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Sandy Brown Jazz

Clarence Hatfield Armstrong


'Now, twelve years later, Lewis was once more hauling his life's possessions up Perdido Street in the direction of his mother's apartment. But this time he was the adult. And as he looked down to Clarence, who was tumbling along by his side, he realized with a heavy sense of history repeating, that his adopted son was about the same age he himself had been when he was dragged, terrified, across town by the nameless woman.'

'The pair of them cut pitiable figures. Lewis had bloodstains on his shirt and a scab forming on his lip that was beginning to itch. He had a burlap sack flung over one shoulder with their clothes in it, and his cornet case slung over his other shoulder. In his hands he had the painfully heavy Victrola windup record player that, aside from his horn, was his prize possession, and on top of it a stack of records - the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, Enrico Caruso, Luisa Tetrazzini, Henry Burr - all tied together by a flimsy length of twine. Next to Lewis, Clarence groaned under the weight of a canvas bag full of his toys.

"We nearly there, boy," said Lewis, with a smile, and Clarence grimaced.'

"I'll tell you a ghost story if you want? About Jean Lafitte."

'But Clarence shook his head and turned his gaze to the street in front of him ......'

.... and so reads this extract from Ray Celestin's excellent novel, The Axeman's Jazz.

Based on a true story of a serial killer who terrorised New Orleans in 1918 -1919, Celestin has done his homework. A number of people are trying to track down a murderer who leaves Tarot cards with the bodies of his victims.

Ida Davis, nineteen, had started working for the Pinkerton's detective agency and is one of those looking for answers. She enlists the Louis Armstrong with Peter Davishelp of her friend, one Lewis (Louis) Armstrong to help her. In the story, Ida is the daughter of Peter Davis, Lewis's music teacher at the New Orleans Home for Colored Waifs. Celestin writes that Professor Davis took Lewis 'under his wing and would occasionally ask him over to his house to play cornet while Ida accompanied him on the piano. Ida was never more than a passable pianist, but she obliged her father and, over time, the two lonely children became friends...'

Louis Armstrong with Peter Davis in 1965

(The Louis Armstrong House Museum website states: 'Judging from home recorded tapes now in our Museum Collections, Louis pronounced his own name as “Lewis.” On his 1964 record “Hello, Dolly,” he sings, “This is Lewis, Dolly”)


Celestin's book contains a transcript of a letter by the original Axeman. Headed 'Hell, May 6th, 1919' it reads:

Esteemed Mortal: They have never caught me and they never will ....I am very fond of jazz music, and I swear by all the devils in the nether regions that every person shall be spared in whose home a jazz band is in full swing at the time I have just mentioned. If everyone has a jazz band going, well, then, so much the better for you people ....'


Louis Armstrong was born on 4th August 1901, the grandson of slaves. His parents were poor, his father William left to be with another woman when Louis was a child. William died in 1922 at the age of 41. Louis grew up in an area of New Orleans known as 'the Battlefield', also known as Back O' Town, part of Storyville which at that time was the legalised prostitution district of the city. His mother, Mary 'Mayann' Albert was a prostitute who left Louis, and his younger sister Beatrice, in the care of his paternal grandmother, Josephine Armstrong.

Here's a 5 minute clip from the film New Orleans, directed by Arthur Lubin in 1947 with Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday. The initial dubbing is a little out, but the sentiment is there.




Ray Celestin describes a time when Louis leaves the comfort of his grandmother's home:

'He trotted into the lounge, and was suprised to see his grandmother perched on the sofa with a haughty, stern-looking woman he had The Axeman's Jazznever seen before ... His grandmother, a washerwoman and an emancipated slave, a follower of both Catholicism and voodou, had always taken Lewis everywhere with her ... Lewis thought he knew all her acquaintances, which made the mystery of the inscrutable woman sitting next to her all the deeper. His grandmother took a moment, and then explained in language tailored for his six-year-old-self, that his mother, living out in Black Storyville, had contracted an illness after giving birth to his new baby sister, and that Lewis's father had abandoned her once more. Then she explained that Lewis had to move to his mother's house to care for her ...'

' ... They approached a rickety wooden door set into one of the houses by the intersection of Liberty and Perdido ... The room they stepped into was dim and joyless, and Lewis had to squint to make anything out. Amidst the rattletrap floorboards and bare walls, the space was taken up by an imposing iron-frame bed, a rudimentary kitchen along one wall, and a second door opening out onto a back courtyard which provided the only source of light ... "I thought maybe your grandma wouldn't let you come." she spoke so quietly, her voice so weak and delirious that Lewis thought she might be talking to herself'. (The Axeman's Jazz).

When, at six, Louis moved back to live with his mother and her relatives, he brought in some money as a paperboy and also by finding discarded food and selling it to restaurants. For extra money he also hauled coal to Storyville where he listened to the bands playing in the brothels and dance halls. After dropping out of school at age eleven, Louis joined a quartet of boys who sang in the streets for money. At seven, he also worked for a Lithuanian/Jewish immigrant family, the Karnofskys, who had a junk hauling business and gave him odd jobs. They took him in and treated him as almost a family member. Louis developed his cornet playing skills by playing in the band of the New Orleans Home for Colored Waifs, where he had been sent multiple times for general delinquency, most notably for a long term after firing his stepfather's pistol into the air at a New Year's Eve celebration.


At fourteen he was released from the Home, living again with his father and new stepmother and then back with his mother. By now he was beginning to play regularly in the brass bands and on the riverboats.New Orleans Homes for Colored Waifs


Louis Armstrong (back row, third from left) at the New Orleans Home for Colored Waifs


Louis was seventeen when, on March 19, 1918, Louis married Daisy Parker, a prostitute from Gretna, Louisiana. They adopted the three-year-old Clarence, whose mother, Louis's cousin Flora, died soon after giving birth. Louis had got to know the child from the time he came back from the Home for Colored Waifs.

Tom Consentino was a child who also knew Clarence from those days and wrote about the boy he remembered. Gary Giddings, too, wrote about Clarence in a Village Voice article in 2003, picking out part of Louis' book Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans (Gary's comments are in italics):

'Clarence was born in 1915 to Louis’s teenage cousin, Flora, apparently after she was molested by an old white man her father felt powerless to challenge. Louis’s first sight of the baby washed “all the gloom out of me.” He took it upon himself, at 14, to get a job hauling coal (immortalized in the 1925 “Coal Cart Blues”) to support the baby and the ailing mother, and assumed full responsibility after Flora’s death, marrying his first wife and adopting the three-year-old at 17. In that period, Clarence fell off a porch and landed on his head; doctors judged him to be mentally impaired.


Here's Louis Armstrong playing Coal Cart Blues.




New Orleans Coal Cart


I’ve got those Coal Cart Blues
I’m really on confuse
I’m bound to lose my very mind
and worry, worry all the time.

these blues will make you cry
feel just like you wanna scream
of course the cart was hot and
it almost kill me,
but just a little go boy was my cup
I’ve got those Coal Cart Blues
there I really don’t know what to do





Ray Celestin includes the incident of the fall in his book:

"And how's Clarence?" Ida asked ......'Lewis frowned when he heard Ida mention Clarence and a pained look crossed his face.'

"You didn't hear?" he asked, and Ida shook her head ...... "He had a fall," he said. "Landed on his head. Doctors said he's gonna be slow ..." Daisy and he were listening to records while Clarence played with his toys on the back gallery of the house. Then they heard screams and ran out to see Clarence lying in the courtyard below, a drop of twenty feet, blood all over his head, crying and anguished. Ida stared at Lewis, realizing he blamed himself ....'

Louis's marriage to Daisy only lasted until 1923, apparently it was a stormy marriage and Daisy was 'prone to bouts of violence'..

Tom Consentino recalls: 'I grew up in the northeast Bronx on a street called Oakley. The cross street was Fenton Ave, and a few house up that block was a woman named Miss Lillian. That was the house that Clarence lived in as well. Growing up, I didn’t have a lot of friends until I was 8 and I was allowed to start playing in the street and nearby school yard of my boyhood school, P.S. 78. From my backyard, I would see Clarence pass my house every day, wearing his Mets cap. I never really talked with him. Then, when I started playing ball in the street with the other kids up my block, I heard them call him by another name, that of “Ooga Booga.” The kids were afraid of him and would tease him for chewing on his tongue. When they would see him they would taunt him with the cry of “Hey, Ooga Booga, Hey, Ooga Booga” and then run. I’m ashamed to say, I joined in.'

'Then, one day, Clarence called me out and said he would tell my father. When I was home that night, I asked my parents about Clarence. They then told me that he was the son of Louis Armstrong. They even told me that Louis used to come up to the house to see Clarence when they first moved in. I knew Louis Armstrong was a musician, and knew him from television and the song, Hello Dolly. What I didn’t know was that Miss Lillian had married Clarence under an arrangement with Louis Armstrong. They had a son who used to play the trumpet out of his window all the time. However, he later died, although I do not know the reasons.'

'When Louis married Lil Hardin in Chicago, Clarence joined them, and Louis never forgave Lil - who claimed that Clarence was never legally adopted - for her impatience with him. When he left Lil for Alpha (Smith), he brought Clarence along. Eventually, Clarence was set up in the Bronx, where he was married in an arrangement of convenience financed by Louis.'

'Knowing now the background of Clarence, I was carrying the guilt of being one of the abusive kids taunting him. The next time I saw him, I didn’t run but said hello. Clarence started talking to me about his love, baseball. This would begin years of dialogue on the Mets. Even though I was a Yankees fan, Clarence knew I loved baseball too. He would make up trades for the Mets, ringing my door bell to tell me the Mets got Reggie Smith from the Red Sox or Tony Perez from the Reds and other such All-Stars. Of course, they never traded anyone for these players, but I caught on and just kept the discussion going. Many times, he would ring my doorbell to tell me his Willie Maysnews. My dad or mom would have to rescue me by coming out to tell me to finish my homework or have dinner. I remember the one trade that was really made that thrilled Clarence was when the Mets got Willie Mays from the Giants. Clarence was literally jumping for joy that day. He would often jump up and down when he was excited, yelling as loud as he could. He was a little boy in a grown man’s body.'

Willie Mays

'I communicated my discovery of Clarence’s background and love for baseball to my friends and they quickly caught on too. Soon Clarence began hanging out with us, watching us play. We’d even let him coach some times. He quickly became our mascot and lookout, watching for kids from other blocks that might look to start trouble with us. Not only was I able to get to know Clarence, but I would visit and say hello to Miss Lillian nearly every day. Sometimes she would even give me a present.'

'As the years progressed and we all got older, we continued playing ball all the way through our college years. Clarence was there with us, watching and cheering us on as always. He was still making up trades. In fact, if the Mets hired Clarence, they may have won a few more pennants. Clarence was Catholic and I would often walk and attend Mass with him at St. Phillip & James Church on Boston Road. Many parishioners would Louis Armstrong and Clarence shy away, but I would sit with him in a side pew. Sometimes when Clarence would ring my bell it wasn’t always about baseball. I can remember one time when he called on me to tell me a member of his daddy’s band had died.'

Louis would spend the rest of his life taking care of Clarence.

Garry Giddings again: 'A few steps into the archive I was stopped dead by a pasteboard blowup of a photograph that had never been published, showing Armstrong and his adopted son, “Clarence Hatfield.” I had never given Clarence much thought, having heard he was mentally retarded and died a long time ago, hidden away. But here he was: beaming backstage at the Band Box, a club in Chicago, in the 1940s, nattily dressed in a double-breasted suit not unlike the pinstripe tailored for Armstrong, who also beams, with unmistakable paternal pride.'

Tom Consentino continues:

'When Louis Armstrong died in July, 1971, I remember WPIX carrying the funeral live on television. There, I got to see Clarence getting into a limousine. It confirmed for real, his relationship with the famed trumpeter.'

'Miss Lillian eventually passed and I got married and moved to New Jersey, losing any connection I had with Clarence. My dad and brother who were still living there told me that his house had been boarded up and Clarence taken away one day. They never knew what happened. After reading Gary Giddins’ story, I now know he died in 1998. Clarence Armstrong forever changed my life for he taught me how to deal with others. Appearances and background don’t matter. It’s what’s inside a person that counts. It’s something I’ve tried to carry through on throughout my professional career.'


The website findagrave.com says: 'Clarence's surname is something of a mystery. According to Armstrong's friend, photographer Jack Bradley, he was listed in the phone book as Clarence Hatfield - but this may have been an expediency to keep nosy fans and biographers at a distance. Before Clarence's mother Flora died, she evidently anticipated Louis's involvement and renamed her son Clarence Armstrong. Louis Armstrong died in his beloved Queens, NY neighborhood home, in July 1971, just a month shy of his 70th birthday. Clarence attended his adopted father's funeral, even recognized highly in the lead family limousine procession. Clarence (Hatfield) Armstrong lived a full life, dying at age 83, in August 1998, and endures in Armstrong's memoir as the happy athletic boy everyone called, much to Louis's pleasure, "Little Louis Armstrong."

Tom Consentino says: 'I can still see him cheering for us, tongue hanging from his mouth and his Mets cap hanging sideways on his head as he jumped up and down. “Tommy, Tommy” I can hear him yell. “The Mets just got Albert Pujols. They gonna have a bad ass team this year!”


Other articles that might be of interest:

Louis Armstrong House
Original Dixieland Jazz Band
How I Found Jazz

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