Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - October 8, 2021
Louis and Luciano
On the inside of a kitchen cabinet door near where she sat, husband Art's mother always hung a calendar - the kind with small
numbers and large open squares where notes could be written. It was Donna's version of a daily planner. When the new year
arrived, she saved the old one.
It was just chance that I recently picked the one for 1961 and began glancing through the months. April 25 had a notation that she and her mother were to have their glasses checked. "Hospital" was a reminder of Donna's volunteer work.
But the box above, Tuesday, April 18, caught my eye. It too had "Hospital" at the top, but penciled at the bottom in her usual handwriting was "Louis Armstrong."
I had heard the story several times over the years. Art's dad had to work that night, but Donna, her brother Pete, Art and his brother Tommy had arrived at Appleton's Cinderella Ballroom around 7 p.m. so they could get a table close to the stage. Armstrong and his All Stars band were in town for only that one night. The early arrival paid off. Art, who was on the side closest to the stage, said once the set began, he could have almost reached out and touched Armstrong.
Donna wasn't one to make a big deal out of things, so the fact that the calendar notation was no more prominent than her other notes didn't surprise me. Still, I thought, "Wow, come on! This is jazz great Louis Armstrong you’re talking about here!"
Years later, daughter Katie thought the event sufficiently important to interview Art for a paper she wrote about Armstrong for a music history class at Kansas State University.
… By being so close - he was within a few arm's lengths of me - I think you can get a measure of a person - what their
personality is like and whether what you are seeing is just an affectation… He was very friendly with those in the audience
and the band members as well. He looked every bit to be a man who truly was doing what he enjoyed - playing music and
Louis didn't hesitate to pass the limelight and credit around. He could no longer hit the high notes as he once could or sustain others. Yet he was such a master of what he was doing that he would just improvise to cover that fact…
I believe they played two sets - a single intermission - and by the time it was over, it was well past midnight. It was a happy group that left for home.
Armstrong and other jazz performers were favorites with Art's family as evidenced by the number of record albums of this genre
we found in Donna's 1950s-era record cabinet. Daughter Mariya is a fan as well, and she now has her grandmother's collection
in her home.
Armstrong would have been 59 on that April evening and some thought he had abandoned his roots as he got older. In an interview 10 years later, he may have agreed, but in a way that may have surprised his critics.
... I speak of something which I know about and have been doing all my life, and that’s music. And now that I am an elderly man I still feel the same about music and its creations. And at the age of sixty-nine I really don't feel that I am on my way out at all… I feel that I did my most interesting work as I have gotten up into the older age bracket. ...
His words reminded me of when Art and I saw opera star Luciano Pavarotti in April 2002. He performed at Wichita's Kansas
Coliseum. At 66, he still had the same charisma and passion for music he had always demonstrated. Although we were in the
"nosebleed section" of the sold-out 6,000-seat venue, we could still "feel" the magic of something quite special. Pavarotti
sang selections from Tosca, Werther and La Bohème.
At the end, the crowd stood and clapped so long he came back to sing three more songs. One of them was "O Sole Mio," made famous in pop music by Elvis Presley as "It’s Now or Never." Pavarotti asked us to sing along - or to at least hum - because he knew it was familiar.
His performances - both on stage and on television programs featuring "The Three Tenors" - Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras - introduced opera to people who ordinarily wouldn't have had the opportunity or desire to listen.
And as he aged, Pavarotti received the same type of criticism Armstrong had - that his voice wasn't holding up and that he just didn't have what it took to perform.
Yet both men were supreme entertainers. With their expansive personalities, charm and generosity toward their audiences and others, they connected people to music they might otherwise not have listened to.
My favorite Armstrong song is "What a Wonderful World." He first performed it in 1967, but it didn't become popular until it was included in the movie "Good Morning, Vietnam" 20 years later. It certainly isn't a jazz piece and no one would accuse Armstrong of having a great singing voice.
Unlike food, sleep or shelter, we don't know what the function of music is or why we are drawn to it. But we do know that just like in the other arts, those who are considered greats possess something more than just technical perfection. It is one of those things where a person knows greatness when it is experienced.
Art and I felt that with Luciano nearly 20 years ago. And when I pointed out Donna's pencilled notation to Art, it brought back for him that night with Louis from more than 60 years before.
Left: Donna's calendar notation; center: Art holds the calendar next to a Newspaper.com image of a story in the local mewspaper about the show; right: Mariya holding two of the albums from Donna's record collection.