"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

The Most Valuable Greatest of All Time

louis1

One of the reasons I enjoy reading Joe Posnanski’s blog is because he relishes talking about sports the way fans do. He takes bar room topics, often in list form, and riffs, with reason and humor and a sense of fun. Who was the best so-and-so, what was the greatest such-and-such. The enthusiasm he shows for this kind of banter is what makes Pos so appealing–and he’s as well-liked a sports writer as I’ve ever met. The sabr-numbers crowd dig him and the mainstream guys like him too.

I was in Pos-mode the other day when I read Chris Ballard’s SI cover story on LeBron James. King James is only 24, a man-child, physical-mental freak of historically great proportions. The guy is twenty someodd pounds shy of 300, for crying out loud. I had no idea he was that big. And he’s so fast. He could play strong safety in the NFL.

Along with Kobe Bryant, James is the greatest player in the game and he’s only getting better. So I thought, when we talk about the greatest basketball players in the post-Jordan Era, it’s got to be Shaq, who you can’t really compare with Jordan because of the position; Kobe, who has won three titles and is certainly great, but not at Jordan’s level, especially off the court in terms of mainstream popularity and influence; and James.

Of course the league has been filled with other iconic players since Jordan level, including Allen Iverson, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett, but not ones whose appeal crossed over to a wider audience. They are just hall of famers in the game. Nobody has reached the level Jordan attained. Jordan followed the greatestness of Magic and Bird seemlessly and he brought it to a crescendo that was peerless.

I thought about guys on that level—Jordan and Tiger Woods, Babe Ruth—as I read an old GQ article by the novelist William Kennedy. In 1956, Kennedy was a kid reporter working for the Albany-Times Union when he interviewed Louis Armstrong, who was in town for a gig. Kennedy went up to his hotel room and talked with him for an hour and a half. He wrote a short nothing piece on it for the paper but saved his notes.

My awe and reverence for Louis continued to grow through the ensuing years, and somewhere in the late 1970s I conducted an after-dinner poll as to who was the most valuable person who had ever lived, and Satchmo won, with five votes. William Faulkner got four, Michangelo three, Beethoven, Muhammad Ali and Tolstoy two each, and Dostoyevsky and Busby Berkeley one each.

…He was a giant in his youth: the first major soloist in jazz, the man to whom every last jazz, swing, modern jazz and rock musician after hism has been and is indebted, some via the grand-larceny route. Music has changed radically since the seminal days of jazz, but Satchmo’s achievement has not been diminished. No one has superseded him in jazz eminence the way Crosby superseded Jolson and Sinatra superseded Crosby and the Beatles superseded Elvis, and I will never know who or what really superseded the Beatles.

Who else, in sports, in the arts, in popular culture, is on this level?

* * * *

When Ken Burns was making his documentary on the history of Jazz there was an article one day in the New York Times about the Louis Armstrong archive at Queens College.   Back when, Armstrong would set up his reel-to-reel recorder and tape himself practicing or recorded conversations in his dressing room after a performance.  The archive had transfered the tapes so I trooped out to Queens to check some of them out.  The tapes were fine–mostly Louis playing his trumpet or telling stories about smoking weed and playing music–but I was really impressed with his fine arts.  He made tons of collages over the years and many of them were terrific.

louis-collage

Armstrong was an unaffected, engaging writer too.  Check out his book about growing up in New Orleans, which he wrote without the help of a ghost writer–it’s a treat.  I also learned about Louis’ love for Swiss Kriss, an herbal laxitive.  In the bathroom of the archive was a framed picture of Louis on the toilet, a make-shift advertisement for friends, for Swiss Kriss.   The picture below isn’t the one I saw there but it’s close enough.

siss-kriss1

Here’s more from Kennedy:

Louis, in those days, was a roving ambassador for Rexall drugstores, hustlin, in particular, two items that had brought him down from 268 pounds a year earlier to his 173 of the moment. One item was Swiss Kriss, an herbal laxative, and the other was Bisma Rex, liquid or tablets. Bisma Rex “cuts the gas,” Satch advised in the three-page document “Lose Weight the ‘Satchmo Way” that he handed out to people like me.

“Gas can take you like that,” he told me. “One time, the doctor’s thinking I had ulcers, and it wasn’t nothing but gas.” A druggist put him onto Bisma Rex, and soon he was fine. “So I nix out this doctor and got to Bisma Rex,” said Louis. “I sent some [tablets] to Eisenhower when he had that stroke. I said to him, ‘Man, you wouldn’t of had that stroke if you had one of these.’”

Even after a night of drinking booze, Bisma Rex and Swiss Kriss were the answer. Satchmo told me he’d given up on beer (“You drink a whole lot of that and nothin’ happens”), but when he drank the other stuff and something did happen, his view was “If you can crawl to that cab and get to your Swiss Kriss, you gonna be all right in the mornin’.”

…He signed my copy of his diet regimen, adding a lien of his wisdom.  With my Ebony pencil, he dedicated the deit on page one “For Bill Kennedy,” and then on the bottom of page three wrote: “P.S. My slogan.  The more you shit, the thinner you’ll git.  No shit.”  And he signed it “Louis Armstrong.”*

And finally, there is this, as Louis told Kennedy:

“What is ‘modern stuff?’” he said. “If it’s good, I listen. To me, there ain’t no such thing as ‘modern stuff. Just a style the agents picked up and spread around. Dizzy and Charlie Parker were foolin’ around playin’ it themselves, and the agents see there’s a pretty good style there and they pick it up. You take [Stan] Kenton, standin’ there with a baton. He doesn’t instill anything in youngsters but bustin’ their lips. In the old days, musicians were taught to preserve lips or nothin’. Anybody can blow a horn and pray to God they’ll hit a note. In the days, we trained. Half these cats don’t warm up. They’re following the wrong people. One of my solos would fracture them. The oldest record I played, they can’t play it…”

Any thoughts of retiring?

“Whatya gonna do? You goin’ in a room and bite your nails? You gonna quit just because you’re straight with money? Money is just something you need. What good is a roomful when you got nothin’ to do with it? Lotsa cats have quit and put that horn down, but they don’t come back. You can live that horn. I go to Chicago and New York and there’s nothin’ but fans in the house. I didn’t know there was a time you’re supposed to stop. What for, as long as you can still hit them on the nose? Music don’t know no age. I feel the same as when I was 28. All my days are the same.”

* On the back of the photograph of Louis on the john is a note: “Leave it all behind you.”

9 comments

1 jonnystrongleg   ~  Feb 1, 2009 4:46 pm

The guys at Free Darko call the Post-Jordan era the "Iverson Era." Not because he superseded Jordan on the court, that was beyond Iverson's immense, though not Jordan-esque, capabilities. But because Iverson heralded the corn-rows and tats and legitimized the hip-hop culture in the NBA. Jordan could never have done that - he had corporate interests. Iverson, as a matter of loyalty to his roots and to his sense of self, crossed over (pun intended) without ever giving up his identity. I think that Iverson's multi-cultural, multi-generational appeal is at least the reverse negative of Jordan's.

And I am watching him play his off to keep Detroit within sniffing distance of the Cavs. Curry kept AI on the bench for the first 5 minutes of the 4th and watched an 8 point lead turn into a 4 point deficit.

2 Diane Firstman   ~  Feb 1, 2009 4:47 pm

When I see LeBron in action ... I see a true athlete .... someone I think could perform well in a multitude of sports. You are right Alex, he COULD play strong safety .... or maybe tight end ....

I wonder if he has any acumen for baseball.

I still posit that Bo Jackson is, pound for pound, the best *athlete* I've witnessed.

LeBron is a close 2nd.

3 Horace Clarke Era   ~  Feb 1, 2009 5:07 pm

I'll read the si piece. Alex, there was an extremely interesting long article on LeBron in Esquire's year end issue (I am pretty sure it was that one ... also had a terrific profile of Steve Jobs). I can't say I came away impressed with the man off-court, as described, but then you remember '23 years old' and start to cut slack. Add (as for so many of these guys) the almost unimaginable degree of wealth and fame, and it gets awfully hard to be 'a good person' as well as a superb gladiator for our entertainment. Is this a reason we like it so much when it DOES appear that some superstar phenom IS a fine human being? A gentleman?

Iverson's a good example of the opposite jonnystrong ... he almost visibly (actually it IS visible!) rejects the 'good guy' look and image. But he's a basketball warrior, and incredibly tough.

4 Mr. OK Jazz TOKYO   ~  Feb 1, 2009 7:54 pm

Love the Armstong article, thanks for that.

Not so sure of other art forms but for jazz at least, it's probably a dead heat between Pops Armstong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis MVGOAT..

Alex, you're a film guy, who is in your Mt. Olympus of cinema? Welles, Eisenstein, Godard, Ozu, Kurosawa...too many to choose, really. At elast in baseball you can go by position..

5 Mr. OK Jazz TOKYO   ~  Feb 1, 2009 8:05 pm

[0] Oh..is it jus me or on a quick first look, doesn't that photo of Louis with the joint make you think "Fela Kuti"??

6 Rich   ~  Feb 1, 2009 9:22 pm

If LeBron is "twenty someodd pounds shy of 300" he could pay LB or DE.

He could own this town as a Knick.

7 Raf   ~  Feb 2, 2009 10:51 am

And I am watching him play his off to keep Detroit within sniffing distance of the Cavs.

It's things like that, that make me enjoy watching Iverson. While I don't like the antics sometimes, I can't doubt that he comes to play.

8 hoppystone   ~  Feb 2, 2009 11:21 am

Re Satch and the toilet, there's a great story; not sure I have it completely right, but this is the gist. If anyone can corroborate or correct it, great.

Satch was staying in a rundown hotel on a really hot, sticky night, and the place was overrun with flies everywhere. Somebody knocked on his door during the night, and oddly found him sitting in his room very content, seemingly making no effort to beat the heat or the flies. And oddly, there were no flies present in his room, but there was a really foul stench.
They opened up a closet door, and found a hot, steaming turd in the closet covered with flies. And Satch said something to the effect of,'"well, at least there ain't no flies on me!".

Personally, I don't think there's any comparison for what any modern athlete has done with what Satch did for not only jazz, but popular music as well. He was more gigantic than anyone. Maybe the Babe compares.
And, as evidenced by the above story, he had an uncommon ingenuity for solving mundane problems as well. Let's see AI or MJ come up with THAT solution!

9 Dockside Courtesies   ~  Feb 2, 2009 6:04 pm

That collage is awesome. Rauschenberg & Basquiat got nothing on Satchmo.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver