In 1946 Joe Glaser, Louis Armstrong’s manager secured a half decent film role for Satchmo – he had had some dogs over the last decade. It wasn’t just any old film role, but one that reflected the revival of interest in New Orleans jazz. For Glaser there was a double benefit as it was to also feature Billie Holiday in her first movie role – Billie was another of Glaser’s clients. The premise of the film was simple – how jazz was born in New Orleans in the early days of the 20th century and then conquered America; Louis led the band that featured throughout, Billie played a singing maid, which she was not happy about because of the racial stereotyping.
Louis is reunited with old friends Zutty Singleton, Kid Ory and Barney Bigard and work began on the film and soundtrack at United Artists in Hollywood in early September 1946.
While New Orleans failed to live up to expectations there are some good moments, and all of them are musical moments. ‘West End Blues’, ‘Basin Street Blues’ and ‘Dippermoth Blues’ are among the titles that the seven-piece band perform in the movie. Best of all is when Louis sings and backs Billie Holiday on ‘Do you know what it means to Miss New Orleans’. Two of the greatest black voices of the century – arguably the two most distinctive. It was not a smash at the box office when it premiered in April 1947 it did help to propel the New Orleans revival ever onwards.
“Billie and I are doing quite a bit of acting (ahem); she’s also my sweetheart in the picture. Now isn’t that something? The great Billie Holiday, my sweetheart.”
As filming came to end Armstrong’s record label, Victor unconvinced that big bands were over had Louis record a couple of tracks with an orchestra. In two minds they also had him record two tracks with his Dixieland Seven, including a version of ‘Do you know what it means to Miss New Orleans’ with the band from the film, with the exception of Singleton who was replaced by Minor Hall replaced on drums. It was the perfect way to round off the recording year while simultaneously it was a clarion call – for Louis there was to be no more big band, small would very much become beautiful.