As summer continues on into August, and the city of N’awlins tries to keep cool and lay low, there’s only one man worth stepping away from the AC vent to dance for, and that’s Louis Armstrong. The legendary jazz musician and New Orleans’ favorite son, also known as “Satchmo” from his nickname “Satchel Mouth” [per its size] embodies what it means to be a New Orleanian, symbolizing our city in a way that’s smooth, captivating, and unique. He truly was, and still is, everything New Orleans – and everyone knows it.
Whether it was his soulful and kind-hearted approach to life, his ability to sooth with the sound of his trumpet, or his love of his favorite dish, red beans and rice, Armstrong was relatable, likeable, and someone who connected people from all across New Orleans, no matter their background. What would be Satchmo’s 118th birthday approaches on August 4, and with the Satchmo Summerfest taking place on August 2-4, it’s a great time to remember what made Louis Armstrong an unmistakable character, and how his music reached deep into our souls with transfixing tunes from his trumpet.
Now, we all know that New Orleans is defined by the characters, festivals, rhythm, cuisine, smells (both good and bad), and enduring traditions; but not everyone is aware of the ways Armstrong helped define the city in a difficult time of separation and segregation. Even the biggest fans of his catchy riffs and heartfelt performances may not know about his love of America’s sport: Baseball. He was a fanatic.
While his music career was in ‘full swing’, Armstrong decided to do something that celebrated other great talents in town. In 1931, he created “Louis Armstrong’s Secret Nine,” an all-black baseball team consisting of, actually, 17 players. Before the advent of Jackie Robinson, when baseball leagues were segregated, Armstrong was part of the counterculture baseball scene in New Orleans that boasted players who were every bit as good as their white counterparts; he was ahead of his time in sponsoring this select team formerly-known as the “Raggedy Nine.” Armstrong’s Secret Nine, known to be composed of members of the illustrious Zulu Aid and Social Club, was outfitted by Armstrong in what he remarked to be, “…the finest uniforms ever seen on sandlots and diamonds in the Big Easy.”
While the Secret Nine’s complete story remains somewhat unknown, according to The Louisiana Weekly, there was, in fact, a game on August 17, 1931 between the Secret 9 and the New Orleans Black Pelicans. And while the Secret 9 fell to the Pels with a score of 0-4, the game went down in history because of the losing team’s dapper uniforms. An unpublished manuscript in the collection of the Louis Armstrong House Museum has a section referring to his team and their loss that day. In it, Armstrong says, “The Secret Nines all had new suits, gloves, bats, balls, etc., everything that the big league had to look professional. Of course they lost, but I still say they wouldn’t have been beatened so badly if they hadn’t been too proudly to slide into the plate. Just because they had on their first baseball suits, and brand new ones at that, but it was all in fun, and a good time was had by all I know. I had myself a ball.”
We remember Armstrong through his music and love of life, and at International House in New Orleans, the boutique hotel dedicated to connecting its guests to a unique experience of the city, Armstrong’s immense legacy is celebrated throughout the hotel. Secret Nine jerseys are proudly on display and have been reproduced for employees and guests to sport. Certain guest room walls are graced by a number of original images by Herman Leonard, one of the most renowned jazz photographers of the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s, featuring Armstrong singing, playing his trumpet, and being the life of the party.
From reinventing popular music to his involvement in civil rights, Satchmo was always looking to “spice up” the lives of those in need of his light-hearted, big-hearted demeanor.Although the Secret Nine is not among his better-known accomplishments, it is without a doubt one of the more poignant and compelling contributions we remember today.