© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
I’ve been around the Jazz world for 60 years.
In that time and in that world, no one has been more revered than Louis Armstrong.
The following story by the superb bassist Milt Hinton may help to explain why Pops was lionized by musicians and fans alike from all over the world.
It is excerpted from Milt’s autobiography, Bass Line (1988; with David G. Berger).
“On our next to last night at the Bandbox with Basie, I got an offer to go out on the road with Louis Armstrong. Joe Glaser, who handled Louis, sent one of his people—a guy named Frenchy Tallerie — down to the club to ask if I wanted the job. It was as simple as that.
I was really taken by surprise. I told Frenchy I needed time to talk about it with my wife and that I'd call Joe in a couple of days.
In the old days around Chicago, Joe Glaser had a reputation for being a real tough guy. From what I heard, he came from a middle-class family but he was the black sheep. I think his mother owned the building on the South-side which the Sunset Cafe was in. That's the place a lot of famous entertainers, including Cab, got their start. Evidently, at one point after Joe had gotten in some kind of serious trouble with the law, she'd helped him become an agent and manager.
Louis and Glaser got together in 1935. As the story goes, for years there was never a written contract between them. They shook hands one time and that was it. For some reason, right from the start, they hit it off. Joe had the connections and got the bookings. Louis had that wonderful, friendly personality and, of course, the musicianship. Their careers just took off together.
Louis's name was well known around Chicago when I was growing up. Along with Eddie South, he was one of my two boyhood idols. As a kid I'd seen him perform in theaters, but as I got older and more involved playing music, I was around guys who knew him personally. In fact, I remember watching him rehearse and I can recall many times when I'd run into him talking with a group of guys on a street corner or in a bar. And later, when I worked with Zutty, Louis's close friend, I really got an opportunity to spend some time with him.
Deciding whether or not to go with Louis was very difficult. My month-long commitment to Basie was over, but I was getting good freelance jobs. And even though I couldn't be sure how much I'd be making from week to week, the pay was getting better. When I left Cab, I said I'd never go back on the road for any length of time, but the thought of playing with a legend like Louis made the idea of traveling more acceptable.
I knew I wanted to go, but with my family to support, money became a real issue. Mona and I figured I might earn a little less with Louis than freelancing, but it would be a steady salary. Besides, if I got paid expenses on the road, I'd be able to save much more. We decided if the money was right, I'd take the job.
Everyone knew Pops didn't discuss money. Joe dealt with those kinds of things. But before I called him, I figured I should try and get an idea about what other guys in the band were making.
I got ahold of Cozy, who'd been with Pops for a while. He told me he'd just given notice and was planning to form his own band. Of course, I was disappointed. We were close back in the Cab Galloway days and I'd been looking forward to spending time with him again. He filled me in on the personalities in the band and Joe's people. Then we talked about money.
When Frenchy had approached me at the Bandbox, he'd told me the pay would be seventy-five a night. But when I mentioned that figure to Cozy he said, "That may sound good to you, but I'm makin' one twenty-five and I don't see why you can't get that too."
A couple of days later, I sat down with Joe and Frenchy to talk about money. Joe was a thin, dapper-looking guy with pretty sharp features, who walked pigeon-toed. Frenchy was just the opposite. He was sloppy and fat. He didn't like anyone and you couldn't believe a word he said. Everyone knew he hated Louis and Louis couldn't stand him. In fact, some people said that's why Joe made him road manager. He knew if Louis did something wrong, Frenchy would report him, and if Frenchy tried to steal, Louis would do exactly the same thing.
For some reason, just before the conversation began, Louis walked in. I started out real bold. "Look, I gotta have one twenty-five a night." At that point I wanted the job and I was hoping they wouldn't say no when I gave them my price.
"Get the hell out of here!" Joe screamed, "We don't even know your work."
I kept cool. "Louis's known me for years. He can tell you how I play," I said.
"I don't pay one twenty-five to nobody just startin' out. I'll give you a hundred. If you work out, I'll give you more," Joe answered.
I stood my ground. "No," I said. "I gotta get one twenty-five."
Joe shook his head, which was his way of saying, "Forget it."
There was dead silence for a couple of seconds and then Louis spoke. "I know this boy, give it to him." It was settled, as simple as that.
A week later I went out with the band and for a while we mostly did one-nighters. Cozy was still there along with Trummy Young playing trombone, Barney Bigard on clarinet, and Marty Napoleon on piano. We also had Velma Middleton as a vocalist.
At one of those early gigs something incredible happened.
It was at an outdoor concert in Washington, D.C., near one of the big malls, right on the Potomac. The stage and dressing rooms were set up on a big barge which was docked at the edge of the river, and the audience sat on the long, wide grass bank in front of it. I remember we had to walk down a ramp to get on the barge so we could change clothes and get set up. But the facilities were very comfortable.
In addition to us, Lionel Hampton and Illinois Jacquet's bands were on the program. Jacquet was scheduled to play first, from six to seven, and Hamp was to follow from seven to eight. Then, after an intermission, Louis would come out and do the finale.
We had worked in New Jersey the night before and drove down from there in a private bus. We arrived at five-thirty, a half hour before show time. There was about a thousand people in the audience, but no sign of Jacquet's band.
We unloaded our suitcases and instruments and moved everything over to the barge. By the time we'd changed into our tuxedos, it was six-thirty. Jacquet should have gone on at six, but he still hadn't arrived. To make matters worse, Hamp hadn't either.
Standing backstage, we could sense the audience was getting restless. Every couple of minutes they'd start applauding and chanting, "Start the show," and "We want music."
About fifteen minutes later one of the producers went to Frenchy and asked if Louis would go on first. Louis was a star, but he didn't care about billing or protocol. He was usually understanding and cooperative.
So we went out and started playing. After waiting so long the audience gave us an unbelievable reception. They applauded every solo and when we finished a tune they'd stand and cheer for a couple of minutes.
We played about an hour and then took our bows. But the people wouldn't let us off the stage. They screamed for encores and we kept doing them. Louis knew there was no act to follow us. And he was content to stay out there and keep everyone happy until help arrived.
Finally, during our fifth or sixth encore, we saw a bus pull up and unload. As soon as Louis knew it was Jacquet's band, he told us, "This time when we end, walk off and stay off."
As soon as we finished, we headed for the dressing rooms and changed. Then we packed up our instruments and hung around backstage talking to some of the guys from Jacquet's band.
Trying to follow a performer like Louis really put Jacquet in a difficult position. To make matters worse, the audience knew he'd been scheduled to play first and had kept them waiting. So when he came out on stage, he got a lukewarm reception.
Jacquet had eight or nine good musicians with him. They started with a couple of standards, but there was no response. They even featured the drummer, but that didn't seem to rouse the audience either. Then Jacquet must've figured he had nothing to lose, so he called "Flying Home," the tune he'd made famous with Hamp's band.
It took a couple of minutes before the audience recognized the tune and started to react. By then Jacquet was soloing and he gave it everything he had, building, honking, screaming, and dancing. All the moves, chorus after chorus. By the time he finished, he had the audience in the palm of his hand, the same way Louis had them an hour before.
The audience screamed for an encore and Jacquet did another couple of choruses of "Flying Home." But right in the middle, Hamp's bus pulled up. Hearing someone else play a tune he was known for and seeing the fantastic audience reaction must've made him furious. Everyone backstage saw what was going on and knew Hamp would want to somehow outdo Jacquet. Louis was watching and he got interested too. I remember we were set to get on the bus, but Louis turned to a couple of us and said, "Wait, we have to see this."
Jacquet finished and after the stage got set up, Hamp came out. He began with "Midnight Sun," one of his famous ballads. But after Louis's performance and Jacquet's finale, the audience was in no mood for it. He did "Hamp's Boogie Woogie," and a couple more numbers. He even played drums and sang, but he still didn't get much of a reaction.
I was standing in the wings with Louis and a couple of other guys and we could see how hard he was working. But time was running out. He looked frustrated and desperate and he finally called "Flying Home."
The band started playing but there wasn't much response from the audience. Hamp wouldn't give up. He put everything he had into his solo, starting out soft, then building to a crescendo. When he finished, sweat was dripping off every part of him, and a handful of people cheered.
I guess Hamp sensed he was making some headway with the crowd. So while the band continued, he went back to Monk Montgomery, who was playing Fender bass, and told him, "Gates, you jump in the river on the next chorus, I'll give you an extra ten."
Monk must've agreed because when the band got to the next crescendo and Hamp raised his mallets, Monk jumped over the railing. The audience went crazy.
The band kept playing and a few minutes later Monk came out on stage
soaking wet. Hamp walked over to him and said, "Another ten if you do it again."
Monk made it back to his bass and played another chorus. Then when the band came to the same crescendo and Hamp raised his hands, he went over the side again.
By this time the people were in a frenzy and Hamp knew he'd accomplished what he'd set out to do.
Louis turned to us and said, "Start up the bus. We can go now."”