Today’s post is actually an updated version of the third ever post on this “That’s My Home” site. Launched in March 2020 with millions of people forced to stay at home because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the original theme of this site was focusd on what Louis Armstrong did when he was home. “The Slivovice Interview” was just the right 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.
Of course, if you have been with us for our entire series celebrating the late Jack Bradley, “The Slivovice Interview” takes on new magnitude as it’s the moment we have been building towards since launching this series 16 posts ago. We’ve spent a lot of time hearing Jack and reading his words about his friendship with Louis Armstrong, but today we get to hear it in action–for two-and-a-half hours.
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.
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.
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.
On May 22, Morgenstern visited Armstrong in Queens, bringing his friend Jack Bradley along. 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.
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.
Like Armstrong, Morgenstern and Bradley 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. (Schaap sadly also passed away in 2021; our eternal thanks to him for making sure this priceless conversation was shared with the public.)
This shouldn’t come as a surprise but just to emphasize it, all of the images in this post were taken by Bradley that day in 1965 and scanned from his original negatives.
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 and this ongoing tribute to Jack Bradley tribute, we’re happy to present the complete two-and-half-hour audio of “The Slivovice Interview”:
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.
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.
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.
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” 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.” It will be reprinted below.
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.”
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.
Morgenstern then posed for a photo with Louis and Lucille…
…and then took over the photographer duties to take a shot (albeit blurry) of Bradley with their hosts.
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.
And Bradley and Morgenstern remained friends until Bradley’s passing in 2021 at the age of 87. How blessed are we that Morgenstern remains with us in 2022, still going strong at the age of 92! Here is a beautiful photo of Bradley and Morgenstern reuniting at Birdland in New York City in 2015.
As promised, here’s Morgenstern’s article, as originally published in the July 1965 issue of Down Beat:
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.”
Armstrong did indeed still enjoy life and music on May 22, 1965–but upon going back to work a few days later, he began to feel differently. After six weeks off and major dental work, Armstrong immediately taxed himself with a grueling trip to Europe and quickly realized that his teeth didn’t feel quite right. For much of the summer of 1965, he just blew through any uncomfortable feelings and what survives from that period still sounds good. However, after a few such months, he began having trouble executing the demanding solos he had performed for years. Depression sunk in in the late summer of 1965 and though Armstrong still gave his all every time he hit the stage, he was no longer superhuman. As his mood grew worse and his body grew weary, Armstrong seemed to take a special comfort in his friendship with Bradley. This concludes part 17 but the great majority of Bradley’s surviving photos of Armstrong actually come from the 1965-1968 period so we have a lot more to come in this series, continuing next time with a two-part series on Armstrong’s July 1965 engagement in Atlantic City.
Until then, raise a glass of Slivovice and toast Jack Bradley, Phil Schaap, Dan Morgenstern, and of course, Louis Armstrong!