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Vickie Karp

Vickie Karp

Posted May 8, 2009 | 01:48 PM (EST)

Third Screen: Louis Armstrong, In the Cause of Happiness


2009-05-08-armstrongcollage.jpg
Photo: An original collage by Louis Armstrong

Caught up with Phoebe Jacobs by phone just now -- you'll see her tonight on NBC News around 7pm (ET) alongside scholar Robert O'Meally, talking about a new book of Louis Armstrong's collages - Satchmo: The Wonderful World and Art of Louis Armstrong, and a big exhibit of his work now free and open to the public - The Collage Aesthetic of Louis Armstrong: In the Cause of Happiness - through September 26th at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York. The original collages are a selection from an exhibit through July 12th at the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Corona, Queens, New York entitled A Little Story of My Own.

Phoebe Jacobs, who is 90 years old give or take a minute, knew Louis Armstrong most of her life. She is no mere sound bite. Here's some vintage Louis Armstrong backstory in her own words.

"Well, I've always had a passion for music. My whole family loves music. My uncle introduced me at the age of thirteen to Louis playing Stardust and to Duke Ellington recordings. My uncle was a saxophone player. He looked like Rex Harrison. He used to ride around in a Rolls Royce his father bought him, so he was quite the romantic figure. I just adored him. He owned a club called The Embers on 54th Street in the 40s and 50s. It was across from El Morocco, which was snooty and high-brow. Gloria Vanderbilt and Doris Duke would come out of El Morocco and cross the street to The Embers. They called it a late night spot.

"In those days, clubs stayed open till three or four in the morning. The Embers served good eggs and had jazz pianists. Just piano players. Tallulah Bankhead was an ardent fan of jazz pianists. She just loved them. She'd go into the club -- and very often Louis would be there to hear somebody like Oscar Peterson -- and she and Louis would light up some pot and hang out. You know, whenever Tallulah Bankhead had a Broadway show, she'd always put in a scene where she turns on the phonograph and plays a Louis Armstrong record.

"My father was a bootlegger and a gambler. We had a pianola and I'm old enough to tell you we had a Victrola that we used to wind up. My mother was so proud of it she put it on the fire escape in summertime, so the neighbors could hear all the recordings.

"Ralph ran a series of clubs over the years -- The Kelly Stable, The Three Deuces, The Famous Door. Ralph was involved with Artie Shaw, Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole. And I quickly became a degenerate incurable music addict. At 16, I worked at the hat check room. I eventually went to work at Decca Records, where I met Sy Oliver and Milt Gabler. Milt Gabler was Billy Crystal's uncle.

"When Decca started, they recorded Count Basie, Duke Ellington, so many. In those days they called them race records. I got a job sharpening pencils, answering phones. Jazz was everywhere. Over at Simon and Schuster, they were doing children's recordings then and books about music. They did the first Rodgers and Hart songbook and little Golden Records and Sing Along With Mitch with Mitch Miller. There was no tv in those days, honey. Just neighborhood movies with the bouncing ball. One of the sources for the bouncing ball was the Lucky Strike Hit Parade Radio Shows' Top Ten. What a time. We were struggling. There were breadlines and people selling apples on the street, and music was a lifeline for people to get their spirits up. To this day, I get letters every day from all over the world asking for What A Wonderful World. I just got one yesterday from a school in Brooklyn.

"I first met Louis at a recording session at Decca. I was asked to bring the music to the studio and set it up on the music stands - the bass part, the piano part, the drum part. I was putting it out and when I got to the trumpet, I didn't have the part. I went back to the office, all upset, and said to this girl, Margaret, 'I lost the trumpet part.' Louis came in, they told him the story, and everybody got hysterical. Nobody wrote his part. He just played. After that, he loved to point at me and say, 'There she is. That's the one that lost my music.'

"My uncle named one of his clubs in honor of Louis -- Ralph Watkins' Basin Street -- and Louis would come in twice a year. So I got to know him a little better. It's funny. When you're working in a night club, you can work all day, and then you go home and get all dressed up and where do you want to go? Back to the club. Or we'd all go out for coffee or to a Chinese restaurant and Louis would say something like, 'Jeez, I have to get this button sewn on my suit,' and I'd say give it to me, I'll take care of it. I'd just volunteer because I was there.

"We went by our gut feelings in those days. We had nobody to teach us. You have to realize, many of the people I worked with didn't even graduate elementary school. You ask me what's wrong now? When I was going through the troubles and economic hazards of life back then, our values and our priorities were not about status symbols. It wasn't are you a celebrity and what have you acquired? I mean you can murder somebody these days and become a celebrity for it. Journalism has gotten sleazy about this. One time, when I worked at Rockefeller Center, the doorman at 30 Rock said to me 'Look across the street at all the people standing around the Christmas Tree. All these strangers interlocking arms and singing. It's so beautiful.' And it was. I ran back in and called the head of press photography at Associated Press and told him to come on down and snap a picture. And he said, 'Phoebe, call me if somebody throws a rock through a window at Saks Fifth Avenue. Nobody wants to see a happy picture anymore.' I liked it better when it was moon, June, spoon, once upon a time, and happily ever after. It was an escape, sure, but it also choreographed your attitude about living. Now we have survival of the fittest. But what kind of fittest? What are you fit for?

"The new book and exhibit are about Louis' collages. It was his hobby. Something he could take with him wherever he went. All he needed was scissors and magazines. He used the collages to decorate his home-made recordings. He'd bought a reel-to-reel tape machine in Germany and he would tape his own stuff. He play Bing Crosby or Dean Martin or Kate Smith and take out his horn and play and make his own duets and record them. He wanted to decorate the boxes he put the recordings in, and that's what he did with the collages. He loved Scotch Tape. He was mad for Scotch Tape.

"When Louis passed on July 6, 1971, he left everything he owned to his wife, Lucille, but prior to his death, in 1969, he asked me to be in charge of his legacy and heritage and I asked why are you doing this? 'I want to give back to the world some of the goodness I got,' he told me. 'You're gonna take my money and I don't want you to ask anybody to give you anything. Just take whatever money my records earn and use it for education and children and music.'

"When Lucille died, she left his memorabilia for me to take care of. I knew she had done work with Queens College -- Louis loved Queens lived there, is buried there -- and that's where the archive and these tapes are.

"What's the secret to Louis Armstrong? He had a capacity to make you feel all kinds of things. I was present once when he recorded with Ella Fitzgerald and she was just so smitten with the joy of him musically. Bing Crosby and Jack Teagarden loved him. Everybody loved him.

"And in this business, if you live long enough, you meet everybody. Some people collect art. I collect people. It's like a checkerboard. Every square gets filled with a favorite person. You can meet somebody tomorrow and connect with them about whatever's in the air. There's something wonderful about them and then they're your favorite. It's like gathering a bouquet of flowers. Next one could be you."