Satchmo in St. John’s: Louis Armstrong’s Lost 1959 Newfoundland Visit
Originally published in December, 2018.
Louis Armstrong is perhaps best known as one of the most influential trumpeters, distinct vocalists, and accomplished composers in the history of popular American jazz. Friends, fans and peers knew him as Satchmo, Pops, or just plain Louie. After nearly thirty years in American pop music, Armstrong had earned one more nickname and job title by the 1950s: Jazz Ambassador. As an incredibly successful American musician with a global fanbase, Satchmo became a cultural ambassador for the USA, and he took his charismatic personality and boisterous Dixieland stage show on an unrelenting tour across international stages.
In 1959, amidst a six month European residency, Armstrong was sponsored by the Royal Canadian Air Force to travel to St. John’s, Newfoundland for two performances at the Memorial Stadium. Prior to our digging through newspaper archives and piecing together Armstrong’s visit, the mere fact that the show ever happened has become largely lost in the pages of Newfoundland’s musical history.
“Louis Armstrong, better known to the general public as Satchmo will be visiting St. John’s in the early part of June,” the Youth Parade pages of The Daily News printed on May 30th, 1959. “He and his famous Jass band will be here in St. John’s on June 3rd and 4th at the St. John’s Memorial Stadium.”
This was a big deal. Not only was Armstrong a huge name for local headlines, but the concept of jazz music was seemingly still so foreign to mainstream Newfoundland culture that the Daily News erroneously use the dated spelling of “jass” on more than one occasion.
Piecing together Satchmo’s itinerary from 1959, we can mark the early leg of his extensive European tour with a performance at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw on January 7th, 1959. An audio recording of the show was later released as Louis Armstrong Live in Amsterdam 1959. There is video of Armstrong playing in Germany in February of 1959, and a Jazz Icons DVD was released in 2006 of a Louis & His All Stars concert in Belgium a month later in March.
By April of 1959, Armstrong’s European travels took a detour for a string of shows in the Middle East, including a performance in Egypt where local newspapers ran stories falsely accusing Armstrong of being an Israeli spy. Armstrong’s willingness to play in any country, to any audience, was constantly called into question. While reportedly smoking hashish with colleagues and journalists in Beirut during his 1959 tour, Armstrong battled off the divisive questioning with the quip, “you see that horn? That horn ain’t prejudiced,” Armstrong said. “A note’s a note in any language.”
Armstrong can be placed in concerts in the Netherlands in May of 1959, as well as more dates in Germany just weeks prior to his Newfoundland visit.
Finally, in June of 1959, Satchmo took the long trip from Europe to the most easterly point of North America — all on the dollar of the Royal Canadian Air Force. Armstrong stayed at the Kenmount Motel in St. John’s where he openly met with the press outside of his room on the morning of June 3rd.
Speaking with journalists from The Daily News, Armstrong shared stories from his upbringing, and reiterated his points on jazz being an international language, calling it a communicative form with “no interpreters needed”
Armstrong chuckled with reporters on the topic of “insuring his famous lips”, and spoke of his love of travel, his inability to take vacations, and his motivations for performing live beyond monetary gain.
“We often play for nothing, or sometimes just take a percentage of the profit if the weather is bad or the audience is small,” Armstrong told The Daily News outside of his St. John’s motel. “The main thing is, we play”.
This would much be the case for his visit to Newfoundland.
According to a report by The Daily News on June 6th, 1959, The Royal Canadian Air Force Association were “very pleased with the attendance at his shows”, though they remarked “the first night the attendance wasn’t too good at the show, due mainly because of the inclement weather”, but noted “Thursday night the attendance was much better and everyone seemed to enjoy the show”.
Satchmo took the time to speak with the Youth Parade columnist at The Daily News where he admitted the highlight to his trip to Newfoundland was the fresh salmon he was catered, and chit-chatted about Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra being his favourite vocalists. Of the new generation, Armstrong told Youth Parade that he liked Elvis Presley, but thought his “chorus is much too loud accompanying him”.
Louis Armstrong was an avid fan and collector of music. According to The Daily News, Armstrong bought “$80 worth of recordings in downtown St. John’s, including some Newfoundland folk songs”.
Likewise, Armstrong told the Youth Parade column that he had planned to select some Newfoundland folk songs, and “add a little jazz to them”.
“Who knows, one of these days we might be hearing Satchmo’s version of “We’ll Rant and We’ll Roar” and without a about it’ll be a best seller.”
Without a recorded account of the setlist Armstrong played for the two nights at the Memorial Stadium in St. John’s, it is best to look to the common formats of his European dates in the months leading up to his Newfoundland visit. Satchmo standards like “Mack the Knife“, “Basin Street Blues“, “Now You Has Jazz“, and “When the Saints Go Marching In” were an integral part of his concerts in 1959, so it is safe to assume his St. John’s set mirrored much the same.
Armstrong left Newfoundland to fulfill a few obligations south of the border in Texas, and then quickly returned to Europe to resume his Ambassador of Jazz duties with a series of concert dates in Italy. It was here that Satchmo’s marathon of high profile appearances in the year of ’59 took to a screeching and unexpected halt. In July, just over a month after his St. John’s performance, Armstrong suffered a heart attack in Spoleto, Italy.
Armstrong held a steady diet that included a passionate love for hearty foods, an abundance of cigarettes, large amounts of marijuana — a vice he notoriously branded as “better than whiskey“— and of course, a love for Swiss Kriss laxatives that was so strong that he became the poster boy for their advertisements. This lifestyle was beginning to catch up on the near fifty year old musician who was pushing his body to the limits with extensive travel.
Even though the heart attack was serious enough to have friends and family rushing to his side, The Jazz Ambassador stood by his stubbornly admirable work ethic. Less than two months from his heart attack, Satch was performing on the Ed Sullivan Show, a performance he had anticipated during his conversations with The Dailty News.
Despite medical complications, Louis Armstrong closed out a prolific 1959. By October, Pops was back collaborating with jazz vocalist Velma Middleton, playing Air Force bases, and even kicking off the new year of 1960 on NBC television with a short performance in New York.
Armstrong stayed prolific until the end. In 1967, he broke the UK charts at the age of 66 with what would become his most monumental single: “What a Wonderful World“. Continuing to tour tirelessly, it would take not one, but two heart attacks in 1971 to put a permanent road block to Louis Armstrong ‘s ambitious journey. Armstrong died on July 6th, 1971, just a month away from his 70th birthday.
While Newfoundlanders have the tendency to cherish and champion cultural moments in our island’s history of arts and culture, there are many memories, such as Louis Armstrong gracing the province, that have slipped through the cobblestone cracks. In our Secret East Archival Series, our aim is to continue to salvage these slices of Atlantic lore, and provide context for some important moments that should never be forgotten.