armstrong, he's making all the money.
RICCARDIAnd I think it was a rare moment of, you know, hurt and bitterness. But it did pass, and by the time Louis died, Ellington had one of the great obituaries when he said that Louis Armstrong was born poor, died rich and hurt nobody along the way.
NNAMDIWell, you mentioned "Hello Dolly." This version of "Hello Dolly" in 1964 reached number one on the U.S. billboard Hot 100. You mentioned ending the Beetles streak of three number one hits in a row over 14 consecutive weeks. Let's take a listen.
NNAMDILouis Armstrong, "Hello Dolly." Here is Susan in Washington, D.C. Susan, your turn.
SUSANHi, there. I -- it must've been about that time, around the "Hello Dolly" time, I was about seven years old, early '60s. And I heard Louis -- I -- sorry, 30 years of calling him Louis -- Louis, for the first time. And I was entranced. I loved the texture of his voice. I just remember loving his voice. I have my own little improv version of the "Hello Dolly." I tried to sound like him. And -- but I -- we lived -- I lived in a Midwestern home. Jazz would not have been welcomed in.
SUSANBut he exposed me to music. My father didn't mind that part of it. And I -- so I don't know if I'm so much jazz fan as a Louis fan. But I enjoyed him all my life whenever I had an opportunity to hear it and I've since heard, you know, more of his performances and all that, you know, the quality and the texture of his (unintelligible).
SUSANI appreciate the fact that now I understand what I loved about him was the performance, is that he just -- I felt like he was singing right to me (unintelligible) to him, and I kind of thought of him as a singer who played the trumpet.
NNAMDIThank you. Thank you very much for your call, Susan. And you were one of thousands of us who all tried to sing like Louie. Didn't do it very well.
RICCARDIEarl Fatha Hines said in the 1920s, musicians were sticking their head out of the windows in the wintertime to get a cold, so they could sound like Louis Armstrong.
NNAMDIWe got this email from Darren in Bethesda. "He's the father of jazz. The great American music art form and all its offshoots, which include rock 'n' roll and hip-hop and rap, his influence on music cannot be overstated. His Hot Fives, Hot Sevens and his jazz All-Stars serve as fantastic bookends of an extremely prodigious career."
NNAMDI"I loved him at all points in his career. He had a huge impact on my understanding of jazz improvisation and history as a young trumpeter and as a young jazz lover. I wrote a paper on Louis in high school, which I began with this quote from him. 'All music's got to be folk music. I ain't never heard a horse sing a song.' This epitomizes his approach to music in general. He was no musical snob. I think this explains his later career."
RICCARDIIt's true. Louis was no musical snob. He was of the mentality that there was only two kinds of music, good and bad. He hated categories. When he would look at jazz critics -- and it could be the moldy fink critics who championed him and had no ears for modern jazz.
RICCARDIHe just did not understand that. And when you look at Louis' record collection and his private tape collection at the Louis Armstrong House Museum, you see what did Louis Armstrong listen to, and the answer is, everything. He listened to a ton of opera. He owned modern jazz records by Miles Davis and Clifford Brown and Charlie Parker with Strings.
RICCARDIHe would listen to -- he would tape record country music radio stations and just have an entire evening of country music. Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, classical music. He would play along with anything, with Italian pop songs and also King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton and the man listened to everything.
RICCARDIEven at the very end of his life some of the last things he transferred to his tapes were Neil Diamond and the Plastic Ono Band. So he really, you know, did not pigeonhole himself and that variety of music comes through in his stage shows.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back we'll continue this conversation on Louis Armstrong with Ricky Riccardi, author of, "What A Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong's Later Years." Ricky Riccardi's a jazz pianist himself, and he is the archivist for the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens, N.Y.
NNAMDIYou can still call us at 800-433-8850 or send email to email@example.com. Send us a tweet @kojoshow. Or you can just send us a tweet -- or you can go to our website, kojoshow.org. Join the conversation there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation about Louis Armstrong, in particular the last quarter century or so of his professional life. We're talking with Ricky Riccardi. He is author of the book, "What A Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong's Later Years." Ricky Riccardi is a jazz pianist himself. He's also the archivist for the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens, N.Y. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIRicky, you fight back against suggestions that Louis Armstrong sat out the Civil Rights movement, telling the story of Armstrong denouncing President Eisenhower during the controversy of school integration in Little Rock, Ark. How did Armstrong get pulled into the story of what happened in Little Rock?
RICCARDIIt was really a fluke. He was in North Dakota, just in his hotel room watching what was happening on television, watching footage of the white crowd spitting and calling the black students all sorts of names. And a reporter named Larry Lubenow just happened to be in Armstrong's room just as your typical run-of-the-mill piece, who is your favorite singer or, you know, that kind of thing.
RICCARDIAnd he sees Louis watching this thing on television and he says, you know, do you have any comments on Little Rock? Well, Louis unloaded. The years and years and years of frustration over injustice came out. He said, the way the government's treating my people, they can go to hell. It's gotten so bad a colored man doesn't have a country anymore. He called Eisenhower some names that I can't say over the radio.
RICCARDIBut the reporter, Lubenow, he cleaned them up and Lubenow knew he had struck gold. And he went back to his editor and said, let's run with it. And they were afraid to run with it. They said, yes, go back, run it by Louis Armstrong. Make sure he wants this to appear. So Lubenow goes back to Armstrong, and Armstrong says, print every word of it.
RICCARDIAnd he wrote the word solid on the bottom of it, and next day he was front-page news all over the country. And everybody was stunned 'cause this was a time that no entertainer, black or white, could get away with criticizing the president like that. And Louis took his stand.
NNAMDIAnd he took some criticism of his own from people who were not that kind to him, including Sammy Davis Jr., who continued to criticize him for playing in front of segregated audiences. What kind of effect did that have on Louis Armstrong, particularly the response like that from other musicians?
RICCARDIYes. Louis was very hurt. His wife, Lucille, said that he felt it very, very deeply. Sammy Davis knocked him. Nat King Cole came out in the black press and knocked him in the year before. I have a whole chapter in the book where Louis had a very impassioned defense in Nat King Cole, but Cole didn't side with him. Sammy Davis didn't side with him. And what was almost worse than the criticisms were the silence from the jazz community.
RICCARDIAll the musicians who knocked him, Miles, Dizzy, Mingus, none of them took a stand and spoke and said, you know, I'm with Louis Armstrong or I agree with Louis Armstrong. They all were silent. So Louis was alone. He was out there by himself to deal with this.
NNAMDIYou write that Armstrong was always keenly aware of his race, quoting him saying, "We've been wined and dined by all kinds of royalty. We've had audiences with the Pope. We've even slept in Hitler's bed. But regardless of all that kind of stuff, I've got sense enough to know that I'm still Louis Armstrong, colored."
NNAMDIHe said this in 1964, and Lucille, his wife, asked in a television interview if Louis was ever hurt by the negative way in which he was portrayed. She responded it hurt him greatly because Louis has been one of the people all his life. He never felt or wanted to be anything other than black.
RICCARDIIt's true. I mean, he embraced his color. In 1929, recording the song, "Black and Blue," were lines like, "My only sin is in my skin," and, you know, I mean, that could have ended his career so early. Nobody was doing that in the 1920s.
RICCARDIBut he just continued breaking down barriers for so many years, becoming the first black entertainer to have a nationally sponsored radio show and to have in his contract where he wouldn't play any hotel that he couldn't stay at. So he was doing all this stuff for years, for his race, making it better for the next generation to come after him.
NNAMDII'm glad you mentioned "Black and Blue" because once you say it, we got to play it.
NNAMDILouis Armstrong. We're talking with Ricky Riccardi. He is author of, "What A Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong's Later Years." Got to get back to the phones. Here's Joan, in Washington D.C. Joan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOANHi, Kojo. I have a couple of truthful antidotes from more than 50 years ago. Louis was shooting a movie up at Sun Valley, Idaho. And everybody in the resort was -- and I was up -- a snow bunny -- on a ski holiday. And everybody was up in the air, and I was a kid. And I was hoping I could meet him.
JOANFinally, I ran into him once in the hall as I was coming out of the restaurant. And he looked me right in the eye and gave me a big grin and said, "Where is the Gents?" And then the other...
NNAMDIOkay. Did you know the answer to that question?
JOANThat was my hero. Yes, well, anyway, and then the other one was they were shooting the orchestra in the middle of the platform in the middle of the ice rink at this Sun Valley resort. And he had forgotten his instrument, and they were all out there ready. And he looked at -- he waved at some guy, and he had the instrument in his hand. And he started out across the ice to get to the platform, sat on his behind and slid along with the instrument over his head and Louis yelled, save the horn.
NNAMDIGreat stories, Joan. Thank you very much for sharing them with us.
RICCARDIThat's wonderful. That's wonderful.
JOANI loved him then, and as I say, I was with a gaggle of snow bunnies. And we were just thrilled.
NNAMDIYou're one of a cast of literally millions. Thank you for your call, Joan. Here's Dawn in Falls Church, Va. Dawn, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DAWNThank you, Kojo. I just wanted to tell Ricky I used to work at the Armstrong House a couple years before he did. But I latch on this idea of the musician as entertainer, and I appreciate what you're doing in trying to reframe Armstrong's perception by people in a different way.
DAWNAnd I also just wanted to add this on to see if you had any comments about the fact about this whole idea of musicians being taken seriously as artists and this tension between the musician seen as an entertainer. I think some of the reaction has, you know, legacies of (unintelligible) and how African-Americans were portrayed and expected to behave and that a lot of the reasons that people distance themselves away from Armstrong and his performance style is because that just still reverberates to this day in a lot of ways.
RICCARDIIt's true, yes, especially in the Civil Rights period in the '50s and '60s. I understand how some people would get that vibe, but the truth is, you know, to me, entertainment is entertainment. And there were white entertainers, Dean Martin, Louie Prima, who were doing just as much entertaining and just as much clowning. But they were embraced, and Louis, he embraced that side of it.
RICCARDII mentioned earlier that some of his early heroes were Bert Williams and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. When he was in Chicago, he didn't really care about the jazz scene. He was going to hear entertainers like Butterbeans and Susie and comedians, and he always loved comedians. And he loved telling jokes and collecting jokes.
RICCARDIAnd so, to him, the entertaining, you know, wasn't this carryover from minstrel scene or wasn't, you know, wasn't black entertainers were expected to do. It's who he was. He once referred to himself as an old ham actor. He said, you take an old ham actor like Satchmo and turn on the light, and you've got yourself a show.
RICCARDISo when he listened to his private tapes offstage, he's still laughing the hardest in the room. And he's still telling jokes, and he's still having fun. So I understand how it could make people uncomfortable thinking, well, here's Louis carrying on this tradition of the black face minstrel man, but, really, what Louis was doing was entertaining. And he was being funny, and a lot of people are doing that in the '50s and '60s. And he was on par with the best of them.
NNAMDIDawn, I -- thank you very much for your call. I loved Miles Davis, but the last time I saw him perform here in 1985 at the Washington Convention Center, he performed entirely with his back to the audience. He played into a plant pot on stage the entire night. And having laid down my money, I didn't appreciate him not even looking in the direction of the audience. But that's who he was, and his fans accepted him for that.
RICCARDIAnd it's almost showmanship in another way. His fans would come to see that and talk about it.
NNAMDIYes, come to see his backside. Here is Fred, in Riverdale, Md. Fred, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
FREDThanks, Kojo, good show. I'm glad to hear something about my favorite artist. I became such a fan of Satchmo when he visited Sierra Leon in the early '60s, and one of my teachers had promised to take me to a show he was to put up. But, unfortunately, when a member of his entourage, Ms. Middleton...
RICCARDIVelma Middleton, yes.
FRED...(unintelligible) and I saw the show was canceled. And I was so disappointed.
NNAMDIShe was with him when I saw him in Guyana, too.
FREDI've been by, and I bought every record that I could lay hands on from that time on. I was only a high school student, but, still, you know, I started -- I saved some money to buy the records I could lay hands on. And then when I played them, sometimes until they became so scratched, until they could no longer play.
NNAMDIThat's -- again, you join a cast of millions, Fred. Thank you so much for your call. Before you go, Armstrong did a lot of duets with the other greats of his time, people like Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald. In your opinion, what were the more successful of these collaborations? And which ones did you feel didn't work out that well?
RICCARDIWell, Ella Fitzgerald comes immediately to mind. Louis and Ella had unbeatable chemistry, whether it was an old standard like "Let's Call The Whole Thing Off" or the score to "Porgy and Bess." The two of them -- I quote the arranger, Russ Garcia, who described them as, "whipped cream and sandpaper." Yes, they were an unbeatable team.
RICCARDILouis and Louie Jordan made one record together, (unintelligible) of '78, two songs, "You Rascal, You" and "Life Is So Peculiar." And if you can find a happier, more entertaining, more swinging, more fun record, please, send it to me because that just -- those two songs make me smile all the time.
RICCARDIBut they threw everybody at Louis. They threw Gary Crosby at Louis, Bing's lesser talented son, and they made some uncomfortable duets in "Struttin' With Some Barbecue."
NNAMDIThose didn't work out so well. I'm afraid that's about -- that's all the time we have. Ricky Riccardi is the author of, "What A Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong's Later Years." He's a jazz pianist himself, and he's currently the archivist for the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens, N.Y.
NNAMDIHe blogs at dippermouth.blogspot.com. You can find a link to his site at our website, kojoshow.org. Thank you so much for joining us, Ricky Riccardi.
RICCARDII had a ball and for anybody in the area I'll be at Politics & Prose tonight, 7:00.
NNAMDITonight at 7:00. "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" is produced by Brendan Sweeney, Michael Martinez, Ingalisa Schrobsdorff and Tayla Burney with assistance from Kathy Goldgeier, Elizabeth Weinstein and today, Menghan Hu, Caitlin Langfitt and Maggie Lafalce. The managing producer is Diane Vogel. Our engineer today, Timmy Olmstead. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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