and I Talked with Louis Armstrong
The Journey Up North along Musical Highways and Byways
The Music of the Spheres is real Up North and so is the Music of the Lakes. Not just the Great Lakes, but the thousands of smaller lakes that also owe their existence to the glaciers. Big Water, Music, and wine by the fireside all provide an antidote to the sorrows and challenges that accompany life.
Music is a big part of the Up North frame of mind, and a big part of my journey and my joy.
In the immediate area we have a group called Jazz North that performs regularly, always to a sizable audience.
The bass player is a friend – Glenn Wolff, a well-known illustrator of many books – and another music lover. Many musicians of note hail from and frequently perform Up North – Jay Kott, Josh Davis, E Minor, Billy Strings, May Erlewine, The Accidentals, Robin Lee Berry, Dominic Fortuna, Blake Elliott, and dozens more of exceptional talent.
If that isn’t enough, Interlochen Music Academy, known around the world, is next door, bringing musical performances from everywhere, in every genre’. Recent performers have included Sheryl Crowe, Steely Dan, Josh Grobin, Bela Fleck, Michael McDonald, Diana Krall, Vince Gill, Gordon Lightfoot, the Doobie Brothers – well, you get the idea.
But I’m Ahead of the Story
I grew up with music. Mom was a big band fan and played Basie, Ellington, the Dorsey’s, Glen Miller, Benny Goodman, Ella on our old Philco (78s only),
and then a Zenith record player (for the “new” LPs) –
And Louis Armstrong – especially Louis. Louis was her favorite by far and as his music came out on LPs she would add it as petty cash allowed.
Classical music and show tunes played when the jazz needed a break.
Age seven found me plinking around and teaching myself basic scales on my recently departed grandmother’s piano – an upright of reasonable breeding, but questionable tuning. I had found a new passion, and I played and practiced from old music books I found.
Mom finally dipped into our meager funds and brought in our local tuner, Mr. Campbell, to restore the sound – probably to save her own ears. After he had finished, I was called upon to play, and I pounded out a boogie-woogie number I had been practicing. Mr. Campbell, not one for many words, looked at Mom and gruffly stated – “The kid has a great sense of rhythm. Get him some lessons.”
In a few weeks Mom had negotiated lessons with the elderly but very capable Mrs. Pearl Jones, who still performed around the county. She was noted not only for her music but also for never wearing any color except purple. She had retired from teaching, but because we were neighbors and shopped at the corner grocery her husband owned, she agreed to take me on. Payment was $2 per lesson, plus I had to weed her gardens.
Piano practice continued; I performed occasionally in public, and then started playing trumpet in the school band. Frankly, I was above average but well below excellent with both. I loved it. Rhythm was still my strong suit, probably should have been a drummer! My mix of logical brain pursuits and creative brain activities became well established.
Around 1960 the Zenith died. After a couple of months without her jazz, and with her return to the workforce, Mom bought an Emerson stereo console on credit from the local appliance store. I had a paper route by then and put two dollars a week into the effort. Music was back, and in stereo hi-fi!
I went to hear live performances whenever I could, which meant whenever it was free, or at a cost I could cover from my grocery store bagger earnings. But our town had a university and terrific performances were frequently on tap.
And once or twice, a visit to the Palmer House in Chicago treated me to a first class performance.
On to Michigan State, and music was abundant. I couldn’t afford much, but spent some of my Sunday dinner money on Brubeck, The Beach Boys and Lightfoot. Free music was available at the kivas and snack rooms in the dorms or at the Student Union Building.
I ended up with a roommate who was a gifted musician who went on to head up the Jazz program at another college, and with his skills we formed a five-piece jazz ensemble. We got as far as performing in a couple of the kivas ourselves – but then he got married (Mother Nature had called), the drummer flunked out (I think the creeping marijuana culture contributed) and I found myself listening to music rather than performing. Which was fine with me actually, the music I was discovering was good.
In high school I never embraced Elvis, even though I saw his first TV appearances on Show Time in 1956, hosted by the Dorsey Brothers (not on Ed Sullivan as many believe), nor The Beatles. In fact, I was an insufferable nerd to my friends when Louis Armstrong bumped The Beatles out of #1 on the charts with “Hello Dolly” – for 12 weeks no less!
But in college I discovered Simon & Garfunkel, Brazil ’66, The Who, Cream, The Doors, Moody Blues and many others, broadening my range of musical cultures. Eventually I even fell for The Beatles, but not until White Album, when their music got really interesting.
I couldn’t get enough music, and talent just drifted into town because of MSU. Josh White Jr., Dion, Brubeck, David Buskin – if you haven’t heard of him, and most haven’t, he wrote many songs for Peter, Paul & Mary (who also came to town), Mary Travers as a solo performer, and eventually released two excellent albums (the old critically acclaimed, but commercially disappointing story).
But my Jazz and classical records always grew faster than the Pop.
I also discovered opera – Wagner was my favorite and I went to Chicago four years running as the Chicago Opera performed the Der Ring des Nibelungen operas.
My musical high point was meeting Louis Armstrong. After MSU, I eventually became an “executive” with a Lansing firm (a CIO in modern terms, but just data processing then) that merged with a Wall Street company (descended from the Goulds and Vanderbilts no less), and the owners put on a private party to celebrate. There, in an East Lansing backyard and garden, Louis and his All Stars performed for about 80 of us.
Louis had health issues by then, and died just a couple of years later, but he was still Louis – unique voice, trumpet style, and the handkerchief. And I got to talk with him. I felt that if I never saw another star – I was only twenty-three – that experience was enough.
Along the way to Up North I learned to play the guitar, 6-string and 12-string, just the usual chords thank you, but enough to keep me amused and periodically entertain a few polite friends around the campfire. And I kept chasing music, especially live performances.
Starting a family, moving into a neighborhood with other young families, we spent time with friends playing Seeger, Clapton, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Fleetwood Mac, Aretha, and going to the local “Patio Parties” to dance (a middling dancer, but my wife camouflaged my lack of grace) and whoop it up a bit. ABBA was a favorite, and yes I’ve seen Mama Mia a few times. When friends came to our home, music was always playing.
Down the road a bit, Wynton Marsalis came to the jazz program at MSU, and would drop in at a favorite little cafe that did Jazz Nights, just to jam for a while. When the cafe only seats 50, you get some quality time with the performers – and Wynton was always engaging.
And in the mid-80s, the music first followed us, then led us, Up North. Northwest Michigan is blessed with a deep and strong music culture. Josh Davis of The Voice fame, Dominic Fortuna, who had returned from Hollywood, and later played on Broadway, Josh Groban, Peter Yarrow, Nora Jones (all Interlochen grads), and many others provide a continuing parade of incredible talent. Not to mention our respected Symphony Orchestra.
So I’m still chasing music – the Music of the Humans, the Music of the Lakes, and the Music of the Spheres. While Music is in many places, it is loud Up North – and I haven’t tired of it yet.
“If you pour some music on whatever’s wrong, it’ll sure help out.” — Levon Helm (The Band)
© Rod Robinson