"Satchmo's Blues"


August 11, 1999|By Alan Schroeder

Editor's note: More than anything else, young Louis Armstrong wanted the cornet in the pawnshop window. When he got enough money to buy it, he was on his way to becoming the legendary Satchmo.

Louis and his family lived on Perdido Street, "back o' town." It was a tough neighborhood, full of broken bottles and mangy dogs and kicked-in fences. But Louis didn't mind. At night when the lanterns were lit and Willie Reed brought out his fiddle, it was just like being at Economy Hall, with everyone clapping and dancing on boards:

"Mr. Jefferson Lord --

Play that babershop chord!"

"Back o' town," everyone had a musical instrument of some kind -- a clarinet, or a banjo, or maybe just an old pot someone had turned into a drum. But Louis didn't want a clarinet or a banjo. He wanted to blow a horn, just like Bunk Johnson. A real cornet, brass, with valves so quiet they whispered. But that took money, and Mama didn't have any. Not enough for a cornet anyway.

Saturday night was Rag Night, and Sister Leola's was the only place to be.

One night, a paper lantern caught fire, sending a shower of sparks over the crowd. Everyone cheered, and instantly, the cornet man started playing, "Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight." Giselle, the voodoo lady, let out a huge belly laugh.

"Well, don't just stand there," she cried, pushing Louis forward. "Scorch those boards!"

Louis tried to move his feet in time to the music, but he was a lousy scorcher. And besides, he didn't want to dance -- he wanted to play the cornet. He wanted to be like Bunk Johnson: aim his horn straight up at the night sky and set the stars spinning.

"That takes lungs," Leola told him. "Why don't you dance, instead? Here, give me your shoes."

Louis did, and, laughing, Leola glued a penny onto the heel of each one.

"Now you got taps," she said, and sure enough, every time Louis took a step, a tap jumped out. Tap! Tap! Tap!

It was fun, for a while. But it wasn't as much fun as a cornet.

One day, right off Bourbon Street Louis saw a horn sitting in a pawnshop window. It was a humdinger, all bright and sassy, just begging to be bought. The cardboard sign said $5. Louis turned away. He could never come up with that much money.

Two weeks later, the horn was still in the pawnshop window. Louis wanted to go inside, but the man behind the counter didn't look any too friendly. The cardboard sign still said $5.

"That horn is mine," Louis whispered, pressing his nose against the window. "It's gotta be mine!"

Every afternoon, when he got home from school, Louis stood in front of the mirror and practiced his blowing. He pretended he was Bunk Johnson, raising the roof with his high C's.

"What's you doin' with your lips?" Mama asked. "You look like a fish."

"I'm blowin' my horn," Louis told her.

Mama shook her head. "I don't see any horn."

But Louis could -- and it was a beauty.

That spring, he did everything he could to earn five dollars. He sold rags and coal, and ran errands for the neighbors.

At last, Louis had his five dollars! He didn't even wait to put on his shoes. He ran as fast as he could down to the pawnshop and flung his money on the counter. The nickels spun like crazy on the wood.

"What do you want?" the owner asked. "I'm closin'."

"I want that horn in the window," Louis said.

The man grunted. "That horn is five dollars, sonny."

"That horn is mine!" Louis said proudly.

Leaving the pawnshop, Louis felt ten feet tall. Underneath a streetlamp, he got a good look at his horn. Sure, it was full of dings and dents, but he didn't care. A little elbow grease and it'd be as good as new.

The air that night was rich with honeysuckle and jazz. Louis leaned up against an old packing crate, pressed his lips to the mouthpiece, and blew.

A moment later, a wonderful sound filled the alley: music. One note, then two, three, four, then a whole cluster, all tripping out over each other. Louis' cheeks puffed out like air bags. He loved the sound he was hearing. It wasn't "Dixie Flyer," but it wasn't ppphhhh, either.

"Lou-is!" Mama was calling him in the distance. But he wasn't ready to go home yet. Not by a long shot. He'd waited a long time for this moment.

Leaning back, Louis pointed his horn straight up at the moon.

"Hold on, stars," he whispered. "Someday, I'm gonna blow you right out of the sky."

He propped his elbows on his knees, closed his eyes, and began to play.

From SATCHMO'S BLUES. Text Copyright c 1996 by Alan Schroeder. Illustrations Copyright (copyright symbol) 1996 by Floyd Cooper. Published by arrangement with Random House Children's Books, a division of Random House Inc.

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