One of the minor pleasures of writing a biography is picking the photographs that will be used to illustrate it–so long as you can get permission to reproduce them. When you can’t, it’s pure hell.
In addition to looking through some two thousand photos of Louis Armstrong at the Armstrong Archives, I spent several days trolling the Web for images, mostly in vain, since just about everything I found was over-familiar and/or unusable. I did, however, run across one spectacular shot of Armstrong and the All Stars on stage in Amsterdam in 1955, and no sooner did I find it on a Web-based photo album than I knew I wanted to include it in A Cluster of Sunlight: The Life of Louis Armstrong. I’ve seen hundreds of pictures of Armstrong in performance, but I can’t think of one that does a better job of suggesting the atmosphere of a jazz concert.
On top of that, this particular photo is of what I believe to have been Armstrong’s best working group, the one that featured Edmond Hall on clarinet, Trummy Young on trombone, and Billy Kyle on piano. Armstrong, as it happens, felt exactly the same way. As he said in a little-known 1956 interview quoted in A Cluster of Sunlight:
Oh yeah, that first group of All Stars [i.e., the one that included Barney Bigard on clarinet, Sid Catlett on drums, Earl Hines on piano, and Jack Teagarden on trombone] was a good one all right, but I think the group I have now is the best of ’em all. It seems to me this band gets more appreciation now than the other All Stars. Some of the other Stars got so they was prima donnas and didn’t want to play with the other fellows. They wouldn’t play as a team but was like a basket ball side with everybody trying to make the basket. They was great musicians, but after a while they played as if their heart ain’t in what they was doin’. A fella would take a solo but no-one would play him no attention–just gaze here, look around there. And the audience would see things like that–I don’t praise that kind of work y’ know….
The All Stars now ain’t like that and the audience appreciate the spirit in the band. As musicians they ain’t any better, but a lot of people say these boys seem like they’re real glad to be up there swingin’ with me.
Here is that same band playing “Muskrat Ramble” on TV in 1958:
Clearly, then, I had to include that image in my book. There was only one catch, but it was a huge one: the Web album didn’t include the photographer’s name or e-mail address. So what did I do? Simple: I told Ariel Davis, my trusty research assistant, to track the man down. It took her a couple of weeks to oblige, but she finally brought home the bacon.
Much to my surprise, it turned out that Joel Elkins, who shot what Ariel and I had taken by then to calling the Mystery Photo, knew who I was. “It’s a pleasure to be associated with a book about the great Louis Armstrong written by someone such as yourself,” he wrote. Elkins charged a token fee for permission to reprint his wonderful picture in A Cluster of Sunlight, asking only that we send him a signed copy of the book when it comes out next year. I can’t wait to oblige.
No, it’s not always that easy….