Louis Armstrong at the Frolics Ballroom
You’re rarely honored to see genius at work, and sometimes the circumstances are so conventional you’re not even paying attention. That’s the only excuse I have for not remembering the evening in as complete detail as I’d like. And it took me years to come back to that memory and think about the experience of seeing a supreme artist at his work.
It was just a regular Friday night teenage dance at The Frolics Ballroom, that's all it was. Friday nights at The Frolics meant a record dance with a couple hundred young people ages roughly sixteen to twenty. The disc jockey started playing tunes at 8:00 – a couple of fast numbers, a slow song or two, another couple of fast ones, and on through the evening always to end with “Goodnight Sweetheart” at 11:00. Occasionally there was a live band that was touring across the Northeast, sometimes advertised, in which case the place would be mobbed. But sometimes the band just showed up. Occasionally we got a great musical act: Little Richard played The Frolics, and so did Fats Domino, the superb jazz organist Bill Doggett and his band, numerous Doo Wop groups and one-hit wonders, and some local talent. It was our regular kick-off-the-weekend affair.
But this warm evening’s dance turned out to be a completely unexpected joy. No one was aware that the greatest jazz master of them all was going to grace a few hundred kids with a first-class concert. The band that showed up that evening was none other than “The Louis Armstrong All Stars”, and the group consisted of:
Louis Armstrong, trumpet
Peanuts Hucko, clarinet
Billy Kyle, piano
Trummy Young, trombone
Arvell Shaw, bass
Danny Barcelona, drums
We were unaware that The All Stars had just played a concert at Lewisohn Stadium, the large Greek-style amphitheater on the campus of the City College of New York in West Harlem at the end of June. And interestingly enough, this was the same group of musicians – with Edmond Hall replacing Peanuts Hucko on clarinet -- that had appeared in the 1956 film High Society, with Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Grace Kelly, and was lined up to innaugurate the first Monterey Jazz Festival that October. And here they were in our small city playing for a teenage dance. I still find it hard to believe.
Years later I was poignantly reminded of that wonderful warm evening when Louis Armstrong: Live at 1958 The Monterey Jazz Festival, an album which was released for the first time by MJF Records in 2007, almost a half century after the concert itself. We had no idea at the time that this Frolics Ballroom audience of teenagers was the warm-up, the rehearsal for Monterey. I listened to the album and my mind receded into the faded glow of the past, when I was young and the music was such a big part of life.
You went to the Frolics Ballroom to dance, that’s what it was all about. The records were a mix of fast and slow numbers, interspersed with some Latin tunes. There were always some great dancers there, but nobody cared if you could dance or not, the important thing was to be on the floor. But what struck me at the time was that nobody danced when The All Stars played. The thing about Armstrong and his band was simply that they were so good everyone there just stood and listened, for a full hour. The dance had magically turned into a concert.
I know now, from listening to hours of taped live performances over the years, that this was a somewhat traditional Armstrong program: the group began with “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South”, and ended with “:When the Saints Go Marching In”, and in between managed to get in “Blueberry Hill” , “High Society Calypso”, “Undecided”, “Mack the Knife” and a half dozen more. Louis sang on maybe three-quarters of the selections, and soloed on all of them, the young audience applauding wildly when he hit those high notes.
There was no question that Armstrong, even to this juvenile unsophisticated crowd, was a force unto himself. Not just an extraordinary musician, but a personality bursting with talent and joy. The band was as tight and together and swingin’ as could be, both laid back and powerful, swinging light and easy, then stomping away at the climax, with Louis’ trumpet soaring and piercing the roof and splitting the night open with those breathtaking notes. But what for some reason I took away – maybe because I’d never heard him talk -- what sticks with me is not a particular rendition of a song, but a story, a joke that Louis told during a break in the performance.
“When I was a little boy in New Orleans we lived close to a bayou, and I had to go down there with a bucket to get water ‘cause there wasn't any indoor plumbing at that time. One day when I bent over to fill up my bucket I found myself starring straight into the eyes of a big old alligator. I grabbed my bucket and ran like hell back to the house, and told my mamma what I'd seen.”
“Oh, Louis”, she said, “Don't you know that alligator's as scared of you as you are of him.”
I gave that some thought. “Mamma,” I said, “if that 'gator's as scared of me as I am of him, that water ain't fit to drink.”
When I finally bought that Monterey Jazz Festival album, it jogged my memory, and I went back and listened to some of my other favorite Armstrong albums: the beautiful Satchmo Serenades with his thrillingly lush version of the Edith Piaf song “La Vie en Rose”; and his tribute album to W. C. Handy with the definitive versions of “Yellow Dog Blues” and “Beale Street Blues”; and the wonderful Norman Grantz duet collaborations with Ella Fitzgerald that produced the stunningly beautiful mixture of honey and salt of their voices; and not to ignore his work with the incomparable trombonist Jack Teagarden on classic jazz ballads like “A Hundred Years from Today”. Two musicians never seemed to be as in sync with each other or have as much fun together as Armstrong and Teagarden.
In the Monterey album, I heard the same joke told in the same way at the same place in the program. I’d thought it was extemporaneous at the time I’d heard him tell it, but Louis was just getting his program orchestrated, tightening up the act, getting the pacing in the pocket. The whole show I saw at The Frolics Ballroom that Friday evening was the dress rehearsal for what Louis would do later that summer at Monterey. And it’s all there in the album. Richard Hadlock, in the liner notes says that when one assertive festival producer urged Louis to be sure and give the crowd at Monterey a “special” show for that special occasion, Louis merely replied proudly, “Man, all my shows are special.” Amen. I could have told the schmuck that. Louis was always the best of American culture, an artist of unparalleled sensitivity and power and creativity.
An American genius, one of God’s gifts.