Monday, October 29, 2012

The Louis Armstrong House and the Mystery of King Oliver's Grave

I know. I know. It's been over a year since my last post, but a lot has happened since then. First and foremost, I got married! That took a lot of planning on its own. Between gigs and my day job, it hasn't bean easy to find time to blog but I'm happy to be back. As I have a backlog of jazz trumpet-related things I've been meaning to write about, I thought I'd combine a couple of them into one. Since moving to NYC three years ago, I have made a point to check out as many jazz landmarks as I can. In this post, I'll be talking about two separate trips to opposite ends of the city.

My first trip might seem a little morbid at first, but it actually proved to be pretty interesting. I'm talking about my trip to the Woodlawn Cemetery. One beautiful summer afternoon, I decided to take the 4 train up into the Bronx to the last stop, which happens to be right near the entrance of one of the largest cemeteries in New York City. At over 400 acres, Woodlawn Cemetary and is the resting place for more than 300,000 people, including some very famous jazz trumpeters. The most well-known gravesite probably belongs to Miles Davis, and it is a mecca of sorts for many jazz fans. I don't need to go on about Miles's contributions to 20th Century American music. I will say that it is worth coming to to visit this site if you are looking for a peaceful day of contemplation. The gravestone is located in a shady area just a few feet from Duke Ellington's grave. From what I have been told, the music on the bottom of the tombstone is from Davis's solo on "Solar".

But today's blog isn't actually about Miles Davis. It's about two of the most important trumpeters in the history of jazz. Both grew up in the Big Easy and made their final resting place in the Big Apple. I'm talking about Joe "King" Oliver and Louis Armstrong. As we all know, Joe Oliver was the mentor to Louis Armstrong. He was personally responsible for bringing Armstrong to Chicago, putting him in the national spotlight, and starting him on the path to stardom. But Oliver was a monster player in his own right, and is integral to the history of jazz.

The Mystery of King Oliver's Grave

The reason I mention Oliver is that I had been told he was buried at Woodlawn. Imagine my surprise when, after searching for an hour to find his grave, I came across a small inconspicuous headstone in a back corner of the cemetery. There I saw the name Joseph "King" Oliver on the same marker as a 5-year-old boy who died 13 years earlier named Godfrey Emmett Moody. Who was Godfrey Emmett Moody, and how was he related to Joe Oliver? I had to get to the bottom of this mystery.

The story begins in the last years of Oliver's life. Still in New York City, Oliver continued to lead groups and record, but dental issues made it painful to play the cornet. To make things worse, he eventually lost his entire life savings to a collapsed bank in Chicago during the Great Depression. The final straw occurred when his tour bus broke down in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Oliver didn't have money for repairs, so he called his friend and booking agent Frank Dilworth, Jr. to pick him up. Dilworth brought Oliver to Savannah, GA, and he ended up settling there until his death. By that point, he had lost most of his teeth, was unable to play the cornet, and had to work wherever he could in order to make ends meet. This included selling produce from a fruit stand, and even working as a janitor/attendant at pool hall. Sadly, Oliver died in a rooming house on April 10, 1938 at the age of 52 of arteriosclerosis. His condition was exacerbated by the fact that he had stopped taking his blood pressure medication due to a lack of money.

So how did Oliver end up in Woodlawn Cemetery? Cut to the 1990's when Bruce Gast, Treasurer of the New Jersey Jazz Society, took it upon himself to find Oliver's final resting place. He had heard that Oliver was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in an unmarked grave. After some investigation, he discovered that Oliver's wife (who was separated from him at the time of his death) was able to pay the transport and burial costs from Savannah to New York, but could not afford a separate grave or a headstone. As a result, he was buried in the same grave as a young child who had died years earlier. A gravestone already existed for the child, but the cemetery would not allow two stones per grave. Generously, the family of Godfrey Emmett Moody agreed to allow the New Jersey Jazz Society to remove the original headstone in 1994 and replace it with one that would include both names. (For more information on this fascinating story, click here.)

The last years of Joe Oliver's life is an almost cliche ending to the story of so many great artists who die in obscurity only to be celebrated decades later. Even in the modern era this story continues to play out. I am reminded of Frank Foster, who passed away only last year. When he suffered a stroke in 2001, he could no longer travel or perform. Even with the help of his fans and fellow musicians, he struggled to earn enough money to live at a time in his life when he needed it the most. NPR actually interviewed Foster about his financial struggles as an aging jazz musician. You can hear it in its entirety here. If you would like to assist other musicians who are in the same boat, I urge you to visit the Jazz Foundation of America website, as they are a national organization dedicated to helping elder jazz musicians.

The Louis Armstrong House

Part of the legacy of Joe Oliver is his role as a mentor to Louis Armstrong, which brings us to my next trip. After a long ride on the 7 train out to Corona Queens, I found myself at 34-56 107th Street near, the former home of none other than Pops himself. Known today as The Louis Armstrong House, this home belonged to Armstrong and his wife Lucille from 1943 until 1971 when he passed away. The home was given to the city for the explicit purpose that it be turned into a museum honoring Armstrong's life. The Building was designated a New York City Landmark in 1988 and a National Historic Landmark in 1976.

Without a doubt, the Louis Armstrong House is my favorite jazz landmark in the city. The home has been painstakingly restored to look just as it did when Armstrong lived there. When I first walked into the museum, I was greeted to a gift shop run by the museum's friendly staff. They also had a small exhibit in the back with memorabilia, including Louis's balanced action Selmer horn!

But the real magic happened when I entered the house itself. After purchasing my tickets, a curator lead our group up the front stairs and we entered Louis's living room. (I was instructed that there is no photography in the house, so I am unable to provide images.) To my surprise, the room looked just as it must have the day Armstrong died, complete with worn furniture. After a short introduction, the curator touched a button on the wall and I heard Louis's voice as it was recorded years ago in that very room. If you aren't aware, Armstrong loved to take his reel-to-reel recorder with him everywhere, and fortunately for us, he captured many hours of his personal life on tape. As I listened to his voice, I had the eerie feeling that I had walked into a time warp and that Armstrong himself might walk into the room at any moment.

We slowly made out way through the entire house, and in each room we heard a recording from Louis's personal life. Several of the rooms still had many of Lucille Armstrong's quirky design choices, including a walk-in closet with silver foil wallpaper and a Jetsons-like kitchen with turquoise blue cabinets. According to our guide, this color was chosen because of Lucille Armstrong's turquoise Cadillac. She loved the car so much, she ordered the same color paint directly from GM to use on her space-age metal cabinets. But my favorite room in the house was Armstrong's den. Unlike the state-of-the-art kitchen, the den was a small modest room with wood panelling and stacks of Armstrong's records and reel-to-reel tapes. It was clear that this room was Armstrong's personal space. I could just imagine him sitting in the den practicing with the window open as the neighborhood kids stood below listening.

In the end, the Louis Armstrong House confirmed my feelings on the importance of Armstrong's legacy as both a musician and a human being. Musical contributions aside, Louis Armstrong’s greatest legacy was the mark he left on the world as a human being. He devoted his entire life to traveling the globe to share his musical artistry and exuberance with people in dozens of countries and from all walks of life. He was a true musical humanitarian. The Louis Armstrong House is the perfect monument to a man who could connect with people from the entire spectrum of humanity, from the bawdy inhabitants of Storyville to members of European royalty. While he could have resided in a penthouse apartment, he chose to live with people in a working class Corona neighborhood. Although I didn't get a chance to visit it on my trip, it is also worth noting that Louis Armstrong was buried in Flushing Cemetery, which also contains the gravesite for Dizzy Gillespie.

To tie things all together, I leave you now with the interview below. In it, Armstrong talks candidly about his time with King Oliver's band. For a while, the lives of Armstrong and Oliver followed the same trajectory. Both worked their way from the rough streets of New Orleans to the dance halls of Chicago and New York. But the ultimate destinies of these two musicians could not have been more different.

The Louis Armstrong House
Woodlawn Cemetery