First There Was Satchmo

Paul Paolicelli, Contributing Writer

In over 40 years of journalism, you inevitably run into some of the world’s most famous, accomplished and sometimes notorious people. But, like young love, you never forget the first. And this was years before the famous would become routine…. But, like young love, you never forget the first.

I was fifteen years old and going to my first ever concert at Pittsburgh’s Syria Mosque, a beautifully constructed concert hall now a parking lot. My best friend from high school band, Bobby Serenek and I took two streetcars over to the Oakland section of the city. We met up with his trumpet teacher, Mr. Pasquarelli, considered the top trumpet teacher in the city. You see, Bobby was a phenom, he was so good that Julliard was after him before we finished high school and would go on, after military service, to the Metropolitan Opera where he became the orchestra manager. I was a happy tag-along as Mr. Pasquarelli had told him he could bring a guest. Just as I was a happy tag-along to Bobby sitting next to him in band.

Louis Armstrong was on the bill. Now you have to put yourself in that place and time and think about a wanna be trumpet player going to his very first concert to hear the greatest idol of his youth. It was like being invited to hear Gabriel play at the pearly gates. There were no pyrotechnics like at today’s concerts. No fireworks, no one held up a match or a cell phone or stood during the performance, we all sat mesmerized as the incomparable Mr. Armstrong, along with Billy Kyle – piano; Barney Bigard – clarinet; Trummy Young – trombone; Mort Herbert – bass; Danny Barcelona – drums played dozens of the hits we were all familiar with. I kept reminding myself that the vibrations reaching my ears in that wonderful hall were directly from his lips and golden horn. I was in the same hall with genius being physically touched by the sound. I knew then and know now that I could never really find the words to adequately describe that sensation.

After the concert, Mr. Pasquarelli said he had a surprise and took us back stage. As Pittsburgh’s top trumpet master, he had an in and Satchmo had apparently extended the invitation. We entered the dressing room and I stood there in absolute silence and awe just feet from the man who had sweat through his shirt, his tie askew, his voice low and rumbly, as he exchanged pleasantries in a very subdued manner with Mr. P who introduced Bobby and me. He nodded in our direction and said “hello boys.” The master’s voice directed to me. We nodded in return. It wasn’t a long visit; he was tired and Mr. P didn’t want to intrude so we left quickly. The music still played in mind on the streetcar rides home.

A few years later we moved to Southern California and my dad and I went to Disneyland for its “Dixieland” series in the late fall. Satchmo was the featured attraction (of course) and he first appeared on the Riverboat ride, high atop the structure, playing “When the Saints Go Marching In” as the boat came around a bend. Until his final days my dad talked about that evening as one of the greatest shows he’d ever seen. Louis Armstrong affected people that way. What a treasure that man was for all humanity and I was in the room with him for a few brief moments that have lasted a lifetime.