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Great Encounters #51: The night Louis Armstrong taught Buck Clayton how to “do the gliss”

“Great Encounters” are book excerpts that chronicle famous encounters among twentieth-century cultural icons. This edition tells the story of the evening in c. 1930 that Louis Armstrong taught Buck Clayton how to perform a trumpet technique known as the “gliss”

 

Louis Armstrong, 1930

 

A young Buck Clayton, date unknown

 

 

 

Excerpted from Buck Clayton’s Jazz World ” by Buck Clayton (with Nancy Miller Elliott)

 

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     About this time Louis Armstrong made a return trip to California.  This time he was to play again at Frank Sebastian’s Cotton Club, only this time he was to play with Les Hite and his orchestra.  Broomfield and Greely headed the revue.  Les Hite had a good band.  There were only two big bands in L.A. at the time, our band (Charlie Echols) and the Les Hite band.  The first time I heard Louis play was on a recording coming out of a shop window as I was walking down Central Avenue.  I just stopped still and stood listening to that golden tone.  I had never heard anyone play with such soul.  I really had expected to hear Louis play “hot jazz” and I didn’t know that he could play with so much expression.  My first hearing of Louis’s playing was on “I’m Confessin’ That I Love You.”  The wonderful introduction that C.L. Burke made on guitar knocked me out even before the recording had got to the first chorus.  Then Pops came in and sang it and played it so beautifully.  I guess I was spellbound.  I said, “Gee-zus, that’s who I want to play like.”  Pops was the highlight of my career.  I listened to other recordings such as “Ding Dong Daddy from Dumas,” “Sweethearts on Parade,” “Just a Gigolo” and “Body and Soul.”  Now there was a beautiful piece of work.  “Body and Soul” happens to be my favorite ballad and Louie did it so beautifully.  When Louie sang the vocal to “Body and Soul” there was a trumpet solo behind him, just a straight melody played by George Orendorff and the Hite band.  The way he played that solo so straight and muted was also a highlight of the record.  I began to gather all of Louie’s recordings that I could get my hands on, and I would listen to him every night when he would broadcast from the Cotton Club.

     One night he did something on the radio program that I had never heard anyone do before on a trumpet, which was to make a gliss.  A gliss means to slide from one low note to a high note without any in-between notes, in other words like a trombone would do.  But a trombone is made with a slide so it’s only natural, but to hear a trumpet do that with three valves, I just couldn’t understand how that was possible.  I thought to myself, “Louis has got to be playing a slide trumpet, because I don’t believe he can be doing that with an ordinary trumpet.”  And then I had seen some pictures of Pops actually playing a slide trumpet.  I talked with some fellows who were working at the Cotton Club with Pops – the famous Berry brothers.  Nyas Berry was a good friend of mine and I asked him, “Is Pops playing a slide trumpet?”

     He said, “No, Buck, he’s playing a trumpet just like yours.”

     I said, “But how does he do that?  How does he make a gliss like that?”

     He said, “I don’t know how he does it but he does.  His horn is exactly like yours.”

     I said, “I don’t believe it.”

     So when Nyas and James, one of the other brothers, said, “You meet us here tomorrow at six o’clock and we’ll take you out to the club and you can see the show and talk to Pops.”

     “Beautiful,” I said.  “I’ll be there.”

     I was there at five o’clock waiting for them to show up at six.  They came and picked me up and took me out to Culver City.  I was impressed by the Sebastian Cotton Club.  It was a huge green and white club and Frank was very nice also, a nice-looking Italian guy.  I went with the Berry brothers to their room first.  Then they said, “No come on, we’ll take you to Pops’s dressing room.”

     When they took me in Louis’s room was so full of admirers and fans that I could hardly find Louis ini there himself.  Finally they got to Pops and said, “Pops, here’s a little young cat that wants to play trumpet and he wants to talk to you.”  Louis was so nice, he said, “Oh that’s nice, nice, nice.”

     I said, “Mr. Armstrong, will you show me how you do this on your horn?”

     He said, “Do what?”

     I said, “Well, how do you make it sound like a soprano saxophone?  How do you make it slide up and down?”  He took his horn out of his case.   With all these people making noise in his room he says, “Now, this is my horn.”  And he showed it to me.  He had a Conn horn at the time, a gold Conn trumpet.  He showed me his mouthpiece and he also pulled out a picture of himself and autographed it to me and I was so thrilled.  The he said, “I’ll show you how I do it, but if we were down in New Orleans, I wouldn’t.  In New Orleans whenever I did it, I’d put a handkerchief over my valves so nobody could see how I did it, but you follow me and I’ll show you.”

     He left the room with all the noise and the bunch of people in there and walked down the hall.  I followed him, right behind him, and I found out later after I got in the hall that he was going to the john.  We went to the toilet and Louis sat down on the stool to do whatever he had to do.  He had a white handkerchief tied around his head and he said, “Now, I’ll tell you.”  Then he said, “Wait a minute.  Here.”  And he gave me a cigarette.  It was a brown cigarette, not the kind that I had been used to seeing.  I looked at the cigarette and I guess he knew that I didn’t know just what it was, so he said, “Here, let me have it.”  So he sat on the stool and lit it.  He puffed on it and then he said, “Now I’ll tell you.”  Then he puffed again and handed it to me, kinda grinnin’ like.  I took it and I puffed on it too.  I thought right away of my mother who used to talk about dope fiends and coke heads and everything that didn’t want me to be.  She had impressed so much on me about taking narcotics, but with Louis Armstrong I would have done anything.  So I puffed on it again and give it back to Pops, he puffed on it again and gave it back to me.  This went on until the whole cigarette was gone.  Then Pops said, “Now here’s how you make the gliss.”  He told me, “You push your valves all the way down and tighten up your lips, then you’ll be able to make the gliss.”  I later learned to do it.  I did it very well after Pops showed me, but when Louis finished with the toilet and we went back into the room again with all the noise and the people, I didn’t see him too much more that night because he had to run out and do his show.

     That night I went home and I got down on my knees and I prayed to God.  I said, “Oh God, now that I’m a dope addict, please forgive me.  Please don’t let me become a real habitual dope addict.  I just did it one time, please stop me now. Please God, please stop me, I don’t want to end up being a junkie.”  Ijust knew that I had done the worst thing in the world, which really it wasn’t because I found out from later use that pot never affected me in any kind of way except that it makes one feel elevated.  It never affected Louis either.  It’s not like being drunk where you may develop into being an alcoholic.  With pot you just smoke it without it becoming a habit.  If you have it, OK, if not, OK.  It never did anything to me.  Sometimes I’d take it like a drink or cocktail just to perk me up, and it usually made me more attentive to what I was doing.

 

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Excerpted from Buck Clayton’s Jazz World ” by Buck Clayton (with Nancy Miller Elliott)

 

 

 

Louis Armstrong outside Frank Sebastian’s Cotton Club, c. 1930

Culver City, California

 

 

September, 1930 recording of Louis Armstrong; “Body and Soul” 

 

1965 film of Buck Clayton playing “I Can’t Get Started”