Satchmo in Screenland–Louis Armstrong: History and Legends

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Satchmo in Screenland–Louis Armstrong: History and Legends

Louis Armstrong in “High Society” 1956. Filmed in Culver City at MGM Studios.

Mythmaker

Louis Armstrong claimed to have been born July 4, 1900, a date which suits his colossal stature in 20th Century American culture. However, recent research found a baptismal record with an August 4, 1901 birth date, thus marking the first of many myths and mysteries in his story.

At a time when we are all constantly tracked by our phones, and log any mildly significant event on social media, it is striking to encounter gaps and inconsistencies in the life story of one of the modern world’s greatest artists.

Armstrong has been the subject of at least three major biographies, and each includes contradictory accounts of his time in Culver City, from 1930 to 1931.

Born in New Orleans, Armstrong became a star trumpeter, singer, and bandleader. After working in Chicago with Kid Ory and New York with Fletcher Henderson, he recorded a series of 78s with his Hot Five in Chicago, between 1925 and 1927, which are some of the first masterpieces of jazz preserved on disc.

Beyond Race Records

As Armstrong’s fame grew through these records and scorching live appearances, his manager Tommy Rockwell arranged for a move to Los Angeles so he could begin work in movies, and record for labels not marketed primarily to the African-American audience, so-called “race records.” The 1929 stock-market crash also depressed nightlife, pushing Armstrong and Rockwell to seek wider audiences.

Central Avenue Jazz Scene

When Armstrong arrived in early July 1930, he stayed at the Dunbar Hotel, at 4025-4225 S. Central Ave. Preserved as a historic building, the Dunbar is now a residence for seniors. In 1930, it was new and, while the only hotel west of the Mississippi welcoming African-Americans, it was also impressively elegant, serving as a headquarters for the Central Avenue jazz scene and welcoming stars including Duke Ellington and Stepin Fetchit. The Dunbar offered a 100-seat restaurant, bar, barbershop, florist, and miniature-golf course, among other amenities.

Armstrong in Culver City

Armstrong was soon hired at Frank Sebastian’s Cotton Club, at the corner of National and Washington in Culver City (the former Surfas location, across from the Metro station). Lionel Hampton, then the drummer in the Cotton Club house band, recalled Duke Ellington’s manager Irving Mills connected Armstrong and Sebastian, but Armstrong himself remembered coming west via a friend who worked on the railroad, without having any work arranged, then being taken by a fan to the Cotton Club.

Culver’s Cotton Club

An unauthorized imitation of the Cotton Club in Harlem, Sebastian’s presented a similar revue, mixing jazz, showgirls, and novelty acts like Three Stooges foil Dudley Dickerson, who did a comic dance in ballet shoes. VIPs including Howard Hughes and D. W. Griffith also enjoyed a secret gambling room, while generous free meals encouraged police to ignore this and other illegal activities at the club.

Armstrong opened at Sebastian’s July 17, playing three sets a night with the house band, led by Vernon Elkins and Les Hite, which included future stars such as Hampton and trombonist Lawrence Brown (soon to join Duke Ellington’s band). He was paid $500 per week, a record for any musician on the west coast. Shows were regularly broadcast on the radio nationwide.

Revealing Secrets

Buck Clayton, a trumpeter a decade younger than Louis, heard one of these broadcasts and came to the theater to ask Armstrong how he could bend smoothly between notes on the trumpet, as if it had a slide rather than valves.

Louis explained that in New Orleans he would usually play with a handkerchief over his fingers to hide this trick, but agreed to reveal it. After insisting Clayton first smoke a joint with him, he explained his half-valving technique. Clayton rushed home and prayed that he would not become an addict after this first exposure to illicit drugs.

Buddies with Bing

Like its New York model, the Culver City Cotton Club presented black artists to white audiences, including stars from the nearby studios. Bing Crosby became a great fan of Armstrong, and they eventually appeared together in Pennies from Heaven (1936) and High Society (1956) and influenced each others’ vocal styles.

Ironically, when he first met Armstrong, Crosby was filming King of Jazz at MGM, which featured the unfortunately named Paul Whiteman band. Armstrong occasionally played for black audiences at L.A. venues including the Appomattox Country Club and Loew’s State Theater.

Romance in CC

Lil Hardin Armstrong, Armstrong’s estranged third wife, and the pianist on many of his classic recordings, followed him west, but both continued to see other people. Alpha Smith, a dancer Armstrong knew from Illinois, soon also joined him. He got her an apartment near the club in Culver City, and they eventually married in 1938.

Lil appeared on Armstrong’s first L.A. recording session, though neither were originally credited for contractual reasons. They accompanied Jimmie Rogers, “The Singing Brakeman” and father of country music, on “Blue Yodel Number 9,” an interesting meeting of early country and jazz styles, on July 16.

A week later, Armstrong started leading his own sessions, backed by the Cotton Club band. He recorded a dozen songs during his time in L.A., from July 1930 to March 1931. At the first of these sessions, Lionel Hampton, already familiar with the xylophone, spotted the newly developed vibraphone in the studio, and played it for the first time on Armstrong’s “Memories of You.” It became his main instrument and he established its place in jazz.

In September, Armstrong cancelled his management contract with Tommy Rockwell, who wanted him back in Chicago, in order to make his own way in California. Beyond recording and playing live, there were opportunities in film. Armstrong made his debut in RKO’s Ex-Flame (1931), but it was a flop, and no copies of the movie survive.

Grass Isn’t Always Greener  

Before he could make more films, Armstrong’s love of marijuana brought an end to his time in L.A.. On November 13, he was arrested with Vic Berton, the drummer from the Cocoanut Grove band, while getting high between sets at the Cotton Club, in one of the first celebrity drug busts.

The arresting officer claimed to be a fan and accommodated Armstrong’s request to not hit him in the mouth, in order to protect his trumpet chops. Armstrong was allowed to finish that night’s shows before being taken away, then was released on $500 bail. Red Mack, a section trumpeter from the house band, fronted the band the next night, performing an expert Armstrong impression.

In the Big House

The trial was scheduled for January, then delayed until March 10. California had made marijuana possession a felony with a sentence of up to six years in 1925, and in 1930 Harry Anslinger had founded the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and begun pushing for harsher Federal drug laws, playing on racism.

Despite this climate, Armstrong was sentenced to 30 days and served nine. Freed March 19, he immediately left for Chicago, despite Frank Sebastian offering him a large raise to stay.

This Thing of Ours

There is considerable speculation around Armstrong’s bust and sentence. Armstrong claimed that the police who arrested him said a rival bandleader had tipped them off. Frank Sebastian and Cocoanut Grove bandleader Abe Lyman are both rumored to have used various types of influence to get Armstrong out early, with Lyman’s brother in particular said to have connections in organized crime and local politics.

Johnny Collins, later described by Louis as a gangster, also may have been involved in Armstrong’s light sentence and early release. Collins took over managing Louis, but his incompetence and legal battles with Rockwell derailed Armstrong’s career for several years, before he was replaced by the more able and supportive but also mobbed-up Joe Glaser in 1935.

Armstrong’s CC Home

Besides the central role Frank Sebastian’s Cotton Club played in Armstrong’s west coast stay, Armstrong also owned a house on the border of Culver City, at 4121 Wade St. A four bedroom, two bathroom, 2500 square foot, two-story home built in 1924 or 1928, it is a designated historic structure, because of its association with Armstrong, and the exterior is essentially the same as when it was built.

A marker labels it “Louis Armstrong Residence,” but neither his biographers nor the City’s Historic Preservation Advisory Committee’s documents confirm he lived there or when.

The 1930-31 Los Angeles Negro Directory and Who’s Who has a entry for Armstrong at the Dunbar and doesn’t have any information on the Wade address, while the 1930 and 1931 Los Angeles City Directories do not list him.

Culver City’s official historian Julie Lugo Cerra says she and her father interviewed Wade Street residents who remembered Armstrong living there, while local musician Steuart Liebig heard from neighbors that Armstrong had bought the house for his mother. The Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens, New York did not reply to queries.

Sources:

  • Armstrong, Louis. Louis Armstrong in His Own Words. ed. Thomas Brothers. New York: Oxford UP, 2001.
  • Bergreen, Laurence. Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life. New York: Broadway Books, 1997.
  • Berrett, Joshua, ed. The Louis Armstrong Companion. New York: Schirmer, 1999.
    Brothers, Thomas. Louis Armstrong: Master of Modernism. New York: Norton, 2014.
  • Liebig, Steuart. conversation with the author, Sept. 2018.
  • Lugo Cerra, Julie. conversation with the author, Sept. 2018.
  • Teachout, Terry. Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009.

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