To folks of a certain generation, the word “Freedomland” probably conjures up extremely vivid memories of an amusement park in the Bronx, built to topple the Disney empire. But seeing that it was gone within five years of opening, the amount of folks who actually got to experience Freedomland in all its glory is not an astronomical number. Fortunately for us, the late Jack Bradley was present when Louis Armstrong performed there in 1961 and 1964 and we have copious photographic evidence to share in today’s post, along with other ephemera Bradley saved such as the ticket booklet:
The first page of the “passport” gives an idea of what Freedomland was designed to offer:
Before we get too carried away, let us direct our readers’ attention to Freedomland U.S.A.: The Definitive History by friend of the Armstrong House Mike Virgintino for an incredibly detailed account of the rise and fall of the park. Conceived as New York City’s attempt to rival Disneyland (it was even conceived and built by C. V. Wood, who helped ready Disneyland for its 1955 opening before being fired in 1956), Freedomland featured 40 history-themed attractions spread across 85 acres of land–but it also cost $65 million to build (original estimates were $15.5 million). Crowds came–including 1.5 million visitors its opening season–but the park was in the hole from the start and never became a profit-making enterprise. It declared bankruptcy in 1964 and became the site of Co-op City, the world’s largest housing cooperative, to this day.
For all of its financial foibles, Freedomland was a worthy experiment just the parade of name bands that performed there at dirt cheap prices. For today’s installment of our ongoing tribute to the late Jack Bradley, we’re going to focus on Louis Armstrong August 28-September 4, 1961 engagement. Check out this advertisement from the New York Daily News in August previewing Armstrong’s appearance, but also performances from Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughan, Paul Anka, the ghost bands of Jimmy Dorsey and Glenn Miller, plus the Three Stooges–all for $1.95 (or $2.95 for a full day’s fun at the park):
Yes, Louis Armstrong shared a bill with Benny Goodman and the Three Stooges. It’s not known if any words were exchanged with Goodman, with whom Armstrong shared a disastrous tour in 1953, but drummer Danny Barcelona was a big Three Stooges fan and told me that it was quite a thrill being with them, though he remembered they mostly kept to themselves and played cards backstage whenever they weren’t on.
As chronicled in the last installment of our tribute to Jack Bradley, the All Stars went through quite a rebuilding phase in the summer of 1961, with clarinetist Joe Darensbourg replacing Barney Bigard, bassist Irv Manning replacing Mort Herbert, and the addition of Jewel Brown, a permanent replacement for the late vocalist Velma Middleton, who died in February. Veterans Trummy Young on trombone, Billy Kyle on piano, and Danny Barcelona on drums remained at their posts.
Armstrong himself never spoke about it but he must have been relieved to be off the road and to perform at a venue that was a short distance from his home in Corona, Queens. The subway proximity and cheap fare would also seem to make it a natural venue for New York’s jazz musicians to come check out the father of them all, especially since Armstrong was playing all hours of the day, but according to Bradley, that didn’t happen and Armstrong noticed. His usual entourage of friends and followers made the journey, but Bradley remembered feeling dismayed about the lack of musicians present, assuming that they didn’t care to waste their time seeing someone painted by so many as out-of-date and past his prime.
Here’s audio of Jack in conversation with Michael Cogswell and David Ostwald in 2008, reminiscing about Freedomland, the musicians who didn’t come, plus those who did, leading to a funny story about trumpeter Nat “Face” Lorber:
After that story, it’s appropriate to begin our photo exploration of Louis Armstrong at Freedomland with a photo of Nat “Face” Lorber and Jeann Failows on the grounds of the park, Lorber with his trumpet under his arm before freezing when finally getting a chance to play with Louis:
The striped canopy of Freedomland’s “Moon Bowl” can be glimpsed in the background of that photo. As we move closer, let’s see the All Stars in action at an afternoon show (on one set of contact sheets, Bradley gave us a date of September 2, 1961), courtesy of Bradley’s camera:
A beautiful shot of Louis’s Selmer trumpet:
Pops’s trumpet in mid-flight:
Pianist Billy Kyle:
Clarinetist Joe Darensbourg:
A beautiful shot of Louis:
At some point, most likely in between shows, Bradley and his friends made their way backstage. Bradley spotted a telegram from Louis’s adopted son Clarence Hatfield Armstrong, his wife Evelyn and her son, Sonny, and it ended up in one of his scrapbooks:
When “The Family” arrived, Bradley was on hand to snap a photo, Clarence on the right:
The All Stars again played in the evening and Jack was back with his camera and the same roll of film he started the day with, opening with the wonderful photo:
Louis and Trummy in action, most likely on “Now You Has Jazz” or “Rockin’ Chair”:
As drummer Danny Barcelona takes a feature, Louis and Joe Darensbourg take a break:
Here’s Barcelona, most likely on “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” with Armstrong and Darensbourg continuing their conversation in the background:
All horns return for the final chorus:
A couple of more terrific shots of Armstrong singing:
That seemed to put a wrap on one long day at Freedomland but Bradley and his crew returned again to catch the All Stars, this time with the All Stars wearing their gray uniforms. Here’s Louis captivating the crowd of all ages:
Some old friends were awaiting Armstrong backstage, including Sy Oliver, shown here with Freedomland Music Director Paul LaValle in the center (thanks to Mike Virgintino for the identification!):
Also waiting for Louis was legendary blues singer Victoria Spivey, who recorded two sides with Armstrong way back in 1929. Jack Bradley was there to capture the reunion:
Bradley caught Trummy Young and Billy Kyle checking out the brand new LP Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington Together For The First Time, recorded just five months earlier:
As Armstrong began to change clothes, his wife Lucille came backstage to greet him, resulting in this fun series of Bradley photos:
As Armstrong warmed up, Bradley couldn’t resist snapping a photo. With the mirror dead center, this is the first image we have of Bradley at work shooting his hero and friend:
Eventually, Armstrong’s close friend June Clark, an ex-trumpeter who became part of boxer Sugar Ray Robinson’s entourage, visited. Bradley gave them some privacy but still snapped a photo (notice the copy of Louis Under the Stars someone brought backstage):
Bradley might have given them some space but when it came time for Armstrong to actually change into a new suit, the two friends summoned Bradley back in to take a pic (is Clark purposely giving Armstrong “bunny ears” or is it just a coincidence that’s where his hand ended up?):
Armstrong looks a bit tired in that photo but he still managed to whip himself up into shape to give his all during the evening set (check out all the children on the stage in these next two photos–does anyone out there remember seeing Armstrong at Freedomland? Leave us a comment!):
Here, Bradley catches the front line taking another break behind the piano, Louis lighting up:
That’s all we have from that night, but after Bradley’s passing, a handful of Freedomland negatives turned up from another date that week, Louis wearing his gray suit but the rest of the band now in their dark uniforms. Thanks to Mike Persico for finding these negatives and sending them to us so quickly. We haven’t officially cataloged them yet but did quickly scan them so they could be part of this piece:
Louis and Trummy facing off, possibly on “Tiger Rag”:
Trummy, taking a breather, while more young fans sit on the stage:
Trummy, noticing Jack, poses for a beautiful portrait:
And then just offstage, Jack caught a few photos of Lucille Armstrong enjoying the show with various guests. In this one, she is seated with Jeann “Roni” Failows and Nancy Miller Elliot:
And this one requires the assistance of our diligent readers as the older African American man on the right looks incredibly familiar but we’ve been unable to identify him yet:
That exhausts our supply of Jack Bradley photos from Freedomland 1961, but we do have a few other bits of ephemera to share, including a set list in Louis’s hand. We have no concrete proof that this is from Freedomland, but the personnel is right and Freedomland represents probably the only time Bradley saw this incarnation of the All Stars live before bassist Irv Manning was fired in early 1962 so it would make sense if Jack saw this backstage and decided he had to have it:
Jack himself, also kept tabs on one of the performances he caught, listing some of the more rarely heard All Stars songs on this yellow piece of paper:
Wait a minute.
“West End Blues”? At Freedomland in 1961? Could it be?
It’s all true! Dan Morgenstern first wrote about hearing Armstrong play “West End Blues” at Freedomland in a 1962 piece in Jazz Journal, “Pops in Perspective.” Jack didn’t photograph Dan at the park, but he did shoot this image of longtime friends Dan and Jeann “Roni” Failows, most likely taken at Jack and Jeann’s apartment, on the same roll of film as some of the Freedomland shots so this was most likely taken before they headed to the Bronx:
We won’t post Dan’s entire piece, which is a long, but brilliant retrospective of Armstrong’s career. But here’s the Jazz Journal cover:
And here’s the opening paragraphs, where Dan passionately leaps to Louis’s defense in response to a lukewarm Downbeat review of an All Stars performance:
From there, Dan goes through the highlights of Armstrong’s entire career. We’ll pick up the story on the last page, when Dan is comparing Armstrong’s three studio recordings of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.” From there, he tells the story of witnessing Louis at Freedomland and hearing him perform “West End Blues” in September 1961:
Flash forward to 2012: I was contacted by a gentleman named Peter Denis Jr., whose father was a sound man at Freedomland. In September 1961, Peter Denis Sr. was enrolled in an audio engineering course and had to record a live performance as part of his requirements. He received permission from All Stars road manager Pierre “Frenchy” Tallerie and recorded portions of two sets from Freedomland 1961. In 2012, Denis’s son donated the tapes to the Armstrong Archives. You can imagine the joy and surprise that followed when we began transferring the tapes and early on in one of the tapes, “West End Blues” suddenly appeared.
Though it has never been made commercially available, we have played it in public twice, once as part of an International Jazz Day celebration with Dan Morgenstern and Stanley Crouch in 2013 and again at Jazz Congress at Jazz at Lincoln Center in 2020. At the 2013 event, we used it as the soundtrack to a montage of the above photos Bradley took at Freedomland. Perhaps he was simply moved by the moment but Crouch stood up and earnestly told those present that that 1961 version had just vaulted to the top of his list of favorite versions of “West End Blues,” before embarking on an emotional ode to Armstrong’s sound that I wish was recorded.
Thus, there’s no other way to end this post but to share the video we made of Jack Bradley’s Freedomland photos set to the sounds of a 60-year-old Louis Armstrong performing “West End Blues,” the last surviving recording (that we know of!) of this masterpiece. Enjoy (and please pardon the wrong date at the start of the video; the tape said September 7 but Jack’s notes said September 2 and seeing that Louis was out of Freedomland on September 4, Bradley’s date is the correct one):
Armstrong and the All Stars departed Freedomland on September 4 but he’d be spending much of the next week in New York, making multiple trips to the recording studio to record the album The Real Ambassadors with Dave Brubeck, Carmen McRae, and Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. Once again, Bradley attended multiple sessions, taking both photos and copious notes, and they will be the subject of our next tribute post.