Louis Armstrong On Keeping His Chops

You’ve got to be good or as bad as the devil. ... Even if we had two, three days off I still had to blow that horn a few hours to keep up the chops.

Michael Aisner

Interview by

& James R. Stein
June 24, 1964, Highland Park, Illinois

Reel-to-reel tape recorder

Originally aired on WNTH, Winnetka, Illinois




[Music: Louis Armstrong “Mack the Knife”]

Michael Aisner: Here’s a question you’ve probably heard about six million times: where did you first pick up the name “Satchmo”?

Louis Armstrong: You know, musicians in my day had nicknames. My name was “Satchel Mouth,” like a doctor’s satchel. When I went to England this fellow was strictly English, and he was editor of the newspaper there. He shook my hand after I got off the train and said, “Hello, Satchmo.” So right away my trombone player said, “Mmm, the man thinks you have mo’ mouth than Satchel Mouth.” So I was stuck with it, and it turned out all right.

[Music: “Mack the Knife” continues]

James Stein: I’m James R. Stein.

Michael Aisner: I’m Michael Aisner.

James Stein: I was 14 and a half.

Michael Aisner: And I was 15 years old, and James and I went off to interview Louis Armstrong for our high school radio station, WNTH. New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois.

[Music: “Mack the Knife” continues]

Michael Aisner: To set the stage, it was June 24, 1964. We’re at Ravinia. It’s an outdoor concert. The place is sold out. We get to go backstage, so we’re watching his concert.

[Music: “Mack the Knife” continues]

James Stein: I remember it was a hot summer night, but for some reason he was speaking to us in his underwear.

Michael Aisner: He was definitely in his underwear. I remember the tank top. And I also remember—

James Stein: I wasn’t sure if it was Jockey or boxer.

Michael Aisner: It was boxers.

James Stein: Boxers?

Michael Aisner: Boxers. Louis Armstrong wore boxers.

[Music: “Mack the Knife” continues]

Michael Aisner: He was literally fending off the Chicago Sun Times, and the Daily News, WGN. I remember that. And he would just say out the doors, “Excuse me, but I’m in an interview.” And he gave us an outrageous amount of time. Twenty minutes, sat there with a couple of kids.

[Tape recorder clicks]

Michael Aisner: Mr. Armstrong: I’ll begin the questioning by asking you just when, where and how did you begin your show business career?

Louis Armstrong: As a youngster in the little orphanage home in New Orleans, I was the bugler of the institution. When I got to be around 13 or 14 years old, they took me off the bugle and put me in the little brass band. Finally they made me the leader of the little band on the corner at— So we got so good we could play “When the Saints Go Marching In” for the boys to March to church every Sunday. (Laughs)

[Music: Louis Armstrong “When the Saints Go Marching In”]

James Stein: Who would you say was essentially responsible for launching your professional career?

Louis Armstrong: Well, I’d say myself because I was determined. I had a chance to play with the best musicians that were coming through because I was pretty good myself or else they wouldn’t have tolerated with me, you know. You’ve got to be good or bad as the devil. (Laughs)

[Music: “When the Saints Go Marching In” continues]

Louis Armstrong: You can’t take it for granted. Even if we have two, three days off I still have to blow that horn a few hours to keep up the chops. I mean I’ve been playing 50 years, and that’s what I’ve been doing in order to keep in that groove there.

James Stein: You still got to practice?

Louis Armstrong: I’ve got to warm up every day at least an hour, you know.

[Music: “When the Saints Go Marching In” continues]

Louis Armstrong: You either have it or you don’t. You play your horn just like you sing a song or a hymn. If it’s in your heart, you express yourself in the tune. I’ve been playing music so long. What else is there to do? What can you prove at 64? I mean as far as trying to create what? You know? The best I can do is stay happy.

Michael Aisner: We hope you stay happy for a very, very long time. Thank you very much, Mr. Armstrong.

Louis Armstrong: Okay.

Michael Aisner: Pleasure interviewing you.

[Music: Louis Armstrong “Dream a Little Dream”]

James Stein: I want to wring my neck back then because, you know, I wasn’t involved in a conversation with the man. I was asking him questions, and sometimes I wasn’t even listening to his answers. I wish that I could have done some following up like I might do now and actually engage him in a conversation. But, because we were so nervous, I think you kind of stick to the script.

[Music: “Dream a Little Dream,” continues]

Michael Aisner: These little pre-pubescent sounding kids and this guy with this gravelly, incredible voice, but he gave us time and respected us.

[Music: “Dream a Little Dream” continues to end]

Music Louis Armstrong “Mack the Knife” | “When the Saints Go Marching In” | “Dream a Little Dream”