Extracts from a
Ken Burns interview
Photo by Denis J. Williams
Now Benny Goodman had the reputation of being an eccentric, and all that, but I worked with Benny, I made his South American tour and I went to Europe with him twice and I enjoyed myself thoroughly.
It was just great, except for one time, in 1958, when we went to the Brussels World's Fair. Before we left I told him, "Look, Benny, I'm going, but my wife is pregnant and the child is due on June 3rd, and it's going to be born over here, " And he said, "Well, that's OK, Gate." That's what he used to call me. He said, "OK Gate, good, we'll be finished a week before." So we go to Brussels, and in the meantime Benny books the Newport Jazz Festival. He comes up to me and he says, "Look, Gate, I booked a week when we get back at the Newport Jazz Festival. Can you make it?"
I said, "Benny, I told you before I can't. I have to go, my wife is expecting ." He said, "Well, look, I'll pay your way over, I'll pay your way, I'll pay everything." I said, "I can't, I don't have that much time." Up until then everything was great. With the band we had five trumpets, four trombones, and I'm the bass player. We'd be playing a tune like "One O'clock Jump" and these five trumpets and four horns, they'd be screaming loud and the band would be all rocking, and Benny would walk to the mike and say, "Arvell, you're playing too loud." And I would break up.
He couldn't get me mad, not really, but after a while he said, "I can't make you mad, can I?" I said, "No Benny, you can't make me mad. I been working too much.”
About the 'ray', now other people talk about the ray. I don't know what they experience. I never experienced the ray, because Benny wouldn't give me the ray, he wouldn't dare, because I'd give him the ray. But Benny, now, Benny was a giant, he was a great musician. He did so much for jazz, in fact he integrated jazz. So, to me Benny was a giant as well.
Louis came from old show business—he was show business, it was all show. He understood about show business, because he came up with people like King Oliver and then he became friends with Bill Robertson, and all the old Hollywood stars—Bessie Smith, he recorded with Bessie Smith and all these. He was a stone professional, and he believed that if you’re working in a club, you were not there to be entertained, you were there to entertain. He would not go into a club and sit with the audience. He never did that, ever. He said, 'Well, look, people are paying to come and see me. If I'm out there sitting out drinking with the audience, it's not the same thing. When I play a club, I walk out fresh and I give a performance, like a professional.' And if you notice, none of the great stars ever went out and sat in a club. I mean the really great stars.
That's the way he was, he was a stone professional, and he realized that you were there to entertain, not to be entertained.
He used to practice every time he got a chance. He would take the mouthpiece and blow it just without the horn, and make it sound like a whistle. He would do that all the time on the bus. That kept his lips supple, and then, before he went on to play, he would train like a fighter.
He had things that he would do, he had cotton and swabs that he would put on his lips and let the cotton stay there to soften the corns. Louis was built like a tank. He was a short man but his chest was this wide, so he was a very strong man and he was like an athlete, and that's why he could play so strong and forceful. Louis Armstrong and Trummy Young and Edmond Hall—they could play louder than a nine man brass section of a big band. And it wasn't loud unpleasant, it was just power, because those guys, they lived their profession, and they trained for it. They did not do excess, they didn't hang out, they didn't get stoned, they didn’t take drugs, nothing like that.
They had a little taste every now and then like we all do. And they’d smoke a joint every now and then—which I do too, for medical purposes.
We were the first band after the war to go behind the Iron Curtain, and the first engagement was a week at a theatre in Prague. The first night was reserved for the VIP's, the diplomatic corps and everything. They had all the VIP's, the diplomats from China, from Africa, from all over Europe, Eastern Europe and Russia. Everyone was there. They had three rows in front for the American Embassy staff and the American Ambassador. When we landed in Prague, Alexander Dubcek, the première, was there to greet us. That's how big Louis was then. So this night we looked out there, and the place was packed with all these VIP's, every country in the world, and the first three rows were empty and Louis says, "What’s that?"
He said, "That's for the American Embassy—nobody showed. Why?” The promoter said, "I don't know." So we went out and played the concert, and the next day the newspaper, like The New York Times' front page, said 'Louis Armstrong and All-Stars—One of the Greatest Things We've Ever Seen' and just raved—the newspaper, the TV, everyone. The next night, we walked out on the stage to play, the theatre was packed, and right in front the place was filled by the Americans with flags waving, calling "That's our boy, Louis." Louis said, "Those jive turkeys, they thought I was going to bomb out, and they wouldn't come to support me." But we laughed it out—it was a diplomatic thing.
The second interesting thing that happened on that tour was when we got to the Frederick State in East Berlin. All the action was in West Berlin, but we were in East Berlin, and they rolled out the sidewalk. So one night we had a few glasses of wine and Louis said, "Man, let's go to West Berlin." The promoter said, "You can't, you got to get permission." Louis said, "Hell with it. You get in the bus." We get in the bus and we went to Checkpoint Charlie and when we got to the side where the East German and Russian guards were, they stopped us, came on the bus with these loaded machine guns. They said, "Where are your passes? “Then one of them said, "'Louis Armstrong!" They said, "Oh Mr. Armstrong!" and all that, and they said, '"Go right on through."
We got to the American side where the American army was and they said, "Where are your passes?" Then one of their soldiers said, "Hey Pops! Pops, go to it!" and we went through. Every night we used to go from East Berlin to West Berlin and hang out all night. They would shoot you going through Checkpoint Charlie—but we'd go through every night without a pass, stoned. And by the time the whole week was up—man, we'd go through and when we got to the Russian side, some of the American soldiers would be on the bus and when we got back some of the Russians would be on it.
Another thing that happened, we were going up to Leipzig—that's in East Germany, we were in the bus riding and all of a sudden we looked out, and we were in the middle of the East German Army and it looked just like Hitler's Army, these cats, the same uniforms and the tanks and everything. Louis said, "How did we get here?" Somehow we got on this road and we were in the middle of this army—for miles ahead was army, and miles behind us. So, they said, "What do we do?" Louis said, "Just keep going."
We got going and we stopped a place where they used to sell all these big long Frankfurters, and Louis said, "Let's get out and have some Frankfurters." So we pulled off to the side and start eating these hot dogs, and all the German army's going by. Then, all of a sudden the army's stopping and some of the East Germans say, "Louis Armstrong!" And they stopped the whole column, and they were all asking Louis for his autograph. Then they gave orders, and they parted the column, and let us go through to get to the concert in time.