In June of 1926, when Louis Armstrong was 24-years-old, the trumpeter and his Hot Five entered the Okeh recording studio and cut “The King of the Zulus,” a tribute to the New Orleans social, aid and pleasure club Louis had joined six years before. In February of 1926, Armstrong and his band had recorded six sides for the Okeh label, including the historic “Cornet Chop Suey” and the novelty tune, “Heebie Jeebies,” which sold more than 40,000 copies and became Louis Armstrong’s first hit record.
While “The King of the Zulus” wasn’t exactly immersed in references to New Orleans Mardi Gras and, instead, featured the comic appearance of Jamaican Clarence Babcock popping in to inquire about hog bowels (“What you mean by interruptin’ my solo?” Louis demands), the song’s title alone is a tribute to Louis’ home boys. As Armstrong scholar Richard Spottswood has written, “The two vamp-less trumpet choruses that follow [Babcock’s inquiry] have an introspective, incendiary beauty rarely revealed elsewhere in Armstrong’s popular roles as virtuoso and comic.” Chitlins and “incendiary beauty”—that just about sums up Louis Armstrong. Little wonder that he considered the literal crowning achievement of his life to be his return to New Orleans in 1949 to reign as King Zulu.
“You know, I always wanted to be king,” Louis Armstrong told reporters. “Always lived for this day. I always been a Zulu, but King, man, this is the stuff.”
The week before Louis’ coronation, the trumpeter was featured as Time magazine’s cover subject, the first black American to be so honored. In the story, entitled “Louis the First,” Armstrong is emphatic about his devotion to the Krewe of Zulu: “There’s a thing I’ve dreamed of all my life and I’ll be damned if it don’t look like it’s about to come true—to be King of the Zulus’ parade. After that, I’ll be ready to die.”
Of course, the last time Louis had been in New Orleans for the Zulu parade, death was also on his mind. His volatile first wife, Daisy Parker, had threatened him with a razor as he stood at the corner of Liberty and Perdido Streets in full Zulu court regalia. Louis decided New Orleans wasn’t big enough for the two of them and in the interest of self-preservation, he took a job performing with Fate Marable’s band aboard Mississippi River excursion boats. Louis was making $55 a week and never looked back: “I had so much money I just plain didn’t know what to do with it.”
The first Carnival appearance of the Zulus was in 1909, with William Story reigning as king, wearing a lard can crown and waving a banana stalk “scepter.” The krewe, with its headquarters in the rear of a restaurant/bar in the 1100 block of Perdido Street, was originally organized as a benevolent aid society. After some members witnessed a musical comedy at the Pythian Theatre that included a skit about the Zulu tribe of Africa entitled “There Never Was and Never Will Be a King Like Me,” the Krewe of Zulu was born. Its members were laborers—not intellectuals—and its message was high parody. A decade before Marcus Garvey, Zulu was preaching its own gospel of Back-to-Africa, a comic Africa that never really was—Africans in blackface with white lips, grass skirts, big cigars and “diamond rings” made from crystal doorknobs. Considering the overtly racist times, it was revolutionary that impoverished black men would parade though the streets of New Orleans in such a fashion. It was totally, unquestionably “wack,” as modern hip-hoppers might conclude. In an era when black men were lynched for looking at white women “the wrong way.” Zulu was about as “in-your-face” as one could imagine.
In 1915, the Zulus first utilized floats, decorated with palmetto leaves. On September 20, 1916, the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club was formally incorporated with 22 charter members. Soon thereafter, Louis Armstrong became a member.
In 1949, the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club invited its most famous member to reign as king. Dizzy Gillespie was the new regent of the jazz world and, as he told a reporter, parading through New Orleans in blackface was degrading: “Louis is the plantation character that so many of us…younger men…resent.” To Louis, carousing the streets of his hometown as a monarch, clad in a red velvet tunic, black tights and a yellow cellophane “grass” skirt, the experience was divine.
Among the many collages Louis Armstrong created during his life is one that bears his membership card in the Zulu organization, a roster of Zulu royalty and the official parade route:
“The King will arrive at Canal St. and the river at 8:30. The parade will start at 9 o’clock sharp. The parade will proceed from Canal St. and the river over to Poydras St. Out Poydras St. to Baronne St. Up Baronne St. to Howard Ave. Out Howard Ave. to Carondelet St. Cross over Howard Ave. and continue to S. Rampart St. Down S. Rampart St. to Tulane Ave. Tulane Ave. to Saratoga St. Up Saratoga St. to Howard Ave. Howard Ave. to Dryades St. Up Dryades St. to St. Andrew St. Cross over and back down Dryades St. to Clio St. Clio to So. Rampart St. Up So. Rampart St. to Felicity St. Felicity to Dryades St. Up Dryades St. to Jackson Ave. Jackson Ave. to Magnolia. Down Magnolia St. to Clio St. Clio to So. Claiborne Ave. Down So. Claiborne Ave. to St. Philip St. Out St. Philip to St. Claude St. St. Claude St. to Dumaine St. Out Dumaine St. to Villere St. Villere St. to Orleans St. Out Orleans St. to Tonti St. Cross Over and continue to Galvez St. Out Galvez St. to Bienville St. Bienville St. to No. Roman St. Roman to Gravier St. where the parade will disband.”
According to a report in the March 2, 1949 edition of The Times-Picayune, on the previous cold Mardi Gras morning, Louis and associates arrived at South Carrollton and the New Basin Canal (site of the present-day Pontchartrain Expressway) in a Cadillac sedan and boarded a “royal” barge loaned to the Zulus by the Jahncke Company. The barge was filled with Louis’ “people” and proceeded down the canal to Jefferson Davis Parkway, where Louis got back into the Cadillac and was driven to Calliope Street and the six floats that comprised the Zulu parade. Obviously, the published Zulu parade route Armstrong saved was a bit apocryphal.
Among the celebrants awaiting King Louis’ arrival were the jazz-playing Souchon brothers—Harry and his surgeon brother Dr. Edmond. Edmond’s daughter reigned as Rex’s Queen on the same day and his bullfrog-ish voice can be heard on the perennial Carnival favorite, “If Ever I Cease To Love.” The Souchon brothers came armed with cameras and many of their candid photographs of Louis Armstrong as King Zulu now reside in the Louisiana State Museum Jazz Collection, housed at the old U.S. Mint on Esplanade Avenue. In the current “Mardi Gras: It’s Carnival Time In Louisiana” exhibit at the Presbytere, a selection of these photographs, as well as a silver Zulu coconut presented to New Orleans drummer Monk Hazel by Armstrong, is on display.
Attended by his queen, Bernice Oxley, Louis began parading down Calliope Street. One parade watcher (“a husky Negro,” as The Times-Picayune referred to him) knocked off Grand Marshal James Alexander’s top hat. Edward Hill, the Mayor of the Zulus, came to Alexander’s rescue, bashing the assailant’s head against a trailer until blood was drawn and throwing a gallon jug at the man, who fled the scene. King Louis, perched atop his golden float, proclaimed, “My, my, just like old times.”
The parade’s first stop was at the Jahncke Service Company on Howard Avenue near Carondelet. The king’s party tossed candy bars attached to tiny parachutes. At the Gertrude Geddes Willis funeral home on Jackson Avenue, King Louis received a golden key to the city from Gertrude Geddes Willis herself. The day before, Mayor deLesseps S. Morrison had presented Armstrong with a smaller, “official” key to the city and a certificate proclaiming him an honorary citizen.
At 2753 Perdido Street, Armstrong encountered his grandmother, Josephine Armstrong, and tossed her a silver coconut. “Nothin’ like this nowhere else in this world,” King Louis admonished his subjects. “Man, this is my town. This is the greatest city in the whole wide world.” The regent kissed some cousins, ate turkey and ham sandwiches, sipped champagne and the parade continued. To those royal followers who begged a command street performance from His Majesty, Louis advised: “Come ’round tonight to the ball at the Coliseum. Man, I’ll blow my top with my horn.” “Drunks were everywhere,” The Picayune reported, evidence that at least one aspect of Mardi Gras has changed very little in the past fifty years.
Around 5 p.m., King Louis’ float broke down at Orleans and North Prieur. Armstrong descended from his throne and left the scene in a black limousine. Within ten minutes, souvenir hunters stripped the royal float down to its wheels and chassis. The rest of the Zulu entourage wandered off in different directions. The short, happy reign of King Louis the First was history.