William Palmer, Louis Armstrong, Mark Handley, Slightly Foxed Issue 7

Natural the Way He Is

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Here are two views of the same man: ‘an artist of Flaubertian purity, and a character of exceptional warmth and goodness’; and, ‘He was . . . rough, uncivilized, naïve and ignorant.’

Here is the man himself, writing about his boyhood:

Morris had the coal route in the Red Light District . . . hard coal – which the young white prostitutes used in their Cribs’ one room, to keep warm. They would keep the fire burning . . . and dim it down to a mellow burn, so they could stand at the doors of their cribs and work and work, in their Silk Teddies, calling in the tricks . . .

The first quotation is from Philip Larkin, the second from the American biographer James Lincoln Collier, and they are both talking about Louis Armstrong. The third passage is from Louis’s own previously uncollected writings, Louis Armstrong, in His Own Words.

It is a fair bet to say that, for most people under the age of 50, and those who are not jazz fans, the name Louis Armstrong is one associated – if recognized at all – with the sound of his voice (or, far worse, pastiches of it) singing ‘It’s a Wonderful World’ or ‘Hello Dolly’ on the backing tracks of commercials. A dimmer memory may come of a jovial old cove appearing in the film High Society, dueting with Bing Crosby and tooting a few notes on his trumpet. Even when Louis died in 1971, few of those who genuinely mourned the loss of a great entertainer had any knowledge of his true history or musical worth.

We are lucky that one of Louis’s ways of relaxing when he was on the road with his band was to write, either by hand or hammering on a portable typewriter. Born in New Orleans in 1901, he had a fairly rudimentary education, but his style manages to communicate the same charm and warmth as his music. He used capitalization, quotation marks, dashes and single or double underlining (represented by italics in the text) in a way that achi

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About the contributor

William Palmer is a novelist and poet. He has written six novels; the latest is The India House, published this year by Jonathan Cape.

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