What a wonderful world: Louis Armstrongs love for Britain and the Royal Family

Louis Armstrong – What a wonderful world

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Watching the jazz icon and his All Stars band play Mack The Knife and Mahogany Hall Stomp, chosen especially for the princess, Margaret “jiggled her feet in time, rocked with laughter, cheered as loudly as any in her party and beamed with delight.”

But one man would get to see an altogether different side of the great “Satchmo”. Scottish bandleader Forrie Cairns had been plucked from obscurity at short notice to support the legendary trumpeter.

It was Armstrong’s third triumphant post-war tour of Britain, 60 years ago this year, and when his support band let him down, Forrie and his band got the gig. The next morning, Forrie decided to clear his head with a 6am stroll along the seafront at the Yorkshire resort of Bridlington where the gig had been.

“It was a gorgeous quiet and sunny day,” he recalls. “Not a sound or soul. As I walked along the front, I noticed a figure leaning over the railing on the promenade and another person right down at the waterside where the tide was quite far out.

“The one on the promenade turned out to be Louis’ wife Lucille and the one on the beach was Louis himself. I stopped and said good morning and explained who I was. She asked me if I would do her a great favour and not disturb Louis.

“She explained that on very infrequent occasions like this one, Louis would get up out of bed and go down to the water’s edge and pray. He would thank the Lord for granting him his musical gift and for letting the world hear it. I gave my best wishes and walked on.

“Strangely enough, it was that moment which has remained uppermost in my mind over the past 60 years. That lone figure – no press, no entourage, no crowds, no cheering audience. Just that great person, known and adored by millions, alone with his thoughts.”

Armstrong, born 121 years ago on August 4, had a love affair with the UK which lasted for most of his five-decade career and he particularly liked to give local British musicians a break when he could. So when local bandleader Bob Wallis called in sick before the Bridlington date, Forrie and his Scottish band the Clansmen, got the call.

For Forrie, it is one of the clearest and most thrilling memories of his long musical career.

“As we were getting ready, the tour manager burst into the dressing room, grabbed me and said that Louis wanted to meet the bandleader of the supporting group.”

There was no time for nerves: Forrie was whisked down the corridor.

“I waited as he knocked on a door. When he opened it I got quite a shock. I assumed it was the All Stars’ dressing room. Instead, it was a tiny little room where Louis was sitting all alone on an upright chair, looking at a mirror propped on a ledge on the wall.

“The tour manager left, and there we were – Louis Armstrong, me and nobody else. It didn’t seem real. But he was great. He was laughing and told me to bring over the only other chair in the room and sit next to him. He seemed very interested in what the band’s style was and where it came from.

“After about 15 minutes, I got up and said that I hoped that my band would provide a good opening set to what would undoubtedly be a great evening. He replied: ‘Just make the folks happy. That’s what we have to do!'”

“During the Clansmen’s set, Forrie was chuffed to see that Satchmo’s interest in his band was genuine: he was smiling as he watched from the wings. “Afterwards, I had to go back on and announce the band.” The audience – which included the poet Philip Larkin – “went wild and the whole concert was just super.”

“Hearing him live, when you’d grown up listening to all those records, well it wasn’t goose pimples that I got – it was goose boulders. It was just an amazing warm glow throughout my whole being.”

When Armstrong had first crossed the Atlantic to introduce British audiences to his pioneering “hot” trumpet playing in the 1930s, he was still a novelty to some.

But when he returned in the 1950s, it was as one of the world’s most famous entertainers – a bona fide living legend whose ebullient personality and infectious smile brought joy wherever he went.

The excitement leading up to Satchmo’s 1956 British tour could not have been more feverish. By then, there were several generations who had not had the chance to see him perform live, thanks partly to the war and mostly to a Musicians’ Union ban on American musicians working over here.

Fans acquired during the swing and big band era, plus those who had been buying his records since the 1920s, were joined by youngsters who had grown up on his movies and were hooked on trad jazz, then enjoying a huge revival.

The Daily Express reflected the anticipation, from the moment two of its reporters joined a delegation of jazz musicians which played as Satchmo stepped off his plane. The newspaper chronicled his ten-day run at London’s Empress Hall, where he and his All Stars band played on a revolving stage and box office receipts totalled a phenomenal £50,000.

Among those keen to hear him live for the first time were the Duke of Kent, one of many backstage visitors who was given a copy of Satchmo’s special diet sheet (“Lose weight the Satchmo way!”), and Princess Margaret, whose lady-in-waiting had booked five seats for the sixth night of his residency.

In her admiration for Louis, this “real hip chick” – as he called her – followed in the footsteps of her late uncle, Prince George, and her grandfather, King George, for whom Louis reportedly once introduced a tune by saying: “This one’s for you, Rex!”

Each day during the subsequent tour, the Express published a daily diary, Satchmo’s Column. In it, he talked about his love of Britain, how Princess Margaret “dug” his music, how Humphrey Lyttelton had crowned him “King of Jazz” on his last night in London, and how he was going to be measured for a kilt in Scotland.

Louis was back for another tour in 1959, and a third in 1962 – five years before he released his single What A Wonderful World.

Forrie Cairns was not the only Scottish jazz fan overwhelmed to see the great man live. For my father, Donnie, it was thanks to the Daily Express that he had the opportunity to hear his hero during the 1962 tour.

When he read about an Express competition to win tickets for the concert and to meet the legend, he immediately submitted his entry, answering the question: “Who are Satchmo’s three favourite musicians?”

To win, fans had to not only answer correctly, but be amongst the first 12 people whose entries arrived at the newspaper office.

It turned out that my 16-year-old dad was the quickest off the mark with the correct answers of trombonist Trummy Young, pianist Billy Kyle and clarinettist Joe Darensbourg – in other words the three most prominent members of the All Stars’ line-up at the time.

When the great day came, the meeting with Louis did not take place – the star arrived late and was clutching the first of his browmopping hankies as he was rushed through the players’ tunnel to the stage in the centre of the pitch at Glasgow’s Ibrox stadium while 11,000 fans chanted: “We want Satchmo!”

It was a magical experience nonetheless – and one which my father still vividly remembers 60 years later. “I heard Louis before I could actually see him,” he says, “because we had to wait until the band and the entourage had passed until we were allowed to go to our seats. The sound of his unamplified horn playing When It’s Sleepy Time Down South was unforgettable.”

Up and down the UK, fans did manage to get one-to-one encounters with the great man, however, because he was extremely generous with his time and was genuinely interested in people.

Many musicians like Forrie got to chat with him thanks to his habit of hiring local bands to support him. He would even send them telegrams beforehand, by way of introduction. He told the Express: “That’s how I like it, y’know, because that’s how jazz started – with local bands – just a few boys, same district.”

Judging from the personal scrapbooks of Armstrong, who died in July 1971 aged 69, his visits to the UK in the 1950s and 1960s meant as much to him as they did to his fans.

When, towards the end of his 1956 visit, Humphrey Lyttelton asked if he still had the paper and ping-pong ball crown with which, on behalf of British jazz musicians, he had anointed him “the undisputed King of Jazz”, Satchmo replied: “Of course I have – I had it shipped back home. I’ll always keep that.”

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