I met Louis Armstrong on his 48th birthday -- July 4, 1948. At least, that was the day he celebrated his 48th birthday. As a waif in New Orleans, Armstrong probably did not know his exact date of birth, and Independence Day 1900 was likely an arbitrary choice.
Drummer Zutty Singleton, his boyhood friend, told me: "Louis and I were the same age, and I was born in 1898." In Louis Armstrong, An American Genius (Oxford University Press, 1983), James Lincoln Collier also concluded that July 4, 1900 was an incorrect birth date. Various sources have indicated that Armstrong was born August 4, 1901. But the national holiday has always seemed an appropriate day to commemorate the life of a man who became a national treasure -- and so July 4 remains his "official" birthday.
On the day I met him, Armstrong had just returned from a successful European tour with his recently formed All-Stars and was apearing at the Bal Tabarin, a questionable venue in southwest Los Angeles. With a borrowed tape recorder, I meekly ventured backstage and asked if I might be alowed to tape an interview for my radio program, which was heard only by those few who had discovered that recent innovation, FM radio.
I was ushered into an adjacent rom and greeted by a smiling Louis Armstrong, who sat nibbling a piece of birthday cake --stark naked. He was changing clothes between sets and agreed to talk to me as he dressed. After our brief conversation, he invited me to remain and interview the members of his band. Before the evening was over, I had recorded conversations with Barney Bigard, Jack Teagarden, Earl Hines, Arvell Shaw, and Cozy Cole -- enough material for six broadcasts.
Over the years, scores of books have carefully depicted Armstrong's illustrious accomplishments. His instrumental and vocal innovations injfluenced generations of artsits, and he remains one of jazz's most beloved and respected heroes many years after his death. It was my privilege to know him personally, and I admired him not only as a musician but also as a man. His status as jazz's most visible personality - its first and greatest celebrity -- often overshadwoed his accomplishments as a musician. But each phase in his long career is a vitally important art of the music's history.