Eulogy of Lawyers
An Evening with Louis Armstrong(Also see "Louis Armstrong," March 2010)
Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong
by Jacob A. Stein - transcribed by Brian Harvey
In the late 1950s, Doc Pressman's Randolph Pharmacy, located at Fourteenth and Randolph Streets in Washington, DC, was a meeting place for a number of musicians. There were the locals, like "Jive" Schaffer, Roger Calloway, and Buddy Garrison, and also some well-known jazz musicians who would occasionally drop in when they were in town.
Doc Pressman was both proprietor and pharmacist in residence. He could be found behind a counter at the back of the store. There he was comfortable among shelves containing thousands of pharmaceutical potions, drugs, vitamin pills, retorts, and odd-shaped glass containers. Doc believed in the therapeutic efficacy of vitamin pills, especially of vitamin E, which he believed, when taken every day in huge quantities, would cure anything. Whether Doc made an independent study or whether the salesman for Hance Bros. vitamin company brought this knowledge to his attention is now unknown and beyond the reach of further research.
He was always busy and cheerful. He moved pills very rapidly into small containers. He typed out labels. He actually prepared ointments from the original elements.
Doc, although licensed only as a pharmacist, drifted into the casual practice of medicine by treating a constituency suspicious of orthodox diagnostic techniques. Doc relied heavily on the Merck Manual, drug company handouts, Hatha Yoga, and Ouspensky's In Search of the Miraculous. Doc's musician clientele required a pharmacopoeia to help them stay up all night and remain awake all day. (Winston Churchill's physician, Lord Moran, wrote of a somewhat similar problem that Winston Churchill had - he required pills to go to sleep and pills to stay awake.)
Doc purchased one of the first tape recorders manufactured after the war, and he committed his large jazz collection to tape. The tapes played continuously in the back of the store. Doc's favorite was Louis Armstrong's "Satch Plays Fats", the Louis Armstrong recording of Fats Waller songs.
Doc tacked to his small, cork bulletin board postcards from musician friends. Among the cards were several from Louis Armstrong containing affirmations of the remarkable qualities of vitamin E and evaluations of laxative samples that Doc had supplied for him.
One late afternoon in 1955, in the middle of June, Doc said in a casual way that I was to come along with him to meet Louis Armstrong, who was performing at an open-air theatre in Washington that advertised itself as providing music by the stars under the stars. Doc said he had word that "Pops" was running low and needed his medicine cabinet.
Doc put up a satchel full of vitamin E, vitamin C, and assorted other pills and laxative samples, and I was actually on my way to meet one of the few men who had gained lasting worldwide fame according to the precise terms he had chosen for himself.
We arrived early at the theatre and found our way to the dressing-room area. There was no security. We heard the sound of warm-up music as we wandered around asking questions until we found Louis Armstrong's dressing room. I was apprehensive that Doc didn't know Louis Armstrong as well as he made it appear. Would we be just intruders? Doc knocked on the half-opened door of Louis Armstrong's dressing room. He was seated opposite a small table with a mirror above it. On the table were bottles of various pills, bottles of lotion, and bottles bearing the name Pluto Water. The trumpet was on the table, horn end down. He was wearing a bathrobe. He had a large white handkerchief tied up around his head like a hat. Black-rimmed eyeglasses rested on his forehead. He had not yet put on his pants. His white silk stockings were rolled down to his black shoes. He was carefully dabbing a cotton wad into a lubricant and then applying the cotton to his lips. A tape recorder played. Louis Armstrong, without getting up, gave Doc a warm, friendly, husky-voiced greeting. I saw at once that they were real friends, comfortable and relaxed in each other's company, nothing forced.
There was a general flow of conversation concerning Armstrong's recent goodwill tour under State Department sponsorship. He told a few stories concerning food and accommodations in out-of-the-way places. Doc pulled open the satchel to show the contents. Louis looked in at the portable medicine chest with great curiosity and obvious satisfaction.
As we talked, I noticed a young man somewhere between eighteen and twenty years old peeking into the dressing room. He was holding the hand of a pretty young girl. The young man caught Doc's eye, and then Armstrong turned around to see where Doc was looking. He saw the innocent young couple and invited them in. The young man was excited by this sudden turn of events. He told Louis Armstrong how thrilled he was to meet and talk to his favorite musician. Armstrong interrupted and asked how he was feeling. The startled young man replied that he was feeling fine. There followed Armstrong's discourse on the need for a good reliable daily laxative. He strongly recommended Swiss Kriss, the laxative he discovered in Sweden. He gave a handful of samples to the young man and woman and then turned again to dabbing his lips with the cotton swabs. The astonished couple withdrew. Doc and I saw that we should leave also because it was nearing show time.
As we were leaving, Louis Armstrong asked me if there was a song I would like to hear. I mentioned the 1932 recording of "That's My Home". He remembered it. He had not sung the song in years, but he was glad I mentioned it because it gave him a good test to see if he could do what he often said he could do - sing the words of just about all of the hundreds of songs he had ever sung. He said that the band would be plenty surprised to hear him start up "That's My Home", but they were all good fakers and they would all right. He then asked to give him a ride to the Annapolis Hotel after the show was over.
We took seats in the audience to the left of the stage. As the curtain went up the band played "When It's Sleepy Time Down South". Louis Armstrong stretched his arms wide, smiled and said, in a happy, low musical tone, hitting every syllable, "Good evening, everybody". The concert that followed included old favorites, "Blue Turning Grey Over You", "I'm Confessin'", "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues" and "Saint James Infirmary Blues".
After an intermission the band returned, and four or five more songs rang out in that clear summer night. Then Louis looked in our direction, gave us a big stage wink, and he trumpeted into "That's My Home". He played it through just as he did on my old seventy-eight record. He then paused, took out his jumbo handkerchief, drew it past his lips, and sang both the verse and the refrain. As he finished he looked over at us, smiled triumphantly, and raised the trumpet into the air. It was a magic moment.
Thomas Mann described those few persons with the unique power to entertain as the "dispensers of the joy of life". It is they who by displaying beautiful lighthearted perfection kindle a precious painful feeling, tinctured with envy and wonder, and who can suggest, just for the moment, that the world is filled with wonderful possibilities. For it is they who produce such stuff as dreams are made of.
There were a few encore numbers and then again the strains of "When It's Sleepy Time Down South". Those of us in the know knew that the entertainment was over - a wonderful evening under the stars.
Doc and I waited outside Louis Armstrong's dressing room. He walked out smiling and said that he was sure glad he knew the words to "That's My Home". I was tempted to remind him of his recording of "I'm a Ding Dong Daddy", where he momentarily forgot the words but then made a quick recovery. In Doc's car he joked about the young couple in his dressing room. But he once again emphasized the importance of a good laxative, and he hoped the boy would try the samples. in his rooms at the Annapolis Hotel he had another tape recorder and dozens of tapes. He put on one of his concerts. He remarked how nice it would be to take a swim on a hot night like this. Doc asked if he was a good swimmer. Yes, he said, he was. It was easy to believe. He had an athlete's build and elegant posture. Doc and Louis exchanged views on musicians, all diseases curable by patent medicines, Pluto Water, Jurgens Lotion for the lips, vitamins, and tape recorders. In conversation, Louis Armstrong was much as he was on stage. He used his enormous range of facial expressions as punctuations. If he said something ironic, he rolled his eyes. If he said something a bit pretentious, he struck a pose of mock seriousness and then growled with deep-throated laughter. He sprinkled musicians' slang into his conversation... and affectionate nicknames for his friends.
Doc was Pops. Despite his having just given a two hour performance, he was filled with a playful energetic enthusiasm for each subject that came up. The quality of Louis Armstrong's conversation has been the subject of testimony by a number of witnesses. Tallulah Bankhead said of it: "He uses words like he strings notes together - artistically and vividly". His slang, first picked up by musicians, turned up everywhere. He occasionally wrote an article about musician's slang.
After an hour or two, Doc stood up suddenly and announced that we were leaving. It was past two in the morning. Louis Armstrong wrote out a list of the pharmaceutical supplies he needed and told Doc where to send them. During the ride home, Doc said he often thought of selling his drug store and signing on as Louis's personal pharmacist. Doc did sell the store a few years later, but he did not travel with Louis Armstrong. He should have. Instead, he drove out to Las Vegas where the Washington, DC, trumpet player Jack "Jive" Schaffer was making a good living at the Golden Nugget impersonating Louis Armstrong. Doc remained in Las Vegas several months. He must have spent lots of money. When he returned, I could see that he was uneasy without the drugstore. Doc had no family, and the old timers in the store were his family substitute. No store, no family. Also, Doc was a born salesman.
No store, no customers. He also missed his medical practice. Doc's interest in the metaphysical brought him to Yoga religious services. He learned to sit in the full lotus position. He believed that he was in contact with supernatural forces and that reincarnation was the logical explanation of life's haphazard distribution of misfortune, health, wealth, and sickness. When he withdrew from this earthly existence, he intended to return as a seagull jumping around the beach in Atlantic City, preferably near a cabana at the north end of the boardwalk.
Doc's friends could see that he was not doing well. He was even heard to question the therapeutic value of vitamin E.
Within six months after Doc's return from Las Vegas, I found that kind, gentle, helpful man dead, all alone in his small apartment. What happened to all his tapes and those postcards sent to him by the musicians?! They had all disappeared.
When I picked up Gary Giddins' 1988 biography of Louis Armstrong entitled "Satchmo," I looked for Doc's name in the index. There is no index. Too bad such a good book so lovingly put together has no index. Although the book does not mention Doc, it does have a picture of Louis Armstrong in his dressing room with a big smile on his face, just as Doc and I saw him.
Another picture shows the Armstrong collection of pharmaceuticals, including a bottle of Pluto Water and the Jurgens Lotion. There are reproductions of several of Armstrong's postcards, just like the ones Doc tacked on the corkboard. Giddins has a few comments on Armstrong's Swiss Kriss evangelism and gives a theory to explain the obsession. He connects it with Armstrong's early life when he could not afford proper food and what he did eat caused digestive problems.
Giddins tries, through words, to describe Louis Armstrong's incomparable trumpet playing and singing. The best Giddins does is fail with honor because words cannot convey the effect of Louis' prodigious capacity to entertain. Louis Armstrong was one of the very few entertainers who imitated no one but left behind legions of imitators. Al Jolson (who billed himself as the World's Greatest Entertainer) and George M. Cohan (described as both the Prince of the American Theatre and the Man Who Owned Broadway) are in the small circle of unique entertainers. But neither had Louis Armstrong's influence, which continues to affect jazz and jazz musicians. There are two biographies of Jolson and two of Cohan. At my last count, there are ten biographies of Louis Armstrong, and they keep coming. Giddins underlines Louis Armstrong's hold on musicians by quoting Bunny Berigan's statement that all a jazz musician needs when he goes on the road is a toothbrush and a picture of Louis Armstrong.
Giddins describes the work habits of Louis Armstrong during the last twenty years of his life. Those work habits were simple: He worked all the time. Every now and then one of his records became a big hit. "Hello Dolly" was the big hit of 1964, and it brought Louis back to all the talk and variety shows. He was always unpredictable and spontaneous. He sprinkled his conversation with his own slang creations and neologisms. By the time things were well under way he had his host of the moment converted to the "Satchmo" style. His lively intelligence and wit, along with the powerful effect of his personality, created a compelling quality impossible to withstand. Everyone felt qualified to do a very good Louis Armstrong.
In the late 1960's Armstrong fell ill, but he continued to work. He appeared on television shows in New York and Los Angeles despite his many serious illnesses, including heart trouble and ulcers. He celebrated his seventieth birthday at the Newport Jazz Festival and then had to be hospitalized. Despite the hospitalization, his calendar continued to fill up with dates long into the future. He had to cancel his appearances because of a second heart attack that put him back in the hospital. He returned home on May 5, 1971, and made plans to resume his schedule. He died at home, two months later, with plenty of good well-paying work on the books.
He had, as Duke Ellington remarked, been born poor, died rich, and hurt nobody on the way. And his melody lingers on. Just about every recording he made is still in print. "That's My Home" has been moved from the original seventy-eight rpm record to an LP, and now it can be found all done up on a compact disc.
· 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 x 1 · 320 pages
Softcover · ISBN 1-58733-009-1 · $12.95
· 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 x 1 · 320 pages
Hardcover · ISBN 978-1-58733-179-4 · $17.95
EISBN 13: 9781587332487