The greatest jazzman of them all, Louis ("Satchmo") Armstrong, was back on Broadway. The word spread, the devotees gathered. But jazz purists who went prospecting for his golden trumpet notes had to pan out a lot of wet gravel.
Satchmo arrived with one of the biggest (19 pieces), brassiest, and worst bands he ever hada kind of unintentional satire on everything wrong with big bands: saxophonists who stood up and writhed as they played; a brass section with a nose for noise rather than an ear for melody. He opened last week at "The Aquarium," a gaudily mirrored Broadway seafood restaurant stampeded nightly by tourists and servicemen, who lined up three deep at the 100-ft. bar.
His star singer was Velma Middleton, a 250-lb. lady namedby the Gagwriters AssociationMiss Petite of 1946. She waddled through Shoo Fly Pie and Apple Pan Dowdy and then did a split which almost literally brought down the house. But when Louis, grinning wickedly, pursed his gigantic lips against his trumpet to play / Can't Give You Anything but Love or Who Threw the Whiskey in the Well, patient ears still heard the purest phrasing and most expert blowing around. There was no doubt about itLouis ("Reverend Satchelmouth") Armstrong, after 30 years in the business, was still the king of the trumpet.
Up from Waif. Louis is from New Orleans where, as he puts it, "jazz and I got bora together" (in 1900). When he was 13 he fired his mother's .38 revolver at a New Year's Eve celebration and was sent to a Negro waifs' home. There he learned to play the cornet, and soon was leading an orphans' band through the streets to raise funds for the orphanage (he still sends his old horns to them). In Storyville, New Orleans' red light district, where he hung out, he learned the tricks of the old masters, Trumpeter Willie ("Bunk") Johnson and Joseph ("King") Oliver. He got his start on the river boats that carried jazz up the Mississippi.
Louis' first New York job was in 1924 with Fletcher Henderson's famed band at Roseland Ballroom, just five blocks from the Aquarium. His early records (West End Blues, etc.) were bigger hits in Europe than in the U.S. He followed them across the Atlantic in 1931. Those were the days when he blew screeching high notes that he probably could not make consistently today. When he hit 280 high Cs and then slid up into F one evening, a London theater manager begged him to cut it to 70 Cs, because the noise made him nervous while trying to count the receipts.
Front Man. Louis' current band of unknowns is led by Saxophonist Joe Garland, composer of Leap Frog and In the Mood. They alternate with a white band from 6:30 p.m. to 4 a.m. Between shows, Louis bounces through the restaurant kitchens to a crowded basement dressing room to shed his sweat-drenched shirt and gnaw barbecued ribs served on paper plates. On hand are a trunk of linen handkerchiefs, a dozen pairs of shoes ("They got to cool off"), and a typewriter. He says his hobby is "jus' typin'"a typewriter has so many more keys to play with than a trumpet.