Louis Armstrong's Migration

In this excerpt from Nat Shapiro and Nat Hentoff's Hear Me Talkin' To Ya, Louis Armstrong recalls his arrival in Chicago and his early days with King Joe Oliver's band.

In 1922, when King Joe Oliver, the trumpet man of those days, sent for me to leave New Orleans and join him at the Lincoln Gardens to play second trumpet to his first trumpet, I jumped sky-high with joy...

I arrived in Chicago about eleven o'clock the night of July 8, 1922, I'll never forget it, at the Illinois Central Station at Twelfth and Michigan Avenue. The King was already at work. I had no one to meet me. I took a cab and went directly to the Gardens.

When I was getting out of the cab and paying the driver, I could hear the King's band playing some kind of a real jump number. Believe me, they were really jumpin' in fine fashion. I said to myself, "My Gawd," I wonder if I'm good enough to play in that band." I hesitated about going inside right away, but I finally did.

When I go inside and near the bandstand, King Oliver spied me. He immediately stopped the band to greet me, saying, "Boy, where have you been? I've been waiting and waiting for you." Well, I did miss the train that the King thought I should have been on. They went into another hot number. In that band, there were King Oliver, trumpet; Johnny Dodds, clarinet; Honore Dutrey, trombone; Baby Dodds, drums; Bill Johnson, bass; Lillian Hardin, piano, of course she became Mrs. "Satchmo" Louis Armstrong later (tee hee).

When I joined the band on second trumpet I made the seventh member. Those were some thrilling days of my life I shall never forget. I came to work the next night. During my first night on the job, while things were going down in order, King and I stumbled upon a little something that no other two trumpeters ever thought of. While the band was just swinging, the King would lean over to me, moving his valves on his trumpet, make notes, the notes that he was going to make when the break in the tune came. I'd listen, and at the same time, I'd be figuring out my second to his lead. When the break would come, I'd have my part to blend right along with his. The crowd would go mad over it!

King Oliver and I got so popular blending that jive together that pretty soon all the white musicians from downtown Chicago would come there after their work and stay until the place closed. Sometimes they would sit-in with us to get their kicks. Lillian was doubling from the Lincoln Gardens to the Edelweiss Gardens, an after-hours place. After our work I would go out there with her. Doing this, she and I became regular running buddies, and we would go to all the other places when we had the time. She knew Chicago like a book. I'll never forget the first time Lil took me to the Dreamland Cabaret on Thirty-fifth and State Streets to hear Ollie Powers and Mae Alix sing. Ollie had one of those fine, strong voices that everyone would also want to hear. Then she would go into her splits, and the customers would throw paper dollars on the floor, and she would make one of those running splits, picking them up one at a time...

King Oliver received an offer to go on the road and make some one-night stands at real good money. Ump! That got it. The band almost busted up. Half of the boys just wouldn't go, that's all. The same situation hits bandleaders square in the face these days, the same as then. The King replaced every man that wouldn't go. As for me, anything King did was all right with me. My heart was out for him at all times--until the day he died and even then now. The tour was great. We had lots of fun and made lots of money.

At the Dreamland, in 1925, we had some fine moments. Some real jumping acts. There was the team of Brown and McGraw. They did a jazz dance that just wouldn't quit. I'd blow for their act, and every step they made, I put the notes to it. They liked the idea so well they had it arranged. Benny and Harry Goodman used to come out and set in and tear up the joint when they were real young. P.S., the boys have been hep for a long time. While at the Dreamland, Professor Erksine Tate asked me (ahem) to join his Symphony Orchestra. I wouldn't take a million for that experience.

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Excerpted from Gottlieb, Robert. "Louis Armstrong." Reading Jazz. New York: Pantheon Books, 1996. 24-26.