The brown-skinned man with the golden horn pursed his scarred lips, blew a short stream of incredibly high, shining notes and then carefully laid the trumpet down. "There's a thing I've dreamed of all my life," he graveled, "and I'll be damned if it don't look like it's about to come trueto be King of the Zulus' Parade. After that I'll be ready to die."
This week few mortals were closer to heart's desire than Jazz Trumpeter Daniel Louis Armstrong. At 48, he was on his way back to the town where he was born, to be monarch for a day as King of the Zulus in New Orleans' boisterous Mardi Gras. For the first time in its 33-year history, the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club (founded primarily to assure dues-paying members a decent burial) had gone out of town for its carnival king. From its cross-section membership in the past had come Mardi Gras kings who were porters, shopkeepers and undertakers, but Trumpeter Armstrong was big-time royalty, even a world figure. Many jazz experts, who can be as snooty and esoteric as existentialists or the followers of a Bach cult, solemnly hail him as the greatest musical genius the U.S. has ever produced.
In the five-and six-man combinations in which Armstrong has worked much of his life, he has had to earn that kind of praiseand without the carefully arranged six-and eight-horn brass choirs of the big bands to smother sour notes for him. Playing without written arrangements, bending the melody around on his own, then blending in with the others when the clarinet or trombone soars off on the lead, Louis has wrung raves even from longer-haired critics. The New York Herald Tribune's Virgil Thomson once said that Louis' style of improvisation made him "a master of musical art comparable only to the great castrati of the 18th Century."*
Just Follow the Crowd. Among Negro intellectuals, the Zulus and all their doings are considered offensive vestiges of the minstrel-show, Sambo-type Negro. To Armstrong such touchiness seems absurd, and no one who knows easygoing, nonintellectual Louis will doubt his sincerity. To Jazz King Armstrong, lording it over the Zulu Parade (a broad, dark satire on the expensive white goings-on in another part of town) will be the sentimental culmination of his spectacular career, and a bang-up good time besides.
As stubby (5 ft. 8 in., 175 Ibs.) Louis Armstrong speaks of his role on Shrove Tuesday (March 1), his expressive eyes shine with excitement and amusement. Dressed in long, black-dyed underwear and grass skirt and wearing a green velvet cape and gilt cardboard crown, the King sets out on a riotous 20-mile, all-day parade. He winds through the streets of the Negro district, stopping at the shops of parade sponsors, holds court, sees that his loyal Zulu subjects are refreshed with beer and potato salad.