Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Wife

Jim Santella By

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Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Wife
Laurence Bergreen
Books On Tape
ISBN 0-7366-4103-3

Velma Middleton sang with Louis Armstrong and his all-star band throughout the later years of his varied career. Her velvety-smooth voice lent itself to the trumpeter’s forlorn blues, as well as to his genuine show of love for singing to an audience. Together, they stoked a relationship that gave the world album upon album of happy music. They could swing, and they did.

Laurence Bergreen discovered a relationship between the two that no one else had even fathomed, and he published this interesting new development in his book Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Wife. Audiences the world over watched Louis and Velma on stage, cutting up and having a good time entertaining with a sly grin. They witnessed the pair through all kinds of romps, from old blues to newer pop charts. What the audience didn’t realize, however, is that Louis and Velma had been married since 1918. They marked their wedding anniversary each year on April 29th with a performance. To the world, their annual celebration was just another performance; but to the husband and wife jazz team, it meant another glorious year that their secret had been maintained successfully.

Despite the book’s title, Bergreen only devotes 152 of the volume’s 494 pages to this revelation. He uses most of the book to trace Louis Armstrong’s trumpet-playing career from its earliest start to its powerful finish. It’s all information that has been published before.

As a teenager in New Orleans, he began tooting a tin whistle while working days to support himself. That tin whistle gave him the inspiration to pick up a real cornet and to give it a try. Armstrong tells of his service in the army of General Antonio López de Santa Anna, and how his cheap pawn shop instrument fell apart in his own hands because of the heat of that Southern sun while he was on duty. The general liked young Louis, however, and admired his trumpeting talent. He gave Louis his first reliable instrument.

Later, Louis experimented with a bent trumpet, after Velma sat on the straight version. She weighed less than a hundred pounds, even in her most senior years, but her body managed to bend the trumpet’s bell straight up. Louis liked the way the horn sounded, because the tones flew up instead of out.

Next came an experiment with mutes. Louis settled for a dark, moody, Harmon-muted sound from his horn, which he employed in small doses. As his trumpeting wove in and out of the ensemble’s performance, Louis would turn his back on the audience in order to cloud his horn’s entrance and exit.

When Louis picked up the flugelhorn, he decided that he loved the instrument’s sound as much as his trumpet’s clarion tones. He couldn’t decide, however, which one to use at most of his gigs, so he took both. With one horn in each hand, Louis alternated choruses, much to the delight of everyone in attendance. Many of his Decca recordings include that particular technique. It was at this time that Louis began singing. Unfortunately, things didn’t work too well for him, and most of his vocal recordings turned out as mumbles.

By adding a fourth valve to his trumpet, Louis was able to play quartertones.

Around the time that Louis made his film debut with Bing Crosby, he fell on some hard times. He had been invited over to Bing’s Hollywood mansion for a backyard barbecue, and a fight developed between the trumpeter and his Five Pennies. That was the name Louis gave to his all-star ensemble of the period. Those five “friends” of Louis turned on him and knocked out all of his teeth. He couldn’t play the trumpet for quite some time. His singing career took hold, and Louis began memorizing lyric after lyric. His eventual return to the trumpet with dentures didn’t work out too well.

Louis went to a remarkable Beverly Hills dentist who fixed him up with teeth like new. Replacements were screwed into his jawbones individually. The result? Louis was once again able to hit the high notes. He surrounded himself with six able-bodied young trumpeters, however, just to make sure that none of those “One O’clock Jump” high notes would be missed.

On the serious side, Laurence Bergreen did write the genuine article. His book has garnered much media coverage these past years. Critics say that it deals too much with Louis Armstrong’s early years and a cumbersome history of New Orleans. I view the book as a valuable reference and a fitting summary of the trumpeter’s life. You’re never too old to review. The details are numerous, and it’s all backed up by quotes.

April fools!


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