Book excerpts that chronicle famous encounters among twentieth-century cultural icons
Why did Louis Armstrong leave Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra in 1925 and return to Chicago? Jeffrey Magee, author of The Uncrowned King of Swing: Fletcher Henderson and Big Band Jazz, writes about this landmark decision in the history of music, and reminds us of Armstrong’s not-so-hip farewell gift to Henderson.
By the fall of 1925, then, the musical synergy in Henderson’s band had reached unprecedented intensity. Henderson continued to hold court for dancers at the Roseland, reaching thousands of other listeners through its radio wire, and recording for a variety of record labels both with his full orchestra and with selected members of the band as accompanists for blues singers. And there were also continuous bookings in the summer between seasons at the Roseland, large crowds in venues up and down the East Coast, and consistently hyperbolic press coverage. By his own account, Armstrong enjoyed himself and fit in musically and socially. “I had ‘Wedged’ in there just that much,” Armstrong wrote later, capturing rather well the new way that Redman had learned to integrate Armstrong inside the strain. He later referred to the band members as “those fine boys who treated me just swell.”
Why, then, in November 1925, some thirteen months after arriving in New York, did Armstrong leave Henderson and return to Chicago? Several reasons have been offered. Armstrong’s biographers tend to emphasize reasons for dissatisfaction. James Lincoln Collier finds much “in the situation .that made Armstrong feel uncomfortable.” Laurence Bergreen cites Armstrong’s “all too brief solos” and “mounting dissatisfaction” with Henderson’s band. And Gary Giddins states, “The stopper was still on .The full radiance of Louis’s music and personality was simmering, waiting for release.”
Armstrong, admittedly, provided some fuel for that perspective. Much later, he reflected that “Fletcher didn’t dig me like Joe Oliver. He had a million dollar talent in his band and he never thought to let me sing.” It’s almost true: the only Armstrong vocal among his records with Henderson consists of a brief tag ending in “Everybody Loves My Baby.” Yet the singing issue appears to be a red herring, since Armstrong noted elsewhere that Oliver didn’t let him sing either, but he does not suggest that as a reason he left Oliver’s band to go to Henderson. Armstrong also indicates that discipline started to break down and the “cats” got “careless with the music.” Yet all together, Armstrong’s published memories of the band leave an at least ambivalent legacy, and they are actually more glowing than bitter.
Other, nonmusical, reasons also account for Armstrong’s departure. Among them are that he was homesick for Chicago, where he had a cadre of fellow musicians from New Orleans; that he missed his wife, the pianist Lil Hardin Armstrong (“He used to write to his wife every day,” recalled Kaiser Marshall); and that she was pressing her husband to ratchet up his career and become a bandleader with star billing and a salary to match. Lil coupled a more classically oriented musicianship and a stronger entrepreneurial streak than her husband. She had joined Louis in New York soon after his arrival there but then returned to Chicago. There, the “bands were always changing,” she said.” So I went to the Dreamland and I said: ‘I want to put a band in, I want to bring my husband back from New York, and I want him to be featured, I want $75 a week for him, and I want his name out there in front .’ I had him make a sign — ‘Louis Armstrong, the World’s Greatest Trumpet Player.'” Having arranged that, she continued to urge Louis to return home, but he resisted. As she recalled, she then issued an ultimatum – “if you’re not here by this date, then don’t come at all” — and Armstrong relented. But even Lil conceded that Louis “kind of liked playing with Fletcher. He wasn’t anxious to be a star.” Armstrong appears to have seen the situation as less a career choice than a cut-and-dried personal matter. As he later wrote, “I had to choose between — My Wife + Fletcher Henderson’s band. After all — I chose’d being with my wife.”
The night before Armstrong left for Chicago, Henderson threw a farewell party at Small’s Paradise in Harlem. Thanks to Thomas Brothers’s publication of selected writings that reveal Armstrong’s unedited, unvarnished voice, we can now read the story of that party as written by its guest of honor, complete with Armstrong’s inimitably playful syntax, punctuation, and capitalization style as performed on his second favorite instrument, the typewriter:
All the boys in the Band hated to see me leave — And I hated like hell to leave them too We all had a wonderful time. We had a Special reserved Table — And the Place was packed + Jammed. And after Fletcher made his ‘Speech and I made my little ‘Speech — most of my ‘Speech’ was Thanks to Fletcher for the wonders he had done for me — etc. Then the whole Band sat in and played several fine arrangements for the Folks — Another Thrilling moment for me. — After we finished playing we went back to our table and started drinking some more ‘liquor. — I gotten so ‘Drunk until Buster Bailey and I decided to go home. And just as I went to tell Fletcher Henderson Goodbye as I was leaving New York for Chicago the next morning, I said – “Fletcher ‘Thanks for being so kind to me.” And — er — wer — er — wer — And before I knew it — I had “Vomit” (“Puked“) directly into Fletcher’s “Bosom.” All over his Nice Clean ‘Tuxedo Shirt. ‘Oh — I’d gotten so sick all of a sudden — I was afraid Fletcher would get sore at me, but all he said — “Aw – that’s allright ‘Dip'” (my nick name at that time [short for “Dipper Mouth”]). Fletcher told Buster Bailey to take me home and put me to ‘bed, so Buster did. The next morning — ‘my ‘Headache and all — Boarded the Train for Chicago.
Armstrong’s exit, it appears, was even more unceremonious than his entrance thirteen months earlier. Had Armstrong stayed in New York, it is hard to know how he, Don Redman, and Henderson’s band might have developed differently. Those final recordings of “T.N.T.” and “Carolina Stomp” suggest that perhaps Redman’s arranging might have explored more new territory. But soon, Armstrong was back in Chicago, playing in the band Lil had organized at the Dreamland, becoming “the Talk of Chicago,” and making records as leader of the Hot Five, a group that included Lil and his old New Orleans friends clarinetist Johnny Dodds, trombonist Edward “Kid” Ory, and banjo player Johnny St. Cyr. Judging by the now separate paths of Armstrong and Henderson’s band over the next two years, Armstrong’s gain from returning to familiar people and places was greater than Henderson’s loss. For, as Allen has noted, after Henderson’s New Orleans trumpeter left town, his New York band began climbing “to greater heights.”
Excerpted from The Uncrowned King of Swing: Fletcher Henderson and Big Band Jazz, by Jeffrey Magee. Copyright © 2005 by Jeffrey Magee. Excerpted by permission of Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.