Originally published in 2001
On this, the 100th birthday of the greatest musical genius America has ever produced, it’s appropriate to recall all that Louis Armstrong has given us. Besides presaging swing with his work in the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra in 1924 and laying the foundation for bebop with his flights of improvisation, Armstrong was the most influential singer of his time, inventing a whole language of sound. He gave sophistication to jazz, and there’s not a player today who doesn’t make use of something created by Satchmo, as he was called for his “satchel mouth.” New Orleans just renamed its airport for the fifth-grade dropout, who died in his sleep in 1971 while recuperating from a heart attack.
And in a small house in East Austin, a 91-year-old man has memories of a more personal nature. “Grits and gravy,” says Israel Jacob Fontaine, with a scratchy laugh. “As soon as we’d walk in a restaurant Louis Armstrong would say, ‘Gimme some grits and gravy.’ Man loved to eat.”
Fontaine, the grandson of Travis County’s first African American publisher, Jacob Fontaine, met Armstrong in early 1931 when Armstrong played the Cotton Club. The dance hall (previously home to the Royal Auditorium) at 817 E. 11th St. is now a vacant lot. After hearing the opening act, the Dixie Musicmakers, Armstrong asked Fontaine, the band’s trumpet player, if he wanted to join his 14-piece touring band. “Of course I said yes,” Fontaine says. “I knew there was a lot I could learn from him. I’d never heard anyone play the horn like that before.” Austin High senior Tommy Hill remembers standing behind a rope at the Cotton Club with the handful of other white kids, amazed at the powerful performance. “He played 20 choruses of ‘Tiger Rag,’ ” recalls the 87-year-old. “He was sweatin’ like crazy, with a white towel across his back, but he just kept playing.” A local radio station broadcast Armstrong’s Cotton Club performances, and when the bandleader sent a message to his mother in New Orleans, Fontaine had to tell him that those airwaves didn’t go any farther than the Austin area.
Armstrong returned to Austin for an appearance at the Driskill Hotel on Oct. 12, 1931. The show was noted in Ken Burns’ “Jazz” documentary and accompanying book. In the audience that night was Charles L. Black, who would later be plaintiffs’ attorney in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education (Topeka, Kan.) decision that ruled segregated public schools unconstitutional. Armstrong was just starting to gain national recognition in 1931. Five years earlier, he had a couple of minor hits with his Hot Five studio band,
including “Heebie Jeebies,” which would usher in scat singing, a wordless singing that sounds like a mix of blues and jazz. Legend has it that Armstrong invented scat because he had dropped the lyric sheet and had to improvise.
Then in late 1929 he had his first major hit, a version of Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’ ” from Broadway’s “Hot Chocolates” revue. He also wrote the pop smash “I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate,” but he sold the rights for $50. The way Armstrong made most of his money was playing live, but early on he couldn’t afford the talents of session players like Earl Hines and Kid Ory, so he put together pickup bands or fronted existing outfits. It wasn’t until mid-1931 in Chicago that Armstrong assembled his first full-time big band (which would, two years later, feature Austin-born piano man Teddy Wilson). But before that, he’d given youngsters like Fontaine the times of their lives.
“He just loved people,” says Fontaine, whose step-grandson, former NBA player Orlando Smart, drives in from Pflugerville every morning to fix breakfast for him and also takes him to his dialysis appointments. “That’s what I remember most (about Armstrong) — him always being in a good mood. He had a big ol’ smile for everyone.”
The band traveled by train, segregated from white passengers, but if the racism of the times bothered Armstrong, he didn’t show it, Fontaine says. By the time a homesick Fontaine returned to live in Austin after a few weeks on the road, Armstrong’s star was on the rise, along with his asking price. “There was a small club in East Austin called the Blue Knights, and they took a collection to try to get Louis Armstrong to play,” Fontaine recalls. “They wrote him a letter that said they could pay him $100 to play, and he wrote back and said he’d play for $100, but they’d have to come up with a lot more money to also get the band.” After working for a printer for several years and playing music at Rosewood Park on Saturday nights, Fontaine followed a family tradition by starting a newspaper in 1938 called the Austin Express.
His father George, who’d died a year earlier, founded the Silver Messenger, and in 1876 George’s father, Jacob Fontaine, published the first issue of the Gold Dollar at 2402 San Gabriel St., in the heart of the freedman’s settlement of Wheatsville. A slave for the first 57 years of his life, Jacob named his paper after the gold coin his sister gave him when he was freed in 1865. Two years later, he organized Austin’s First Baptist Church for Colored and in 1873 the Mount Zion Baptist Church. “I gave up playing jazz in 1943 when I joined the ministry,” Israel Fontaine says.
That year he married his wife Dora Lee (who died in 1976) and took a job with a printing company in Fort Worth. When Fontaine returned to Austin in 1959, he led the parish at another church his grandfather founded, St. Stephen’s Waters Park. “Preaching and publishing — that’s in my blood,” he says. When he turned 90, this seventh of nine kids received a congratulatory letter from State Rep. Dawnna Dukes of Austin. But giving true perspective to his longevity were not Dukes’ words, but a remembrance. “Me and my wife used to baby-sit Ben Dukes, Dawnna’s daddy,” he says with a big ol’ smile.