I’ve been meditating on Pops lately for a variety of reasons. I’ve been watching a wonderful DVD of his 70th birthday celebration, held at the Newport Jazz Festival, with a staggering array of talent on hand; the whole thing lovingly organized by George Wein (a legend in his own right). The bonus materials fill a second disc, and it’s all superb and sublime. The title is “Good Evening Everybody” from his famous catch-phrase intro, and even if jazz ain’t your bag, it’s a master entertainer doing just that . . . entertaining at the highest level.
When I was writing my book “Mersey Me!”, I revisited the occasion in Juan Les Pins where I actually got to meet him after his performance at the Antibes Jazz Festival, when he played a midnight matinee at the Voom Voom Club, where I was gigging with Ferris Wheel. He shared our dressing room and invited us stage-side for his set with The All Stars . . . talk about sitting at the feet of a master!
Mersey Me! Excerpt from “War Stories”
The defining Voom Voom memory is the Louis Armstrong moment … one year our stint happened to coincide with the Jazz Festival, so as our band didn’t hit until 9.30, Dave and I would spend the bulk of the day at the festival site, digging all the big boys, and there were some big boys there that year. My wife Patti arrived in June towards the end of the festival, so fortunately she got to share “the moment.” The club owner, an old swashbuckler from Marseilles – Rene, as I recall – had booked the incomparable Satchmo for a midnight matinee after his Festival appearance. Now, Mr. Armstrong was in his later years at this time, but had recently had the most commercial successes of his career with “Hello Dolly” and “What a Wonderful World,” so Pops was still hot (was he ever not?). We were all well pumped at the idea of seeing such a legendary musician up close, but also to catch the All-Stars, at that time with Tyree Glenn on trombone, Barrett Deems on drums, and all those other killers. It was a Friday, I believe, and we were set to wind up our set at eleven thirty, with Louis on at midnight. Now, a Ferris Wheel set was a pretty energetic affair, so we usually hit the dressing room with our reasonably elaborate costumes, and our less elaborate bodies, soaked through. A minute to get changed and compose ourselves was a virtual necessity. Well, this night we were barely off, in the stage-side dressing room, when a phalanx of French security people burst in to clear the space for “Le Armstrong.” We were all literally undressed, Diane too, when these goons made their aggressive appearance, closely followed by His Highness, who cut that shit off at the knees. “Hey boys, can’t you see these folks been workin’ their asses off? This is their room, an’ I just need a little table to set my horn on, and any old chair.” He shoo’ed the security detail off, smoked a joint with us, joking, especially with our black members, “Ofay, Ofay, never gonna go away, heh, heh” and shaking his head. Then came the magic moment … “y’all wanna sit on the stageside, ya welcome.” We did indeed, and Patti and I got to be barely feet away from Louis Armstrong for a wonderful ninety-minute performance, one of those things you can’t really put a price on, can you?