JJ 08/62: Lucille Armstrong – In My Opinion

Sixty years ago, Louis's wife reviewed a host of American artists for JJ, noting that they often owed their fame to jazz-friendly Europe. First published in Jazz Journal August 1962

Photograph of Louis and Lucille Armstrong, France, 1960, by Jean-Ph. Charbonnier, dedicated by Lucille to Sinclair Traill's wife Mips

This is one of a series of taped interviews with musicians who are asked to give a snap opinion on a set of records played to them. Although no previous information is given as to what they are going to hear, they are, during the actual playing, handed the appropriate record sleeve. Thus in no way is their judgment influenced by being unaware of what they are hearing. As far as possible the records played to them are currently available items procurable from any record shop. Lucille Armstrong is probably the most famous wife in the whole jazz business. She has looked after Pops for many years now, is able to anticipate his every wish, and is one of the main reasons why Louis at 62 is the youngest trumpeter for his age living today. As a gracious hostess Lucille is supreme and immensely decorative; as a jazz critic her knowledge is as keen as her wit is sharp. – Sinclair Traill

Black And Tan Fantasy. Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. Columbia SCX 3430
Well, the funny thing I can tell you about that record is that Louis hasn’t heard it yet! He’s been so busy dashing around ever since it was made he just hasn’t had a single chance to listen to it. I think it’s great! It was a happy session. It was the first time they ever made a session together and I think it came off. ’Course, Duke’s my man! I remember back in 1950 or ’51 we were playing a theatre out at Oakland, California – Duke was playing a dance hall, the Palladium I think, but never mind. Well, we finished early and so of course Louis and I and the whole band dashed over to catch Duke. Duke’s band were really going that night. We stood close up to the stand and Duke announced Louis, and that crowd just insisted that he got up on the stage and played. So Duke and Louis they had a talk and picked out a few tunes and started in to play Louis’s arrangements. Duke was on piano of course and they played a real Louis session. Louis called for the choruses and it all worked out just wonderfully.

They played six or seven numbers and that crowd just went mad! I remember when it was over Duke just leaned across to Louis and said “If you ever need a piano player, Pops just you let me know – you can hire me any time.” What a pity it was never recorded, I can tell you it was just wonder­ful! That was the first All Stars with Teagarden and Bigard; and with Duke and his rhythm section, it was really somethin’.

As I said, Louis has never heard that record. He is, I know, very keen to feature some of those tunes of Duke’s on his shows, but he won’t play them until he has a chance to rehearse them properly. And what time has he got – he works all the time. No time at all! It was a wonder he managed those Bubber Miley bits so well on that record. Plays real low-down blues. He used to listen to Bubber every chance he got in the old days. When he was with Fletcher Henderson. Duke played the Cotton Club (I used to dance there you know – I was in the line), and every living chance Louis got he’d be over backstage to listen to what Duke and his men were doing. He was just crazy over the way Bubber manipulated that mute. Bubber sings a real sermon, he used to say. Perhaps by the next time we come over here, Louis will have some of those tunes of Duke’s in the book.

Go Down Moses. Louis And The Good Book. Brunswick LAT 8270
Louis feels that music, doesn’t he? I think he sings those old spirituals so wonderfully. I remember the last time we were over we did a concert for Ed Sullivan, a TV show, in the Sports Palace in Berlin. The concert was a huge success and they decided to do a repeat at an army camp for the armed forces; outside in the open of course. Well, there was the usual hold up, while the technicians got the mikes fixed and things like that, and so Louis decided to entertain the troops on his own. It was a Sunday so Louis started out singing Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen. Ed Sullivan, he was just knocked out, I can tell you. He had never heard Louis doing a spiritual before. I don’t think this album is still available in the States; I must get a copy and send it to Ed Sullivan, he’ll be delighted.

Louis made a record with the Lynn Murray choir a way back, of some spirituals. It has been a favourite of mine for years and I have been getting on at him for ages to do it again, so at last he came up with this, Louis And The Good Book. You know when I’m home and if Louis is away, I play some of that record every night just before I go to bed. It makes me at ease.

Fine And Mellow. The Essential Billie Holiday. HMV CLP 1541
She was a real soulful singer, everything she did. Do I like her better than anyone else? Oh no! You like Charlie Shavers, you like Little Jazz, you like Louis, you can take all these trumpets! Well, that’s the way I like singers. They are all different people. Billie may have had something that no one else had, but she was certainly no Bessie Smith. Billie was a kind of instrumental singer to me.

St. Louis Blues. The Bessie Smith Story. Philips BBL 7019
Well, that was Louis as a boy. Beautiful trumpet, or cornet rather, and that singing, well . . . Didn’t the sound of that cornet blend in well with the harmonium and the voice, might have been made for one another. I don’t think we have that record at home – I must see about getting it.

Unfortunately I never got to hear Bessie Smith in the flesh. I was in show business whilst she was still performing, but I never got to see her. It’s a sad thing to say but I think Bessie became more popular after she died. You know, let’s face it, but I think I learned more about Bessie since I have been abroad that I ever did back home. There are so many artists in America that one loses sight of the great ones, if you are not careful. I know she had died before I ever came to really appreciate her greatness. You see Bessie was never really on the big time – she played the small places. It was her records that made her famous. And it’s sad to think that they really only sold in big numbers after she died, so she didn’t profit from the sales. But don’t forget it, she was a great blues singer, and I mean really great!

‘Europe was conscious of Louis long before America was – they were much more jazz conscious over here. He was much more famous here, back in the early thirties, than he was in the States’

It’s a funny thing how so many of our artists, such as Fats Waller, Earl Hines and even Louis, made names for themselves abroad through their records. An even greater name than they had back home. Records boosted their fame, and so when the reports of these huge sales got back to the States, they became famous there. But much of it started up in England and Europe in the early days. Let’s face it, Europe was conscious of Louis long before America was – they were much more jazz conscious over here. He was much more famous here, back in the early thirties, than he was in the States. America recognises him now as a great artist, but only after he had made his name as an international star, by his appearances and what was written about him, both here and on the Continent. We have the stars, you make ’em!

Cornet Chop Suey. Bobby Hackett – Gotham Jazz Scene. Capitol T 857
Dear Bobby Hackett, he’s our dearest friend. Lives quite near us. Pops would never miss a chance to hear Bobby and the other way about too. He really carries his personality in his music does Bobby – very melodious and oh so sweet. That tune’s a kind of tribute to Louis, isn’t it, but Bobby plays it in a different way to Louis. Another great friend of Louis’s on that record, Dick Cary. A wonderful musician, plays anything. I expect he did these arrangements, they sound like his to me.

Blues In My Heart. Lee Wiley. RCA SF 5003
Now Lee Wiley, I think she’s a terrific singer. Every album she makes I rush out and buy it. I just love that girl, she is a true smooth singer. She doesn’t have to go up high or down low, she gives every song everything she’s got, and sings with deep, deep feeling. I haven’t heard of her in months, I don’t know just where she has got to, and that annoys me. You know she went down a bit and it’s hard, so hard to make that climb back. But this Lee Wiley she’s for me, she’s a real singer.

Fidgety Feet. Sidney Bechet – Wild Bill Davison. Blue Note BLP 1203
One of the great jazz innovators was Sidney. He travelled a path on his own, didn’t he? Wild Bill is one of that wild Condon crowd, makes a big sound on that horn. I knew Bechet from years back. I worked with Fess Williams, Fletcher Henderson, Edgar Hayes’s Blue Rhythm Band and heaps of others. 1 worked in what they called ‘stock’ and Edgar Hayes and the others they were just the pit band. I knew I liked what I heard but I didn’t know they were great bands until years later. We took them as a matter of course. They’d do a turn on the stage. One week it would be Chick Webb and the next Fats Waller and so on – I worked with them all. But as I said I didn’t get to know anything about the music until I met Louis Armstrong. I was working in a little obscure night club after the Cotton Club closed, a little small joint in Harlem. Sidney Bechet had his band in there, it was 1940 just before I met Louis. But there again Bechet didn’t have the name in New York that he had in Europe. He was wonderful, but no one in America appreciated him, as they did over here.

Cotton Club Stomp. Duke Ellington At The Cotton Club. Camden CDN 119
Cotton Club, those were the days! There were only two bands that ever worked that Cotton Club, Duke and Cab Calloway. There were others such as Mills Blue Rhythm band, but they were referred to as ‘flunky’ bands. They never pushed them. Duke and Cab took all the credit, and as well as those other bands played they never got to be anything else but flunky bands. They made the money out of Duke and Cab, so didn’t trouble with such bands as the Blue Rhythm Band, although, mind you, they were a terrific band. Jack Johnson, the fighter, started the Cotton Club in 1923 – it was uptown in Harlem in those days. It was different when it moved downtown, the mob took it over from Johnson. They had their own costumes, own scenery, own writers, everything. I went into what was known as the World On A String show, the following one was the Stormy Weather show. That was with Ivie Anderson. She was some gal, she was terrific, and a wonderful artist. Like Velma she was a real band girl. All the band loved her, she was just one of the boys. The best singer that Duke has ever had – or pro­bably ever will have.

Little Pony. Count Basie At Birdland. Columbia SCX 3433
Yes, I hear Basie has Ocie Smith with him now. Well, I must say I was surprised, for I thought Ocie was a kind of single singer. He lives just a couple of blocks away from us. I have only heard him sing alone, and alone he is terrific. He has a free hand and I think that is the way he likes it best. He sings ballads, pop, jazz, rock ’n’ roll and anything, he sings it all good. It may be that he isn’t quite right for a band, but I know he is a real good, entertaining singer. It was a great pity that I didn’t get a chance to hear Basie when we were in New York last. He was at Birdland and I did want to hear him so much, but we never had a single moment.