Louis Armstrong

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Louis Armstrong mural in New Orleans

Louis Armstrong’s Birthday

Throughout his life Louis Armstrong said his birthday was the 4th of July, 1900. It seemed fitting, somehow, for America’s greatest jazz patriarch to share a birthday with his native country. Few questioned this date until many years after Armstrong’s death in 1971. Until Tad Jones came along.

Tad Jones

Tad Jones was a New Orleans music historian, broadcaster, educator and co-founder of New Orleans’s beloved music venue, Tipitina’s. In 1988 he got a call from New York City. It was the prolific jazz writer Gary Giddens, who was working on a book about Armstrong and also directing an Armstrong documentary for PBS. Giddens and the show’s producer asked Jones if he would do some research for them.

“It was supposed to be the definitive book on Armstrong, but he didn’t have time to come here and do the work himself,” Jones told the Times-Piycaune in 1994. “One thing they were interested in was Louie’s birthday. They didn’t believe in Louie’s story that he was born on July 4 and I told them, ‘Yeah, I’ve never believed it myself and nobody else I know believes it.’ “

Discovering Horn of Plenty

Jones managed to track down an obscure Armstrong biography by a Frenchman named Robert Goffin. In it, Armstrong is quoted as saying “When I was born my grandmother took me to Sacred Heart Church to be baptized.”

Jones admitted much of the dialogue in Goffin’s book is “totally fictionalized” and “nobody took Goffin seriously.”

But still, Jones thought, it had to be worth going to the church for a look.

Sacred Heart Church
(photo courtesy of New Orleans Public Library)

“I went in the rectory, told the lady I was looking for a baptismal certificate. She looks it up, pulls out a card that says Louis Armstrong, and asks if his mother was Mary Albert and his father William Armstrong? I said yes.

“She gives me a copy, I give her three bucks, and it has taken all of 15 minutes to find a record that’s been sitting for 88 years in the Sacred Heart rectory on South Lopez Street, that gives Louis Armstrong’s correct birthday as Aug. 4, 1901.”

Giddens’s “definitive” Armstrong biography was published later in 1988. Jones observed ruefully that one piece of its scholarship stood out for most of the reviewers:

“Oh, Gary Giddens found Louis Armstrong’s real birthday.”

Aftermath

Tad Jones wasn’t as upset by his lack of credit as he was by the fact that Armstrong’s life clearly needed more research. One thing he noticed was the name Catherine Walker, listed on the certificate as Armstrong’s baptismal sponsor. Who was she? Jones wanted to know.

After some more digging, it turned out Walker was Louis Armstrong’s great-grandmother. This started a quest for more information about Armstrong’s background, one that Jones was still pursuing when he died in 2007.

Reference

Staff writer, BILL GRADY. “MUSIC WRITER RELISHES ROOTS, RHYTHM OF N.O..” Times-Picayune, The (New Orleans, LA), November 6, 1994: B1. NewsBank: America’s News – Historical and Current.

Satchmo Secondline, photo by Zack Smith Photography

Satchmo Summerfest

This time of year here in New Orleans we look forward to Satchmo Summerfest — a seven-day celebration of all things Louis Armstrong. It’s the event’s 20th anniversary, and normally we’d be heading down to the New Orleans Jazz Museum at the old U.S. Mint for music, food and enlightening conversation.

The keyword is “normally.” Of course these aren’t normal times. So like everyone else, the good folks at French Quarter Festivals, Inc. (who put on the event) have gone virtual.

There’s still music, courtesy of our local jazz and heritage radio station, WWOZ, as well as concerts streaming live on-line. For a complete schedule, visit the Satchmo Summerfest web site.

We’re looking forward to hearing our friends Meschiya Lake, Wendell Brunious, Herlin Riley, John Boutté, and Nicholas Payton, to name a few.

And even if we can’t walk up to a food vendor and grab a luscious po-boy to munch on while wandering outside the Mint listening to great music, there’s still a food component to this year’s Satchmo Summerfest.

Of course, it’s on-line as well:

More great cooking demos are lined up on the French Quarter Festival’s YouTube channel. We’re getting hungry just thinking about it.

Which leaves us with only one question: Will Ricky Riccardi be giving one of his great Louis Armstrong presentations this year? And the answer is “yeah, man.” Check him out on Saturday, August 1st at 4:00 pm, Central. Ricky will be hipping us to “The Big Band Years of Armstrong.” And the following day it’s “Hang at Home with Louis.” Same time, same Satch channel.

On-line, of course.

Miles Davis on Frenchmen Street

Frenchmen Street Musicians

The musicians left Frenchmen Street right before St. Patrick’s Day. Ironically that’s when New Orleans began its lockdown to combat the coronavirus pandemic. Bars, restaurants and entertainment venues were closed. That included the dozen or so music clubs scattered along Frenchmen, located just downriver from the Quarter.

Doors and windows boarded up, this once vibrant arts and entertainment district became a plywood-paneled ghost town overnight. Deprived of their usual music venues, some musicians went on-line, playing virtual gigs on Facebook.

But while the entertainment part of Frenchmen Street fell silent, art continued to thrive. Muralist Josh Wingerter used the boarded-up windows as his canvas, creating quarantine-inspired artworks of familiar musicians and other pop figures. Several of them became Internet memes, including a portrait of Louis Armstrong with pandemic-appropriate PPE:

Louis Armstrong on Frenchmen Street
Louis Armstrong

We weren’t able to photograph Wingerter’s art until after some other “artists” had tagged the empty spaces surrounding his images. Fortunately, these graffitists had mostly kept their spray cans away from his work.

Mahalia Jackson
Mahalia Jackson
Dr. John
Dr. John
Professor Longhair
Professor Longhair
James Booker
James Booker

For now it’s heartening to see these musicians still entertaining Frenchmen Street passers-by. With restrictions easing, some clubs and restaurants may soon re-open … making us wonder: what’s going to happen to all those artworks?

Michael Cogswell

Our program on Ricky Riccardi is dedicated to Michael Cogswell, who died April 20, 2020 at the age of 66. Cogswell was the founding Executive Director of the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Corona, Queens.

The WBGO website has an excellent obituary detailing Cogswell’s career as jazz archivist and historian who undertook the job of turning Louis Armstrong’s New York home into a museum.

The LAHM Facebook page says that Cogswell transformed “a stack of 72 shipping cartons filled with Louis Armstrong’s vast personal collection of home-recorded tapes, scrapbooks, photographs, manuscripts, and memorabilia … into a monumental research archive, eventually holding eleven collections of Armstrong material.”

Photo courtesy of Louis Armstrong House Museum

All that said, we have a Michael Cogswell memory of our own to share.

As part of its post-Katrina coverage in 2005, NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday broadcast a collection of recorded messages offering words of encouragement and support to hurricane victims. The speakers included singer Bonnie Raitt, reporter Betsy Mullener, authors Fannie Flagg and Richard Ford … and Michael Cogswell:

At that time, Gwen was the senior editor of the program. “Michael Cogswell and I never met face to face, but in 2005 he was my first call when I came up with the idea to create this ribbon of salutations. He really came through. Only later did I hear that his brother lives not far from New Orleans, in Folsom, Louisiana. Cogswell’s message of support set the exact tone we wanted — calm, personal concern, sincerity and hope.”