“A Chops Session”: The Slivovice Interview

With millions of people forced to stay at home because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the overarching theme of this site has been about what Louis Armstrong did when he was home. Our first post introduced Louis and Lucille’s long history with Corona, Queens, while our second offered rare audio clips of Louis warming up on his trumpet.

Today, we’re going further to present audio and photos of a genuine “hang” at Louis Armstrong’s home in the form of “The Slivovice Interview.” If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to spend an afternoon with Armstrong at home, sharing a drink and having some laughs over the soundtrack of his neighborhood–children play, dogs bark, car horns honk, birds chirp–this post represents the closest you’ll get to that experience. 

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In May 1965, Down Beat’s New York Editor Dan Morgenstern had the idea that the music magazine should celebrate what was then perceived as Armstrong’s upcoming 65th birthday on July 4, as well as Armstrong’s 50th anniversary in show business. Down Beat agreed, devoting its July 15, 1965 issue to a “Salute to Satch,” featuring articles by Leonard Feather, Rex Stewart and an interview with Armstrong conducted by Morgenstern himself.

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Morgenstern had known Armstrong for about 15 years, but hadn’t spent much time at his home, visiting for the first time in 1961. He first pitched this 65th birthday story on Louis to Joe Glaser, who helped set it up while Armstrong was home on May 22, 1965. To put Armstrong’s career in perspective at this time, he dethroned the Beatles from the top of the pop charts with “Hello, Dolly!” in 1964, had just completed a historic tour behind the Iron Curtain in March and early April 1965, and won the Grammy for “Dolly” on May 12. He was eager to show off his latest award to his visitors.

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However, Armstrong’s teeth were bothering him on this tour and soon after returning home on April 12, he underwent extensive dental surgery. This resulted in one of the longest breaks Armstrong had to not worry about performing and to just relax at home as he did not have to go back to work until May 25. 

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On May 22, Morgenstern visited Armstrong in Queens, bringing his friend Jack Bradley along. Bradley met Armstrong in 1959 and soon became one of his closest friends, sometimes referred to by Armstrong as his “white son.” Bradley usually had a camera with him, which was the case on this May day, as he snapped dozens of images of Armstrong in his den conversing with Morgenstern.

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Morgenstern brought along a tape recorder to record the conversation. Armstrong had drifted from his once-avid hobby of making reel-to-reel tapes; Morgenstern’s tape remains one of the few in-depth conversations with Armstrong recorded at home in this period.

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Like Armstrong, Morgenstern and Bradley–both of whom are still with us at ages 90 and 86 respectively–were archivists of their own stories. Morgenstern saved the tape, eventually copying it for historian Phil Schaap, who played it on the radio in full numerous times over the years on WKCR’s Louis Armstrong Birthday Broadcasts.

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Bradley became the world’s foremost private collector of all things Armstrong, saving the thousands of images he shot of his friend during the 12 years he spent in his presence. In 2005, the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation purchased Bradley’s entire Armstrong collection and donated it to the Louis Armstrong House Museum, where it was arranged, preserved, cataloged and digitized. All of the images in this post were taken by Bradley and scanned from his original negatives. 

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The images are beautiful, but serve mainly as visual stimulation to the soundtrack of what Louis calls in the opening seconds a “chops session,” talking with two of his friends for two-and-a-half hours (with Lucille chiming in early on). As part of our “That’s My Home” initiative, we’re happy to present the complete two-and-half-hour audio of “The Slivovice Interview”:

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For a transcript, click here.

Louis sounds very relaxed and friendly throughout. But there was something else present that made for the relaxed atmosphere: a bottle of Slivovice plum brandy Armstrong brought back from his March trip to Czechoslovakia. Louis and Lucille both testify early on about the powers of Slivovice (now known as Slivovitz) and warn their guests that it might impair them if they had anything important to do afterwards. Bradley assures Louis, “I don’t have to work tomorrow!” Louis pours them a glass, admiringly calling them a couple of trojans. 

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Not only will you hear the sound of ice clinking around the glasses during this interview, but you’ll also hear Dan and Jack get progressively sillier as the interview goes on. Armstrong’s relaxed demeanor doesn’t change much but the laughter certainly gets more infectious towards the end. 

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It’s a fascinating interview from start to finish, opening with small talk, including a discussion of the upcoming second Muhammad Ali-Sonny Liston championship fight on May 25. (Armstrong’s prediction is wrong but Joe Glaser was one of Liston’s managers so it’s understandable that he was trying to be loyal.) A discussion of the Iron Curtain tour commences, with Lucille Armstrong joining in around the eight-minute mark. Lucille sounds like she’s trying to wrap up the hang so Louis could rest awhile but once she realizes she can’t stop it, she leaves and lets them get down to business. 

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Louis is very wistful throughout the conversation, discussing his past but also observations about his career in music. Morgenstern’s resulting article, “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow” (which can be read in full on our Digital Collections site at https://collections.louisarmstronghouse.org/asset-detail/1095991) contains many beautiful quotes, such as Armstrong’s philosophy, “But the main thing is to stay before the public. That’s what the old-timers told me.”

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Later, while recounting an ovation he received after attending a performance of Hello, Dolly! on Broadway, Armstrong says, “It’s wonderful–but nobody lasts forever. But after 52 years of playing, I had a wonderful experience for a man who came up from New Orleans selling newspapers and who just wanted to blow the horn….The people put me in my seat, and I’ll never let them down. And there’s no problem: they love music, and I love music too.”

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When the interview was over, the Armstrongs and their guests ambled into the backyard for another round of photos by Bradley, including this gorgeous outdoor portrait of Armstrong.

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Morgenstern then posed for a photo with Louis and Lucille…

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…and then took over the photographer duties to take a shot (albeit blurry) of Bradley with their hosts.

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At that point, Bradley and Morgenstern departed Queens, armed with a camera filled with precious film, a tape record with a priceless tape….and a bottle of Slivovice plum brandy. And in 2007, the original Slivovice bottle made it to Queens to take its place amongst the artifacts in the Research Collections of the Louis Armstrong House Museum.

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And Bradley and Morgenstern still remain friends 55 years later, having a welcome in person reunion at Birdland in New York City in 2015.

Jack Bradley and Dan Morgenstern. Photo by Ricky Riccardi

Armstrong’s words closed Morgenstern’s article and they make a good close to our “chops session” today: “It’s wonderful to be around and to see so many things happening with the youngsters. And you’re right in there with them. Today. That’s happiness–that’s nice. I don’t regret anything. I still enjoy life and music.” 

Published by Ricky Riccardi

I am Director of Research Collections for the Louis Armstrong House Museum.

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