When Benny Goodman and Louis Armstrong tried to iron out how their 1953 joint tour would play out, egos clashed and Goodman dropped out. Goodman's decision proved to be a stroke of luck for trumpeter Al Stewart. As the Goodman band without Goodman fell under the direction of a more laid back Gene Krupa, Al found himself developing a bond with Armstrong, a relationship that taught him about music, entertainment and life. [Pictured, counterclockwise from bottom left: Al Stewart, Louis Armstrong, Abbey Hoffer, Sid Harris, Les Baxer and Buzz King at the Paramount Theater in October 1953; photo courtesy of Al Stewart]
Al spent seven weeks on the road with Armstrong and soon discovered that the trumpet great was a pragmatist with a gift for simplifying and enhancing the world around him. Al had always been confident about his own trumpet-playing abilities and style, but after touring with Armstrong and other greats on the tour, he had a new view of himself. By late May 1953 when the tour ended, Al had played shoulder to shoulder with legends and had held his own.
In Part 3 of my interview with Al, the big-band trumpeter talks about spending down time with Louis Armstrong, what Gene Krupa was like as a boss, riding on Armstrong's band bus, and the only time he shouldn't have taken Armstrong's advice:
JazzWax: Benny Goodman's sour interactions with Louis Armstrong are puzzling. What's your assessment?
Al Stewart: I’m not a psychologist. Benny was the King of Swing. No one could touch him. But Louis was the ambassador of jazz to the world. Benny had all the talent to fill that very same role. But he had a different personality. He was a perfectionist and so demanding of himself. He put that feeling on everyone around him. He also was a bit aloof and emotionally sealed off. Louis was the complete opposite. It would have been such a wonderful thing had Benny and Louis gotten along in 1953 and Benny didn't drop out of the tour.
JW: Who handled Benny’s solos when he left?
AS: Georgie Auld [pictured] played them on tenor with the band, and Willie Smith played his solos on alto in the small group. The tour lasted until May 31st, and we ended it in Springfield, Missouri. During that month and a half, we were doing a concert a night on the road.
JW: Did Armstrong's personality change after Goodman left?
AS: The whole tour settled down into a relaxed feel and well-played affair. Everyone loved everyone else. Everyone got along. As soon as Benny was out of the picture, the tension ended.
JW: Did you become friendly with Armstrong?
AS: Yes I got close to Louis. I wanted to hang out with him, being that I was a young trumpet player. I also used to ride with him in his bus and sit with him as much as possible. The two bands had separate buses. Benny had a big Greyhound. Louis had a bus that was just a little bigger than a Flxible. Louis and I got along really well. I loved the man.
JW: What were your road conversations with Armstrong like?
AS: They were funny. I did a lot of listening. Once I asked Louis if I could blow his horn. He said sure. So I did. It wasn't any better or worse than mine [laughs].
JW: Was Armstrong cool under pressure?
AS: I don't think Louis ever worried about a thing. One night I was riding in his bus. Louis and I were sitting together about halfway back. Standing in the aisle next to us was trumpeter Charlie Shavers [pictured], from Benny's band. He also wanted to ride in Louis' bus. Charlie was staring at the road ahead. Louis had a driver who had taken the governor off the engine, which allowed him to go much faster. He’d pass cars on curves and hills at 70 mph. Charlie was getting really nervous.
JW: Did he say anything to Armstrong?
AS: Yes. Charlie said, “Hey Pops, look at the way this guy’s driving. He's going to kill us.” Louis looked up at Charlie slowly and calmly said, “Sure make your spine tingle, don’t he?” [laughs]. Louis always had the right answer for everything. He could cut right through it all.
JW: Your tour was around the time Louis was writing his autobiography.
AS: That's right. One time we were down in Amarillo, Texas. I was sitting with Louis in the dressing room. Louis was wearing a pair of green boxer shorts and a white kerchief tied back over his head. He had been typing at one of those old metal typewriter tables. We were sitting there talking when Joe Bushkin, who was playing piano in Louis’ band, stuck his head in and shouted, “Hey Pops, what are you doing?” Louis said, “I’m doing my autobiography.” Joe said, “Yeah? You almost done?” Louis says, “I’ve got 600 pages done, and I’m only up to 1929” [laughs].
JW: Did Goodman and Armstrong's bands play together on the tour?
AS: Yes, on one of the numbers. When our part of the concert was completed, Gene [Krupa] and Cozy [Cole, pictured] had a drum battle. When they were done, Louis' band came out playing When the Saints Go Marching In. Then Benny’s band joined in, and we all marched around the stage. It was so exciting. Louis sounded fantastic. Everybody was having a ball. I'll never forget that scene.
JW: Gene Krupa took over the band for Goodman on that tour. Was he a good boss?
AS: A dream. Only once during the time Gene [pictured] took over as straw boss did he feel the guys in the band were getting a little lax. But the way he spoke to us about it tells you a lot about what a leader and people-person this guy was. Gene said, “Guys, let’s not forget that this is Benny's band and that we have to give a big performance every time we get up there." He never had to say another word. Gene had been a bandleader. He knew. He was beautiful.
JW: Sounds like you wished you had played with Krupa's band.
AS: Oh no. But I do regret not going to see him when he was ill just before he died in 1973. I was going to, but I hesitated. Maybe I still felt like a sideman and that I had no place consoling a bandleader like Gene. But I should have made the effort. We got along very nicely on the tour.
JW: Did Armstrong enjoy the tour?
AS: Louis seemed to enjoy every time he picked up the horn to play. And he was around people who loved him on that tour, and he loved them. It was totally different when Benny wasn’t around.
JW: Did Louis pass along any life lesson to you?
AS: His attitude, his enjoyment of playing, his feeling with people. I never forgot all of that throughout my entire career. At the time, I was amazed and grateful that I had the good fortune to be placed in that kind of company. Working with Louis, you couldn't help but come away a better player and a better person. I think I also became more critical of myself and made sure I performed top notch every night of that tour. I didn’t let down at all. [Photo of Louis Armstrong by John Leongard for Life]
JW: What did you call Armstrong?
AS: Everyone called him Pops. But it took me a while to do that. I was just a kid. As I got comfortable, I started calling him Pops on occasion. It felt good and natural. Like belonging to some special club.
JW: Did you see Armstrong after the tour ended?
AS: Yes, several times. Later in 1953, in October, I was playing at New York's Paramount Theater with Les Baxter's band. Louis was the headliner. After the show, Louis and I sat around talking. His suit was sweated through by the end of a performance. We had our trumpets in our laps. I had an old pre-war Besson trumpet at the time. A lot of guys played that model. It was made in France in the mid-1930s.
JW: How did you come to own it?
AS: I saw it on a club date. I was playing a gold-plated Selmer at the time. It was a beautiful horn. A guy I was working with in the trumpet section on the date was playing a Besson. I asked if I could try it. He said, "Sure." I picked up the horn, popped in my mouthpiece and played it. I loved it and couldn't get its sound out of my head. That night I traded him my gold-plated Selmer for the Besson, which actually looked pretty cruddy. But I loved the sound.
JW: What was wrong with the Besson?
AS: The lacquer had worn off where your left hand grabs the instrument. I didn’t want to fix it up because I was afraid it would change the instrument’s sound. In an effort to prevent the acid on my hands from continuing to eat through the brass, I began painting the worn spots with red nail polish. This way when the polish wore through, I would see the spot and apply more nail polish to prevent my hand from further wearing away the horn.
JW: What did Armstrong think of your Besson when you sat with him at the Paramount?
AS: Louis looked at my horn and made a face. He said to me, “Look at your horn, man.” I looked down and noticed all the red nail polish and the shabby appearance. He said, “You shouldn’t treat your horn like that. Look what good it do for you.” So the next day I ran up to an instrument repair guy in New York and had him fix the dents and silver-plate the horn. When they were finished restoring it, the trumpet looked beautiful.
JW: How did it sound?
AS: A few days later I began to practice on the horn and realized I had ruined a great instrument. I went back to the repair guy and had him strip down the horn. But it remained ruined. So I started playing a Benge horn.
JW: Did you ever tell Armstrong that story?
AS: No. I never would want to make Louis feel sad. Eventually I wound up with a Bach trumpet. Bernie Glow, Marky Markowitz and Mel Davis all played Bach horns. Hey, for all I know Louis may have been trying to tell me to get a new horn rather than restoring the old one [laughs].
Tomorrow, Al talks about a visit to Armstrong's Queens, N.Y., home with trumpet great Bobby Hackett and what he saw on Armstrong's walls and ceiling. Also, Al talks about playing in three of the most dynamic bands of the late 1950s—Dizzy Gillespie's State Department band (1956), Maynard Ferguson's Dream Band (1956) and Johnny Richards' Experiments in Sound band (1958).
JazzWax clip: There are no commercial recordings of the 1953 Benny Goodman-Louis Armstrong tour. But there's a clip of Louis in July 1953. Go here to see Louis Armstrong and His All-Stars playing Struttin' with Some Barbeque. The musicians with Armstrong appear to be Trummy Young (trombone), Bob McCracken (clarinet), Marty Napoleon (piano), Arvell Shaw (bass), and Cozy Cole (drums) with Velma Middleton (the vocalist who's dancing to the music).