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Interview with Louis Armstrong: "They Cross the Iron Curtain to Hear American Jazz" (December 1955)

In this interview with U.S. News & World Report, American jazz musician Louis Armstrong talks about jazz and its reception in Europe, even behind the Iron Curtain. Armstrong, who was then on tour in Europe, compares American and European audiences and tries to explain the appeal of jazz. He shies away from the interviewer’s questions about the relationship between jazz and politics, and denies being on the U.S. State Department’s payroll. He also downplays reports about a riot at one of his concerts in Hamburg.

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The music of an American Negro jazz player is outdrawing opera, smashing box-office records all over Europe. Fans slip out from behind the iron curtain just to hear it. When Louis Daniel (Satchmo) Armstrong played in Hamburg, German fans howling for encores wrecked a theater, had to be driven out with fire hoses. From Sweden to Spain, the Armstrong music is America’s voice for many.

To seek the meaning in this phenomenal overseas interest in jazz, two members of the Board of Editors of U.S. News & World Report interviewed Satchmo. The American musician and his wife, Lucille, received them at 2 a.m. in a Paris hotel room after a smash-hit concert for French fans.

For two hours the trumpeter, in pajamas and dressing gown, talked of American music abroad. The recorded interview follows.

Q: Is jazz really taking over in Europe, Louis?

A: Well, it always has. It came over here right after the first war, and a lot of soldiers came over in the first war and some was musicians and stayed here – Sidney Bechet and Eddie South, Combo Eddie – violinists, musicians were all comin’ over and they always appreciated good jazz in these countries.

They was attractions over here earlier’n that, why even before my time, you know, but, as generations went along, well, the music got better. [ . . . ]

Q: Has jazz made a lot of friends for the United States?

A: I think so. American music when it came over here was highly appreciated, yeah, highly appreciated. [ . . . ]

Q: Is there any difference between jazz as it’s liked in Europe and jazz as it’s liked in America?

A: It’s the same all over the world. I always say a note’s a note in any language, if you hit it on the nose – if you hit it. But, they appreciate the technical part of your music, every bit of it – everybody’s been so classical-minded all over Europe. [ . . . ]

They say good jazz and that classical music is all the same because you play them both with art, you express yourself. And that’s what they always appreciate about jazz. All this new music never did faze ‘em. Well, they’d accept it, but it never did take their mind off good jazz. [ . . . ]

Q: You had some [people] coming over from the Iron Curtain?

A: I didn’t have them. They did it. In the Hot Club in Berlin these boys were there, and one of them said, “We slipped over the Iron Curtain to hear our Louis,” and they said “We don’t know how we gonna get back.” And I never heard of ‘em since, but that’s what they did.

Q: Did you see these people, talk to them?

A: Yeah, they came back to me and talked, that’s how I knew they was there.

Q: They knew your music over there?

A: Sure, that’s why they come – come over to hear me. If you don’t believe it, lemme play in Russia and you’ll have so many people goin’ you’d think they was goin’ to a football game.

Q: One of our ambassadors, in Czechoslovakia, behind the Iron Curtain, said they all knew American jazz behind the Curtain and your music was there –

A: Sure, they all got the records and everything. [ . . . ]

Q: Is it the same all over with jazz – no frontiers, no Iron Curtain?

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