Another frequent question we get at the Louis Armstrong House Museum is, “What did Louis Armstrong listen to in his spare time?” The simplest answer was given by the man himself in this 1965 recording: “I listen to all kinds of music.”
In that clip alone, Louis mentions enjoying the Beatles, reminisces about playing classical music with Erskine Tate at the Vendome Theater in Chicago, sings a snippet of Verdi’s “Quartet” from Rigoletto and defends his choice to record Louis and the Good Book, his 1958 album of spirituals.
This might surprise some who only view Armstrong a smiling New Orleans jazz trumpeter who liked to blast bebop and modern jazz in public. But it’s no surprise to anyone fortunate enough to spend time with him at his Corona, Queens, home where he amassed quite a varied collection of music on records and tape. He was proud of his wide-ranging tastes, as he told John McClellan in this interview clip from 1960:
Armstrong said he had everybody’s records, “From Stravinsky to Gizzard,” before mentioning Thelonious Monk. He wasn’t kidding. Armstrong’s scattered handwritten notes on the back of this tape box from May 1, 1953 give an insight into his tastes, a single reel containing Monk’s “Evonce” and “Off Minor,” multiple numbers by George Shearing, Billie Holiday’s “I Hear Music” and “I’m All For You” (he lists the personnel, including pianist Teddy Wilson), Oscar Peterson’s “Until the Real Thing Comes Along” and “Love for Sale,” Count Basie’s “Sure Thing” and “New Basie Blues” and more.
That tape was heavy on pianists, but Armstrong listened to masters of all instruments–particularly trumpet. Here’s his handwritten notes on Reel 160, which contained masterpieces by two very different trumpeters, Bobby Hackett’s Jazz Ultimate and Clifford Brown’s With Strings.
Miles Davis also makes multiple appearances in Louis’s record collection. Armstrong was a big fan of Davis’s Columbia collaborations with Gil Evans and transferred their Porgy and Bess to tape. Of course, Armstrong might have been the only one to sandwich it between albums by Al Jolson and risque burlesque singer Faye Richmond, as shown here in his catalog page for Reel 44 of his tape collection:
All three original vinyl albums still exist in our Archives, each with a small square of white tape on the cover, a way for Armstrong to remind himself that he had already dubbed these records to tape:
Another question we’re often asked is how did Armstrong possibly find time to do all of this? There’s no easy answer to that question but it’s safe to assume that when Armstrong did have the luxury of some time off at home, he spent the bulk of it dubbing records to tape so he could listen to them when he was back on the road.
Here he is explaining just that on a tape from the 1950s where he dubs recordings from one of his heroes, the pioneering African American entertainer Bert Williams. Armstrong, sitting by himself and speaking to an imaginary audience who might one day hear this (that day is today), announces that he’s spending his vacation copying records. We’ve left to the opening of the Williams record intact for more “That’s My Home” flavor as Louis points the listener’s attention to the airplanes flying overhead to nearby LaGuardia Airport.
Armstrong’s Queens neighborhood also makes a cameo on this 1950s tape, which Armstrong dubbed “Records by the Greats,” with the third entry being “Neighborhood Kids in the Streets.”
Sure enough, as Armstrong announces “V Disc Time,” the children in the neighborhood can clearly be heard playing outside his open window. He calls our attention to them before carrying on with the personnel. We have edited this clip to also include Armstrong’s reactions to a number of records, including some by the pioneer of the electric guitar Charlie Christian (erroneously but humorously listed as “Charlie Christmas” in the above handwritten notes!).
The presence of Charlie Christian, Bert Williams, Al Jolson, Miles Davis and Faye Richmond opens the door to explore Armstrong’s eclectic tastes in music a little further. This tape from 1951 contains the original cast recording of South Pacific, an episode of Tallulah Bankhead’s radio series The Big Show with Margaret Truman, recordings by French vocalist Lucienne Boyer, a reading of a Damon Runyon poem, “The Old Hop Horse,” by Velma Middleton and a dub of the London LP Waltzes of Johann Strauss.
In this excerpt from that tape, Louis reminisces with his friend Stuff Crouch about seeing South Pacific on Broadway before Crouch picks up the Strauss LP. After a short discussion about the music, Louis read the entire liner notes onto tape, making comments and touchingly comparing Strauss’s life to his own:
And here is Armstrong’s copy of that Strauss LP, still a part of our Archives today:
There’s probably more classical and opera music than any other kind in Armstrong’s collection. Italian tenor Enrico Caruso became a favorite of Armstrong’s when he first heard his records as a teen in New Orleans. Here is Armstrong’s copy of Caruso’s “M’appari,” featuring Caruso’s 1917 vocal combined with an orchestra recorded in 1932 (thank you Jihoon Suk for this information!), complete with “Recored [sic]” label:
And here is audio of Armstrong at home, introducing that recording–again to an audience not present–before we cut to the ending and Armstrong’s explosive reaction to Caruso’s last high note.
Armstrong had a similar reaction when listening to a recording of “Semper Fidelis” by Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. As you’ll hear, Armstrong describes it as a special red record put out by RCA Victor; here is his copy:
Midway through listening, Armstrong starts scatting along enthusiastically, realizing that he used to play this song with the Tuxedo Brass Band in New Orleans, except Oscar “Papa” Celestin used to cut the titles off the arrangements so the other brass bands wouldn’t steal his repertoire, which explains why Armstrong never knew the title! Here is the audio of this precious moment:
That recording of “Semper Fidelis” was made on October 14, 1946 and pressed on that special red vinyl to commemorate RCA Victor pressing “One Billion Records” in its history. For the flip side, the label chose their oldest master record, banjoist Vess L. Ossman’s “Tell Me Pretty Maiden” from the musical Floradora, recorded on January 21, 1901. Armstrong doesn’t scat or tell stories about it but his introduction is infectious in illustrating the joy he got from listening to all kinds of music, singing a bit of the melody, exclaiming “Goody, goody, goody,” imploring Ossman to “Lay it on me, Homes” and offering a satisfied, “Yeah, man, yeah! You came on with your Floradora” at the conclusion:
Along with Caruso recordings and numbers from the early 20th century, Armstrong also kept up with the latest sounds in popular music as he got older, as evidenced by his mention of the Beatles in the first clip of this entry. To prepare for his 1970 album Louis Armstrong and His Friends, he regularly listened to works by Harry Nilsson and the Plastic Ono Band. And in the last year of his life, he was listening to Isaac Hayes’s Hot Buttered Soul, the Fifth Dimension’s single of “Viva Torado” and “Light Sings” and Neil Diamond’s album Tap Root Manuscript, the latter annotated in one of Armstrong’s handwritten tape catalog sheets:
Armstrong didn’t seem to have any connections to innovations in jazz after 1959, seemingly showing no desire to listen to works by John Coltrane or Ornette Coleman. However, he did continue to buy music by Dizzy Gillespie, Woody Herman, Illinois Jacquet, Jimmy Owens and many others, in addition to old friends Milt Hinton, Joe Bushkin, Eubie Blake, Willie “The Lion” Smith, Zutty Singleton.
But through all of his time in Queens and the 21 years he spent making reel-to-reel tapes, the artist represented by the most appearances in his music collection might not come as a surprise: Louis Armstrong.
Unlike many artists, who cannot stomach listening to themselves play or sing, Armstrong loved listening to his own music from all periods of his storied career. Here he is reading the liner notes to the compilation pictured above, Columbia Records’ Louis and Earl, produced by George Avakian.
Armstrong loved his 1920s works but he also matured quite a bit as he got older and occasionally heard things on the vaunted Hot Five recordings that made him bristle. In this stunning clip from the 1950s, Armstrong is relaxing with friends and listening to his 1926 recording of “Irish Black Bottom.” However, not too long into the performance, Armstrong begins humming Percy Venable’s written melody, distressed that it’s not more prevalent on the recording. When the Armstrong of 1926 begins shouting the lyrics in his effervescent early style, the Armstrong of 1951 responds by emphatically scatting the written melody. When it’s over ,he complains about the old “obbligato” style and relates the wisdom conveyed by a famous sign at Decca Records asking, “Where’s the melody?”
This post represents only a scratching of the surface in answering the question of what was in Louis Armstrong’s record collection. Now, with our new “That’s My Home” Virtual Exhibit site, we plan on turning this into a regular Friday feature, sharing more recordings from Armstrong’s personal collection each week and adding any personal notes or recorded introductions that survive, in addition to Spotify links if you’d like to listen along. Some of Armstrong’s mixtapes alone cry out for the 21st century “playlist” treatment and we’re excited to provide such services in future editions of “That’s My Home.”
Until then, stay safe and remember to listen to all kinds of music!