Local dentist recalls long friendship with matzah-loving jazz legend

As a young San Francisco dentist, Lewis Taich, now 86, received a phone call from an emergency service one Saturday night in the early 1950s.

Louis Armstrong

Louis Armstrong, the legendary jazz cornet and trumpet player, needed to see a dentist — ASAP. “He had knocked out a front tooth right in the middle of a club performance,” Taich, now of Tiburon, recalled.

Taich responded to the call, fixed his new patient’s immediate problem and over the next two decades rebuilt Armstrong’s entire mouth. He also built a treasured friendship with “Satchmo.” The two had much in common, and occasionally even spoke to each other in Yiddish.

Armstrong was befriended by a Jewish family in New Orleans when he was about 6 or 7. Armstrong’s father left before he was born, and he saw little of his mother, so the Karnofsky family, immigrants from Lithuania, gave him odd jobs and were said to have treated him like a member of the family.

In appreciation, Taich said, “Louie wore a Star of David around his neck for years.” Taich said it was given to him for good luck by another Jew who played a significant part in Armstrong’s life, his manager, Joe Glaser.

According to Lyndalee Korn of Los Altos, it was her grandfather, Louis Karnofsky, who hired the young Armstrong to ride with him in his wagon and help deliver stone coal. “Armstrong worked for my grandfather for years,” Korn said. “My grandparents often fed him, and treated him like family.”

Dr. Martin Carr, who happens to live not far from Taich in Marin, is a grandnephew of Louis Karnofsky, and he has also heard the “Satchmo” stories throughout his life. He said Karnofsky’s son Morris, who owned a music store in New Orleans, was the person who gave Armstrong his first cornet, a story that Korn confirmed.

Armstrong always revered the Jewish people, and once said he would have starved without them. (One of his favorite foods was matzah; he reportedly always kept a box handy for late-night snacks.)

Taich said Armstrong told him he was well aware from an early age of the prejudice endured by the Karnofskys and their fellow New Orleans Jews. He was impressed by the determination and solidarity the Jews exhibited in the face of adversity, Taich said.

Taich recalled fondly the many visits “Ol’ Satchmo” made to his office at 450 Sutter St. street “to have his chops fixed.”

He added, “He always came in carrying a white handkerchief in his right hand, and with two or three people who would wait for him in my waiting room. Whenever Louie had an appointment, I cancelled all my others and spent the day with him.”

The dentist attended Armstrong’s funeral in Queens, N.Y., in 1971, and nowadays he enjoys looking over his stack of “Satchmo” pictures and letters from Armstrong over the years.

Taich was born in the 1920s, the youngest of seven children whose father was an immigrant shoemaker from Poland. He joined up with the Navy Reserves right after Pearl Harbor, and got called up in August 1950 for the Korean War.

He ended up participating in more than 60 air evacuation missions and becoming the only Navy dentist to be given a Bronze Air Medal, awarded for meritorious conduct in flight operations.

“I’ve never been afraid of anything,” Taich said. “I really wanted to go and do as much as I could.”

In civilian life, Taich practiced dentistry for 45 years, retiring in 1988. Now he keeps busy by working out seven days a week — his weight hasn’t changed since high school.

“And I’ve been playing golf for 75 years,” Taich said. “I don’t feel old at all.”

Taich and his wife of 54 years, Trudy, attend Tiburon’s Congregation Kol Shofar, and Trudy has long been active with ORT. For almost 50 years, they were members at Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco.

“Rabbi Saul White was a good friend,” Taich said, “and our families celebrated many wonderful seders together.”