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Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator: Louis Armstrong

From Washington Lawyer, March 2010

By Jacob A. Stein

spectator Biographer Terry Teachout has written a new book titled Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong about the legendary American jazz trumpeter and singer. Why another? Mr. Teachout says the other biographies did not do justice to Louis Armstrong (hereafter, Louis) the person, as well as the gifted musician and vocalist. Mr. Teachout is right. I base my opinion not entirely on hearsay (Fed. R. Evid. 801, 802). I base it, in part, on personal knowledge (Fed. R. Evid. 601). I spent an evening with Louis. Here is my testimony.

In the 1950s, Doc Pressman’s Randolph Pharmacy, located at 14th and Randolph streets in Washington, D.C., was a meeting place for musicians. Doc believed in the therapeutic efficacy of vitamin pills, especially vitamin E when taken in huge quantities.

Doc tacked to his bulletin board postcards from musician friends. Among the cards were several from Louis containing affirmations of the remarkable qualities of vitamin E and evaluations of the laxative samples Doc supplied him.

On a June day in 1955, Doc said in a casual way that he and I were to meet Louis, who was performing at an open-air theater in Washington. Doc said he had word from “Pops” that he was running low on supplies and needed his medicine cabinet restocked.

Doc filled a satchel with vitamin E, vitamin C, and other assorted pills and laxative samples. We were then on the way to meet one of the few men who had gained lasting worldwide fame, authentic fame (Fed. R. Evid. 901), on his own terms.

As we approached Louis’ dressing room, I was concerned that Doc did not know Louis as well as Doc made it appear. Would we be just intruders? Doc knocked on Louis’ half-opened door. Louis was seated opposite a small table with a mirror above it, and on the table were bottles of various pills and lotions. His trumpet was on the table, horn end down. He was wearing a bathrobe. He had a large handkerchief wrapped around his head like a hat. Black-rimmed eyeglasses rested on his forehead. His white silk stockings were rolled down to his black shoes. He was dabbing a cotton wad into a lubricant and then applying it to his lips. Without getting up, Louis gave Doc a warm, friendly, husky-voiced greeting. I saw at once that they were real friends, comfortable and relaxed in each other’s company, nothing forced.

The general flow of the conversation centered on Louis’ recent U.S. Department of State worldwide goodwill tour. Doc opened the satchel to show the contents to Louis who looked in with satisfaction to the portable medicine chest.

I noticed a young man somewhere between the ages of 18 and 21 peeking into the dressing room, holding the hand of a pretty young girl. Louis saw them in the mirror and turned around to see this innocent young couple. He invited them in. The young man was excited by this turn of events. He told Louis how thrilled he was to meet and talk to this great musician. Louis interrupted and asked how he was feeling. The startled young man replied he was feeling fine. There followed Louis’ lecture (well known to his friends) on the need for a good, reliable daily laxative. He recommended Swiss Kriss, the laxative he discovered abroad. He gave handfuls of samples to the young man. He then turned again to dabbing his lips with the cotton swabs. The puzzled couple withdrew.

It was near showtime, and as Doc and I were leaving the room, Louis asked me if there was a song I would like to hear. I mentioned his 1932 recording of “That’s My Home.” He remembered it, although he had not played it in years. He was glad I mentioned it because it gave him a good test to see if he could do what he thought he could do—recall the words. He said he had that gift. He could remember the words to all the songs he ever sang, hundreds of them. The band would be surprised to hear him start up “That’s My Home,” but they were all good fakers and they would be all right. He then asked Doc to give him a ride to the Annapolis Hotel after the show was over.

On that beautiful night, as the show was coming to a close with the strains of “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South,” Louis looked in our direction, gave us the big stage wink, and then he trumpeted into “That’s My Home,” first playing it and then singing it, just as he did on my old 78 record. As he finished he looked over at us, smiled triumphantly, and raised the trumpet into the air.

Afterward, Doc and I waited outside Louis’ dressing room. He smiled as he walked out. He said he was sure glad he knew the words to “That’s My Home.” Off we went to the Annapolis Hotel.

What I recall of the conversation at the hotel is something Mr. Teachout covers in detail—Louis, the man inside. I asked Louis how he does a two-hour show and then remains so composed. He said there were good audiences, like the one that evening, and there were bad audiences. The ups and downs a hundred times a year. He never let it get to the man inside. He protects that boy from New Orleans.

The impact of Louis’ conversation personality has been the subject of testimony by a number of witnesses. Tallulah Bankhead said of it: “He uses words like he strings notes together—artistically and vividly.” Those who spoke with him for 10 minutes were (consciously or unconsciously) imitating him. His slang, first picked up by musicians, turned up everywhere.

After an hour or two, Doc stood up and announced we were leaving. It was past 2 in the morning. Louis wrote out a list of the pharmaceutical supplies he needed and told Doc where to send them.

In the late 1960s Louis fell ill, but he continued to work. He celebrated his 70th birthday at the Newport Jazz Festival, and then he had to be hospitalized. He died at home, two months later, on July 6, 1971.

Reach Jacob A. Stein at jstein@steinmitchell.com.