CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

The Day Louis Armstrong Lost His Color: A Short Story

Reanimation and the blues, magical-realist style

Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong (photo by William Gottlieb/Library of Congress)

Louis Armstrong awoke one morning wanting to make some music, but when he sat in front of the mirror of his hotel bedroom—because he liked to see his embouchure as he practiced—he noticed that he had lost his color again.

It happened sometimes after a restless night. Louis knew that he had thrashed some thanks to a dream about his old mentor King Oliver. King was hurting in real life because of all the sugar sandwiches he ate. His gums were destroyed and he couldn’t solo. Louis figured he would be dead soon, that that was just too much for a man like King to take.

In his dream Louis kicked King over a cliff, which is what some people had said he’d done when he left Oliver’s band and started out on his own, and maybe that had knocked out his color in the night.

“Aw shit, hon,” Louis Armstrong said to his girl, Alpha Smith. He could hear her in the kitchen of their suite where she made coffee and read the papers. She liked to read to the sound of Louis doing his scales. No one else made scales sound like chamber music commissioned by a Prussian count. Turning over a page of her New York Herald Tribune, she looked into her mug, wished she had made more coffee. “It’ll be fine, Satch,” she answered. “You’ve lost your color before. It always comes back.”

Louis touched his formerly prodigious cheeks. They looked sunken in the mirror, alarming.

“We were at home then. Didn’t have no big Carnegie Hall concert. I could afford to give it a day or two.”

Alpha wasn’t worried. “People aren’t coming to see your face. Beautiful as I think it is. They’re going to be here to hear you play that horn. And sing for me, baby.”

He liked the effect her voice made coming in from out of the room; it lent depth, heft, bottom, balance, bass and horn, to their call-and-response. He was working on a new talking blues that could use that same treatment on stage with the boys. Would have to change where he stood. Alpha always had killer ideas.

“Aw shit,” he repeated, to himself. His face could almost pass for Colin Clive’s, that guy who played Frankenstein—the doctor, not the monster—in The Bride of Frankenstein, which Louis and Alpha had seen a few nights before.

They liked it so much that they sat through it three more times. Elsa Lanchester as the bride was a howl. That hiss she made when she rebuffed the monster, the cat who wanted to marry her! Man, Boris Karloff made you feel sad, which wasn’t what monsters could usually do. Nobody felt bad for old Drac, Louis reflected.

He tried to replicate the sound of that hiss on his trumpet. The vibrato wasn’t enough. He had to find a way to get a wilder sound, but also feminine. Not cheap, lowdown, and alley-catty. It was a queenly hiss, pissed as all get-up as the Bride was by this dead-tissue dude wanting to jump her bones, if she even had bones. She must have. Maybe Louis had enjoyed the film too much, and that was why his face looked like Colin Clive’s.

The previous time he’d lost his color, he resembled Bix Beiderbecke, who at least had been another cornet man. That was a few years back, right after Bix died. And talk about reanimation! People might have thought Louis had found a way to bring Bix back. He practiced hard that weekend until his color returned, grateful not to be on the road.

That’s when he started working on a lot of spirituals that went over like wildfire in big towns like Boston, Chicago, L.A., which he hadn’t expected. From problems come triumphs. Sometimes, anyway. Of course, everyone still wanted to talk about those old Hot Five and Hot Seven records, from almost a decade ago. But Louis was on the Decca label now, he had more to say. Besides, he sang better now that he was older. And it wasn’t like he didn’t sing like a badass earlier.

Speaking of badasses, the Pittsburgh Crawfords were in town for a Negro League game. They were Louis’ favorite team. He loved watching Josh Gibson catch when he could, always wanted to meet him.

“Just go up and introduce yourself,” Alpha said as they sat in the stands, eating their hot dogs, Louis stirring a cup of sauerkraut with the meat sticking out one end of the bun.

The weather was cool for September in New York. After his makeshift meal, Louis pulled up his jacket, his favorite one with the light fur lining, drawing the collar folds around his mouth.

“I can’t go up to Josh Gibson like this,” he protested, gesturing to his face. “We’re talking a man who hit a ball out of Yankee Stadium. Do you think Josh Gibson goes to Frankenstein pictures?”

“I think he probably does,” Alpha countered. “They’re good movies. But you’re not going up to him as Colin Clive, you’re Louis Armstrong, you’re just having a strange day. Josh will get it.”

“Oh, so it’s Josh now?”

There was jocularity in his voice, so she smiled back, but there was an edge there as well, like with some of his solos that started out as if to say, “Relax, listeners, this is going to be funny,” and then they were for a bit—or possessed of mirth, anyway—before Louis torched you with his blues, that blue flame being his trumpet sound when Louis was most like Louis.

“I am not going down to the dugout to try and talk to Josh. But we’ll leave a ticket with the team secretary. That way, if Josh comes to the concert tonight and I still don’t have my color back, at least he’ll hear me play. Which is fair, since he’s treating us by playing himself. Look, he’s coming up to bat now.”

Gibson went 1-for-4 with a double, but the double must have traveled 435 feet. In the fading sunlight Louis forgot his problem. But then dusk came, and darkness, and their cab took them to Carnegie Hall, where Louis frantically rubbed his face backstage.

“My color is still not there, hon,” he mumbled, like the words were part of a scat vocal, not really words, pleading to Alpha, as if she might execute a finger snap on the offbeat that would put him back on his regular 1 and 3. He would not let the rest of the band see him. They had assembled on the stage, warming up with a blues vamp while the crowd filled in, wondering where Louis was.

A knock on his dressing-room door. The time was now.

Colin Fleming

Colin Fleming writes fiction and nonfiction on myriad topics—art, film, music, sports, literature—for a wide range of publications. He also talks regularly on the radio for the likes of NPR and Downtown with Rich Kimball. His most recent book, Buried on the Beaches: Cape Stories for Hooked Hearts and Driftwood Souls (Tailwinds), was published in 2019, with an entry in Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series on Sam Cooke’s Live at the Harlem Square Club to follow in 2020. Find him on the web at colinfleminglit.com (where you’ll also find his unique online journal, the Many Moments More blog) and on Twitter @colinfleminglit. He lives in Boston and has contributed to JazzTimes since 2006.