A common question we get from musicians who visit the Louis Armstrong House Museum is “What was Louis Armstrong’s practice routine?” The short answer is he didn’t have a set a routine. In fact, to hear him tell it, he didn’t even consider what he did play as “practice” but rather as “warming up.” Here he is explaining the different to a reporter in Argentina in 1957:
Fortunately for us, Armstrong recorded himself warming up numerous times after purchasing his first tape recorder in 1950. In fact, in the very first minute of the very first tape he made in December 1950, he picked up his horn to blow for about 20 seconds on Edvard Grieg’s “Solveig’s Song” from Peer Gynt before stopping abruptly to listen to the results. Here is the audio of that moment; the voice giving Armstrong instructions is trombonist Jack Teagarden, who had purchased a tape recorder prior to Armstrong.
One way Armstrong loved to “eulogize the chops” as he put it, was to play along with records. In this next segment from 1951, he addresses an imaginary audience—he knew that people would be listening to these tapes long after he was gone—and discusses his 1923 recording of “Tears” with King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band. Armstrong wrote the song with then-girlfriend Lillian Hardin but when they got to OKeh’s studio in October 1923, Oliver insisted on playing the melody. With the limited, acoustic recording technology, Oliver’s sound was somewhat buried in a mix that favored trombonist Honore Dutrey, hiding the true melody. To illustrate how his melody was supposed to sound, Armstrong played along with the original 78, as heard in the following clip. A fascinating moment occurs when the 50-year-old Armstrong sets up the 22-year-old Armstrong for a series of breaks!
If Armstrong didn’t have a record handy, he would sometimes play along with whatever came on the radio. In this sequence from 1953, Louis is warming up by himself before being interrupted by the start of “The Guy Lombardo Show,” featuring his favorite orchestra. Upon hearing the strains of Lombardo’s theme, “Auld Lang Syne,” Armstrong joins in, ending with some quiet low notes. As Lombardo launches into “Blue Belles of Scotland,” Armstrong listens for a few seconds, then blows along with the melody—always entering in the right key—before improvising a bit. Satisfied, he turns his attention to the others in the room at the end of the clip, sufficiently warmed up:
Armstrong’s tape recorder also captured moments when he chose to warm up on whatever was in his brain instead of the actual music he was listening to at the time. This clip from the late 1950s opens with Armstrong listening to Rachmaninov’s “Cello Sonata in G Minor, Op. 19,” but when he picks up the trumpet, he starts playing a bit of “My Man’s Gone Now” from Porgy and Bess. He soon begins playing other ideas, mostly waking up his upper register, but if anyone out there recognizes something familiar, please write in. Armstrong is interrupted by a young girl obviously curious at sight of his spinning reels of tape. He admonishes her not to touch it but, only needing an audience of one, really starts to wail– stand back!
And then there are the times where we get to enjoy only the sound of Armstrong’s pure horn warming up, without any recordings or radio music in the background. If the fact that Louis was listening to Rachmaninov in the preceding clip was surprising enough—we will do an entire entry on his record collection—here he is playing his own stunning solo interpretation of Franz Schubert’s “Serenade” in 1952:
The preceding two photographs were taken by Jack Bradley, who met Armstrong in 1959 and soon became one of his closest friends, his personal photographer and eventually, the world’s foremost private Armstrong collector. Bradley spent countless hours with Armstrong at his home in Queens but the 1960s were a time when Armstrong’s reel-to-reel taping habit diminished. However, we think it’s appropriate to momentarily leave the “That’s My Home” theme to travel backstage before an appearance on The Tonight Show in March 1968 when Bradley brought along not only his camera, but also a small tape recorder of his own. Armstrong was declining physically by this point and looks exhausted in some of the photos but it’s still illuminating to see these images set to the soundtrack of him warming up so late in the game.
Six months after that was recorded, Armstrong ended up in intensive care at Beth Israel Hospital for heart and kidney trouble. He was back home briefly at the start of 1969 but ended up back in intensive care in March. When he finally returned home in June, his doctors told him his performing days were most likely behind him. His wife Lucille revamped the entire home, including remodeling his den, installing new Tandberg tape decks as an incentive to once again take up his old reel-to-reel tape hobby. Armstrong gladly did this, but also warmed up on trumpet 30-40 minutes each day. By the summer of 1970, he felt well enough to go back on the road, getting his doctor’s blessing to resume playing the trumpet onstage. Around this time, most likely August or September 1970, Armstrong was home in his den, recording a conversation with Lucille and their friend Lucille Boyd. When the two Lucilles departed, Armstrong picked up his trumpet and played a fragile, but emotional chorus of “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.” It’s the last surviving audio of him playing trumpet at home.
Going back to performing proved to be a mistake and after two weeks at the Waldorf-Astoria in March 1971, Armstrong had a major heart attack, needing a tracheotomy to survive and spending another ten weeks in the hospital. When he got home on May 8, he was in rough shape but by the time he wrote a letter to a friend on May 30, he had started warming up again on the trumpet. By the end of June, he felt strong enough to invite the media over, playing the trumpet for various reporters in his den, backed up by Tyree Glenn on trombone. He promised his fans he would go around the world one more time but passed away in his sleep on July 6, 1971.
No recordings of Armstrong playing trumpet in his final month have seemingly survived but we do know a few things about what he was playing and what he was listening to. When he felt strong enough to start making tapes again, he began a new series called “Armstrong’s Personal Recordings” containing hours and hours of his own music, spanning the 1920s and going right up to his final albums in 1970. It’s been assumed that Armstrong did this simply because he enjoyed listening to his own music, which is indisputable, but he was doing this for another reason: he was playing along with each recording, trying to strengthen his lip and remember the old routines.
Unfortunately, unlike the 1950s recordings where his microphone captured not only music but also all the sounds going on in the room–from phone calls to typewriter clacks to trumpet playing—Armstrong began using direct input techniques in 1971, recording albums directly to tape via his stereo system and no longer taping the other sounds in his den. However, we do have a beautiful description from the late trumpeter Chris Clifton, who visited Louis at home with Jack Bradley in June 1971 and recalled the following:
“That day was the last time I heard him play his horn. He put on his vocal recording of Joyce Kilmer’s ‘Trees’ on the reel to reel tape recorder behind his desk and played his Selmer along with it. I have never heard anything so beautiful and moving in all my life and I shall remember every note till the day I die!”
As always, Jack Bradley captured the moment on camera, if not on tape.
And we do have the gorgeous 1954 recording of “Trees,” arranged by Gordon Jenkins:
Even without aural evidence from 1971, there should be no doubting that his playing along with “Trees” just days before he passed was indeed “so beautiful and moving,” just like everything that ever came out of his horn.