Louis Will Never Go Away Again

LOUIS ARMSTRONG DIED BELIEV- ing he really was born on July 4, 1900. Only in the '80s did his baptismal certificate turn up, proving the actual date was Aug. 4, 1901. But the man who reinvented American music should have the most auspicious birthdate of the 20th century; the new biography in stores last week, Laurence Bergreen's Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life (564 pages. Broadway. $30), accepts the new date, but its official publication day is still July 4. Clearly a no-brainer.

It was a big week for Armstrong anyhow. Last Friday at New York's JVC Jazz Festival, eight of his lost compositions suddenly burst into the canon, including a fuller version of his classic ""Weather Bird.'' In fact, for someone who died in 1971, Armstrong keeps a consistently high profile. The 1988 ""Good Morning, Vietnam'' soundtrack made his 1967 recording of ""What a Wonderful World'' a surprise hit, and the '90s have brought enough reissues to keep fans broke but happy. This year alone we've had ""The Great Chicago Concert: 1956,'' ""The Complete Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong'' and, best of all, ""The Complete RCA Victor Recordings.'' This indispensable set has such big-band numbers as the demented 1933 ""Laughin' Louie,'' for which he made the whole band toke up; his 1947 small-group comeback at New York's Town Hall and his 1930 collaboration with Blue Yodeler Jimmie Rodgers.

Some customers are the kind of folks who can whistle from memory the introduction to ""West End Blues.'' But others are just folks. Armstrong had top-10 hits in every decade for half a century, from ""Everybody Loves My Baby'' in the '20s to ""Mack the Knife'' in the '50s and ""Hello, Dolly'' in the '60s. Like Elvis Presley - and almost no one else - he still appeals equally to hard-core purists and to consumers of mainstream entertainment. Of course, like Elvis, he didn't make such snobby distinctions.

Armstrong grew up poor among pros- titutes and lowlifes in New Orleans. At 21, he was the talk of South Side Chicago, playing in his mentor King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band. So popular were the trademark two-cornet breaks he and Oliver worked out that they'd perform with handkerchiefs over their hands to hide their fingering from wanna-bes. At 41, his records and movie appearances had made him world-famous. This trajectory would have been disorienting for someone who wasn't stoned all the time; Armstrong somehow stayed down to earth, though he was a world-class eccentric. Bergreen is sensible about his lifelong marijuana use: it didn't seem to hurt his playing, but the damage to his lungs probably shortened his life. And he neither downplays nor overplays such quirks as his evangelizing on the benefits of a laxative called Swiss Kriss. ""Your first dose will be real heavy,'' Armstrong wrote in a flier recommending weight loss ""The Satchmo Way,'' ""in order to start blasting right away... After you get over your surprises and whatnots, you'll be very happy.''

But Bergreen's book is too slipshod to trust. Singer May Alix is ""Alix May''; the same review is quoted twice to describe two different concerts; the well-known banter on ""Gut Bucket Blues'' is misquoted. Bergreen is wrong about the date Armstrong's house in Queens was built, wrong about there being no music at his funeral, wrong about the difference between trumpet and cornet - and God knows what else.

You can get closer to the real Armstrong by hanging out at Queens College's Louis Armstrong Archive, in Flushing, N.Y. He was a pack rat, and the archive has 5,000 photographs, 84 scrapbooks and 350 pages of autobiographical writings. But the greatest treasure - and scariest responsibility - is the 650 reels of audiotape, in boxes decorated by Armstrong's own collages, and 240 acetate discs, mostly unissued. ""Louis, being a frugal guy, recorded at three and three-quarters inches per second, the slowest speed,'' says archive director Michael Cogswell. ""What that means is that there's up to four hours of signal on 650 tapes.'' The shelf life of these tapes is 30 or 40 years, and time's running out; Cogswell is now listening to every minute of the 2,600 hours of songs, jam sessions, reminiscences and dirty jokes. So far he's found at least 12 hours of unknown Armstrong music, from as early as 1937. ""And by "unknown,' I mean not only not on CD but not in any discography. I mean, we have killer big-band performances from the '30s, 1937 radio performances, terrific performances, and no other copies have ever surfaced. I'm working on getting those released so you can just walk into Tower Records. You shouldn't have to take the subway and bus out here.''

But the Armstrong music that came closest to oblivion is the compositions his former producer George Avakian found in the Library of Congress, where they'd been sent in manuscript for copyright registration - just titles and melody lines. (Armstrong's own lists suggest a dozen more might be lurking somewhere.) The two earliest date from 1923 and were apparently in the King Oliver band's book, though no recordings survive. New York trumpeter and early-jazz scholar Randy Sandke figured out chords and wrote arrangements, including Oliver-style two-cornet breaks, which he played last week with the young New Orleans trumpeter Nicholas Payton. (They used both Armstrong's old Selmer trumpet and Bix Beiderbecke's 1927 Vincent Bach cornet.) ""I think they're quite good tunes,'' says Sandke. ""I don't get a sense that these were things that were just discarded because they didn't measure up.''

Those lucky enough to hear them last week would agree. A brisk piece called ""Papa What You Are Trying to Do to Me I've Been Doing It for Years'' sounded like rambunctious proto-swing; the slower ""When You Leave Me Alone to Pine'' maintained the typical Oliverian balance between bluesiness and stateliness. ""Suggestions?'' Sandke asked Avakian at the first rehearsal, after a joyous run-through of ""Papa.'' ""Yeah,'' said Avakian. ""Be sure you put your handkerchiefs over the valves so nobody can see what you're doing.'' In this room, out at Queens College, on CD players all over the world, Louis Armstrong is still alive and kicking.