During a recent stroll through the Internet, I was reminded of the story of Louis Armstrong requesting the use of Yogi Berra’s catcher’s mask during a 1960’s State Department tour of South America, “to fend off,” according to Armstrong’s widow Lucille, “the [enthusiastic South American] fans who wanted to touch his face and lips.”
Lucille’s recollection was disclosed in a December 10, 1981 letter to the U.S. Postal Service as part of a 14-year effort to have a postage stamp created in her husband’s honor. Duke Ellington’s stamp was issued in 1986, and the likes of Elvis Presley, Bessie Smith, Nat Cole and Billie Holiday had commemorative stamps well before Armstrong. How come? Was it politics?
To read about it, check out the two stories below…The first is the letter of advocacy Lucille wrote to the Postal Service, and the second is a September 27, 1995 Wall Street Journal article by Roxane Orgill, who writes of the stamp’s unveiling.
Mr. John Litner
Senior Representative for Governmental Relations
U.S. Postal Service
Washington, D.C. 20260
Dear Mr. Litner:
It has been brought to my attention that the U.S. Postal Service Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee is considering recommending an issuance of a commemorative stamp in the name of my husband, Louis (Satchmo) Armstrong. I am very pleased.
Louis’s dedication to his country as Ambassador Plenipotentiary of America’s culture, jazz, is part of our history. During World War II, he gave his services at least once a week entertaining the GI’s at Army camps, he performed at rallies to help sell War Bonds. After World War II, I accompanied him on all his world travels. From 1951 to 1970, the year before he died, we traveled Europe and each alternate year we would visit the countries of the Middle East and the Orient. I remember an interesting incident occurred in 1956 while touring Australia, the Far East and Africa, at the start of a 45-concert tour arranged with the U.S. Government and Pepsi Cola sponsorship. The press wrote, “Nairobi has taken Louis Armstrong to heart; what a wonderful ambassador Satchmo is for his country.” Further along on that same trip, when Louis stepped off the Congo River ferry from Brazzaville, the rival forces of Joseph Mobutu and those loyal to Patrice Lumumba joined together to welcome him. Then again at the stadium, over 100,000 of the enemies and the foe came to enjoy and share the performance. They had stopped shooting; they didn’t want any stray bullets to hurt Louis.
Lucille Armstrong fits husband Louis with catcher’s mask In the 60’s, his South American trip was overwhelming. The crowds were so enthusiastic wherever we went that Louis had to call Yogi Berra back in the States to ask for a catcher’s mask to fend off the fans who wanted to touch his face and lips.
I also recall most vividly on one of the trips through Eastern Europe, Louis performed twice a day at a theatre in Prague. One evening among the hundreds of fans who came backstage to meet Louis were some people who told us they had come all the way from Poland via the underground and didn’t know who they were going to make it back. During the same tour, the concert in Budapest drew 90,000 fans stomping and clapping; it was most thrilling. They were familiar with all of Louis’s hits as his voice was heard in every corner of the globe via The Voice of America.
His contribution to the peoples of the world on behalf of the State Department and the United States of America is a vital part of our country’s history. After he died, it took a staff of secretaries and myself over two years to answer the notes and letter of condolence that poured in from heads of state, as well as the man on the street from every country on the face of the earth.
Rather than continuing to relate all the reasons why Louis should be honored in this fashion by his own country, I will include some of the quotes made during and after his lifetime. Duke Ellington said, “Louis was the epitome of jazz; he is what I call an American Standard, an American original.” Henry Pleasants, musicologist and author, “A living legend for over half a century, not just to his own black people, nor to the American people as a whole, but to millions of people around the world.” Andre Hodeir, foremost French jazz critic, “Louis Armstrong’s importance to musical history is difficult to overestimate.” Gunther Schuller, President of the New England Conservatory of Music: “Armstrong’s music transcended its implications; this was music for music’s sake, not for the first time in jazz, to be sure, but never before in such brilliant and unequivocal form.” Bing Crosby: “He is the beginning and the end of music in America.”
His was a life of complete dedication to his music, the joy of performing, and to America and its people. I feel that as the wife of Louis Armstrong for over 30 years, the world would love and cherish this stamp as a tribute to one who has given so much of himself, his music, his heart, to the world, his fans.
Lucille Armstrong (Mrs. Louis)
Satchmo’s Stamp of Approval
by Roxane Orgill
(published in the Wall Street Journal, September 27, 1995)
At the recent unveiling of the Louis Armstrong 32-cent commemorative stamp, 90-year-old Adolphus “Doc” Cheatham sat with the mayor and other dignitaries, fingering the valves of his silver trumpet all through the speeches. When the New Orleans Postal Jazz Ensemble struck up “What a Wonderful World,” he could wait no longer. Cutting into the clarinet solo, he pointed the bell of his horn toward heaven and sent a message to Satchmo.
The message was probably “Thank you.” When Mr. Cheatham got to Chicago in the ‘20’s, a kid from Nashville with a dollar and change in his pocket, he found the doors closed. New Orleans musicians had all the jobs. He spoke to Armstrong, and the doors opened.
Such stories about Armstrong are legion. He touched many, many people, not only as a musician – the trumpet player who originated the jazz solo, the singer who could transform a silly pop song into art music – but as a man.
They why did it take 14 years to get his image onto a piece of prephosphored paper measuring 1.56 by 1.23 inches, coated on one side with water activated gum? How come Elvis got there first, not to mention Howlin’ Wolf?
It was certainly not for lack of public interest.
In 1981, the first year that Armstrong was eligible as a stamp subject (you must be dead at least 10 years), his widow, Lucille Armstrong, wrote a letter to the senior representative for governmental relations at the U.S. Postal Service: “It has been brought to my attention that the U.S. Postal Service Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee is considering recommending an issuance of a commemorative stamp in the name of my husband, Louis (Satchmo) Armstrong. I am very pleased.” In two-single-spaced pages, she made her case, nothing his status as an unofficial ambassador of goodwill, who brought temporary peace to the Congo simply by showing up to play his horn.
The Postal Service noted her suggestion, as it does 40,000 suggestions received each year. Anyone can suggest a stamp subject to the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee, a 15-member body appointed by the postmaster general, provided the subject is “interesting and educational” and meets 12 other criteria. The committee reviews every suggestion before making recommendations to the postmaster, who makes the final decision.
To bolster the argument, the late Mrs. Armstrong and her friend Phoebe Jacobs, now vice-president of the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation, mounted a signature campaign. With help from ASCAP, the Actor’s Fund, several elected officials, musicians Quincy Jones, Marian McPartland and Benny Carter, producer George Avakian, and the student bodies of the two Louis Armstrong schools in Queens, N.Y., to name just a handful of the parties, they amassed a half a million signatures in six years, Mrs. Jacobs estimates.
The Postal Service has no record of them.
“The file only goes back to 1987,” said Postal Service spokesperson Monica Hand. “That’s not to say they never existed,” she added.
But the Postal Service does have a stack of correspondence from Donald Marquis, curator of the jazz collection at the Louisiana State Museum here in Armstrong’s hometown. After the Duke Ellington stamp came out in 1986, Mr. Marquis and the New Orleans Jazz Club president, Bill Farrell, Jr., decided it was Louis’s turn. Mr. Marquis put a stack of petitions atop a display case, and every three or four months, he mailed a batch of signatures to Washington. When the Postal Service decided in late 1994 to honor Armstrong with a stamp, following the lead of Burkina Faso, Chad, Dominica, Gabon, Guyana, Madagascar, Mali, Niger, Rwanda, Senegal, St. Vincent and Tanzania, Mr. Marquis did a tally. He had collected 36,765 names from all 50 states and 62 countries.
Sadly, the petitions may have had little effect. “I don’t think the number of signatures is what brought the issue to the forefront,” says Virginia Noelke, president of the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee. “He has been on our agenda consistently since he was eligible.” (Don’t tell that to the Swedish visitor who took the petition home and got 85 friends to sign it.)
What may have turned the tide in Washington was a bit of market research conducted by the Postal Service in 1994, which revealed Armstrong to be the most requested male subject. A new format helped also, Ms. Noelke said. The Legends of American Music series began in 1993 with Elvis Presley, and continued with other rock ‘n’ roll figures, Hank Williams and country musicians, “Oklahoma!” and Broadway shows, Ethel Merman, Bessie Smith, Nat King Cole, Billie Holiday and other pop, blues and jazz singers.
At the ceremony, held in Armstrong Park and hosted by the ever-eloquent Wynton Marsalis, fans wondered aloud whether Armstrong’s turn would have come sooner had he not spoken out against the U.S. government during the Little Rock, Ark., school troubles of 1957. When Governor Orval Faubus refused to integrate the schools and President Eisenhower did nothing to interfere, Armstrong raised his voice, politically, for the first time. “The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell,” he told the press. “The President has no guts.” (Later, when Eisenhower ordered troops to Little Rock to enforce the law, Armstrong sent him a congratulatory telegram: “If you decide to walk into the schools with the colored kids, take me along, Daddy. God bless you.”)
“Why else would they do Elvis Presley before Louis?” asked one admirer. The official answer, from Ms. Noelke, was that Presley’s enormous fan club put such pressure on the Postal Service, via TV and newspaper stories, that the committee felt compelled to put the King on a stamp. As it turned out, the Elvis stamp is the single most popular U.S. commemorative, with a record 500 million print run, of which an astounding 124 stamps were never used, but saved. The Armstrong stamp, by contrast, has a 150 million print run.
None of this seemed to matter one whit to Mr. Cheatham, who came to blow his horn in tribute to a pal, and ended up blowing listeners away with his sound, strong and delicate, like a spider’s web, and the elegance of his phrasing. He closed out a busy week with a concert in the Blue Room of the Fairmont Hotel (formerly the Roosevelt, once famous for its radio broadcasts), where he played marvelous duets with New Orleans’s current favorite resident trumpeter, Nicholas Payton, who is about 70 years his junior. Mr. Payton’s sound is bright and aggressive, in contrast to Mr. Cheatham’s sweet horn. The elder musician sat back, grinning, as Mr. Payton took his first solo, blowing hard and high, and sounding just a little like Satchmo himself.