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Louis, Lil, and the little gangster

When Louis Armstrong passed away in 1971, Lil Hardin Armstrong came to New York for the funeral. Given the circumstances, it was no surprise to find that she was not her peppy self, but she also looked tired and drawn. I attributed some of that to the fact that New York was experiencing hot and humid weather, but Lil was also obviously shaken by the event. "I can't believe that Louis is gone," she said, more than once.

As you will see in the old article that ends this post, the bond that remained between Louis and Lil was indeed of the "'til death do us part" variety.

No one resented the long-lived friendship that existed between Louis and Lil more than Joe Glaser, Louis' longtime manager, who made continuous attempts to keep them apart. I was staying with Lil in 1962 when she received a phone call asking if she would be willing to participate in Disneyland's planned reunion of the Hot Five. Most of the members were still alive and playing well at the time, so it sounded like an interesting idea, but I heard Lil tell the man that, while she was interested, she was also certain that Glaser would never allow it.

Of course, she turned out to be right. Glaser feared anyone who might threaten his hold on Louis, and Lil was someone with whom he could not compete for Louis' attention.

When I mentioned Lil's Disneyland call to Earl Hines (who took over her piano bench for the Hot Seven recordings), he told me that Glaser's insecurities led to his creating animosity between members of the All-Stars group. To this end, he once had Hines' personal belongings placed in Louis' dressing room, and had his go-fer spread among the band members false stories that were designed to antagonize them against each other and prevent unity within the group. Glaser, once a low-level gangster, never really rose out of the gutter. He found a gold mine in Louis and worked it well, making sure that Louis never needed money. Thanks to Louis, Glaser was able to build and attract great artists to his Associate Booking Corp., but while he could rely on his star client's unshakable loyalty, he knew that there was one person, Lil, who always had Louis' ear. The bond between Louis and Lil was permanent, and she had a more realistic take on Glaser and how he operated. Consequently, Louis and Lil always met without his knowledge. Earl Hines shared Lil's view of the manager-client relationship—both felt that Louis ought to assert himself. "If Joe [Glaser] told Louis that he should sleep on the lawn in front of his house, Louis would have obeyed," Hines once told me.

I will eventually get around to posting here some correspondence between Glaser and Columbia Records, incredible documents that fell into my hands almost by accident—that is a story in and of itself.

In the summer of 1971, less than two months after Louis’s death, Lil Hardin Armstrong performed in Chicago at a memorial concert for her former husband. In the middle of a lively number, she threw her arms in the air and collapsed. It was a fatal heart attack that the public witnessed on the news that night. Minutes after it aired on New York channels, I received a rare call from Lucille Armstrong. "Did you see that?" she asked. When I replied that I had, she told me that Lil rode to Louis' funeral in the family car. "I had to put her in there," she added, "because Louis would have found some way to get back at me if I hadn't."

Lil in 1962, at the entrance to her house, holding one of Louis' old trumpets. This is where Lil lived out her life, the house in which the Hot Five and Hot Seven groups rehearsed.

When I interviewed the Armstrongs' former maid shortly after Lil's death, she had very little of positive nature to say about Lucille. I told her that some people believed Louis' marriage to Lucille had been on shaky ground for a long time. "Oh yes," she replied. "Did they tell you that she wanted a bigger house out on Long Island?" I had heard about that, and that Louis told her she could have it, but he was staying in Corona. She also told me that a highlight of her time with the Armstrongs came when Lil arrived for the funeral. "I went upstairs to Lucille's room and told her that Mrs. Armstrong had arrived. She didn't like that much.

A few days after Lil's death, The Saturday Review asked me to write a remembrance. Here it is:

Saturday Review, September 1971.

In September of 1961, I met for the first time the young lady who so often had stared back at me through shadowed eyes on a faded photograph of King Oliver’s famous Creole Jazz Band. Thirty-eight years had then passed since Oliver’s band posed for that picture; there remained only a handful of rare old records and two surviving members to tell the story.

Louis Armstrong and Lillian Hardin had met in the Oliver band, married in 1924, and gone on to make those extraordinary Hot Five recordings. Through ten years of marriage, Lil had not only contributed musically to Louis’s career, she had been its guiding force. Their marriage ended in the early Thirties, as Louis embraced world-wide fame, but Lil’s love and admiration for him remained with her for the rest of her life. She still wore the rings he had given her; she preserved with the devotion of a museum curator his old cornet, letters, photographs, and earliest attempts at writing music; she spoke of him with an indifference belied by the spark in her eyes.

As we sat in the living room of the house Lil and Louis had purchased in the mid-Twenties, I felt a sense of history: it was here that the famous Hot Five rehearsed; upstairs was the guest room King Oliver frequently occupied. Though she surrounded herself with such reminders of bygone days, Lil Hardin Armstrong refused to live in the past. I told her that I had come to Chicago to produce a series of recordings and that I wished to devote one album to her. Her response was surprising, but—I soon found out—typical: “Tell me,” she said, “who would want to listen to that old stuff?” Then she laughed as if the thought of her doing an album were a joke and walked over to a small collection of records. “This,” she said, holding up albums by pianists Billy Taylor and Thelonious Monk, “is what I like to listen to. I only wish I could play that well.”

I got to know Lil better during the next two weeks. She really meant what she said; her playing was in the old style, but her musical taste was thoroughly modern. I introduced her to a Gil Evans arrangement of her own tune, Struttin' with Some Barbecue, featuring Cannonball Adderley—she was ecstatic. Two weeks later when we finished her album she was quite pleased with the result, but she still found it hard to believe that anyone would actually buy it.

From those two weeks in Chicago, a friendship developed. On one of her numerous trips to New York, Lil told me she was preparing her autobiography and asked me to write it with her. For almost a year, sheets of neatly typed manuscript arrived regularly from Chicago. Lil turned out to be an excellent writer and storyteller; all she really needed was an editor. As the book began to take form, an agent [the late Anne Curtis-Brown] produced a publisher’s contract, but Lil had last-minute reservations: the book, she felt, offered too personal a picture of Louis and their relationship. Rather than change anything, she decided to shelve the manuscript. This did not impair our relationship; her concern was understandable.

Later, in those early Sixties, Lil learned through friends that I was out of a job and not doing at all well financially. She immediately sent me a round-trip airline ticket to Chicago with firm instructions to “come out and be properly fed and cared for.” I stayed three weeks, gained several pounds, and returned to New York with my morale considerably boosted. I shall always remember that visit. Lil introduced me to some of her many friends, not once hinting at her charity; she borrowed a tuxedo so that I might escort her to a cotillion dance; she sat up nights when I was out, and there was always a snack ready in the refrigerator; she entertained me at the piano, laughing at past mishaps, sometimes fondly mimicking Louis, and often extracting from her remarkable memory an anecdote she knew I would enjoy.

Once, in the Forties, she had tried to retire from music. Having graduated from a school of tailoring, she staged a fashion show in New York, complete with champagne, prominent guests, and as many people from the press as she could summon. This debut in the world of fashion was to have been her farewell to the music profession. The invited marveled at her creations and drank up her champagne, but when the evening drew to a close and someone said, “Now, play some piano,” Lil knew that no one would take her new ambition seriously. Fashion design and tailoring became a hobby, the fruits of which she reserved for close friends.

Although she spent over fifty years at the piano, playing, singing, and composing, Lil never really took her music seriously. She had originally played marches in grade school and hymns in church, but at Fisk University she studied classical piano, and one of her proudest possessions was a faded program from a Bach recital she had given in her youth. Framed, it was prominently displayed on her living room wall. She used to laugh when I told her of hours spent in my hometown, Copenhagen, with groups of jazz record collectors listening to her old records. “You people were listening to Louis,” she said, “because I know you couldn’t have been taking my playing seriously.”

In recent years, much of Lil’s time was spent in Idlewild, a Michigan lake resort where she had built a small, comfortable house on land purchased by her during the early years of her marriage to Louis. She had planned to sell the old house in Chicago and retire to Idlewild. I suspect she would have done this a few years ago had it not been for the fact that the old house formed such an important part of her memorabilia. She would never admit it, but it was hard for her to part with any reminder of Louis. The love she tried to conceal but couldn’t was very much in evidence a few months ago when she called me after learning that Louis was in the hospital; she wanted to know what reports I had heard of his condition. “If I know Louis,” she said, “he’ll just keep going,” but it was clear that she didn’t really believe that. In July she came to New York for the funeral.

She stayed with a friend who lived in a Harlem housing project, and asked me to drop by on the following day. New York was hot and humid that afternoon, and Lil did not look well. I attributed this to the sweltering heat in the un-airconditioned apartment and the ordeal of the funeral, but she told me, with unconvincing disconcern, that her blood pressure was too high and that her doctor advised her to give up work for a while. It was hard to believe that Louis was gone, she said. “I guess I’m the only one left of the old Oliver bunch.” A few minutes later her characteristic vivacity returned, but it no longer seemed natural. She spoke of her new piano, a bedroom she had added to her house in Idlewild, and a summer shirt she was planning for me, but every once in a while she shook her head and said she couldn’t imagine Louis’s being dead. It was the last time I saw Lil, but she called me from Chicago toward the end of August. The time had come, she said, to seek a publisher for her autobiography.

Two days later my television screen cruelly showed her dying at the piano during a memorial concert for Louis.

Chris Albertson
September, 1971

Please click on images to enlarge them.


New York, 1957

I arrived at Idlewild (now JFK) on October 17, 1957, a day before my 26th birthday. I had but $75 to my name, but I was full of optimism, so I hailed a cab, asking the driver to take me to a decent but inexpensive midtown hotel. He took me to the Dixie Hotel on the most notorious block of 42nd Street, not exactly a classy place, but it looked clean, and it had a TV, which I promptly turned on. What I saw was a dance floor filled with blurry white teenagers, none of whom seemed to have the slightest sense of rhythm. I thought it was a scene from a movie, but I had actually tuned in to American Bandstand. Only in America, and here I was, at last! I had longed for this moment for so long that even the blandest of TV fare looked good. It was hard to believe that I really was here to stay.

Within a day or two, I found my way to a more reasonably priced rooming house, a small one that occupied the third floor of a five-story building on 36th Street, right off Sixth Avenue. It had its own street entrance, with two contiguous, L-shaped flights of stairs, and it was directly across the street from Keen’s Chop House. The little building has long since been replaced by a much larger one, but Keen’s is still there.

It was here, at the top of the stairs, that I met my first real New York character, Mrs. Canada. She was a woman of about fifty, with a body poised for obesity, but not quite there yet, and she wore a print dress that even in 1957 looked out of era. Framed by hair that the folks at Alberto-Culver would have considered a challenge, Mrs. Canada’s ruddy, slightly puffy countenance bore the marks of a dreary past that obviously had not seen much change. Yet the spirit was not quite gone, she could still produce a winning smile, which is what she did when she opened the door to show me a vacant room. We did not step inside, for obvious reasons—it was too small. A slightly larger bed would have precluded any entry at all, for this one left only a narrow passage between it and the wall. At the far end of this passage, a tiny sink hugged the corner and next to it a small window faced the street. “Southern exposure,” said Mrs. Canada, “eight dollars a week.” She had a sense of humor.
This Samsonite suitcase and a PanAm bag was all I carried when I
came to the U.S. as an immigrant.

I walked into the room, sideways, placed my little Samsonite suitcase on the bed, and gave her two week’s rent—she was quite impressed.

Amazingly, I still have that suitcase. A click on the photo will reveal that even the PanAm tag from my original flight to Idlewild has survived the years.

I started a pen and ink drawing of my "southern exposure", but this is as far as I got. If you click on it to enlarge it, you will see that it is Macy's, Herald Square, at Christmas time.

I miss the Horn & Hardart Automats—their coffee was great, inexpensive
 and unpretentious.
My $75 was all but gone, so I took my meals at a Horn & Hardart opposite Bryant Park.There, gratis, I could get a cup of hot water and ketchup to make a semblance of tomato soup. It wasn’t wonderful, but it helped to keep me going as I looked for a job as an artist. Mrs. Canada was also helpful in that respect, for she loved to cook and gave me the occasional bowl of something.

One day, she returned all excited from one of her frequent grocery shopping trips. “You can’t image who I ran into at the supermarked,” she said. That was true, I couldn’t, so I asked. “The Queen of Roumania,” she almost yelled it out. “That pretty lady came over to me, gently touched my face and said, ‘My dear, I can tell by your face that you are one of the Bourbons—what are you doing in a supermarket?’”

I wanted to ask what the Queen was doing there, but Mrs. Canada continued. “The Queen was right, you know. My real name is Maria de Bourbon, and isn’t it wonderful that she recognized me? I nodded and managed a subtle smile.

Mrs. Canada was a scrounger. We were in the garment district, so she regularly made the rounds to collected fabric remnants, which she sorted according to color and stored in large cardboard boxes. There was one under each bed. She also dipped into waste baskets for the day’s newspapers and began bringing me the NY Times to help in my job search. I had brought with me a small portfolio of artwork and letters of recommendation, but I foolishly submitted the originals to anonymous hirers with box office numbers, naïvely expecting to get them back. When I no longer had any proof of my past work, my career as a commercial artist came to an end. My search became less focused and I was now ready for any kind of employment. With Christmas approaching, I found a temporary job in the record department of a Fifth Avenue Doubleday book store. It wasn’t much money, but enough for me to pay my rent, buy real soup, and hear some jazz.

In 1956, when Hanne and I briefly visited New York on tourist visas, Timme Rosenkrantz pointed us to The Metropole Café, a lively spot where the music was hot and often swinging. Henry Red Allen was a regular there, as were a veritable who’s who of pre-boppers. Roy Eldridge was appearing at the Metropole when I dropped by in November. With a bit of prompting, he recalled Timme having introduced us at Copenhagen’s KB Hall when he visited with JATP. To refresh Roy's memory, I mentioned that it almost came to blows backstage that night, when Timme and Granz got into a heated argument and began a shoving match. Roy put an end to it by stepping in between the two rather large men and yelling for them to stop. Perhaps more interesting than the fight were the reactions of Flip Philips and Ella Fitzgerald—she was seated at a small card table, playing solitaire, and she neither hesitated nor batted an an eye; he was equally nonchalant, pacing back and forth, tossing a coin in the air, and neatly catching it each time. Throughout all this, Oscar Peterson was on stage, mesmerizing a capacity audience.

Having made contact with Roy, I finally had someone to talk to. When the band took a break, he came over and noticed that I had a beer in my hand. “Dig the music here, but drink over there,” he advised me, pointing across the street. Then he said, “come with me,” and I followed him over there, to the Copper Rail.

Today, should you find yourself in the Times Square area, lusting for a pigfoot and a bottle of beer, you would be out of luck. Not so in 1957, for then there was the Copper Rail, a small establishment the likes of which we will never see again. What made the place so unusual is that it was out of context, a typical Harlem haunt that somehow thrived in midtown Manhattan. This was not a place where you were likely to see tourists, but it was a hangout for some of the world’s greatest musicians. If memory serves me right (please correct me Dan Morgenstern), it had a food counter on the right and a bar on the left, as well as a jukebox. For little money, you could enjoy a generous portion of pigsfeet with collard greens, beans and rice, and wash it down with alcoholic twofers or an inexpensive glass of beer. Best of all, however, was the conversation and ambiance. Musicians came to the Copper Rail from all the nearby jazz joints, and in 1957 New York had quite a few such venues. Here they relaxed, exchanged stories, and had a good time among friends, Brill Building hucksters and old-timers who were legends, even then. Was I dreaming? I couldn’t be sure. It was not uncommon to see Coleman Hawkins seated in a phone booth at the far end of the room, or the likes of Gene Krupa and J. C. Higginbotham in heated discussion with Taps Miller—it was an extraordinary meeting ground for anyone who was into the music, and it was simply heaven to a newly transplanted, wide-eyed Euro like me

It was on a small black and white TV, suspended over the bar, that I watched the live broadcast of The Sound of Jazz, which still stands as one of the greatest television jazz events of all time. It was star-studded, but the people watching it at the Copper Rail reacted as one does when leafing through a family photo album. Nearly everyone on that little screen was someone you were likely to see at the Copper Rail—perhaps even after the show.

A few days later, on a cold December evening, I was standing at the Copper Rail's bar when a somewhat frantic Roy Eldridge entered with a stunning, glittery lady named Lois Dempsey. She was as tall as he was short and she was practically naked. A dancer from the Latin Quarter, around the corner, she had been struck by a severe earache while performing, and she had rushed into the street wearing only a scanty costume and pasties. “Chris, do me a big favor,” said Roy, “take Lois over to Polyclinic Hospital and have her fixed up.” There are situations when even the shyest of people have to shed their reserve, and this was one of them. I threw my coat over Lois’ shoulders and rushed her into a cab for the short ride to West 50th Street. Poor Lois, she cried all the way to the emergency room and we must have presented quite a sight for all heads turned when we entered. The nurse on duty was a butch, surly sort who eyeballed Lois with ill-disguised contempt. “You’ll have to fill out this form,” she said, holding out a sheet of paper. Lois, her pain unbearable, did not pay any attention to the woman, she just screamed until a nurse appeared and led her behind a screen. Miss Butch asked me questions about Lois, but I knew only her name, explaining that we had just met. As I said that, Lois yelled out, “Chris, baby, come hold my hand, please, please...” Miss Butch gave the ceiling a quick look, “So you two just met?”
My 1955 impression of the Metropole Café
Lois was no longer in pain when I took her back to The Latin Quarter, but I doubt if she did much dancing that night. For some reason, I never saw her again. Four years later, when Roy performed on a record date I was producing, I asked him if he ever saw Lois Dempsey. He had no idea who she was or what I was talking about.


Just in case...

If you have any interest in my biography of this great lady, just click on the image below and you will see some press quotes.

There is, farther down on the right side of the blog, a link to Amazon (where inexpensive book or Kindle versions are available.)


Melly, Mick...London 1953

I lost count of the interviews I have conducted over the years, but my very first one took place in London on March 16th, 1953. My victim: Humphrey Lyttleton. I will devote another post to how that came about—this one deals with the eye-opening immediate aftermath.

My B&O Beocord recorder weighed about 60 to 65 pounds, and the base of my microphone stand added about 15 to that. I had lugged it up a couple of flights of stairs to Humph’s office, which was around the corner from 100 Oxford Street, where the Lyttleton band played. After the interview, I took the equipment to the club where I would record the band and, at the suggestion of Lyn Dutton, Humph’s manager, leave it overnight in the cloak room. Since I had to catch the boat train at Liverpool Street Station the following morning, Dutton’s suggestion was a practical one—or was it?

The club became Mack’s Restaurant during daytime hours so there was very little going on there the following morning, when I returned to pick up my gear. It was nearly ten thirty and my boat train would depart at eleven. I was playing it dangerously close, but a cab would get me there on time—or so I thought.

The day staff was now on duty and I found the man who had the keys to the cloak room. He was one of those uniformed retirees that always seemed to work in such places, and while he remembered seeing my tape recorder, he was not about to hand it over without a cloakroom ticket. Nobody had given me a ticket, I explained. “It may be your property, but I can’t give it to you,” he said, pointing out that it looked expensive and he needed proof of ownership.

The clock was ticking away and I explained that I had a train to catch. I offered to describe the tape recorder in detail, including the Danish labeling on the inside, but the old man was adamant. As I was pleading with him, practically on my knees, an angel approached—well, she was a waitress who had been a patron the night before, and she recalled seeing me operate the tape recorder. That did the trick, I grabbed the recorder and stand and rushed upstairs to hail a cab on Oxford Street. At Liverpool Street, I rushed through the sooty air and reached my platform just as the train pulled out.

Checking my gear in the baggage room, but holding on to my three precious reels of tape, I headed for Cook’s Travel Service to book passage on the next train. I had some money left but I was expected back at work in a couple of days and I couldn’t afford to lose my job, especially since my equipment wasn't yet paid for. Imagine how I felt when the travel agent informed me that the next boat train was three days hence and that the only alternative was to fly, which was out of the question on my down-to-the-wire budget. Making things worse, the ship’s tourist class was fully booked, so, while I could buy third class train tickets, the overnight sea leg of the trip would have to be on first.

Click on letter to enlarge

After paying for the upgrade, I was left with one shilling, just enough for a tube fare to Rex’s Restaurant and a cup of tea. I knew Rex’s was a hangout for Chris Barber—who was booked to appear in Copenhagen with Ken Colyer, the following month—so I gambled on finding him there. Sure enough, he walked in an hour later.

I told him of my predicament and, knowing that I would be seeing him again in Denmark, built up enough desperation courage to ask him to lend me a pound. Chris handed me a pound note along with a kind offer to let me stay at his house for the next three nights. The thought of actually staying at a jazz musicians house was thrilling and I suddenly found that I was rather enjoying my predicament. He then told me to meet him at “The Metro” that night at ten thirty and to tell the bouncer that Chris Barber invited me.

The Metro was a lively basement jazz club next door to Rex’s. Its low ceiling was arched and French posters adorned the walls, combining to give it a Parisian subway look—well, with a little imagination. The place was packed with enthusiastic trad fans whose bodies simply couldn’t keep still when Mick Mulligan’s band took it way down yonder to New Orleans. There were added screams of delight from the patrons when George Melly stepped to the microphone, cigarette in hand, and morphed himself into Bessie Smith for the evening’s last number. As the fans began their ascent to the street, Chris introduced me to the band members as a "chap from Denmark." I stood there, wide-eyed and speechless, clutching my tapes as George Melly gave me a thorough look. “You must come to the jazz party,” he said, “there’s going to be a jazz party.” I had no idea what that might be, but it sounded interesting and Chris assured him that we would be there.

Several of us piled into a cab and Chris gave the driver an address, “Get there as fast as you can,” he urged. Then, turning to me, explained, “It's first come, first serve, we may not be able to get in if we don't hurry.” The driver sped through dark, empty streets and it all began to feel very unreal to me, but I loved it—the withdrawn, naïve little Dane was having an adventure. It seemed like an endless ride, but we finally reached our destination, a dark street in the northern part of London, with rows of houses, each indistinguishable from the other.

It took a while before the front door was cautiously opened and a whispery voice asked for a head count. “Five,” said Chris, and the door opened wider. A thin, anemic looking young man gestured for us to keep it down as he led the way up a narrow staircase and to a door on the second floor. It was his flat. One sensed the presence of others, but saw only the darkness, felt the smoke making its way to the open door, and noted that it carried with it a peculiar odor. I was making my first contact with something I knew only from Mezz Mezzrow’s autobiography: reefer. We were shown to one end of the room where there were cases of beer and bottles of gin. As my eyes grew accustomed to the light, I could barely make out the pianist, but I recognized him as Johnny Parker, from the Lyttelton band. My eyes wandered around the room, scanning a weird assortment of couples, some standing, others spread out on the floor, drinking, smoking and having intimate moments. I guess I must have looked rather shocked for Chris felt a need to explain that these parties were very common and that everybody had “a lot of fun”. He also told me that the pale young man was our host and that this was his first “jazz party.” I got the impression that being host to one of these affairs was a great honor and it was obvious that the young man was eager to make everyone feel comfortable. There seemed to be an ample supply of beer and gin, and it was all on the house.

The crowd was very similar to the one I had observed dancing to Humph’s band the night before, right down to the cigar-smoking girls with their long hair and odd costumes. The crowd was also growing, for soon a new group of people entered, including Mulligan and Melly. As they walked in, I noticed that people were backing into the walls, creating a small clearing in the middle of the room. No, they were not making way for the newcomers, but for a show. Two of the cigar puffing ladies—aspiring dancers, I was told—moved a couple of dining room chairs into the clearing and proceeded to perform a bizarre, sensual dance. They wore one-piece black corduroy outfits and, like snakes satisfying a curiosity, slowly wormed their way around, over and under the chairs and each other while Johnny Parker, now joined by Bruce Turner’s soprano saxophone, laid down a dirge-like accompaniment. Looming over the girls as best he could, his hands and arms writhing suggestively, George Melly assumed the conductor's role.

There was something surrealistic about the whole scene and if I looked like someone who had dropped in from another planet, that is also how I felt. I had only recently set foot on the Danish scene, but it seemed ever so wholesome compared to this. I had never thought of myself as a prude, but, in this hedonistic environment, I became one. As my shock wore off and wonder turned to judgement, I found myself feeling disdain for what I saw as painfully artificial hipness. I still don’t like that sort of thing, which I detected in the singing of Mark Murphy and latter day Betty Carter, but I have long since come to realize that what I witnessed in this dim London flat was anything but strained—people were genuinely having a good time and part of it was to give convention a slap in the face.

The performance was paused by an unexpected knock on the door. Our young host admitted a lady in her early thirties who wore a sheer nightgown through which the hallway light could be seen. She appeared to have just stepped out of bed—a complaining neighbor, I thought, but it turned out to be the landlady and all she wanted was to join the party. A second interruption occurred a few minutes later, and this time it was, indeed, a complaining neighbor. His children couldn't sleep because of the music. “We shall all go downstairs to my flat,” the landlady announced—and so we did.
In the flat below, the party continued along the same lines, but now there was a half-clad landlady lying across her bed, inviting others to do likewise.

It was about nine o'clock when the sobering effect of daylight brought everything to a halt. As we stumbled out into the grey London air, I heard George Melly's voice somewhere behind me, “That Danish boy was very quiet—I'm sure he has marvelous legs, those Scandinavians all seem to have.” I felt my face turn red and breathed a sigh of relief when Chris Barber suggested that we have breakfast at the Moo Cow Milk Bar. Two days later, I caught the boat train at Liverpool Street station, still clutching my three tape boxes.

When Chris and the Colyer band arrived in Copenhagen, we had a little press introduction at Lorry, an old entertainment complex, and I recorded the band playing "Tiger Rag." It was not our intention to release it, but I made a copy for Karl Emil Knudsen and sent it to him from Iceland. He released it on Storyville. I hope you enjoy hearing it here.

George Melly passed away July 5, 2007, at age 80, leaving behind two wonderful, highly colorful autobiographies... and all sorts of interesting footprints.

Google his name to become more enlightened.


When I took a cue from Chris Kelsey’s blog and made jazz writer integrity the subject of a post, Stomp Off attendance grew considerably, so the subject is obviously of interest and I have decided to expand on it.

One unhappy visitor suggested that, by posting the 16 year old Leonard Feather letter, I was “resurrecting some petty, ancient dispute” and that he was “dismayed” over my bringing up such a “trivial” subject. I beg to differ with that assessment.

When one devotes as great a part of one’s life as some of us have to writing about and promoting the music, and to getting it right, avoiding and correcting factual errors, exploding myths, etc., integrity is not something that one readily dismisses. There is a certain ethic that goes with any reporting—regardless of the subject—and to strive for accuracy is probably the most important rule. That said, we all make honest mistakes and feel a sense of guilt when they are perpetuated by the sloppy research of hack writers. I have always been bothered by the fast food contingent of the jazz press community, the Leslie Gourses, James Haskells and Scott Yanows—jazz writing ought not be a marathon. I suffer my own kind of dismay when I see jazz books thrown together in assembly line fashion and published for purely selfish reasons.

Worse than careless research is the deliberate rewriting of history. We see it done every day by politicians on C-Span and by a variety of hosts and guests on other parts of the tube, but we somehow don’t expect to find it in jazz literature (press releases and industry publications being a large exception). Yet, it is there, even in respected works.

A few years ago, I was interviewed by an author for her biography of Mary Lou Williams. She brought with her a tape recorder, which I welcomed, but it soon became clear to me that she also had a preconceived notion of what my answers to her questions should be. She was visibly disappointed when I told her things that were at odds with her assumptions, and my suspicion was confirmed when I saw conveniently edited quotes attributed to me in the book. Most readers would never notice such manipulation, but it made me question the reliability of entire biography. It also grieved me to see a worthy subject wasted in this way by a writer who was given access to Mary Lou’s valuable collection of papers and memorabilia—how long will we have to wait for another book on Mary Lou Williams?

Sometimes, we are thrown off track by opinions rather than by deliberate distortion of facts. I read my first jazz book in 1948, when I was 17. It was Rudi Blesh’s Shining Trumpets, published two years earlier, and I found it totally absorbing. Of course the mere mention of jazz gave me goosebumps, for I felt that I had recently stumbled upon a secret treasure. With naïvité comes gullibility, and I had it in abundance. I put Rudi’s book down believing that I was close to knowing it all, that jazz had recently stagnated, Louis had abandoned it early on, and Duke had never played it. Fortunately, as I found my way to hear more of the music, my definition of jazz became increasingly at odds with Rudi’s. Fortunately, too, Rudi’s jazz horizon had widened a decade later, when we struck up a friendship, but he remained a “moldy fig.”

Rudi’s narrow view of jazz was just that: a narrow view. He was expressing his own opinions, not attempting to alter history. My first experience with the latter came in 1961, when I spent a week in New Orleans, producing the sessions that became Riverside’s “Living Legends” series. Bill Russell attended many of these sessions, which were held at Les Jeunes Amis hall in the French Quarter, and were very much inspired by the recordings he made in the 1940s for his own American Music label. Those releases preserved essential sounds of a bygone era, brought to light forgotten players and approaches, and sparked the so-called New Orleans Revival. Not only did they enrich the jazz record library, they also stimulated an important awareness of the music’s pioneers and past.

Between sessions, Bill often sat nearby and listened as I conducted interviews with many of the legendary musicians. He had been particularly close to trumpeter Bunk Johnson, whom he was said to have rescued from work in a rice field, equipped with new teeth and horn, and given a renewed career. Bunk had been gone for 12 years, but Bill was still protective of him, so he hated hearing him spoken of in derogatory terms. One day, having heard trombonist Jim Robinson refer to Bunk as a cranky old man whose presence was not always desirable, Bill suggested that I delete that from the tape. I thought he as joking, but he was not.

Bill Russell was still messing with the facts about 30 years later, when Karl Emil Knudsen asked me to do some work on his monumental Jelly Roll Morton book, Oh, Mister Jelly!. As I scanned into my computer a lengthy correspondence (45 of the book’s 720 pages) between Morton and his music publisher, Ron Carew, I noticed discrepancies between the original letters and Bill’s manuscript. He had originally submitted this material intact, but now he was revising it, re-arranging or deleting text in a way that sometimes seriously alter its context, yet presenting it as original documents. When I brought this to Karl’s attention, he was disturbed and unsure of how best to handle it. We agreed that these letters had to be presented as written by Morton, not Bill, so the question became how to handle this diplomatically. The answer came with Bill’s death, in 1992.

One hopes not, but Bill co-founded and curated Tulane University’s Hogan Jazz Archive, so it is possible that some of the historic interviews housed there underwent customization. I bring up my experience with Bill as an example of ways in which facts can be honed to better fit someone’s ideal of how things should have been. However, regrettable as tinkering with historical facts is, such violations can eventually be corrected, but we neither can nor should diminish Bill Russell’s overall importance to our understanding of jazz history.
That even the most illogical of myths can grow legs is well illustrated by the one that grew out of Bessie Smith’s death following a 1937 car accident.

For years, it was widely believed that Bessie died because she was refused admittance to a white hospital. That story was the basis for Edward Albee 1960 play, “The Death of Bessie Smith”, and it had its origin in careless reporting by John Hammond. Here is what he wrote in Down Beat’s November 1937 issue:

Did Bessie Smith Bleed to Death While Waiting for Medical Aid?
A particularly disagreeable story as to the details of her death has just been received from members of Chick Webb’s orchestra, who were in Memphis soon after the disaster. It seems that Bessie was riding in a car which crashed into a truck parked along the side of the road. One of her arms was nearly severed, but aside from that there was no other serious injury, according to these informants. Some time elapsed before a doctor was summoned to the scene, but finally she was picked up by a medico and driven to the leading Memphis hospital. On the way this car was involved in some minor mishap, which further delayed medical attention. When finally she did arrive at the hospital she was refused treatment because of her color and bled to death while waiting for attention.

Realizing that such tales can be magnified greatly in the telling, I would like to get confirmation from some Memphis citizens who were on the spot at the time. If the story is true it is but another example of disgraceful conditions in a certain section of our country already responsible for the killing and maiming of legitimate union organizers. Of the particular city of Memphis I am prepared to believe almost anything, since its mayor and chief of police publicly urged the use of violence against organizers of the CIO a few weeks ago.

Notice how John drops the incendiary race bomb, leaves the door open for speculation, then makes it quite clear that this outrageous story might well be true. He asks “Memphis citizens who were on the spot at the time” to come forward and confirm (not confute) the facts as he presents them. Never mind that this tragedy did not take place in Memphis and that only the condition of Bessie’s arm was true, John was but a phone call away from the truth. Down Beat was not a daily, there was no overnight deadline to be met, so one can conclude that he was not in search of the truth.

A well placed phone call could have made John aware of the fact that Clarksdale, Mississippi (where Bessie died) had two hospitals—one for whites, the other for blacks—and that they were located less than a half mile apart. Given that fact, no ambulance driver, black or white, would have taken Bessie to a hospital where she could not be admitted. The rules of segregation were no secret.

I should mention that the late George Hoefer, also writing in Down Beat, searched for and came close to finding the truth in 1957, but nobody seemed interested. George told me of his frustration when we discussed this and I regret that he did not live to see me take one very important lead from his story to finally kill this myth. When I played a taped, very detailed eyewitness account for John Hammond, he agreed that he should have made some phone calls before submitting his Down Beat piece, but in his subsequent autobiography, he made another u-turn.

I bring up this particular example, because it is one in which I had personal involvement, but there are many more such cases—far too many. There’s Lady Sings the Blues, largely a work of fiction written by Bill Dufty and thinly disguised as Billie Holiday’s autobiography. And the advice a well-known writer and respected scholar gave Arnie Kaplan when asked for information on a blues artist whose recordings Arnie planned to issue on his Biograph label. “This guy’s really obscure,” said the expert, “so just make something up—nobody will know.” Also..... well, never mind, you get the picture.

Finally, let me point out that while writers have been known to count on their reader’s likely acceptance of the printed word (although that is changing), sometimes it is the writer who falls prey to his or her own gullibility. Jazz musicians have often been discreetly amused by the blinding eagerness of those who write about them, and some have played the game. The late Danny Barker, a man of great whit and talent for telling stories once confessed to me that he had once played Rudi Blesh. He invented a recollection of having made some recordings with King Oliver in a Long Island garage, and he gave just enough details to send Rudi on a futile search. It felt good, Danny said with a smile.


Chris Albertson credits.

In case you are curious, a click on the above link will take you to a list of albums and other stuff that credit me. It is fairly correct, but—this being the internet—not entirely. I did, for example, not produce any albums before I was born or—for that matter—at any time during the first 30 years of my life.

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How reliable is the jazz press?

The other day I was checking out some jazz blogs when I came across an interesting entry, Subject(ive) to Criticism, on Chris Kelsey's excellent blog. He brings up the subject of integrity in jazz writing, and it started my head wheels rolling. How much are jazz writers influenced by their friendship with performers and others in the business? Do editors put pressure on their writers? You get the picture.

Although I submitted an article to a Copenhagen newspaper in the mid-Fifties, and they published it, I did not have any ambition to become a writer—that article, I thought, was a one-time experience. I wanted more than anything to be a radio presenter, as they were called in Europe. I wanted to play jazz records on the air and talk about them. As a teenager, I even rigged up something that looked like a microphone and pretended to be broadcasting, and when B&O came out with a wire recorder, I bought one on installment and continued my fantasies with a real microphone. Not long after that, I was able to trade my wire recorder in for the tape machine I mentioned in a previously post. That, as I will explain in a future post, proved to be my ticket to becoming a broadcaster—a dream come true.

To fast-forward, I had by 1959 become a disc jockey in Philadelphia http://stomp-off.blogspot.com/2009/08/i-find-racism-in-city-of-brotherly-love.html and that' is what led me to a writing career. One way for record promoters to get the attention of jazz dj's was to engage them as album annotators. Record companies and distributors were always pushing their product so it behooved them to befriend the dj. We were taken to lunch and dinner, given tickets to shows, etc. Eventually, money started changing hands, but I am happy to say that I never gave in to the payola temptation. Liner notes assignments were always good for airplay and I did get my share of them, but having disc jockeys write them was not always a good idea. I'm sure you have seen some of the clueless notes that are found on 1950s and 60s albums and written by guys who often knew little about the music beyond that which they had read on the backs of LPs, which, in turn, may well have been written by people who themselves hadn't a clue. The guys I worked with at WHAT were like that: amazingly uninformed, to put it kindly.

So, this is really where I began writing, and my notes were as dumb as anybody's. I knew more about the music, its history and players than my colleagues did, but my command of the English language was pathetic and I slipped all too readily into the "He was born in Pascagoula, of a musical family..." school of liner note writing. I truly cringe when I see some of my early attempts, so much so that I volunteered to rewrite notes gratis when I saw that labels were reducing the old ones to fine print and sticking them into CD "jewel boxes." My offers were never accepted, because that would entail the extra cost of resetting type. Never mind that these companies were reissuing material that had already paid for itself, the industry was becoming one in which the bottom line overshadowed any artistic considerations.

Churning out hopelessly ill-conceived notes cheated the consumer, but it gave me needed experience (not to mention $50 or $75 a pop). When Time-Life Records gave me $4,000 assignments, I realized that I had to start taking myself more seriously as a writer, revised thinking that
Down Beat and, later, Saturday Review, also contributed to. I was working on my first book when Stereo Review offered me a monthly gig that lasted 28 years. I was contributing about 12 reviews plus features every month, so my writing was improving by default, but there is more to writing a good piece than having a way with words and knowing proper punctuation. I still don't know the rules of grammar, but I did develop my creative approach and break away from the shackles of that trite dj formula.

Getting back to integrity, I think most jazz writers, if not all, start out with that intact, but sometimes things happen along the way and even the best of writers find noble priorities slipping away from them. I won't mention his name, but I saw that happen to one of our most respected contemporary jazz scene observers. It became increasingly clear that his reviews were shaped by monetary interests and a career agenda—it did boost his career, but it also dented his reputation.

The late Orde Coombs did not write about jazz, but once told me that any writer must attract attention in order to succeed, even if it calls for sacrificing integrity. We had a long discussion about that, but I did not find his arguments compelling. Not long after that, we both found ourselves at a loft party where most of the guest were African-Americans (Orde was from the Caribbean) and many were of a light complexion. This was the late 60s, a time when black power and radical chic often were subjects of cocktail conversation, and dashikis were political statements. Gesturing with his eyes and a tilt of his head towards a group of light-skinned, afro'ed guests, who were having a heated discussion about Black Muslims, Orde winked at me and said: "Mulatto power."

The thought obviously stayed with him, for he soon had a cover story with that title in New York magazine. I read it, of course, and saw how he had turned a perfectly innocuous cocktail sip into a radical conspiracy. He later wrote a piece for the NY Times in which he spoke of a rise in black street crime and advocated the establishment of remotely located camps to which these young criminals could be sent. Not surprisingly, both articles brought Orde into the spotlight and even garnered him a TV talk show. Mission accomplished, but not for long. Orde died at the age of 45.

Leonard Feather was someone I looked up to when I lived in Europe and my admiration continued during my first years in the U.S. Lured by a passion for jazz, Leonard had arrived in the U.S. when the music was hot and Harlem—as young Duke Ellington put it—was like Arabian nights. Struggling at first, he soon became a part of the inner circle and worked hard to built up a good reputation, to the point where his was a household name and some called him the "Dean of Jazz". I believed that, but as I myself ceased to be on the outside, looking in, my vision sharpened and I began to notice how Leonard manipulated things. A few examples of the sort of thing that made me see him in a new light:

Camden, a budget-priced RCA subsidiary label, asked him to produce a blues reissue, which—considering the wealth of blues material found on the company's Bluebird label—should have been a dream assignment. But Leonard's focus was not on the Bluebird treasures, it was on his own work, for many of the tracks he selected were either produced by him or had him credited as composer. Next I saw Columbia reissue a critic's choice compilation for which some of the top jazz writers each had picked a plumb from the past, and all but one was a classic performance. The odd track was Leonard's choice, a selection from his own gimmick-ridden "One World Jazz" album! Now I was really getting the picture and understanding how Leonard Feather had achieved such prominence and why he was the only jazz critic with a house and swimming pool in Beverly Hills: the man was an unscrupulous self-promoter.

I could cite other instances of Leonard's warped priorities, but the following letter exchange says it all, I think. It came about when Verve asked me to compile and annotate a 2-CD set of Dinah Washington material. The result was an album released in 1993, and my notes made Leonard fuming mad. It wasn't something I said, it was what I didn't say:

Here is my response to Leonard, dated July 19, 1993:

Dear Leonard,

If my Dinah Washington notes “Utterly amazed” you, imagine bow I felt when I read the extraordinary letter with which you responded to them. My notes, you say, have “so many errors” that you “hardly know where to start.” Well, you obviously did figure out where to start and, not surprisingly, chose Leonard Feather--or shall we say the absence of Leonard Feather. Dear me, you are a little man to be so preoccupied with your trifling self. Methinks you overestimate your own importance in the scheme of things, but you can give your paranoia a rest, because the omission was not deliberate--I was writing about Dinah Washington, a lady whose artistry I have long admired, I saw no reason to bring you into my notes. As you know, I have had close, long-term personal relationships with a number of jazz artists, and even played a small role in their careers, but I certainly don’t expect to be mentioned whenever they are written about. Your over-reaction to my notes is both unwarranted and silly, and you can rest assured that while you may find the omission “glaringly obvious,” the record-buying public will neither notice the absence of your name nor give a tinker's dam.

You make far too much of the songs for which you have taken composer’s credit, but let’s face it, Leonard, Dinah Washington’s talent is what made them worth repeating, not the tunes, which are run-of-the-mill blues with pedestrian lyrics; and it is because Dinah sang Evil Gal and turned it into a hit that others--Aretha, Helen Humes, et al--have made recordings of it. So far, at least, no one has seen fit to record “The Leonard Feather Song Book,” and I wouldn’t bold my breath.

As for your other complaints, you cite several “errors” in my notes, but I think you had better take a refresher course in jazz history, for you happen to be wrong on all counts:

• That Dinah recorded a few Decca sides with Hampton is not a “misstatement.” She recorded Million Dollar Smile on October 16, 1944 (Decca 18719), Evil Gal Blues on April 15, 1945 (Decca DL 8088), and Blow Top Blues on May 21, 1945 (Decca 23792). The Evil Gal performance is taken from the Carnegie Hall concert to which you refer, but it was released on Decca. So, if three sides is something less than “a few,” I stand corrected, but I don’t think so.

• Dinah was indeed appearing at places like Kelly’s Stable by 1945, or are the owners of these establishments guilty of false advertising?

• Perhaps you weren’t paying attention, but Lionel Hampton played both drums and (two-fingered) piano on some of the Keynote sides.
Your conclusion that I must be “lying” (an odd choice of words), because I resent any role you might have played in Dinah’s career, is as laughable as it is revealing. What an ego you have! Do you really think that you are to be so envied that I--or, for that matter, anyone else--would distort facts and cast integrity to the wind as a punishment? How could I possibly envy you? A man so without principle, so consumed by greed and self-aggrandizement, is to be pitied rather than envied. No, Leonard, if such were my wont, I could not hope to do as good a job of bringing you down as you yourself have done over the years. You may have spent a lifetime successfully establishing your name, but you have failed to give it meaning.

No, you did not write anything about me at which I took offense. On the contrary, you overwhelmed me with your high praise for my Bessie Smith biography. Only later did I realize that you were simply playing politics and trying to get Sol Stein to publish one of your books.

So you see, the content of my Dinah Washington notes was not dictated by any underlying, vengeful motive--it may surprise you to learn that many of us don’t operate in that manner. Perhaps you failed to notice that I also selected the tracks for the album, including the ones in which you have a vested interest. Were I all that envious and mean-spirited, I rather think that I might have omitted them altogether.

You end your letter by saying that you don’t expect a truthful answer from me, so I shall end mine with a relevant Shavian observation: “The liar’s punishment is not in the least that he is not believed, but that he cannot believe anyone else.”


Chris Albertson


If you found anything of interest in my previous autobiographical post, A Taste of War.... here is a continuation. It is not in any way about jazz or blues (although, perhaps, tangentially, the latter), but all this stuff from my memory bank somehow comes together—at least for me—and is readily skipped.

When the Godafoss sailed up the East River and docked, I saw none of the marble structures, fancy people and glitter that had summed up New York in my little mind, but I did see tall buildings and a grimy waterfront. I was disappointed yet excited, because our arrival was attracting a lot of attention. A hoard of gum-chewing, loudmouthed newspaper reporters and photographers stormed aboard and flashbulbs seemed to be going off everywhere. You have seen this in old movies—Hollywood really got it right.

As I said in the previous post on this subject, it was not until many years later that I realize what had sparked the interest in our little tub: we were, as one paper put it, survivors of a “Hell on Atlantic,” a 5-day cat and mouse game that had killed 100 sailors and cost the U.S. Navy its first casualty of the European war. Of course, Pearl Harbor changed things exactly a month later.

There were two press people aboard the Godafoss on this trip, one a newsreel cameraman, Neil Sullivan, the other a reporter, Larry Kennedy. I recall one of them being pulled down and given the old “Women and children first” admonition as he attempted to scramble into a lifeboat. Our situation was not to be taken lightly, but I think the grown-ups were more aware of that than Kanda and I.

Our first New York residence was an apartment in the Raleigh, a fairly luxurious hotel building on West 72nd, just down the street from the Dakota. During the month that we stayed there, Adda, our maid, was taking Kanda and me for a walk in the park when an effusive lady stopped us to say that she had just seen us in a newsreel. We headed straight for the newsreel theater at 72nd and Broadway and—sure enough—there we were, filmed on deck, peered through one of the ship's lifesavers. I wonder if that footage still exists?

We had not yet left the Raleigh when the news of Pearl Harbor hit the streets. Remember, this was an era of shouting news boys, so it really
did hit the streets, as an Extra! Extra!. At first, I didn't quite catch the significance of that news, but I soon became as wrapped up in WWII happenings as any American kid. By Christmas of 1941, we had moved to a fairly large rented house at 115-27 Union Turnpike in Forest Hills, not far from Queens Boulevard. The house was still there last year when I took a camera along for my first visit to the neighborhood in 65 years, so was our second house, at 66 Beechknoll Road.

Both looked exactly as I remembered them. We didn't stay long at the first house, perhaps because the neighbors complained. Stella, I soon learned, was an alcoholic and there were constant loud arguments. It didn't take long before our maid, Adda, called it quits and ran off with a Finn named Bruno. I never saw her again, but she later spearheaded an effort to "rescue" me—more about that in a future post.

Here Adda poses with me and Stella in front of the house. The picture was taken in 1942—same eaves over the front entrance.

Kanda and I pose in the same spot with my father in June of 1944.

When I was enrolled in school, at P.S. 101, my English vocabulary couldn't fill a file card, but it was growing every day. Of course I could not attend the class my age called for, so they assigned me to a class where I towered above my classmates. Kids have a knack for absorbing in a short time any language that surrounds them, but Lisa Clausen, a little English-speaking Danish girl seated at an adjoining desk, gave me an added advantage.

As my English improved, they moved me to a more age-appropriate class, but it didn't really make much difference, because the standard of education at P.S. 101 was deplorably low. From January 1941 until the summer of '44, all I learned was how to make a papier maché puppet head, weave patches for a wool blanket, recite from memory Joyce Kilmer's Trees, and sing patriotic songs. Yes, I could hold a simple conversation in English by the time I left, but there were no lessons in grammar, so I knew no rules and—as you may have noticed—I still don't, neither in English nor Danish or Icelandic.

At P.S. 101, we spent much time marching around on the auditorium stage in our military uniforms from Woolworth's on Austin Street, proudly waving the stars and stripes, and singing about the caissons rolling along from the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli—you get the picture. I caught the spirit, started a little Victory garden, bought War Bonds with what little pocket money I had, wore a button that showed a hanged Hitler (when one pulled a string), collected photos of war planes, and drew my own patriotic comics. When I look at my crude home-made comic books, I realize how quickly I learned rudimentary English and how intellectually handicapped I was. This comic book (I don't know how it survived all these years) also reminds me that I desperately wanted to distance myself from my father, which is why I credited myself as "Gunnar Broberg." Gunnar is my middle name and I used to be known by it, but Broberg is my Danish family name. Silly, in retrospect, but my stay in the U.S. had become somewhat of a nightmare.

The Toigos, Adolph and Lucy, lived in the house that adjoined 66 Beechknoll Road. He worked for one of the big advertising agencies (his boss, Milton Biow, brought us "Johnny," the Philip Morris bellhop, and radio's $64 Question). Their two sons, Oliver and Alfred, were around my age, so we became very good friends. Adolph had become the head of Lennen and Newell, one of the top ad agencies by 1954, when my wife and I came to New York on tourist visas. I looked the Toigos up and found them living in the Waldorf Towers. They also owned a farm in Connecticut and had held onto the house in Forest Hills. Lucy, whom I remembered as a floor-scrubbing, apple-candying housewife, now looked as if she had just stepped out of a society page photo, but she was still the warm and wonderful next door neighbor who so often had taken me in for the night. Let me explain that in a sequel post.