"By jove, Louis is as great as his instrument!"
New York Herald Tribune (5/24/56)
In May, 1956 Louis Armstrong's All Stars were in Great Britain playing the last gigs of a long and tiring overseas tour. The trip was sponsored by CBS and Edward R. Murrow, and would produce material for the United Artists video Satchmo The Great and the record albums Ambassador Satch and Satchmo The Great. In 1955 Murrow had visited Africa and shot two hours of film for his CBS-TV show See It Now which included some coverage of the Gold Coast. He now desired to do a short sequel and requested that Louis and his entourage stop off in Ghana for two days before returning to the United States. Murrow's idea was to shoot film of Louis walking on the beach and playing a solo in E.T. Mensah's Paramount open air bar, where he had enjoyed himself while filming in 1955.
In 1954 the first national elections had been held in the Gold Coast as an initial step in the transition from British colonial rule to independence as the new nation of Ghana (March, 1957). Now, in 1956, preparations were underway for another set of general elections. Also, the country was preparing for a Royal Visit later that summer, and working on plans for the Volta River Project. It was in these circumstances that James Moxon, the 35 year old Director of The Department of Information Services, received Murrow's request for assistance. The British Colonial Office had sent Moxon to the Gold Coast more than a decade earlier; he had made many friends and was well-liked by the local population. He no doubt was a significant factor in the immense success of Satchmo's visit.
Robert Raymond, an Australian, was a member of the Department of Information Services, on home leave in May 1956, when Moxon recalled him to assist with the Armstrong visit. In his excellent book on Ghana - Black Star In The Wind - he provides a detailed account of the whirlwind tour. As he recalled, soon after his return to Accra, about a week before Satchmo's arrival:
"That night I went round to James's house. We played a few Armstrong records, just to get into the mood, then worked out a programme. We were forced to recognize that there was a fixed number of hours between Armstrong's arrival at nine a.m. on Thursday morning and his departure at noon on Saturday. We reluctantly conceded that some of these hours would have to be set aside for eating, and probably for sleeping (although James, I think, placed great reliance on the legend that jazz musicians, by taking narcotics, could do without sleep)." Next day James cabled the programme to New York: FIRST DAY MET AIRPORT ENTHUSIASTIC CROWDS THEN FORMAL CALLS GOVERNOR PRIME MINISTER AFTERNOON DRIVE THROUGH CITY EVENING PRESS PARTY NIGHT OPENAIR CONCERT THIRTY THOUSAND PEOPLE AFTERWARDS VISIT NIGHTCLUBS SECOND DAY STUDIO INTERVIEW LUNCH UNIVERSITY THEN OPENAIR DISPLAY TRADITIONAL DANCING DRUMMING EVENING PRIME MINISTERS PARTY NIGHT THEATRE CONCERT FINALLY JAMSESSION PARAMOUNT THIRD MORNING ON BEACH PROCESSION TO AIRPORT FOR DEPARTURE [page 216]Soon, the CBS TV film crew arrived. Gene De Poris, leader of the CBS team, was not happy with the hectic schedule. He was adamant that the nighttime Open Air Concert be filmed during daytime for lighting reasons. This was agreed to, and fortunately so, because more than 100,000 fans would turn out for the afternoon performance, on a work day! Despite De Poris' protestations, the remainder of the busy schedule remained unchanged, as Moxon kept reminding him that "In Africa, Armstrong is more than a band leader, he is a symbol."
For Louis' arrival at the airport Moxon had invited and provided transport for all 13 of Accra's nightclub bands. Shortly before the plane arrived the bands took up their positions and the crowd, which would reach 10,000, slowly began to build. Robert Raymond describes the scene after touch down, as the 13 bands strike up a highlife - "All For You, Louie, All For You":
"Then the spirit took charge. The crowd suddenly swarmed over the fence into the prohibited tarmac area, and the two cultures met with explosive zest. The police and customs officers watched helplessly. De Poris and his men sweated and shot film frantically. [Ajax Bukana] gallantly rushed to greet Velma Middleton, Armstrong's twenty-stone blues singer. He took her by the hand, bowed gracefully, and led her past the crowded airport fence in an absurd, joyous gavotte. A dozen trumpet players swung in behind Armstrong. They blew their hardest in his ear as they marched along. The Americans, now with the tune between their teeth, blew as hard as anyone, led by Armstrong's swinging, driving trumpet. As the animated mass of players and singing people moved across the tarmac, gathering strength and impetus all the time, the noise and the clamor rose to the skies in the greatest paean of welcome Accra had ever known." [page 225]
Lucille and Louis Armstrong's entourage included vocalist Velma Middleton, clarinetist Edmond Hall, trombonist Trummy Young, pianist Billy Kyle, drummer Barrett Deems, bassist Jack Lesberg, valet Doc Pugh, personal physician Alexander Schiff, and Ernie Anderson of Asscociated Booking. Following the exuberant welcome, the Armstrong party was taken by motorcade to their quarters in Accra. The Armstrongs, staying with James Moxon, then departed with Moxon for a two and one half hour luncheon with Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah, while the remainder of the group attended the press reception. Raymond then received an ominous message - the Old Polo Ground - about the size of three soccer fields and the site of the 2:30 p.m. open air concert - had been deserted at 1 p.m..
As Robert Raymond and the All Stars started the drive to the concert site at 2 p.m., Robert wondered how many fans had assembled since 1 p.m.. As the Polo Ground came into view, he and the band members were stunned - the entire area for several hundred yards in each direction was filled with people. According to Raymond: "It was an overwhelming, almost frightening, sight." At 3:15 p.m., the Prime Minister's car finally delivered the Armstrongs. As the band began to play amidst wild cheering, the crowd tried to spread out to dance. Eventually, the speaker system was disabled and, as people at the far end of the field attempted to move closer, the band stand and camera equipment came into danger. After several numbers it was necessary for the band to depart.
The next scheduled event was a reception for the Armstrongs at James Moxon's. Raymond recalled:
"I looked in at James's reception. Armstrong was the most famous person to visit the Gold Coast since the Prince of Wales in the nineteen twenties. Everybody in Accra we had invited, and some we had not, stood round talking to Armstrong and his men. Even [Phillip Gbeho]had overcome his distaste for brass bands" [page 233]
Raymond soon departed for E.T. Mensah's to check on the arrangements for the evening's jam session, scheduled to begin at nine o'clock. There, he found Gene De Poris and E.T. arguing about space for the cameras. E.T. had packed the Paramount with many extra tables and they were being occupied at a rapid rate. "Clear the floor!", De Poris cried, "we need room to work!" All to no avail. Finally James Moxon arrived with the Armstrongs.
"The rest of the evening went very well. The atmosphere and the music were so infectiously happy that nobody felt like getting worked up. The American musicians spent hours on the bandstand playing with the local men. Trummy Young who must have had an unquenchable enthusiasm for music, played every number. He was the comedian of the group, and occasionally finished a frantic solo lying on his back, working the slide of his trombone with his foot." [page 234]
At midnight the Armstrongs and James left for home. Raymond took the remaining members of the band to another club - The Weekend In Havana - which was filled with patrons that had earlier paid to see Louis Armstrong and his All Stars. Trummy Young immediately picked up his horn and obliged them. Everyone made it home safely by 8 a.m..
Friday morning, the Armstrongs visited an Accra school. (Looking for more info on this, and also a picture.) At noon Friday, the All Stars were taken to Legon Hall at the University for a luncheon. After preliminary greetings and a cocktail, the band was led into a great hall filled with students dressed in royal blue gowns. The All Stars took their seats at the large head table. The Master of Legon Hall, who took pride in his ability to establish immediate rapport with people by means of a single question, turned to Louis:
"And I suppose you've had an enthusiastic response to your - ah - music wherever you've been, Mr. Armstrong?" he said gravely. Armstrong paused, holding a chicken leg. "There's cats everywhere, y'know!", he said, and went on with his lunch. [page 237]
After a brief silence, Barrett Deems, who had been boosted onto the shoulders of admiring fans while sightseeing in Accra the previous afternnon, explained that he liked Africa because it was "drummin' country", and because the drums were made of wood. His explanation was accompanied by a drumming demonstration using available utensils, various objects to be found on the table, and the wooden table itself.Barrett Deems Tribute Site
Upon arriving at Achimota College for the traditional drumming and dancing exhibition, the Armstrong party was welcomed by Phillip Gbeho and Beattie Casely-Hayford, the secretary of the Arts Council. These two somehow had been able to bring together Chiefs and representatives from all regions of Ghana and work out a seating plan that seemed to satisfy everyone. The Armstrong group was led to its place beneath a large umbrella.
"Then the entertainment began." "Groups from each region, accompanied by their own drummers and musicians, came into the arena and danced in front of the visitors...The Americans watched, entranced. It was a great and moving tribute to a black man from beyond the seas." "Louis and Lucille Armstrong sat sweating in the heat but loving it. They had Phillip Gbeho's small children perched on their laps, and drank from the gourd bowls of palm wine that were passed round. Edmond Hall sat quietly enjoying himself: 'We spend all our lives going round the world entertaining people,' he said in his gentle voice, 'but this is the first time anybody ever entertained us.' " [page 239]
Then, when the last tribe had paid its tribute, Casely-Hayford introduced "Mr. Armstrong, the great American musician." The band opened with Indiana, but there was no response from the audience...they had never heard music like this. Next, a number at a slower tempo...still no response.
"Then, away across the far side of the arena, a solitary figure arose. It was an old, old man, with a stave, from some northern tribe. Slowly, gravely, he advanced towards the band, in a kind of shuffle, attuned somewhere deep in his mind to the beat of the music. We waited. Was this the catalyst that would fuse the cultures? It was not enough. So an American took the initiative. Lucille Armstrong stood up and went out into the arena to join the old man. Side by side, under the bell of Armstrong's swinging trumpet they slowly danced, as Lucille watched the old man's feet shuffling in the dust, and matched his steps. She was an odd but significant figure in her crisp New York dress, dancing with the old tribesman in his cotton robe. This was the turning point. As the American women and the man of Africa danced, more and more people from around the arena got up and joined in." [page 240]
Shortly thereafter, Louis espied a women in the arena who reminded him of his mother. After finishing his number, he ran to James Moxon and told him what he had seen, saying "I know it now, Jim. I know I came from here, way back." Upon returning to James' house, Louis sent off a number of telegrams to friends in the United States explaining what he had seen.
That evening, the All Stars were the honored guests at the Prime Minister's reception, after which they went to the Opera House for their final performance. The last number of the evening, Black And Blue, was dedicated to Prime Minister Nkrumah. Following the show Beattie Casely-Hayford presented gifts to the band and gave a short speech of thanks.
After the concert, the Armstrongs and Raymond returned to James' house. Lucille went to bed while the others listened to James' Hot Five records. Finally, James and Robert retired leaving Louis alone in the living room listening to his old recordings.
The final event was a brunch at Moxon's house, and most of the people who had met the All Stars stopped in to say goodbye. Louis explained his dieting techniques to James (20 stone) and left him with a lifetime supply of Swiss Kriss. On the way to the airport the entire group stopped for a while at Christiansborg Castle for a final moment of relaxation before the flight. No farewell had been arranged at the airport - it had not been necessary; a number of the bands and a large crowd from Accra had already gathered to say goodbye.
"Perhaps the most celebrated - and certainly the most popular - visitors the Gold Coast ever had stayed only two days." [page 215]
G. Giddins, Satchmo (New York: Doubleday, 1988). p. 156, 161.
N. Hentoff, Liner Notes, Satchmo The Great, Columbia Records, (CL 1077, 1956).
M. Jones, J. Chilton, Louis: the Louis Armstrong story 1900-1971, (New York: Da Capo Press, 1988), pp. 31-33.
M. Miller, ed., Louis Armstrong: A Cultural Legacy (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994). p. 89, 129.
R. Raymond, There's cats everywhere, y'know!, Black Star In The Wind (London: MacGiddon and Kee, 1960), pp. 197 to 249.
N.B.: The Satchmo The Great LP is also available as a (reasonably priced) Legacy Records CD, distributed by SONY (Columbia Jazz Masterpieces).
N.B.: The United Artists video, Satchmo The Great, has never been released. Excerpts have been seen here and there. If you are the President and/or CEO of United Artists, or work in the duplicating dept., please release on VHS cassette immediately. Thanks. If you are a Satchmo fan visit the MGM UA site and bug them (Don't worry, the lion is not real). Thanks.
December 27, 1997, Update 10/19/00