Armstrong’s Fan Club – Part I

I would like to think that if I had lived during Louis Armstrong’s time and had the opportunity to meet him, I would know how to act and what to say. However, based on my previous interactions with certain contemporary musicians during official and unofficial “meet and greets,” I am not certain I would be satisfied with my behavior or words. When I meet a musical idol, I do not cry, I do not scream, I do not jump with excitement, and I do not shower him or her with compliments. Instead, I offer a friendly smile and say something like “It is nice to meet you. Thank you for the performance. You played (or sang) beautifully.” I have questioned whether this “polite approach” is too subdued or formulaic, but then I remind myself that it suits my introverted personality. What more could I say during a quick meeting that would sound meaningful and genuine?

As a fan, one of the most memorable interactions I have had was two years ago when I met singer Nellie McKay following one of her shows at Birdland Jazz Club in New York. Meeting McKay was serendipitous since there had been no announcement that there would be a post-show “meet and greet” with her. After the show, I waited in line to use the restroom. Upon returning to the main room, I noticed many of the audience members had left. However, some were finishing their beverages and engaging in conversation. Hardly anyone noticed when McKay walked into the audience area. During her moment of entry, she looked like one of those young characters in a movie nervously standing on the sidelines at the school dance. Finally, a middle-aged pair did see her, and the three began a conversation. Eventually, others in the room became aware that she was present, and then it seemed as if everyone was waiting for the right moment to “cut in.” After some time, I made my way over to her. During our encounter, we played our roles of performer and fan. However, our conversation was spontaneous and natural, akin to the kind of conversation two strangers would have at a cocktail party. I enjoyed every minute of our chat. I told her about seeing her perform in Asheville, North Carolina and Berkeley, California. She recalled a memory from the Berkeley performance. She asked if I was a musician, and I told her I was a music researcher enrolled in graduate school. She asked about my graduate program, and I told her that I studied Latin American music but wanted to work in a museum or cultural institution one day. Finally, she asked if I enjoyed living in New York, and we both shared what we liked about the city. At the end of our encounter, I inquired if she would be willing to sign the insert booklet of my CD of her music. She agreed and offered to take a picture with me as well. I could not have asked for a better experience. That night I met Mckay, a polished performer with good stage presence, and Mckay, a friendly and somewhat awkward and shy person with a unique speaking voice.

Signed insert booklet of McKay’s 2009 CD entitled Normal as Blueberry Pie: A Tribute to Doris Day

I imagine that meeting Armstrong would be equally, if not more special. Based on my examinations of certain archival materials, my general impression of him is that he was a down-to-earth, humorous, and kind person, whether or not he was in front of fans. Unlike many contemporary performers, Armstrong interacted with fans without the aid of social media and abundant security personnel. He gave fans face-to-face time without having them pay for what it is now referred to as “the backstage or behind-the-scenes experience.” What did his fan encounters mean to him? How did he deal with energetic “superfans” or mobs of fans? What did he think about having predominantly white fans during his mid-and-late career?

Armstrong backstage with Lucille and a fan, Object ID: 1987.14.1100
Armstrong giving a fan a box of Swiss Kriss, Object ID: 1987.14.1275b

Some of what makes a performer-fan experience special is that the fan can walk away with something tangible that reminds him or her of the experience, such as a signed record or photograph. While some contemporary performers feature pictures or videos with their fans on their social media pages, many do not document these encounters, which means that it is the fans’ responsibility to archive the performer-fan experience. They may do this by keeping an item as proof of the encounter, storing it somewhere safe, and retaining the memory associated with the item.

Armstrong documented his experiences with fans by recording their voices on his reel-to-reel tapes, affixing photographs of them on his tape boxes, and saving their letters addressed to him. Featured below is a portion of Armstrong’s over twenty-minute conversation with two teenage female fans in his dressing room at the Palomar Theater in Seattle, Washington in 1951. In the clip, Armstrong asks the girls to “say hello” to New York and introduce themselves. The girls request that he dedicate a song to them during his performance. Armstrong obliges and the girls squeal in excitement.

Armstrong backstage with two Seattle fans

Here is one of Armstrong’s reel-to-reel tape covers that features a photograph of him and some of his fans. Armstrong’s fans were members of his professional “social networks.” By placing pictures of him and his fans on his tape boxes, often in a collage layout, he artistically documented the performer-fan relationship.

A reel-to-reel tape box with a photo of Armstrong, Velma Middleton, and two fans, Object ID: 2003.197.10

Armstrong received letters from fans writing from different parts of the world. In many of these letters, fans praise him and his music and request an autograph or signed photograph. Featured below is a 1956 letter from a fan in Brighton, England.

Dear Louis,

I had to write and thank you for coming to England last month. My husband and I saw you at the Empress Hall and it was the greatest moment of our lives. We have a great many of your records, but to really hear you – it was wonderful! My husband has played the trumpet for about 15 years now and you have always been his idol. I have painted your portrait several times from newspaper photos, and we call our small son after you. We both think you are a wonderful person and you can guess how much it meant to us to actually see and hear you. Thank you again for coming and please, please come back soon.

Yours sincerely, June Ambrose

Even though I never had the opportunity to interact with Armstrong as a fan or otherwise, I know that meeting or corresponding with a musical idol can be a meaningful experience. Performers do not owe their fans time and attention, but I am grateful for the past and present musicians who forge(d) and sustain(ed) authentic connections with fans.

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