Louis Armstrong spent some time in the New Orleans Home for Colored Waifs when he was around twelve to thirteen years old.
One day the young bugler’s mother and father, who had gotten his release, came to take him home. The minute he left Mr Davis gave me his place. I took up the bugle at once and began to shine it up. The other bugler had never shined the instrument and the brass was dirty and green. The kids gave me a big hand when they saw the gleaming bright instrument instead of the old filthy green one.
I felt real proud of my position as bugler. I would stand very erect as I would put the bugle nonchalantly to my lips and blow real mellow tones. The whole place seemed to change. Satisfied with my tone, Mr Davis gave me a cornet and taught me how to play Home Sweet Home. Then I was in seventh heaven. Unless I was dreaming, my ambition had been realised.
Every day I practised faithfully on the lesson Mr Davis gave me. I became so good on the cornet that one day Mr Davis said to me:
“Louis, I am going to make you leader of the band.”
I jumped straight into the air, with Mr Davis watching me, and ran to the mess-room to tell the boys the good news. They were all rejoiced with me. Now at last I was not only a musician but a band leader! Now I would get a chance to go out in the streets and see Mayann and the gang that hung around Liberty and Perdido Streets. The band often got a chance to play at private picnic or join one of the frequent parades through the streets of New Orleans covering all parts of the city, Uptown, Back o’Town, Front o’Town, Downtown. The band was even sent to play in the West End and Spanish Fort, our popular summer resorts, and also at Milenburg and Little Woods.
The band’s uniform consisted of long white pants turned up to look like knickers, black easy-walkers, or sneakers as they are now called, thin blue gabardine coats, black stockings and caps with black and white bands which looked very good on the young musicians. To stand out as the leader of the band I wore cream-coloured pants, brown stockings, brown easy-walkers and a cream-coloured cap.
In those days some of the social clubs paraded all day long. When the big bands consisting of old-timers complained about such a tiresome job, the club members called on us.
“Those boys,” they said, “will march all day long and won’t squawk one bit.”
They were right. We were so glad to get a chance to walk in the street that we did not care how long we paraded or how far. The day we were engaged by the Merry-Go-Round Social Club we walked all the way to Carrolton, a distance of about twenty-five miles. Playing like mad, we loved every foot of the trip.
The first day we paraded through my old neighbourhood everybody was gathered on the sidewalks to see us pass. All the whores, pimps, gamblers, thieves and beggars were waiting for the band because they knew that Dipper, Mayann’s son, would be in it. But they had never dreamed that I would be playing the cornet, blowing it as good as I did. They ran to wake mama, who was sleeping after a night job, so she could see me go by. They asked Mr Davis if they could give me some money. He nodded his head with approval, not thinking the money would amount to very much. But he did not know that sporting crowd. Those sports gave me so much that I had to borrow the hats of several other boys to hold it all. I took in enough to buy new uniforms and new instruments for everybody who played in the band. The instruments we had been using were old and badly battered.