Louis Armstrong at the Frolics Ballroom

Posted by: on Jan 11, 2012 | No Comments

You’ve doubtlessly read G. Bruce Boyer’s thoughts on everything from Harris Tweed to bench made shoes, but what you might not know is that the guy loves jazz music as much as (if not more than) great clothes.  So without further ado, a memoir from Mr. Boyer about Louis Armstrong.

It was just a regular Friday night dance at The Frolics Ballroom, that’s all it was. There hadn’t been any publicity about the band that was going to play that evening for a crowd of dancing teenagers on a warm summer evening in July, 1958. Most Friday night dances were “record hops”, where a DJ would play current Rock ‘n Roll hits for teens to dance. Occasionally we got a great musical act: Little Richard played The Frolics, so did Fats Domino, Bill Doggett, and numerous Doo Wop groups, and some local talent.

But this warm evening in July turned out to be a completely unexpected joy. The band was “The Louis Armstrong All Stars”, and the group consisted of:

Louis Armstrong, trumpet
Peanuts Hucko, clarinet
Billy Kyle, piano
Trummy Young, trombone
Danny Barcelona, drums

The All Stars had just played a concert at Lewisohn Stadium, the large amphitheater on the campus of the City College of New York in West Harlem at the end of June. This was the group that had appeared in the 1956 film High Society, with Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Grace Kelly, and was lined up to open the first  Monterey Jazz Festival that October 3rd.

But here they were playing the Frolics Ballroom to a crowd of teenagers in July. As it happens, you can hear exactly what they sounded like on Louis Armstrong: Live at 1958 The Monterey Jazz Festival (MUF Records), which was issued for the first time in 2007, almost a half century after the concert itself.

What struck me as so unusual at the time was that nobody danced. We all went to the Frolics ballroom to dance, but the band was simply so good that everyone there just stood and listened, for a full hour. I know now, from listening to hours of taped live performances, that this was a traditional Louis Armstrong program: they 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” (our favorite), “High Society Calypso”, “Undecided”, “Mack the Knife” and a half dozen more.

The band was as tight and together and swingin’ as could be, both laid back and powerful, light and easy, then stomping away at the climax of the songs. But what I took away, 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 because 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 heard the Monterey Concert album in 2007, I heard the same joke told in the same way at the same place in the program. The whole show I saw at The Frolics Ballroom in July was really a rehearsal for what Louis would do at the jazz festival later that summer.  Richard Hadlock, in the liner notes to the Monterey album, says that when one assertive  festival producer urged Louis to be sure and give the crowd at Monterey a “special” show, Louis merely replied proudly, “Man, all my shows are special.” Amen. I could have told the schmuck that.

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