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The Most Valuable Greatest of All Time

Posted By Alex Belth On February 1, 2009 @ 2:44 pm In Arts and Culture,Beat of the Day,Bronx Banter,Creative Process,Jazz,Links: Sportswriting,Pop Culture,Sportswriting | Comments Disabled

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 [1]. 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.

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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.”


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[1] Chris Ballard’s SI cover story on LeBron James: http://vault.sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1151216/index.htm

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