Great Encounters #13: Why did Louis Armstrong leave Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra in 1925 and return to Chicago?

January 29th, 2005

 

Great Encounters 

Book excerpts that chronicle famous encounters among twentieth-century cultural icons

 *

 

Why did Louis Armstrong leave Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra in 1925 and return to Chicago?  Jeffrey Magee, author of The Uncrowned King of Swing: Fletcher Henderson and Big Band Jazz, writes about this landmark decision in the history of music, and reminds us of Armstrong’s not-so-hip farewell gift to Henderson.

 

______________

Excerpted from

The Uncrowned King of Swing: Fletcher Henderson and Big Band Jazz

by

Jeffrey Magee

______________________

     By the fall of 1925, then, the musical synergy in Henderson’s band had reached unprecedented intensity. Henderson continued to hold court for dancers at the Roseland, reaching thousands of other listeners through its radio wire, and recording for a variety of record labels both with his full orchestra and with selected members of the band as accompanists for blues singers. And there were also continuous bookings in the summer between seasons at the Roseland, large crowds in venues up and down the East Coast, and consistently hyperbolic press coverage. By his own account, Armstrong enjoyed himself and fit in musically and socially. “I had ‘Wedged’ in there just that much,” Armstrong wrote later, capturing rather well the new way that Redman had learned to integrate Armstrong inside the strain. He later referred to the band members as “those fine boys who treated me just swell.”

Why, then, in November 1925, some thirteen months after arriving in New York, did Armstrong leave Henderson and return to Chicago? Several reasons have been offered. Armstrong’s biographers tend to emphasize reasons for dissatisfaction. James Lincoln Collier finds much “in the situation….that made Armstrong feel uncomfortable.” Laurence Bergreen cites Armstrong’s “all too brief solos” and “mounting dissatisfaction” with Henderson’s band. And Gary Giddins states, “The stopper was still on….The full radiance of Louis’s music and personality was simmering, waiting for release.”

Armstrong, admittedly, provided some fuel for that perspective. Much later, he reflected that “Fletcher didn’t dig me like Joe Oliver. He had a million dollar talent in his band and he never thought to let me sing.” It’s almost true: the only Armstrong vocal among his records with Henderson consists of a brief tag ending in “Everybody Loves My Baby.” Yet the singing issue appears to be a red herring, since Armstrong noted elsewhere that Oliver didn’t let him sing either, but he does not suggest that as a reason he left Oliver’s band to go to Henderson. Armstrong also indicates that discipline started to break down and the “cats” got “careless with the music.” Yet all together, Armstrong’s published memories of the band leave an at least ambivalent legacy, and they are actually more glowing than bitter.

Other, nonmusical, reasons also account for Armstrong’s departure. Among them are that he was homesick for Chicago, where he had a cadre of fellow musicians from New Orleans; that he missed his wife, the pianist Lil Hardin Armstrong (“He used to write to his wife every day,” recalled Kaiser Marshall); and that she was pressing her husband to ratchet up his career and become a bandleader with star billing and a salary to match. Lil coupled a more classically oriented musicianship and a stronger entrepreneurial streak than her husband. She had joined Louis in New York soon after his arrival there but then returned to Chicago. There, the “bands were always changing,” she said.” So I went to the Dreamland and I said: ‘I want to put a band in, I want to bring my husband back from New York, and I want him to be featured, I want $75 a week for him, and I want his name out there in front….’ I had him make a sign  — ‘Louis Armstrong, the World’s Greatest Trumpet Player.'” Having arranged that, she continued to urge Louis to return home, but he resisted. As she recalled, she then issued an ultimatum – “if you’re not here by this date, then don’t come at all” — and Armstrong relented. But even Lil conceded that Louis “kind of liked playing with Fletcher. He wasn’t anxious to be a star.” Armstrong appears to have seen the situation as less a career choice than a cut-and-dried personal matter. As he later wrote, “I had to choose between — My Wife + Fletcher Henderson’s band. After all — I chose’d being with my wife.”

The night before Armstrong left for Chicago, Henderson threw a farewell party at Small’s Paradise in Harlem. Thanks to Thomas Brothers’s publication of selected writings that reveal Armstrong’s unedited, unvarnished voice, we can now read the story of that party as written by its guest of honor, complete with Armstrong’s inimitably playful syntax, punctuation, and capitalization style as performed on his second favorite instrument, the typewriter:

All the boys in the Band hated to see me leave — And I hated like hell to leave them too…We all had a wonderful time. We had a Special reserved Table — And the Place was packed + Jammed. And after Fletcher made his ‘Speech and I made my little ‘Speech — most of my ‘Speech’ was Thanks to Fletcher for the wonders he had done for me — etc. Then the whole Band sat in and played several fine arrangements for the Folks — Another Thrilling moment for me. — After we finished playing we went back to our table and started drinking some more ‘liquor. — I gotten so ‘Drunk until Buster Bailey and I decided to go home. And just as I went to tell Fletcher Henderson Goodbye as I was leaving New York for Chicago the next morning, I said – “Fletcher ‘Thanks for being so kind to me.” And — er — wer — er — wer — And before I knew it — I had “Vomit” (“Puked“) directly into Fletcher’s “Bosom.” All over his Nice Clean ‘Tuxedo Shirt. ‘Oh — I’d gotten so sick all of a sudden — I was afraid Fletcher would get sore at me, but all he said — “Aw – that’s allright ‘Dip'” (my nick name at that time [short for “Dipper Mouth”]). Fletcher told Buster Bailey to take me home and put me to ‘bed, so Buster did. The next morning — ‘my ‘Headache and all — Boarded the Train for Chicago.

Armstrong’s exit, it appears, was even more unceremonious than his entrance thirteen months earlier. Had Armstrong stayed in New York, it is hard to know how he, Don Redman, and Henderson’s band might have developed differently. Those final recordings of “T.N.T.” and “Carolina Stomp” suggest that perhaps Redman’s arranging might have explored more new territory. But soon, Armstrong was back in Chicago, playing in the band Lil had organized at the Dreamland, becoming “the Talk of Chicago,” and making records as leader of the Hot Five, a group that included Lil and his old New Orleans friends clarinetist Johnny Dodds, trombonist Edward “Kid” Ory, and banjo player Johnny St. Cyr. Judging by the now separate paths of Armstrong and Henderson’s band over the next two years, Armstrong’s gain from returning to familiar people and places was greater than Henderson’s loss. For, as Allen has noted, after Henderson’s New Orleans trumpeter left town, his New York band began climbing “to greater heights.”

The Uncrowned King of Swing: Fletcher Henderson and Big Band Jazz

by

Jeffrey Magee

__________

Excerpted from The Uncrowned King of Swing: Fletcher Henderson and Big Band Jazz, by Jeffrey Magee. Copyright © 2005  by Jeffrey Magee. Excerpted by permission of Oxford University Press.  All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Share this:

Comment on this article:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

In This Issue

painting of Clifford Brown by Paul Lovering
A Collection of Jazz Poetry — Spring/Summer, 2024 Edition...In this, the 17th major collection of jazz poetry published on Jerry Jazz Musician, 50 poets from all over the world again demonstrate the ongoing influence the music and its associated culture has on their creative lives.

(featuring the art of Paul Lovering)

Publisher’s Notes

photo by Rhonda Dorsett
On turning 70, and contemplating the future of Jerry Jazz Musician...

The Sunday Poem

photo via RawPixel
"23 Poets remember their father…"

This space on Sunday is generally reserved for a single poet to read one of their works, but this week’s issue -Father’s Day – features 23 poets who weigh in on the complexity of their relationship with their father, revealing love, warmth, regret, sorrow – and in many cases a strong connection to a common love of music.

Click here to read previous editions of The Sunday Poem

Poetry

Proceeding From Behind: A collection of poems grounded in the rhythmic, relating to the remarkable, by Terrance Underwood...A relaxed, familiar comfort emerges from the poet Terrance Underwood’s language of intellectual acuity, wit, and space – a feeling similar to one gets while listening to Monk, or Jamal, or Miles. I have long wanted to share his gifts as a poet on an expanded platform, and this 33-poem collection – woven among his audio readings, music he considers significant to his story, and brief personal comments – fulfills my desire to do so.

Interview

The Marvelettes/via Wikimedia Commons
Interview with Laura Flam and Emily Sieu Liebowitz, authors of But Will You Love Me Tomorrow?: An Oral History of the 60’s Girl Groups...Little is known of the lives and challenges many of the young Black women who made up the Girl Groups of the ‘60’s faced while performing during an era rife with racism, sexism, and music industry corruption. The authors discuss their book’s mission to provide the artists an opportunity to voice their experiences so crucial to the evolution of popular music.

Book Excerpt

An excerpt from Emily Jon Tobias’ MONARCH: Stories, and a reflection on our friendship

In Memoriam

photo via Wikimedia Commons
A few words about Willie Mays...Thoughts about the impact Willie Mays had on baseball, and on my life.

Art

photo of Archie Shepp by Giovanni Piesco
The Photographs of Giovanni Piesco: Archie Shepp...photos of the legendary saxophonist (and his rhythm section for the evening), taken at Amsterdam's Bimhuis on May 13, 2001.

Poetry

The cover to Joni Mitchell's 1976 album Hejira [Asylum]; photo by Norman Seeff
“Fort Macleod, Alberta, Canada” – a poem (for Joni Mitchell) by Juan Mobili

Click here to read more poetry published in Jerry Jazz Musician

Calling All Poets!

News about a Jerry Jazz Musician printed jazz poetry anthology, and information about submitting your poetry for consideration

Short Fiction

pickpik.com
Short Fiction Contest-winning story #65 — “Ballad” by Lúcia Leão...The author’s award-winning story is about the power of connections – between father and child, music and art, and the past, present and future.

Click here to read more short fiction published on Jerry Jazz Musician

Interview

photo of Louis Jordan by William Gottlieb/Library of Congress
Interview with Tad Richards, author of Jazz With a Beat: Small Group Swing, 1940 – 1960...Richards makes the case that small group swing players like Illinois Jacquet, Louis Jordan (pictured) and Big Jay McNeely played a legitimate jazz that was a more pleasing listening experience to the Black community than the bebop of Parker, Dizzy, and Monk. It is a fascinating era, filled with major figures and events, and centered on a rigorous debate that continues to this day – is small group swing “real jazz?”

Playlist

Sonny Rollins' 1957 pianoless trio recording "Way Out West"
“The Pianoless Tradition in Modern Jazz” – a playlist by Bob Hecht...an extensive playlist built around examples of prominent pianoless modern jazz.

Feature

Excerpts from David Rife’s Jazz Fiction: Take Two – Vol. 2: “Fathers in Jazz Fiction”...A substantial number of novels and stories with jazz music as a component of the story have been published over the years, and the scholar David J. Rife has written short essay/reviews of them.  In this second edition featuring excerpts from his book, Rife writes about four novels/short stories that include stories involving relationships between fathers and children.

Trading Fours with Douglas Cole

The cover of Wayne Shorter's 2018 Blue Note album "Emanon"
Trading Fours, with Douglas Cole, No. 20: “Notes on Genius...This edition of the writer’s poetic interpretations of jazz recordings and film is written in response to the music of Wayne Shorter.

Click here to read previous editions of Trading Fours with Douglas Cole

In Memoriam

Hans Bernhard (Schnobby), CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
“Remembering Joe Pass: Versatile Jazz Guitar Virtuoso” – by Kenneth Parsons...On the 30th anniversary of the guitarist Joe Pass’ death, Kenneth Parsons reminds readers of his brilliant career

Book Excerpt

Book excerpt from Jazz with a Beat: Small Group Swing 1940 – 1960, by Tad Richards

Click here to read more book excerpts published on Jerry Jazz Musician

Poetry

painting by Vaino Kunnas
Jazz…in eight poems...A myriad of styles and experiences displayed in eight thoughtful, provocative poems…

Jazz History Quiz #172

photo of Teddy Wilson by William Gottlieb
Teddy Wilson once said this about a fellow jazz pianist:

“That man had the most phenomenal musical gifts I’ve ever heard. He was miraculous. It’s like someone hitting a home run every time he picks up a bat. We became such fast friends that I was allowed to interrupt him anytime he was playing at the house parties in Toledo we used to make every night. When I asked him, he would stop and replay a passage very slowly, showing me the fingering on some of those runs of his. You just couldn’t figure them out by ear at the tempo he played them.”

Who is the pianist he is describing?

Community

photo via Picryl.com
.“Community Bookshelf, #2"...a twice-yearly space where writers who have been published on Jerry Jazz Musician can share news about their recently authored books. This edition includes information about books published within the last six months or so…

Contributing Writers

Click the image to view the writers, poets and artists whose work has been published on Jerry Jazz Musician, and find links to their work

Coming Soon

A new collection of jazz poetry; a collection of jazz haiku; a new Jazz History Quiz; short fiction; poetry; photography; interviews; playlists; and lots more in the works...

Interview Archive

Eubie Blake
Click to view the complete 22 year archive of Jerry Jazz Musician interviews, including those recently published with Richard Carlin and Ken Bloom on Eubie Blake (pictured); Richard Brent Turner on jazz and Islam; Alyn Shipton on the art of jazz; Shawn Levy on the original queens of standup comedy; Travis Atria on the expatriate trumpeter Arthur Briggs; Kitt Shapiro on her life with her mother, Eartha Kitt; Will Friedwald on Nat King Cole; Wayne Enstice on the drummer Dottie Dodgion; the drummer Joe La Barbera on Bill Evans; Philip Clark on Dave Brubeck; Nicholas Buccola on James Baldwin and William F. Buckley; Ricky Riccardi on Louis Armstrong; Dan Morgenstern and Christian Sands on Erroll Garner; Maria Golia on Ornette Coleman.

Site Archive