Steve Katz

Pops performed at Bailey Hall. That was at Cornell, when I was vice president of the Rhythm Club. Ross Firestone was president. Both our tastes ran to bebop and cool jazz—Art Blakey, Lennie Tristano, Paul Chambers, Bill Evans, Kenny Dorham, Lee Konitz, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus, and etc. The popular resurgence of Louis Armstrong didn’t interest us. The Rhythm Club booked him to raise money for hipper events.

The band had already arrived by bus, and Louie was getting in an hour or so before the concert and leaving right after. My job was to pick him up at the Lehigh Valley railroad station in downtown Ithaca. At that time a train ran from New York City, through Ithaca, clear to Rochester and Buffalo. I recognized him immediately as he got off the train, the only black person on the platform. He was smaller than I had imagined, but there was that broad “pops” face, and lips that were all embouchure. I waved at him and approached. I was wearing a loose sweatshirt.

“Hey, babbadoo,” he looked at me with that toothy Louie Armstrong smile. “Look at that. You got bigger jugs than I do.” He grabbed my tit. I’d always been self-conscious about my flabby chest. I don’t know what color I turned. He was carrying only his trumpet case. I reached out to carry it for him, but he pulled it back. We got in a cab for Bailey Hall.

“Come on with me,” he said. He grabbed my sleeve and led me backstage. “Velma,” he said, as he pulled me into the performer’s dressing room. Velma Middleton, singer with the band, sat on a bench, staring at the floor. “Look at this boy, Velma. He got bigger tits than you do.” Velma looked up at me, a perfunctory smile on her face. “Sure do.” Louie let go of me then, and I crept backwards into my humiliation out of the room. I crossed the stage behind the curtain and went into the packed auditorium.

The concert had sold out. Ross Firestone wasn’t there. I would have preferred to leave. They gave a great concert. I enjoyed it more than I was prepared to. Louie’s bright hot trumpet sound and his abrasion of a voice against Velma’s easy blues styling brought the crowd to its feet. I kept thinking I’d rather be listening to Miles, or to Clifford Brown, to Fats Navarro, Dizzy, Little Jazz Roy Eldridge, even Red Rodney, Freddy Hubbard, Lee Morgan, Woody Shaw, anyone else who hadn’t so diminished me. I arranged for Pops’ cab back to the station, but didn’t ride with him. He took the last train back to New York City.