As we’ve been chronicling all month, the final weeks of Louis Armstrong’s life were ones filled with both tremendous pride as he looked back at his entire musical career, but also a sense of hope that he would once again be able perform for his beloved fans.
The looking back was accomplished on his “Armstrong’s Personal Recordings” series of reel-to-reel tapes (here are links to Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of that series, with Part 4 still to come next week). But in an interview conducted with the German magazine Jasmin on May 25, Armstrong was adamant about returning to performing. “And they think I want to prove something by playing the trumpet as soon as possible and give at least four concerts a year,” he told Jasmin. “I don’t want to prove anything. I just like to blow my horn. And I enjoy hearing myself play.”
On May 30, Armstrong wrote to Cincinnati-based clarinetist Slim Evans, a letter covered in this previous post. “When I can pick up my Horn + Blow a few Beautiful notes, I am at peace with the world,” Armstrong wrote. “My Doctor a (“Hip Rascal”) gave me permission to Blow a little lightly every day before My Dinner. Sorta SLIP on it and getting a Strong Lip and Building up an Embusure or Ambershare (Embrusure HMM) You Know? I am trying to say–good strong Crumb-Crushers (LIPS). Tee Hee. I must feel good–Aye? Well–the Crisis is all over, so why sit AROUND and WORRY about the Past. Everyday I am getting stronger.”
Armstrong proved it as May turned to June, making tapes, entertaining visitors such as Jack Bradley and Chris Clifton (as discussed in Monday’s post) and playing more and more trumpet every day. Eventually, Armstrong felt like making a statement to the press. On June 21, the Associated Press sent a photographer Eddie Adams to Armstrong’s home. Adams was no stranger to the trumpeter, having taken several photos of Armstrong in 1970–at home in Queens and backstage in Las Vegas–that have become some of the most oft-seen images from this late period.
Adams took two photos of Armstrong in his living room, one playing the trumpet, and one with his arms behind his head, a smile beaming from his face. Here is the trumpet photo, watermarked from the official Associated Press website:
The AP site doesn’t have the other photo taken that day, but here it is in an article from June 23, 1971 that was clipped by Armstrong himself:
The images from Adams’s visit hit the AP wires and appeared in newspapers around the country the rest of the week. But Armstrong wasn’t through yet.
He had already entertained photographers from the German Jasmin magazine, Annie Leibovitz for Rolling Stone and now Eddie Adams for the Associated Press, but now Armstrong wanted to make a statement–in more ways than one. He would invite members of the media over to his home in Queens on June 23 so he could read an open letter to his fans and so he could play the trumpet and demonstrate that he was assuredly on the road to recovery.
In preparation for their visit, Armstrong sat down and composed his letter. As discussed last week, Armstrong was sometimes forgetful about the year and dated it “June 23, 1970,” which is how it was treated in various Armstrong biographies, even though that doesn’t make sense since he refers to his tracheotomy and only had one and that was in 1971. (Side note: our Archives has a separate “Open Letter to Fans” also reproduced in Louis Armstrong In His Own Words and that one has a date of June 15, 1970–but it was actually 1969!) The ink is faded, but here is his complete letter:
It’s tough to read that without bursting into tears. Interestingly, our Archives contains another copy of the same letter in Lucille Armstrong’s handwriting. She even did some mild editing and put the correct date on it; could this have been done the same day? Or something she transcribed after he died? We’ll probably never know but here’s Lucille’s transcription, which might be easier to read:
If you have trouble with either sets of handwriting, here is a transcription:
June 23 1970
This is Louis Satchmo Armstrong speaking from his home in Corona I’ve just gotten (OUT) of the Beth N.Y. Israel Hospital. I’ve had a million things that happened to me, including the operation for TRECHEOTOMY. And I’m coming along just fine and I’m getting my strength back even in my legs – I thought that it is real thrilling to send a message to my Fans and Friends from all over the world. Which I’d like to thank all of them from every nook an corner of the World for their Lovely get well cards and prayers which did wonders for me. (more)
I also want to thank my Doctor Gary Zuker – His staff of Doctors PERSONEL Mrs Lucille Armstrong Dr Alexander Schiff our company Doctor. Ira Mangel our road manager for many years for many years and still is. That is, if I ever get back to work again. I am looking forward to it. I feel that I owe the my public and my Fans my service again. Which they are eagerly waiting for. I would also like all the Nurses – in Intensive Care. God Bless them all. They worked so very hard along with my Dr. Zuker to save my life. And God knows that I was in real (more)
bad Shape. I also would like to thank the Private Nurses on the (11th) floor of the Beth Israel Hospital – who served me around the clock. They were all so nice + kind
With the letter composed, it was time to welcome the press. This time, the Associated Press sent John Rooney, who took multiple photos of a somewhat wistful-looking Louis in his living room:
In the following photos, you can see part of the 1957 Decca 4-LP set Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography peaking out of the bottom corner:
Eventually, Rooney photographed Louis posing with the Musical Autobiography, which truly remained one of his favorite sets until the very end:
Lucille was invited to join him on the (plastic-covered) couch for the next photos:
Only one photo from this session ended up in the Armstrong’s personal collection as at some point, someone from the AP sent the following print to Lucille:
Rooney was apparently the only photographer who shot Louis in the Living Room. Eventually on June 23, Armstrong made his way upstairs (still most likely using the electric stair chair) and parked himself behind his desk in his den. He took out his Selmer trumpet and mouthpiece and got ready to demonstrate that he wasn’t finished blowing the trumpet. Rooney followed him upstairs to take this photo:
An unknown photographer from Bettman took a similar photo, one that is now owned by Getty Images:
Those photos are wonderful, but Armstrong might have been self-conscious about his thinning hair so he grabbed his ever-present bucket hats, Rooney taking two photos with the “California” one:
Back to Getty, a photographer from the Express took this photo from the opposite side of the room, Armstrong now with his jacket off (looking up New York City weather for June 23, 1971, it hit 87 degrees at 3:30 p.m.):
With the posing out of the way, Armstrong got down to blowing. This is the only photo from the den portion of the afternoon to have survived in Louis and Lucille’s personal collection. We don’t know the photographer, but Louis is back behind his desk, hat off, jacket on, and he’s blowing, his eyes pointed skyward like old times:
The trombone in that photo confounded some folks for several years–what was Louis Armstrong doing with a trombone? We provided the answer last week with Armstrong’s June 14 letter to Erich Kauffmann, thanking him for the trombone that was sent as a gift of Franz Schuritz, the man who manufactured Armstrong’s lip salve.
And what good is a trombone without a trombonist? Enter Armstrong’s longtime friend and fellow All Star, Tyree Glenn, visiting from his home in New Jersey. Photographers began snapping away as Armstrong and Glenn played four selections together. Unfortunately, Armstrong did not reach over and hit “record” on his tape decks and from what I can tell, no footage or audio has survived of this impromptu concert–which apparently opened with “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South” and closed with Armstrong’s composition “If We Never Meet Again” (seriously!)–but at least we have these photos. The first is another AP photo from John Rooney (Armstrong now switching to his Budweiser hat while Tyree might very well be wearing one of Armstrong’s Mets caps):
Next, an entry from Getty’s mysterious “Michael Ochs Archive” that appeared in many newspapers with a UPI credit:
And finally, another Bettman photo, also now owned by Getty:
With that, the reporters left and began filing their stories about Armstrong’s visit, which would be used in newspapers around the world right up until Armstrong’s July 4 birthday. The Associated Press sent Mary Campbell, who also wrote a long profile/interview for Armstrong’s 70th birthday the previous year. Campbell was friends with publicist Phoebe Jacobs who, just days later, would be enlisted to help Lucille Armstrong with the thousands of condolence letters that poured in after Louis’s passing, in addition to helping plan his funeral. In our Archives, we have Phoebe Jacobs’s photocopy of Campbell’s original unedited stories, straight from the wire. It’s difficult to read so here is a transcription of the entire thing to get a sense of what Louis had to say 50 years ago today:
June 23, 1970
BY MARY CAMPBELL
AP Music Writer
NEW YORK AP–Trumpeter Louis Armstrong, who was near death earlier this year, blew a crisp “Sleepy Time Down South,” read a statement of thanks to the people who sent him a truckload of letters while he was sick and talked about going back to work, at his home in Queens on Wednesday.
Armstrong, who will be 71 on July 4 was in Beth Israel Hospital here for 10 weeks, from March 2, eight and a half of those weeks in intensive care. He went in the day after he had completed a two-week engagement at the Waldorf. The main problem was a kidney condition which affected his heart.
Armstrong told the small gathering of newsmen Wednesday he wasn’t breathing once for four seconds, but a tracheotomy started his breathing again. He opened his shirt collar to show an absence of scar from the operation and said it hadn’t hurt his trumpet blowing or his singing, if anything it had improved the latter.
“The chops is okay. I warm up every day. A man comes twice a week to give treatments to strengthen the legs. They got weak with me in bed so long. That’s all I need now, more strength in the treaders. I never had to walk with a cane before in my life and I don’t want to come out on the stage with a cane. I want to go back to work; shy should I sit around home?
“The second day I was home from the hospital I thought I could do more than I could really do and fell down and hurt my crazy bone. The doctor examined it and it wasn’t broken. I was chewing pain tablets like rice. But I guess that’s life. As long as you’re breathing you’ve got a chance. That’s the way it is.”
“Just as the press arrived, Armstrong’s long-time trombone player, Tyree Glenn, dropped in and stayed to reminisce and play four duets on a bass trombone that a German family had sent Armstrong. “Armstrong said, “I’m going to start playing it myself when I’m 80.”
Glenn recalled that when the two of them used to be touring and drink in a hotel bar after performing, Armstrong would say, “‘Now let’s go upstairs and stumble over some chairs,’ and we always did.”
Armstrong said he isn’t planning any celebration for his birthday just a quiet day at the home where he has lived with his wife Lucille for 28 years. They’re having plantings and a patio put in a back and side garden and Armstrong said if it were finished he’d have the neighborhood children in for cake and ice cream. But instead of kids, cake, and ice cream on his birthday, he’ll just wait until the garden is done.
The second page of the wire report in our Archives has a designation “MC550a edJune 24.” It’s a different version of the same story, with some repetition of the above, but also a lot of fresh quotes. Here is the raw version of Campbell’s June 24 piece:
By MARY CAMPBELL
AP Music Writer
NEW YORK AP – LOUIS “Satchmo” Armstrong, who nearly died this spring, now is practicing his gold-plated trumpet an hour a day and thinking about going back to work when his treaders get into as good shape as his chops.
He also admitted that he had eaten his favorite–nonkosher–soul food while at Beth Israel Hospital.
His chops, his lips, he says, are fine.
His treaders, his legs, he says, are his weakest spot. But a therapist visits his home twice a week and Armstrong says he is walking better all [the] time, though using a cane for the first time in his life.
The New Orleans-born trumpeter says a tracheotomy given when he had stopped breathing for four seconds in the hospital has not harmed his horn blowing and may have improved his singing voice.
“I thought they was cutting some of the tone out of my throat.” But it is even better,” he said.
Armstrong had invited a few reporters to his home in Queens on Wednesday, to answer questions about his health as he approached his 71st birthday on July 4 and to thank fans and friends who sent him a truckload of mail during his 10 weeks in the hospital, eight and a half of them in the intensive care unit.
Armstrong was looking more robust than he had during the two-week engagement at the Waldorf which ended March 1, the day before he went into the hospital. [Note: this is wrong. Armstrong began at the Waldorf on March 2 and went the hospital after the engagement ended on March 13.]
“My treaders are my weakest spot now. I can walk without this cane, but I don’t want to be too cocky. I fell a couple of times here trying to show off without it. My legs got awful weak lying in bed so long.
“As soon as my treaders straighten up, definitely I’m going back to work. Why should I sit around the the house? The doctor says anytime I want to start back I can; everything else is all right. But I don’t want to walk out on a stage with a cane.
“I had a list of things wrong with me so long I couldn’t see how one cat could have so many and get over them. I guess I’m an old cat you can’t lose.”
Armstrong’s main illness was a kidney ailment which affected his heart.
Mrs. Armstrong recalled that her husband was fed intravenously for four weeks in the hospital. Then the doctor told her that Armstrong didn’t like the hospital’s kosher cooking, he wanted soul food. The doctor said: “Just bring him what he wants. We’ll take care of any bad effects later. Bring soul food, but don’t tell us what’s in it.”
Tyree Glenn, Armstrong’s long-time trombone player, happened to drop in while the reporters were there and he and Armstrong played four numbers, one a long version of “Sleepy Time Down South.”
Armstrong also read a two-page statement he had written earlier in the day, a message to fans and friends who sent him get-well mail and prayed for him. He included the fact that he believes his fiends are “Waiting for old Satchmo.”
On that optimistic last note, the reporters and photographers left and Armstrong rested. Stories would soon turn up in newspapers around the world and Armstrong began collecting them and turning them into what would become his final collages. We will share those next week.