Years ago, watching a clip of bungee jumpers, I thought, It’s just like writing a biography—the long drop into the abyss, then the sudden jerk of salvation. Later I realized that was wishful thinking. There is no jerk, except yourself, plunging into the depthless mire of research, until finally you are obliged to concede, “Hold, enough!” However many bones you unearth, you know there are more, buried a little deeper. And when the boneyard is truly bare, bones already baking in the sun will be endlessly re-excavated. Otherwise there wouldn’t be hundreds of biographies of Alexander, Napoleon, and Lincoln, each presuming to varnish or grind into dust its predecessors. I have never attempted a full-dress biography of Louis Armstrong, but I have written a short life and several essays, enough to have felt some confidence in understanding him, his genius, and his times. Yet seconds after curator Michael Cogswell ushered me into the Louis Armstrong House & Archives for a recent visit, I felt I was plunging down the rabbit hole.
In the short time I spent there, examining maybe .05 percent of the holdings, I found no new information. But facts and factoids have limited appeal. What you really hope for is a better purchase on the man, a jarring of the imagination that enables you to see what you already know in a clearer light. A few steps into the archive I was stopped dead by a pasteboard blowup of a photograph that had never been published, showing Armstrong and his adopted son, “Clarence Hatfield.” I had never given Clarence much thought, having heard he was mentally retarded and died a long time ago, hidden away.
But here he was: beaming backstage at the Band Box, a club in Chicago, in the 1940s, nattily dressed in a double-breasted suit not unlike the pinstripe tailored for Armstrong, who also beams, with unmistakable paternal pride. Clarence and their relationship sprang to life, sending me back to Armstrong’s account in Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans, to appreciate for the first time its affectionate candor regarding his only venture into paternity. Clarence was born in 1915 to Louis’s teenage cousin, Flora, apparently after she was molested by an old white man her father felt powerless to challenge. Louis’s first sight of the baby washed “all the gloom out of me.” He took it upon himself, at 14, to get a job hauling coal (immortalized in the 1925 “Coal Cart Blues”) to support the baby and the ailing mother, and assumed full responsibility after Flora’s death, marrying his first wife and adopting the three-year-old at 17. In that period, Clarence fell off a porch and landed on his head; doctors judged him to be mentally impaired. When Louis married Lil Hardin in Chicago, Clarence joined them, and Louis never forgave Lil—who claimed that Clarence was never legally adopted—for her impatience with him. When he left Lil for Alpha, he brought Clarence along.
Eventually, Clarence was set up in the Bronx, where he was married in an arrangement of convenience financed by Louis. Clarence’s surname is something of a mystery. According to Armstrong’s friend, photographer Jack Bradley, he was listed in the phone book as Clarence Hatfield—but this may have been an expediency to keep nosy fans and biographers at a distance. Before Flora died, she evidently anticipated Louis’s involvement and renamed her son Clarence Armstrong. He lived a full life, dying in August 1998, and endures in Armstrong’s memoir as the happy athletic boy everyone called, much to Louis’s pleasure, “Little Louis Armstrong.” You feel his attachment in the photograph; had I seen it 15 years ago, I would have made every attempt to find and interview “Hatfield.”
Other photos are no less revealing. Apocryphal stories concerning Armstrong’s meeting with Pope Paul VI (in one, the pope holds out his hand, and Pops slips him some skin) are belied by a sequence of six or seven snapshots. They offer no proof as to what exactly took place, but suggest the utter absence of levity; indeed, I have never seen Armstrong look as stricken by the solemnity of an event. Everyone in the photos, including the pope, looks relaxed and unaffected—except Louis, whose downcast eyes seem to glisten with gravity.
Documents also fill out the portrait. Armstrong’s private journals and letters (he was an amazingly prolific writer) are prizes of the archive that are already well-known to researchers. But there is more. A letter to E.A. Fearn of OKeh-Odeon Records testifies to the popularity of his records in Italy; he is featured on the cover of a Fonotopia-Odeon catalog dominated by Rossini, Puccini, and Verdi. What makes this intriguing is the date: September 1926, at which time Louis had been recording as a leader for 10 months. Armstrong’s scrapbooks preserve writings about himself in black newspapers of the ’20s and ’30s. Another document, recently found, is Armstrong’s book-length collection of jokes and sayings, most of which were unprintable at the time he collated them.
But the most fascinating treasure is in the 650 reels of tape Armstrong made over a period of some 15 years, each housed in a box lovingly designed with a collage—a medium he explored contemporaneously with Romare Bearden, who first signed a collage in 1961. In 1991, when Cogswell was hired to oversee the Armstrong collection, there was some question as to whether the tapes—recorded on four tracks at slow speed and kept in a heated room—were salvageable. The Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation gave the collection to Queens College with the provision that it be preserved and made available to the public; it has continued to provide annual grants that have enabled Cogswell and his staff to scrupulously document and enlarge its holdings. Much of their effort has been devoted to transferring the tapes (two-thirds are done and relatively little proved unrecoverable) and creating archival reconstructions of the boxes. The Louis Armstrong House in Corona, which the foundation gave to New York, will finally open this fall after a $1.6 million restoration; at the same time Collectors Press will publish Louis Armstrong: The Offstage Story (with royalties assigned to the archives), which reproduces many pictures and documents for the first time.
But the question remains: How can the tapes be made available? Several anthologies could be culled that are funny, heartbreaking, and revealing beyond strictly scholarly appetites. Many tapes consist of records Armstrong wanted to take on the road, but his anecdotal introductions weren’t intended for his ears—he’s clearly speaking to an imagined audience. Few artists have been more conscious of posterity. Sometimes he plays trumpet with records, never more movingly than on King Oliver’s “Tears,” where he essays his original part in letter-perfect unison for the entire recording. I was nearly in tears myself during the episode of two-bar breaks, when he exchanges passages with his old self—it’s like nothing else I’ve ever heard. He plays as though time has stood still, his out-chorus borne on a tide of inspiration. After which he says, “That was just for kicks and to show the difference in the lead and modern recordings and things,” and then plays the record by itself, so you can “dig how this was Satchuated.”
He recounts with laughter the making of High Society, when the director wanted him to swing his cigarette holder until the smoke irritated his eyes and “I was sitting up here like Art Tatum.” Meanwhile, everyone in the band is trying to steal the scene: “Trummy Young mugged so much, I’m telling you, when the director was explaining the scene, he was mugging listening.” One morning, he has the wife of critic Hughes Panassié in France on a phone and Cozy Cole on another, trying to get them to hear each other. He tells her, “Cozy’s gonna come up in a minute, and I tell him he and Red Allen’s the only two that’s staying on Broadway a long time, so you know they got to be the greatest Toms in the world.”
In another passage he explains why no one who saw King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band in 1922-23, when Louis played second trumpet, commented on Armstrong overpowering or upstaging Oliver. It never happened. He and friends are reading a magazine account of Rocky Marciano knocking out Joe Louis. Armstrong says (this is inexact and much abridged):
“It says here the saddest moment [was] Joe Louis flat on the canvas after being KO’d by young Rocky Marciano, see. And you know that boy hated like hell to see that happen, how ’bout that. That’s something like [James ‘Coatsville’ Harris] my drummer, one time I had the big band, and we was in Eugene, Oregon, and we’re in this ofay hotel and [it’s] raining out there and ain’t nowhere to go nohow so I’m horsing Coatsville to shoot some dice on the bed. Coatsville don’t have but two dollars, see, now he didn’t want to win my money. You know, he’s my boy and he just thinks a lot of me and I’m the leader and he said, ‘Pops, I don’t want to shoot. I don’t want to,’ you know. ‘Awh, shoot the dice, man! Why don’t you shoot?’ Bam! 11, 11, 11, 11 . . . [he] won $750. But I’m just showing you how this boy admired Joe Louis so that he didn’t even want to hit him but he had to bat him a couple, see. It’s one of them things when you admire somebody so. Same as when I was playing second trumpet with Joe Oliver. And you think I’d, uh, blow for him? Like hell and I was [a] New Orleans little old young country sumbitch, strong as an ox, but I always respect Joe Oliver and that was that. He was the man and I wasn’t the one to moo him, no no. When I blew that horn, I got away from Joe, believe that. Didn’t blow it until I left him, you know? Yeah and every other page in my story is Joe Oliver, man. That’s the respect this Marciano had for Joe Louis. [Oliver] was a great man, you know, and I wouldn’t let nobody play him cheap right today. When them ofay writers and all them cats, you know, want to make my situation, they say, ‘Didn’t Bunk Johnson teach you?’ I say, ‘Bunk didn’t teach me shit!’ Any similarity of tone or whatever it is, it’s accidental. Joe Oliver was the man that would stop and show the kids in New Orleans anything they want to know about that music. Bunk didn’t have time on the way to the Eagle Saloon. But Joe Oliver would stop. So this is the respect this Marciano had for Joe Louis and I think a lot of it. Bet your life.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 15, 2003