“A Jazz Era Ends”: The 50th Anniversary of Louis Armstrong’s Passing

Today is the 50th anniversary of Louis Armstrong’s death (though seeing how many were paying tribute to him and sharing his music this past July 4 weekend, his legacy is alive and well!). As we have painstakingly chronicled in the past month, he went out on his own terms, making tapes, designing collages, playing the trumpet, writing letters, entertaining friends, and looking forward to the next gig. In fact, at 1 p.m. on July 5, Armstrong called his longtime road doctor Alexander Schiff and told him to get the band together for a rehearsal because he was ready to go back to work. As we discussed in our last post, he spent the rest of the day making a tape of his own music and after dubbing Ella and Louis, went to sleep, where he passed away peacefully at 5:30 in the morning.

Lucille Armstrong, devoted to the very end, was panicked upon discovering her unresponsive husband and immediately called his two doctors, Dr. Schiff and Dr. Zucker, the latter being the man who helped Armstrong through his various crises at Beth Israel since 1968. The two men immediately headed to Queens and pronounced Louis dead. Here is video of Doc Schiff from a 1980s BBC documentary Laughin’ Louis–written and directed by Russell Davies, who we’re honored to report follows this site–talking about this moment and also his friendship with Armstrong, which went back to the early 1950s, when Joe Glaser paid Schiff to travel the world with Armstrong as the company doctor, always nearby in case of an emergency (for boxing fans, he was also the ring doctor at some of the most famous championship fights held in New York City in the 1950s and 1960s).

Schiff and Zucker decided that since Schiff was Armstrong’s physician for many more years, he should sign the death certificate. Lucille had a copy of it framed (this was potentially done by Phoebe Jacobs; more on her in a bit):

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Since that might be difficult to read, here’s another copy from Phoebe Jacobs’s Collection in our Archives, though it, too, might be difficult to decipher:

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Back to July 6, a devastated Lucille had to begin the process of calling friends and family to let them know the news. Oscar Cohen, now the President of Associated Booking Corporation after Joe Glaser’s passing, realized she would need help and asked Phoebe Jacobs to head to Queens to assist Lucille. Phoebe had been in the jazz world for years–her uncle Ralph Watkins ran the New York nightclub Basin Street and she was the publicist for the Rainbow Room–and, already an acquaintance of the Armstrongs, she showed up on July 6 to handle the media, eventually assisting Lucille in planning the funeral and responding to condolence letters. In time, Phoebe became a confidant of Lucille’s and would grow into one of the most passionate advocates and defenders of Louis’s legacy, something that didn’t waver until her own passing in 2012.

The news of Armstrong’s passing soon hit the television airwaves. Here’s NBC’s report from that evening, courtesy of YouTube:

Radio also covered Armstrong’s passing, notably on an NBC Monitor tribute hosted by Murray the K and featuring remembrances from the likes of Bob Hope and Guy Lombardo. NBC sent a copy to Lucille; here is the watermarked audio of the first part of the tribute, which aired on July 10:

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Armstrong’s death made headlines in newspapers from around the world. Phoebe collected as many clippings as she could find and assembled them in a scrapbook, which she presented to Lucille with a personalized cover:

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We’re going to devote the rest of this post to scans from Lucille’s scrapbooks of some the coverage saved by Phoebe, starting with this Newsday cover:

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Here’s the Newsday story:

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Richard Meryman memorably profiled Louis for a Life magazine cover story in 1966 that was expanded into Louis Armstrong: A Self-Portrait after Armstrong’s passing. He reflected on his interactions with Louis in this two-page spread from Life, clipped by Phoebe Jacobs:

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In his hometown, Armstrong’s passing was featured on the front page of the Times-Picayune with more photos inside:

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The New York Times featured Armstrong on the bottom of the front page with an obituary by Albin Krebs that continued over the course of an entire page inside. You can read Krebs’s full obituary here.

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Elsewhere in New York, Armstrong had to share the front page of the New York Daily News with another headline in their “Final” edition:

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But he had the front page to himself in the “Night Owl” edition of July 7, 1971:

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Here’s the Daily News’s story from the inside on p. 3:

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Here’s the New York Post cover:

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The Daily Mirror used a photo of Louis and Tyree Glenn from the June 23, 1971 press visit we covered here:

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The cover of the New York Voice:

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The Voice must have immediately went to Jack Bradley because they featured a montage of Bradley’s photos on the inside, the majority of which Jack took, but also some he collected (like the Sphinx photo):

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The cover of the Philadelphia Daily News paired with an appreciation from the Lewiston Tribune and Phoebe Jacobs’s business card:

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A series of editorial cartoons, almost all riffing on a “Louis Meets Gabriel” theme:

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A touching editorial in The Missoulian and another Gabriel cartoon from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram:

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Armstrong’s passing obviously made headlines around the world but not many of those clippings must have made it to Phoebe when she made the scrapbooks as there’s only one from overseas, this one from Buenos Aires:

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Lucille also saved a copy of the July 14 Paris Match with “Adieu Louis Armstrong” on the cover (and a fabulous photo spread inside):

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Leaving Lucille and Phoebe’s collection for a bit, here’s some of the other overseas headlines, as donated to our Archives over the years. Winfried Maier of Berlin contributed these German clippings:

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Maier also sent along this striking front page from the South African newspaper The World:

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The late Gösta Hägglöf of Sweden collected many Swedish newspapers that covered Armstrong’s death. Here’s the front page of Dagens Nyheter:

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Here’s the article inside:

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The cover of the Aftonbladet:

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Hägglöf also saved a clipping from the British Melody Maker magazine:

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For the completists, here’s the full cover, which we acquired in 2002:

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Finally, we’d like to conclude back in the United States with the Chicago Tribune obituary written by Harriet Choice, who also follows this site regularly–thank you for all of your support and great work, Harriet!

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Needless to say, we have hundreds of more obituaries in our Archives, including more saved by Lucille and Phoebe Jacobs, four full file folders from Gösta Hägglöf, hundreds in Jack Bradley’s collection and so on. If you’d like to see more from Phoebe and Lucille’s scrapbooks, we invite you to visit our Digital Collections site to see watermarked scans of each page. For the much longer one, search for the accession number 1987.8.69, while another 30 or so are located in a scrapbook at 1987.8.75.

But if you think we have many obituaries of Louis Armstrong, that’s nothing compared to the amount of condolence letters Lucille Armstrong received, all of which are part of our Archives. We have done what we initially set out to do in telling in detailed fashion the story of Louis Armstrong’s final weeks on this planet, but our work is not done yet; check back in the coming days and weeks as we share some of the most memorable condolence letters Lucille received, plus we’ll have commemorate Louis’s funeral with photos, clippings, videos, a Voice of America radio broadcast, and much more.

Published by Ricky Riccardi

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

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