An Interview with Writer Mick Carlon
Novelist and educator Mick Carlon was at work on his first novel, Travels with Louis, when he met Jack Bradley, a longtime friend and personal photographer of Louis Armstrong. Carlon quickly won Bradley’s respect for “spreading the gospel of Louis,” and another great friendship was born. On Sunday, August 7, 2016, the two men will appear at this year’s Satchmo SummerFest Symposium. They will discuss Bradley’s relationship with Pops and his vast collection of Armstrong photos, memorabilia, and assorted ephemera, currently housed at the Louis Armstrong House in Queens. Carlon talked with Brian Boyles of Louisiana Cultural Vistas about Bradley, Armstrong, and friendship.
When did Jack Bradley meet Louis Armstrong?
Jack was born on Cape Cod in 1934. There was a father figure in his life, a man named Bob Hayden. Mr. Hayden first exposed Jack to Louis Armstrong 78s. Jack heard Pops live a couple of times in Hyannis and Boston before he joined the Merchant Marines. When he came out, he decided to take his camera and move to New York City in 1958.
To work as a professional photographer?
He wasn’t quite sure but that was one of his talents. Then he met a woman, Jeann Failows, known by everyone as Roni, and they moved in together. It just so happened that Roni worked in the Armstrong organization, helping Louis with his fan mail. Louis was already Jack’s musical idol, and now he got to meet him face-to-face.
Number one, Jack’s very cool. Number two, he’s very salty and crusty. And number three, he’s brutally honest. Unlike a lot of other people, he didn’t want anything from Pops. He didn’t want money. He didn’t want free merchandise. Just hanging out with Pops was enough.
Who else is in the Armstrong inner circle at this point?
Joe Glaser, who Jack said was a rough guy to deal with, very profane. Jack’s kind of profane himself, so I can only imagine what Glaser was like. Jack talks about Frenchy [the Glazer associate Pierre Tallerie], and the various members of the All-Stars, as well as Jack’s girlfriend, Roni.
They meet in 1959 and Pops passes away in 1971. Jack is around for this later period in Armstrong’s career. What have you learned from him about Pops’ day-to-day life?
Being on the road constantly. The times when he was home, even though Pops enjoyed his den—and Jack spent many an hour in his den—he was itching to get back on the road again. Jack took this incredible photo of Louis in 1966 at Louis’ front steps. He’s got a trumpet case in his hand and this big smile on his face. I asked Jack, “Where was he going?” and Jack said, “Going to a gig.”
The man loved to play and he genuinely loved people. Jack said after a show, Pops would stay hour upon hour, greeting people in his dressing room, sometimes just wearing his boxer shorts with a handkerchief around his head. Signing autographs, talking to people, seeing old acquaintances, or meeting new people. Jack said it wasn’t an act. Louis genuinely loved meeting people. If the fan was a kid, he’d ask “What grade are you in?” If the kid was a musician, he’d ask how often they practiced. The New Orleans trumpeter Jerry Pashin grows emotional when he talks about how friendly and supportive Pops was to him when they met in 1964.
It really shines through in the collection, that human quality. It’s a rare thing for a genius to enjoy that accessibility. How do you think it reflects in Louis’ music?
Louis’ music never lost its street quality. Even when he had strings behind him, as in “La Vie en Rose,” when the vocal kicks in, he brings the New Orleans street with him. Jack said that Pops saw so much as a kid, vice and violence, things that 99.9% of children don’t see, so nothing in humanity surprised him.
How does the Jack Bradley Collection impact our understanding of Armstrong?
I think a lot of the photos show a hardworking, gigging musician, and they also show a kind, spiritual man. There’s a spiritual quality that comes out in Jack’s photos. He trusted Jack, sometimes didn’t even know Jack was taking his picture because Jack was such an insider.
Jack once took a photo of him from behind, naked. Jack was afraid to show it to him, thinking he’d hit the roof. Louis looked at it—Joe Glaser ripped up another copy—and he burst out laughing and said, “Print up a thousand of them.” He loved it. Someone once said, “Nothing human was alien to Louis Armstrong.”
The thing about Louis Armstrong was, this was a human being just as great as he was a musician. Jack says a big stack of envelopes would go out on the 1st or 2nd of the month. Jack would say, “What’s in the envelopes?” At first Louis was a little humble. Then he told Jack, “Some of my friends didn’t make it financially, or their widows are having a tough time.” He was sending out money to help so many people with their rent, their mortgages, their groceries.
You’ve become great friends with Jack, interviewed him many times. What are you still learning about Louis from Jack?
The question I asked Jack a lot when I was researching my book, Traveling with Louis, was, How did Pops react to racism?
Jack said when it happened to others, like in the case of Little Rock [during the 1957 Civil Rights protests], he hit the roof. When it happened to him, he’d grow sad and shake his head. He’d say, “That cat just doesn’t understand what life’s about.”
Jack was with Pops in Connecticut, 1961 or 1962. Jack was driving and Louis had to pee. They pulled into a gas station. Here’s Louis Armstrong, famous for 35 years. He’s met royalty, the pope, and he goes off and comes back in no time. Jack says, “That was quick.” Louis says, “That cat wouldn’t let me use the restroom. He said ‘Mr. Armstrong, I know who you are, I love your music, but I don’t let no coloreds use my restroom.’” And Jack was ready to go engage in fisticuffs with the bastard. Louis said, “Keep driving, we’ll find a place.” Louis was quiet for a while, then he shook his head and said, “That cat doesn’t know what life’s about yet.”
What else stands out about Jack Bradley?
He’s so brutally honest. He’ll say something that’ll make your hair turn white, and then the next moment he’s giving you a hug. He’s just a great guy.
The highest compliment Jack gives anyone is, “This person is spreading the gospel of Louis Armstrong.” Anyone who’s spreading the gospel is a friend of Jack Bradley’s. What he’s done to keep the flame burning bright is remarkable. It’s been an honor knowing him.
A veteran public school teacher, Mick Carlon’s novels—Riding on Duke’s Train; Travels with Louis; and Girl Singer—are now in the curriculum of more than 60 schools across the country and in Europe. Mick lives on Cape Cod with his wife, Lisa, and their two daughters, Hannah and Sarah. Visit mickcarlon.com to learn more.