Armstrong at Dartmouth

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(HOST) As Martin Luther King Day approaches, commentator Howard Coffin has been thinking about the time he saw Louis Armstrong at Dartmouth College.

(COFFIN) If you lived in Windsor County in the forties and fifties and liked a good time, chances are you danced to Chick Wells’ orchestra. The style was distinctive and the beat clear with Chick at the piano, playing popular songs and standards whose music he never learned to read.

I went to school with Chick’s son Peter, his drummer, and one January day, Chick called to inquire if I could join them at Dartmouth College’s Webster Hall for a Louis Armstrong concert. I quickly said “yes”, though I’d never been to a concert for which you needed a ticket.

We were in our first row balcony seats at 8 p.m. when the lights dimmed and Mr. Armstrong strode on stage just below us, in white jacket and black tie, with gleaming golden trumpet and white handkerchief in hand. He stood in the spotlight, with horn at his side, and sang “Sleepy Time Down South” – soft and lovely – ending with a gravelly “Good Evening Everybody”.

Then he lifted his horn, pointed it straight at me and nearly broke my eardrums with the first notes of “Mahogany Hall Stomp” as his band strutted on stage. For the next two hours plus, I was in heaven as Louis Armstrong, Billy Kyle, Trummy Young, Danny Barcelona and Velma Middleton about blew the roof off Webster Hall.

I have been a devotee of live music ever since, hearing concerts far and wide – the Boston Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra, Pete Seeger, The Rolling Stones, Mahalia Jackson, Luciano Pavarotti, Willie Nelson, Rudolph Serkin and hundreds more. Because it began with Louis Armstrong, I always think of January as music month.

Recently, I returned to Webster Hall to do some Civil War research, as it’s been converted to Dartmouth’s special collections library. There, on a bronze tablet, I saw a list of Dartmouth lads who died in the Civil War. The place is, after all, named for a son of Daniel Webster killed at Second Manassas. The thought occurred how appropriate it had been to hear Armstrong, a black man, make some of the best music the world has ever heard in that place dedicated to men who fought in our great freedom war.

I also recalled the night I heard Marian Anderson sing Negro spirituals there. She was perhaps the most dignified human being I have ever encountered. Once, when they wouldn’t let her sing at a Washington hall, Eleanor Roosevelt arranged a concert at the Lincoln Memorial. When I saw her at Dartmouth, she raised her hands as if pleading when she sang the words, “As he died to make men holy, let us live to make men free.”

Fifty years have passed since those Dartmouth nights, but that music black Americans gave to the world is with me as if I heard it just yesterday.

I’m Howard Coffin of Montpelier.

Howard Coffin is an author and historian who’s specialty is the civil war.

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