Louis Armstrong Crosses the Atlantic

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Louis Armstrong William Gottlieb Library Of Congress 02 1000
Photo: William Gottlieb/Redferns

Louis Armstrong was not the first major jazz musician to visit Britain, both Jimmy Dorsey and Bunny Berigan made trips across the Atlantic in 1930. Yet Satchmo was certainly the one with the greatest reputation among musicians and lovers of ‘Hot Music’ to visit Great Britain, although prior to his arrival there was considerable speculation in the British press about how British audiences would take to him.

British record label, Parlophone, who would later sign The Beatles, had already released around 30 of Armstrong’s recordings prior to 1932 so there was little doubt that he would find an eager audience. Satchmo set sail from New York on 9 July 1932 with his wife, Alpha along with his manager Johnny Collins and his wife Mary. They sailed across the Atlantic on board the SS Majestic and arrived in Plymouth on or around 14 July.

Percy Mathison-Brooks, the editor of the Melody Maker, met Louis at Plymouth as soon as the tender transferring him from the Majestic docked. Louis was already nicknamed ‘Satchelmouth’, but when the editor greeted him what Armstrong heard, with Mathison-Brooks’ upper crust British accent, was “Hello Satchmo’. It’s certainly stuck! From Plymouth the party took the boat train to London arriving at Waterloo Station, when Louis arrived he was wearing a “biscuit coloured coat and a white cap.”

The party was refused rooms in several hotels after it was announced that two of their number were black, but they finally found accommodation at the Howard Hotel just off the Strand, However, they were asked to move after a few days for attracting too many jazz fans who hung around the lobby.

On a practical level, Louis’s first task was to put together a band as he was travelling without any musicians and his run at the Palladium was due to begin on Monday 18 July. British musicians were discussing different solutions to the problem of finding a band for Louis, before it was discovered that a group of Parisian-based, black musicians were on their way to rehearse. This was a plan that had apparently been hatched between Collins and the British agent who had made the booking. According to Louis, “There were several colored French musicians and I had to talk to them through an interpreter.”

Following some rehearsals Louis and ‘His New Rhythm’ as they were billed were competently playing the arrangements over which Louis could solo. His opening number at the Palladium was ‘Them There Eyes’, followed by ‘When You’re Smiling’, ‘Chinatown, my Chinatown’ and ‘You Rascal You’. Not everyone knew how to take him, with a number of reviewers concentrating on how many white handkerchiefs Louis used during the course of his set, while others commented on his “showmanship and good humour”.

The Palladium was not full every night and there were people who walked out on the show, but it’s fair to say that those who loved his music and his records loved his performance. Those who didn’t hated it. Take bandleader Percy Bush, “A disgusting and abortive exhibition likely to nauseate all decent men.” No mention of women, he probably thought no decent woman would want to watch and hear a black man of genius.

After a two week run at the Palladium, including a live transmission on BBC radio, a booking at the notorious Glasgow Empire was arranged – if the audience there didn’t like an artist, they were wont to throw things. The Parisian musicians had to go home which highlights how disorganised this first trip abroad was for Louis. To replace the Black musicians, Billy Mason’s all white, ten piece band was recruited and they played a one-nighter at Nottingham Palais on their way north. In Glasgow, Louis appeared on a variety bill that included a conjuror doing rope tricks along with a magic kettle. His performance once again drew mixed reviews with ‘His antics and his repeated vocal efforts’ failing to be universally popular.

More appearances followed in London; at the Victoria Palace, the Finsbury Park Empire, the Trocadero and the Commodore as well as visits to York, Liverpool and Birmingham. A side trip to Paris took place in October before Louis and Alpha sailed back to New York City where they arrived on 2 November. The man who they called ‘The Ambassador of Jazz’ had started his duties of spreading the word around the world. This was the first of many trips by Louis Armstrong to Britain, and he wound up being taken to heart of the nation.

Format: Union Jack flagUK English


  1. Danny Mullen

    July 13, 2015 at 2:50 pm

    I have a one man play on the life of Louis Armstrong. Send me an e-mail and l will follow with trailer and reviews

    • Neil McNally

      July 14, 2019 at 2:49 am

      Interested; in drama AND Louis.

  2. Ron Blim

    July 13, 2015 at 6:30 pm

    I saw Louis and his band in Australia in 1957 and 1966. He was the greatest Jazz player of his time and was respected by all jazz musicians including Dizzy and Miles. I would love to see your trailer and reviews Thanks………

  3. Mitzi

    July 16, 2015 at 8:09 am

    He actually sailed on a White Star Line ship? After the fates of Titanic and Brittanic, I would’ve been scared.

  4. I share Pops' birthday

    July 16, 2015 at 2:32 pm

    IIRC, the White Star Line had merged with Cunard in 1930, and the former White Star fleet was flying Cunard’s colours by the time Pops sailed.

  5. James Pulling

    August 20, 2015 at 7:10 am

    I saw him on his two visits to Melbourne in the 1960’s. His support artists were Jewell Brown and Trini Lopez. His Band; the Al Stars included Trummy Young, Big Chief Russell Moore,Billy Kyle, Joe Darrenberg Eddie Schu, Arvel Shaw and Danny Barcelona. He played most of his standard numbers and include Hello Dolly, Moon River. Although by now an old man, he was sensational. On his second concert in 1964′ I as a 14 year old sat onstage and held his trumpet for him during the ”breaks’ I an now myself sixty four and have not forgotten for a moment those magic hours that occurred those forty three years ago! Satch, Pops, Dipper; call him by any name , he was the greatest, trumpeter, musician, inovator and human being of all time ..

    • Neil McNally

      July 14, 2019 at 2:56 am

      Nice story. Thanks.
      I,and my wife,adored the guy too.
      Went to his show in Wellington, Aotearoa/NZ, probably 1960s, which may have had the same lineup as in Melbourne?
      Appearwd to be a perfect gentleman.

  6. sadahiro takahashi

    September 20, 2015 at 11:24 pm

    It is so interesting to know that Louis had such a trip to Great Britain
    and performed at various places in 1930’s.
    The movie “Five pennies” was the first time when I saw him.
    I was a movie goer and expected to see that movie very much,
    The unforgettable scene was that he showed up in a spotlight and blew
    the trumpet with Danny Kay playing a cornet.
    Since then , he is one of my favorite musician, however, I had never listened to
    his live music regretfully.
    I was born in 1946 and now 68 years old going on 69 this coming October.

    • Neil McNally

      July 14, 2019 at 2:58 am

      Get onto Youtube and watch him live..forever, b4 it’s too late.

  7. William Lynch

    July 25, 2016 at 3:11 am

    I have heard an account of Louis’ travels to Europe in which Louis, while prompting the band to play “You rascal you”, walked straight up to the mic (with the Monarch in attendance) and said, “this is for you Rex”! Now, this purportedly occurred in France, or possibly England, and it thrilled me to no end during my formative years- I loved this damn story. Okay, so, fast forward to 2016, and age 43 for me, and I have still never been able to confirm the story’s authenticity. I certainly want to keep on believing the tale, but let’s face it, I have my doubts. If you happen to read this article and you happen to be a scholar on the life of Satchmo, please enlighten me about this subject. Until then, I’m going to continue to believe that he had the balls to do it, though I will not be relating this tale at any cocktail parties

    “this is for you Rex”!! I thought that it was absolutely perfect…… hilarious, and I believed it throughout my formative years. I will be most disappointing if I find that this story is false but I have never been able to confirm the story so— my hands have been tied in terms of relating the tale. So, if you happen to read this and happen to be a Satchmo buff, please enlighten me. Thank you in advance for the info, that is, if you can confirm it.

  8. Ronnie Newman

    January 7, 2022 at 2:28 pm

    I recently found this online so it is probably true.
    Louis Armstrong grew up poor in a single-parent household. He was 13 when he celebrated the New Year by running out on the street and firing a pistol that belonged to the current man in his mother’s life. At the Colored Waifs Home for Boys, he learned to play the bugle and the clarinet and joined the home’s brass band. They played at socials, picnics and funerals for a small fee. At 18 he got a job in the Kid Ory Band in New Orleans. Four years later, in 1922, he went to Chicago, where he played second coronet in the Creole Jazz Band. He made his first recordings with that band in 1923. In 1929 Armstrong appeared on Broadway in “Hot Chocolates”, in which he introduced Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’, his first popular song hit. He made a tour of Europe in 1932. During a command performance for King George V, he forgot he had been told that performers were not to refer to members of the royal family while playing for them. Just before picking up his trumpet for a really hot number, he announced: “This one’s for you, Rex.”

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