Ricky Riccardi's much anticipated What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong's Later Years (Pantheon) is out today. Ricky is an Armstrong scholar and archivist for the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens, N.Y. He also writes the terrific blog The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong. [Pictured: Ricky Riccardi]
Here's a taste from Ricky's new book:
Armstrong's longtime physician Alexander Schiff agreed that the engagement [at the Waldorf-Astoria in March 1971] should have been canceled. "Even at the end, when his last date was at the Waldorf-Astoria here in New York City, we wanted to cancel that contract," Schiff said. "But he said, 'Oh, you can't do that to me. This is the first big engagement I have in New York City at the best hotel, and I'm gonna finish that contract.' "He was very, very sick at that time, and he had lost so much weight that people didn't even recognize him."
Writing about the performance a few months later, Richard Meryman inferred Armstrong probably saw it as too important of a gig to cancel. "He had to be helped on and off the stage," Meryman recounted. "To Louis, no doubt, that date—his first at the Waldorf—was a kind of pinnacle, a very specific measurement of the distance from squalid James Alley. For that—and for him—I am much more happy than sad."
As the Waldorf run continued, Armstrong's trumpet playing suffered. "His playing the trumpet was—I wouldn't say 'shameful,' but it wasn't Louie" Schiff said. "It was a different person playing that trumpet." [Clarinetist] Joe Muranyi, too, remembered Armstrong's chops deserting him on a recorded version of Indiana. "He plays Indiana and he's got no chops at all, he's physically in terrible shape," he says about the tape. "And the old man, I cried when I heard it a couple of times and I couldn't play it anymore. He plays Indiana with all the mistakes, and he tries to make something happen with the mistakes. And it's, you know, he wouldn't give up."
Armstrong was so determined to keep playing [at the Waldorf] that he focused all of his offstage time on resting... Nothing would stop Armstrong, as he lived to perform. If he couldn't entertain, he couldn't be happy. His health already had kept him from doing what he loved for almost two years, and it had depressed him tremendously. Now back onstage, he was determined to stay there, even it it killed him.
Armstrong died on July 6, 1971, less than four months after the Waldorf-Astoria gig, his last performance appearance.
JazzWax pages: You'll find Ricky Riccardi's What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong's Later Years (Pantheon) here.
JazzWax clip: Here's Louis Armstrong on comedian Flip Wilson's TV variety show in 1970...