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Louis Armstrong & Me

Person with glasses lying down as a horn emerging from the clouds blows music in their direction. Cartoon by Earle Levenstein.

You didn't ask, but I have to tell you: musically, Louis Armstrong is as close to God as I'll ever get.

Hearing his voice—singing, speaking; playing trumpet; the older the better—is enough to stop me where I am, whatever I'm doing, turn the world off and turn Louis on.

I was just listening to an album—yes, I still play CDs—of some of the earliest Armstrong recorded; from the early 1920's when he moved up from St. Louis to Chicago until the 1930's at the Savoy Ballroom in New York. The album, incidentally, was produced by JSP records, in London, England.

Something about those old recordings says, This is what it was like; we just played and some guys caught it…primitive maybe; raw; a little tinny; unsophisticated; but the real deal; authentic; no retouching; fiddling with the product; studio work. Gorgeous sound; but more than a few yards away from that live performance.

So that today; what we buy and listen to is a totally different animal. Which is why, not infrequently, there's potential for a little disappointment when the live performance we hear and see is not exactly the version we listened to at home.

Louis Armstrong was—is, to me—the same; live; recorded; no difference. Still Louis…his character; his enthusiasm; his presence; and above all, that voice.

My taste—transparent—runs to ragtime; blues; authenticity; truth; an honest voice; minimal tricks; studio stuff.

Louis Armstrong doing WC Handy is a blessing; great album. Studio, but recording it like it was; nothing added; no faking it.

If you want to know—here I come; ready or not—I just love Fats Domino; talk about truth. Dr. John—go figure—is a favorite.

Ragtime; Blues…jazz; instruments at a club; a bar; one voice; clinking glasses; laughter; chattering. Bobby Short. Tony Bennett. Ella; Sinatra; unmatched—always the same skinny mesmerizing tough guy—girls going nuts at the Paramount in NY in 1944; Ray Charles; live or recorded; the best; true; real; half-carried out onto the stage; placed at the piano; springs to life; unequaled.

Enough to give you an idea of what for me is joyous; moving; knocked out.

Final note; true story.

I'm on my way to NC for a meeting; crack of dawn; LaGuardia Airport in NY; get to my gate; scant group; but who do I see standing there holding his coffee? My all-time favorite big-band pianist and leader; Count Basie; standing—a small guy—holding his coffee; only two musicians with him; bass player—big case—sitting half-asleep and a sax player; ditto.

I can't hold back; walk over; Mister Basie, I say; I can't tell you how thrilled I am to see you, live, right here; I love your music…and I blither some more and he reaches over, pats me on the shoulder; smiles.

Kid, he says; I'm glad it makes someone happy to see me here at an airport at this ridiculous hour of the morning. Pats me again. Walks back to his guys.

Made my day; my week; my month.

Count Basie. Live. Holy smokes!

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