The night I played ‘hot jazz’ with Louis Armstrong

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Another opportunity for us to offer our help came when beefy clarinetist Joe Muranyi revealed he was prowling the stage in beach sandals because his black shoes were missing. We offered to find him a pair, but he saw no chance of success: “They are size 13, you don’t have them,” he said. And this is another indicator of the passage of time that in 1967 size 13 indeed seemed incredibly huge.

Many years later, I made a BBC documentary on Armstrong’s life, and Muranyi was one of his most eloquent witnesses. “To remind me how to pronounce, he always called me Joe Ma Rainey,” he recalls. Armstrong had recorded records with the original Ma Rainey in 1924, three years before anyone even thought of his Black Bottom.

Night fell, the crowd was good, and the open-air concert took place in a dreamy haze under the stars. Louis always loved having a giggling henchman next to him at the trombone, and huge ex-Ellingtonian Tyree Glenn served that purpose brilliantly on the climax of the comedy “It’s My Desire”, while also providing Heavenly tinkles on the vibrations.

Was Armstrong himself a little undernourished compared to what we had known? Yes, a little, although the trumpet still crackled and blazed, and the sandpaper voice caressed the words in spite of itself. But Louis was not feeling well that night, we learn later. He had suffered a severe attack of pneumonia earlier in the year and was making his return too soon – which had a sad consequence for us, the faithful. We were promised a late night meeting in a lodge, so that the maestro could thank us for our solar efforts on his behalf; but unfortunately that could not and did not take place. In fact, Joe Ma Rainey told us, Louis was too exhausted to see anyone after the show, which is very unusual for him.

What we were seeing was the start of the cycles of ill health that would hamper Armstrong’s last shaky years – though remarkably, “What a Wonderful World,” the song most of the wonderful world now acknowledges is yet to come. Less than three weeks before, in fact. He recorded it upon his return from Europe on August 16, 1967, in a purely vocal performance.

The great man died 50 years ago, never knowing how old he was. The jazz folk had always accepted his fanciful assurance that he was born on July 4, 1900. It was not until he left that the baptismal records emerged to show that his true date of birth was August 4, 1901.

So he hasn’t quite reached his 70th birthday. But what is it ? He had already celebrated it anyway. He was the first to do so many things.


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