This post marks the first in what will be a three-part look at the big event of Louis Armstrong’s life in the summer of 1966: the staging of Mardi Gras at Jones Beach in New York, a collaboration between the trumpeter and his favorite bandleader, Guy Lombardo.
Armstrong’s love of Lombardo went back to Chicago in the 1920s, when he and his band would time their breaks to listen to Lombardo’s radio broadcasts. Armstrong eventually sat in with Lombardo that year and gradually shaped his early big bands to mimic Lombardo’s signature syrupy saxophone sound.
In 1965, Lombardo was booked to provide the music for Mardi Gras, a new musical show that would be performed at Jones Beach. Lombardo immediately thought it would be a natural collaboration with Armstrong but the All Stars were booked for months in advance and couldn’t make it happen; Wilbur But DeParis’s band was used instead. But by 1966, with Armstrong slowing down and with the grind of the road already claiming the life of pianist Billy Kyle, Joe Glaser most likely sensed that having his star client in one place close to home for the bulk of the summer was a smart move. Lombardo agreed to stage Mardi Gras again and this time, Armstrong would be a part of the show. The news was announced by Leonard Feather in April 1966:
If you can’t make it out in the above article, Louis and Lucille couldn’t contain their excitement about the prospect of playing Jones Beach. “I’ll play a half-hour in the show with my own group,” said Louis, “and a half-hour for dancing, I’ll be working just a few minutes away from my house in Corona.” “Just think,” said Lucille Armstrong, “I’ll have my man home for 11 weeks! The first time since we were married, and we’re celebrating our silver wedding anniversary next Columbus Day.”
By early July, Armstrong and the All Stars began rehearsals for his portion of the show, which was due to open on July 8. Jack Bradley and Jeann Failows were hired by Jazz magazine to cover it, with Bradley taking the photos and Failows writing the accompanying story. Bradley would shoot Armstrong at home, he would shoot a rehearsal, he would shoot the actual show, and he would shoot Armstrong and Lombardo’s respective post-show dance sets, with Failows’s accompanying text describing it all.
With Jazz magazine reimbursing him, Bradley was free to shoot roll after roll of film. In total, we have almost 300 photos Bradley took from this period, which is why we have broken this subseries of our longer tribute to Bradley series into three parts: Louis at home, the rehearsal and performance of Mardi Gras, and the All Stars’s dance set.
We’re opening with Armstrong at home, which brings us back to this site’s original “That’s My Home” theme for the first time in a long time. Here’s part of Failow’s finished article:
“Before Mardi Gras Louis had never played an engagement which permitted him to commute from home for as long a period as two months. His Corona, Long Island home (which he shares with wife Lucille—he calls her ‘Brown Sugar’) is only three-quarters of an hour’s drive to the Marine Theater at Jones Beach. Louis’ first few weeks in the shop were quite a grind, for he had just completed a string of long, endless one-nighters to go directly into rehearsal. His years of experience, coupled with his unusual stage of good health, enabled him to pace himself magnificently. Timing is one of his middle names. He usually gets out of bed around four in the afternoon and, after getting himself together, he grabs his Selmer trumpet for some practice.”
Bradley met up with the trumpeter as he was warming up in his den, a white handkerchief tied around his head to keep his hair in place:
In the background of the next photo, you’ll spot an upside-down issue of Sepia magazine:
That’s the August 1966 issue of Sepia with Dionne Warwick and a cover story, “The Indestructible Louis Armstrong,” which featured multiple Bradley photos. Here’s Bradley’s personal copy (perhaps given to him by Armstrong, since we don’t have a copy in our Louis Armstrong Collection):
Shooting from another angle, Bradley caught some of the interesting framed artifacts on the wall: a pencil sketch of Arturo Toscanini (now on display in the Living Room of the Louis Armstrong House Museum), and Armstrong’s two Gold records, one for Hello, Dolly!, the other other for a United Nations-sponsored compilation, All Star Festival on which he appeared on one track:
Bradley got a close-up of the two Gold records, which might have been recent additions to the Den since they don’t appear in any of the Den photos Bradley took during “The Slivovice Interview” of May 1965:
Bradley also took a photo of this life mask of Armstrong, hanging right on one of the walls in the house (it’s been on display in the exhibit area of the Louis Armstrong House Museum since 2013):
The Armstrongs were having friends over for dinner that evening, namely Armstrong’s old friend from New Orleans, Al Cobette, who became a fixture in Corona, Queens for many decades, often teaming with Lucille on events celebrating Louis’s legacy. Unfortunately, Bradley and Failows didn’t identify the other visitors; if anyone out there knows, please write in! Here’s Failows describing the dinner:
“Dinner is at 5:30 and the fare is usually of the down-home variety, which he has always loved. The soul food consists of red beans and rice, ham hocks (he calls them ‘trotters’—abroad he orders Eisbeins), salad, corn bread or biscuits, and coffee–topped off by a cigarette. When a recent visitor from New Orleans commented upon such a diet for a successful man like Louis, Pops grinned, ‘Man–this is the food I was brought up on!'”
Here’s a series of Bradley photos of Armstrong at the head of the table, obviously relaxed and in good spirits in front of a plate loaded with ham hocks and red beans and rice:
Here’s a better photo of the mystery male visitor, wearing glasses, sitting across from Lucille and Al Cobette.
Even Armstrong’s friends didn’t leave his home without getting an autograph:
We zoomed in on the image Armstrong is signing and it’s a photo of him and Cobette taken some years earlier. Interestingly, a non-autographed print of the same photo was donated to our Archives in 1995. That was before my time so I’m not sure who donated it if there’s anyone out there with access to Al Cobette’s Armstrong mementos, please reach out! In the meantime, here’s the photo as donated in 1995:
Eventually, the two men joined Armstrong in his backyard for a photo by Bradley:
With the sun shining and his favorite subject armed with his trumpet, Bradley couldn’t resist the opportunity to take some photos of Armstrong in his backyard. Note for those who have visited the Louis Armstrong House Museum, the Japanese Garden as it it appears today was established in 1971 after Louis and Lucille purchased the abandoned house next door. This is their regular yard as it appeared before 1971:
Back inside, Armstrong packed his trumpet, put on a black jacket and awaited his ride to Jones Beach. As he headed to the porch outside of his den, Bradley ran downstairs to snap some photos from this unique angle:
According to Failows, “At about 7:30, Bob Sherman, Louis’ valet and Man Friday, drives Pops to work. Louis arrives at the theatre a little after 8 though he doesn’t appear on stage until after 10.” Here’s Sherman and Armstrong on the upstairs balcony:
It was time to head to Jones Beach, but first Armstrong posed for a couple of photos in front of his home, trumpet case in hand. These images have been very important to us at the Armstrong House over the years!
That concludes this first part on Louis Armstrong and Jack Bradley in the summer of 1966. Next time, the scene will be the Jones Beach Marine Theater and we’ll have many, many more photos to share from the rehearsal and performance of Mardi Gras!