Like many kids in New Orleans, Louis Armstrong grew up watching the Zulu parade. Little did he know then that he would be forever linked to the organization.
His earliest connection came in a session for Gennett Records on Oct. 5, 1923, in Richmond, Indiana. Armstrong recorded “Zulu’s Ball” as a member of King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band.
Eight years later, he came back to New Orleans to play a three-month engagement at the Suburban Gardens. With very little ceremony, he bought the Zulu baseball team new uniforms.
When Zulu made its first post-World War II appearance on March 5, 1946, Armstrong and his vocalist Velma Middleton rode without costumes as guests on the king’s float.
Three years later, Armstrong’s reign as the Zulu king would earn him the cover of Time, the first jazz musician to be so honored. In the feature story, which covered nearly six pages, Armstrong said, “There’s a thing I have 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 Zulu parade. After that I’ll be ready to die.”
Two nights before the 1949 parade, the Booker T. Washington High School Auditorium on South Roman Street was the site of the Zulu Ball, where Armstrong and his Esquire All Star Band performed. The group included noted musicians such as Earl “Fatha” Hines and Jack Teagarden. At the end of the concert, Armstrong and his queen, Bernice Oxley, were crowned.
On Tuesday, March 1, Armstrong’s dream was realized. Led by the king in a red Cadillac, the royal entourage arrived at the New Basin Canal and North Carrollton Avenue at 9 a.m. to board the “royal barge” loaned by the Jahncke Co. They sailed a short distance, docking near Jefferson Davis Parkway, where Armstrong boarded his mule-drawn king’s float, which was decorated with music notes.
The six-float parade traveled through predominantly black neighborhoods, where thousands of revelers, black and white, gathered to catch a glimpse of the jazz giant.
By noon, the parade arrived at Zulu’s official reviewing stand, the Gertrude Geddes Willis Funeral Home on Jackson Avenue. Armstrong dismounted from his float and hugged his grandmother. His wife Lucille provided ham sandwiches for the riders.
Five hours later, shortly before the parade ended at Bienville Street and North Claiborne Avenue, Armstrong’s gold-tinseled float fell apart on Orleans Avenue. Souvenir hunters quickly stripped it bare.
On Mardi Gras night, Armstrong performed a concert at the Coliseum — a rickety boxing and wrestling hall at North Roman and Conti streets. The next day, Ash Wednesday, the start of a long tour by bus found him and his band playing a one-night stand in Jackson, Mississippi.
Through the years, in print and on radio programs, Armstrong fondly remembered his Zulu reign.
Local writer Clint Bolton had the good fortune to capture some of the hometown hero’s musings on the high society he had encountered during a European tour.
“Yes, kings, queens, lords and ladies — lotta folks. All kinda folks. But you know, every now and then I’d laugh a little inside. Not out loud. Just to myself. They wanta call me Ambassador Satch. That’s OK. But I wonder what they do if I tell 'em I’m King Zulu.”