Louis Armstrong is the subject of the musical “A Wonderful World” which is playing at the Cadillac Palace Theatre in downtown Chicago through Sunday, Nov. 2.
No matter how well they are done, when I see works of fiction based on the lives of real people, I’m always wary.
Events get changed around. Characters become composites or disappear entirely from what the record says actually happened. All that jazz.
But when the material is interesting enough, as Armstrong and the musical are, they frequently lead me to do some digging of my own.
In Armstong’s case, there is plenty of material to find online. Imagine that. A good use for the Internet!
And I suppose one of these days I might head to a library or a bookstore to get a book about the man. (What I won’t do is ChatGPT Armstrong. I am not that freaking lazy and neither should anyone else be.)
Anyone who loves music should learn about Louis Armstrong. And the first name is pronounced Lewis, not Louie – most likely.
Either way, as the words at the Louis Armstrong House Museum say, Armstrong was “one of the founding figures of jazz and America’s first Black popular music icon.” Which, once you start digging, seems quite the understatement.
As I’m writing this for a Chicago Irish publication, I’ll mostly stick to what I found about his ties to the city and to the Irish:
- Armstrong moved to Chicago for the first time in 1922 at the invitation of his mentor from New Orleans, Joe “King” Oliver. That’s the same year “Ulysses,” James Joyce’s groundbreaking novel was published.
- In Chicago, between 1925 and 1928 Armstrong wound up recording on the OKeh label with the Hot Five(s) and the Hot Seven(s). These recordings pretty much created the template for jazz and other sounds to come. Solos. Armstrong’s trumpet playing. Improvisation. Scat vocals. Armstrong’s vocal stylings. Exuberance. Timing. Humor. Joy. And that swing.
- One of the numbers is called “Irish Black Bottom.” Apparently the Black Bottom was a dance craze, and the Irish were not immune to it.
- While living in Chicago, Armstrong took up smoking “gage”.
- Armstrong and other jazz greats performed during and post Prohibition at the Cotton Club in Harlem. The club was owned by Anglo-Irish gangster Owney “The Killer” Madden.
- Armstrong at one time had as his manager a Chicago thug named Johnny Collins. What “A Wonderful World” claims Collins was a drunken Irishman, with an accent to boot. Either way, the actual story seems to be that in 1933 when Armstrong was on a European tour, he and Collins had a big fight. Collins stranded Armstrong.
- When Armstrong returned to Chicago in 1935, he took up with Joe Glaser, who ran a club and who had ties to Al Capone. Glaser remained Armstrong’s manager until Glaser died in 1969. Glaser’s Associated Booking Company at one time or another listed Duke Ellington, Barbra Streisand, Alice Cooper and Bob Marley among its clients.
- The complicated relationship between Armstrong and Glaser is the subject of the drama Satchmo at the Waldorf, which played at the The Court Theatre in Chicago in 2016.
- In 1936 Armstrong appeared in “Pennies from Heaven”, a vehicle for Bing Crosby. Crosby insisted Armstrong be in the movie. Armstrong sang “Skeletons in the Closet” in the picture. He and Crosby two became lifelong friends. They appeared in a couple other movies together and also recorded together.
- Armstrong and his band played in Dublin in 1967.
- Irish author Roddy Doyle’s 2005 novel, Oh, Play That Music, involves Harry Strong, who leaves his family and his troubles with the IRA behind him in Ireland and flees to Prohibition era New York. He runs afoul of the mob there and heads to Chicago. There he meets and becomes Louis Armstrong’s confidante and bodyguard. The novel is part of a trilogy.
- The home where Armstrong once lived in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood still stands as a private residence.
- Armstrong lived in Queens, NYC from 1943 until his death in 1971. The house is part of the aforementioned museum. Here’s an interview with its current executive director.
If you want to learn more, you can also find loads of video and audio about Armstrong and of him online.
There are plenty of books, including Heart Full of Rhythm: The Big Band Years of Louis Armstrong. That wonderful world remains a complicated place, all the more so because of racism.
And you can find lots of what trumpet great Wynton Marsalis has to say about Armstrong, including:
- How Armstrong’s spirit lives on in his birthplace, New Orleans
- A discussion with (the late) Morley Safer about Armstrong. The piece includes archival footage of Armstrong performing in Africa.
- A celebration of Armstrong’s birthday featuring a number of jazz musicians
- And this link about what jazz is and the power of it. It’s from Ken Burns’ “Jazz” doc.
Click that last link. Marsalis’s words are as fine a note as any on which to end this piece.