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Music

Louis Armstrong's last trumpet recording now a CD

This 1971 black-and-white handout photo provided by the National Press Club (NPC) shows Louis Armstrong and wife Lucille with newly sworn-in NPC President Vernon Louviere and wife Jean, in Washington. (AP Photo/NPC)

WASHINGTON: A live recording of Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong playing his trumpet near the end of his career is being released to the public for the first time.

On Jan. 29, 1971, Armstrong was a featured performer at the National Press Club in Washington, celebrating the inauguration of fellow Louisiana native Vernon Louviere as the club's president. On Friday, Armstrong's performance was played back in the same place for musicians, historians and some who were there for the original performance.

The new album is called "Red Beans and Rice-ly Yours: Satchmo at the National Press Club."

Amy Louviere, who was 11 when Armstrong played for her father's inauguration at the club, recalled the audience's delight when he pulled out his horn 41 years ago. Later Armstrong made her say "spaghetti" to get her to smile for a picture, she said.

"He just captured the audience," she said. "They were thrilled."

Looking back, the performance was Armstrong's goodbye in many ways. It was the last recording made of him performing live that was meant to be played back some day. His only later performances on trumpet were quick TV snippets with Dick Cavett and Johnny Carson.

His health had been suffering for years after a heart attack and trouble with his kidneys. Armstrong stayed home resting for much of 1969 and 1970, according to Ricky Riccardi, the archivist for the Louis Armstrong House Museum in New York and author of "What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong's Later Years."

He felt strong enough, though, to make a comeback with a few short performances in Las Vegas and then in Washington. That was when he surprised the crowd - which included such prominent politicians including Mitt Romney's father, George Romney - by pulling out his trumpet for tunes like "Hello Dolly" and signing his autobiography with "Boy From New Orleans."

Armstrong died less than six months later on July 6, 1971.

"He had such a love of performing," Riccardi said. "He had been off the scene for so long that I think he cherished any opportunity to get in front of an audience if he was feeling up to it."

His doctors tried to pace him. Riccardi found a letter from Armstrong to his physicians not long before the press club concert in which he complained of having shortness of breath. It was becoming too much for him.

Armstrong told fellow musicians that the best way to die would be to die on stage. By 1971, he was thin and ashen, still telling great stories, but a little of his spark was gone, Riccardi said.

His performance in Washington, though, sounded as good as ever and better than some of his material from the year before, Riccardi said. The audience knew this was a special moment.

"To me it's just one last little testament of Armstrong and his audiences connecting. ... This is really our last glimpse of Louis on stage, doing what he did best," Riccardi said.

"The solo he plays on Hello Dolly is a knockout. It's one of my favorites," he said. "But it's with the knowledge that this was basically a dying man playing this beautiful song."

A limited release of 300 LPs on vinyl were copied from the press club for those in attendance. Over 40 years, they were largely forgotten.

"Most of them vanished into attics, garages and basements," said press club President Theresa Werner.

Chris Royal, the music department chairman at Howard University and a fellow trumpet player, heard the recording for the first time this week after it was released on CD, iTunes and Amazon.com.

"It pops," he said. "Just the way he played up until the end."

Armstrong is often credited with being the inventor of the jazz solos, Royal said. Before then, there had been more focus on group improvisation. He broke racial barriers with his broad appeal and was an ambassador from the United States to the world through jazz, Royal said.

The nonprofit Smithsonian Folkway Recordings released Armstrong's recording this week after collaborating for years with the press club and the Louis Armstrong Foundation to sort out rights to the tunes. The new album comes with 30 of Armstrong's favorite Louisiana recipes, which were served at the press club when he performed.

William McCarren, the press club's director, found one of the old records in the club's archive still wrapped in plastic. When he and others at the club bought a record player and heard how good it sounded, they started thinking about how to release it to a wider audience.

"There was just something kind of wrong about the idea that 300 people ... heard this record and heard the concert and then nobody heard it for 40 years," he said.

On Friday, the album was among the five highest-selling jazz albums on iTunes and Amazon.

Armstrong played trumpet in only two songs. But he also offered up some spirited singing, scat and stories for the audience. One special moment is his "Boy from New Orleans," which he only really sang toward the end of his life.

"I wanted the neighborhood to be proud of their Louis," he sang. "Now all through the years, folks, I've had a ball. Oh, thank you Lord. And I want to thank you all. You were very kind to old Satchmo... Just a boy from New Orleans."

In retrospect, knowing that it was the end of his life, Riccardi said it does sound like a goodbye "and one final thank you to the fans who made him what he was."

 

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