116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong spent a lot of time in the 1920s in Davenport, working summers for the Streckfus Excursion Boat Line in the Quad Cities for $15 a week plus room and board.
“Every spring for years, I’d come to Davenport and get on those big boats like the St. Paul and the Sidney, and what a wild time we’d have all summer long,” Armstrong recalled about his early days as a riverboat musician.
By the 1930s, Armstrong had formed his own band, but touring was a problem in areas like the Quad Cities, where blacks were not welcome in hotels. Performers had to be housed in private homes. Al Barnes, who booked talent in the Horseshoe Lounge in Rock Island, Ill., found Armstrong a room over a Rock Island funeral home.
Cedar Rapids stops
Armstrong’s band found its way to the Cedar Rapids Paramount Theatre in January 1937. The theater had been around for less than a decade, opening in 1928.
The famous jazz trumpeter with the gravelly voice played the Paramount for four days, from Jan. 8 to 11. Members of his entourage included comedian/clarinetist George McLennen, pianist Lewis Russell, and singers Sonny Woods and Bobbe Caston.
A Gazette review said, “While Old Man Winter’s knocking Cedar Rapids cold, Louis Armstrong and his famous swing band have brought a musical heat wave from Harlem to make the Paramount’s current stage show the hottest affair in town.”
Armstrong had been called “Satchel Mouth” as a youngster because of his wide, toothy grin. When a London magazine editor shortened that to “Satchmo” in 1932, Armstrong liked it and used it on an album title.
The next time Armstrong played Cedar Rapids was March 30, 1944, for a one-night stand at the Danceland Ballroom at the corner of Third Street and A Avenue NE. He carried with him his famous, $1,500 golden trumpet.
Accompanied by a troupe of 18 musicians and entertainers, the “Trumpet King of Swing,” shared the stage with Velma Middleton, Jimmie Anderson and Joe Garland, composer of “In the Mood.” Admission was $1.11 plus tax.
‘Don’t have to rehearse’
When Satchmo celebrated his 50th birthday on July 4, 1950, he had begun to take life a little slower.
His band — drummer Cozy Cole, trombonist Jack Teagarden, clarinetist Barney Bigard, pianist Earl “Fatha” Hines, bassist Arvell Shaw and vocalist Velma Middleton — had played together so long, “we don’t have to rehearse.”
Armstrong and his All-Stars were in Waterloo April 27, 1954, to play at the Electric Park Ballroom, one stop in a string of 41 one-nighters.
It was his first visit to Waterloo since 1943. The horn he used that night was a gold-plated one given to him in Germany. In the instrument case were 18 white handkerchiefs. The squares of cloth were a trademark for Satchmo, who always had several handy to wipe his brow.
Armstrong always kept his trumpet mouthpiece in a case in his pocket, he told a reporter. That way if something happened to his horn, he could always play another.
At the Armar
Satchmo and his All-Stars had just returned from a tour of Europe and Africa in 1956, when he filled another one-night date in Eastern Iowa, this time at the air-conditioned Armar Ballroom between Cedar Rapids and Marion. The price of the show had gone up a little, to $1.77 plus tax.
More than 2,500 gathered to listen and dance. He told Gazette reviewer Nadine Subotnik he thought he was ready to stay around the United States for a while. He had booked dates at New York’s Basin Street as well as in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
About his recent world tour, he said, “We stayed around England for 17 or 18 days and then we went to Africa, and they was busy days! Nine tribes danced for us, somethin’ they’d never done before. We played at a big oil field, and 100,000 Africans were there. And we played a regular concert before we left — there’s lots of white people in Africa too, you know and we gave a concert for everybody before we left.”
“In person,” Subotnik wrote, “Satchmo is the Satchmo one has seen on TV and in the newspapers and magazines, and yet he isn’t quite. He looks younger and slighter (he is 55). He speaks more quietly, smiles more slowly. But when he grins all over his face, it is the one and only Satchmo. And when he warms up his trumpet, big white handkerchief much in evidence, it is also the one and only Satchmo.”
More Iowa stops
In April 1961, Armstrong and His All Stars popped up in Fayette, Fairfield and Keokuk before landing in Ames for a show at Iowa State University. The Ames Tribune reported that he created talk wherever he went, including when he sent a telegram from his hotel and purchased travelers checks from a bank.
The next stop was in Cedar Rapids on April 20 for a pair of sellout concerts at Coe College at 7:30 and 9:30 p.m.
He recorded his famous “It’s a Wonderful Life” in 1967, the same year he was hospitalized with pneumonia.
Two years later, he was hospitalized again with kidney problems. Liver and kidney ailments weakened his heart, and he died July 6, 1971, two days after his 71st birthday.