On July 5, 2013, my oldest son and I visited for the first time the Louis Armstrong House Museum on 107th Street in Corona, Queens. Josh was getting married in nearby Jackson Heights the following day, the forty-second anniversary of Armstrong’s death. Our guide was Harvey Fisher, a retired guy about my age who spoke of Armstrong as he might of a fondly remembered uncle. Fisher shared his enthusiasm for Philip Larkin and for Larkin’s enthusiasm for Armstrong. The music, my son’s company, the imminent wedding, good conversation, a sunny sky, the spirits of Armstrong and Larkin – all fused to form a memorable moment. It’s not a stretch to call it a “spot in time,” in Wordsworth’s phrase.
Those who think a blues must be mournful are mistaken. Consider Armstrong’s recording of W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” from 1929. In a March 1968 review collected in All What Jazz (1985), Larkin calls it “the hottest record ever made,” and continues: “Starting in medias res, with eight bars of the lolloping tangana release, it soon resolves into a genial up-tempo polyphony, with [J.C.] Higginbotham, [Red] Allen and Charlie Holmes observable behind the trumpet lead.” In his History of Jazz in America (1952), Barry Ulanov cites Armstrong’s recording and defines a tangara as “a kind of habanera or tango beat consisting of a dotted quarter, an eighth-note, and two quarter-notes.”
Three years later in the Daily Telegraph, after the trumpeter’s death, Larkin devoted a column to him:
“Armstrong was an artist of world stature, an American Negro slum child who spoke to the heart of Greenlander and Japanese alike. At the same time he was a humble, hard-working man who night after night set out to do no more than ‘please the people’, to earn his fee, to pay back the audience for coming.”