“Satchmo Charms Congo Cats”: Louis Armstrong and Leopoldville, 60 Years Later

On October 27, 1960, the United Press International reported, “The United Nations Command cracked down Wednesday on unruly troops of Congolese strongman Col. Joseph Mobutu. It ordered the soldiers who have been rampaging through Leopoldville to get out of the capital and back to their barracks by today.” The report added that these soldiers “have been roaming through Leopoldville since Saturday, shooting, looting and molesting panicky citizens.” Mobutu, the UPI added, was “fearing a comeback by deposed Premier Patrice Lumumba” and wanted to bring the elite brigade’s 30 armored cars to the city but “Indonesian U.N. troops with anti-tank weapons rushed into the Thysville area with orders to destroy any Congolese armored cars moving on Leopoldville.” That was October 27, 1960.

And on October 28, 1960, 60 years ago today, Louis Armstrong arrived in Leopoldville to perform with his All Stars. His mere presence caused both sides of Leopoldville’s civil war to call a temporary truce. Such was the power of “Ambassador Satch.”

We’re breaking a bit from our “That’s My Home” theme (but only slightly as you’ll see) to cover the 60th anniversary of one of the most unbelievable stories in a life filled with them. Some folks chuckle at notion of Satchmo stopping a civil war; in fact, to start the ball rolling, here is audio of Louis telling the story while a guest on the The Mike Douglas Show in 1970. Listen as Douglas and the audience break into laughter and applause:

Click here to create a free account and listen to the rest of this tape on our Digital Collections page
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It might be funny, but it’s all true. This post will be filled with lots of images, State Department memos, interviews, newspaper clippings and more to detail perhaps the most harrowing and inspirational 24 hours of Armstrong’s life.

As a way of backstory, Armstrong’s manager Joe Glaser was approached by representatives of Pepsi-Cola earlier in 1960 about the possibility of sending Armstrong’s All Stars to West Africa to play six major cities in Ghana and Nigeria where Pepsi had recently opened up new bottling plants. Armstrong had only visited the Ghana once before, for three days in 1956, but he made quite an impact and Pepsi wisely thought he could help spread the word about the company’s new presence in Africa.

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By this point, the State Department had been sending “Jazz Ambassadors” around the world since 1956, but they had never done anything with Armstrong, even though he was known as “Ambassador Satch.” Talks of sending Armstrong to Russia in 1957 fell apart after Armstrong blasted President Eisenhower and the United States government over its handling of the integration crisis in Little Rock but other than that, none of Armstrong’s overseas tours had anything to do with the State Department.

But now they saw a chance to take advantage of Armstrong’s presence on the continent. State Department memos start cropping up from June 1960 as representatives of nearly every African embassy (but not from South Africa) began reaching out to express interest in having Armstrong visit and perform for their citizens. What initially started as a two-week tour of Ghana and Nigeria in October soon spread out to filling up November and early December. Then, after Armstrong took a month to film Paris Blues in France, he would return to Africa in January for another month-and-a-half of touring. It would be the most grueling tour of his career as each one of these stops included not only a concert but almost always a dinner and reception with local dignitaries, plus there were issues with food, band members getting sick, customs issues, getting multiple immunization shots and more.

An entire book can be written about this tour but our post today concerns Armstrong’s day in Leopoldville. There’s plenty of backstory of the struggle between Mobutu and Lumumba online so it’s not worth going into great detail here but as a way of summary, Leopoldville was colonized by the Belgians in 1881, but after riots in 1959, was granted its independence on June 30, 1960. As the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Leopoldville elected Patrice Lumumba as its first Prime Minister. Shortly after, a mutiny broke out with the Katangan secessionists led by Moise Tshombe. Lumumba asked the United States and the United Nations to help but both refused, leading Lumumba to turn to the Soviet Union. This was the height of the Cold War and distrust of anything related to Russia, plus interest in the Congo’s plentiful uranium, led the United States and Belgium to support Lumumba’s Conogolese rivals. On September 14, Lumumba’s chief-of-staff Joseph-Desire Mobutu announced a “peaceful revolution.” Months of unrest followed, leading to Lumumba’s execution in January 1961.

That’s the short version but suffice to say, in the middle of this chaos, Armstrong was booked by the State Department to visit Leopoldville on October 28. The State Department internally debated about whether or not it should tout Pepsi’s sponsorship of the Leopoldville stop. In this memo from October 12, the “Department strongly opposed commercial sponsorship Armstrong.”

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But in his response on October 14, Clare Hayes Timberlake, the first United States Ambassador to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, argued that “cooperation with private firm might soften propaganda implications strictly government show.”

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On October 17, Secretary of State Christian Herter summed up a discussion with Pepsi International about how to go about sponsoring the Leopoldville visit, leaning towards allowing Pepsi to advertise but not to be utilized as an official co-sponsor:

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On October 20, Herter changed his tune and proposed making Armstrong’s Leopoldville visit entirely sponsored by Pepsi.

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But on October 23, Timberlake responded that it was too late and Armstrong’s appearance would be a jointly sponsored by the Embassy and by Pepsi-Cola.

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With that out of the way, an itinerary was sent to Louis and Lucille Armstrong, who kept it in their personal papers:

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It was a packed day, but the Armstrongs managed to buy postcards, which they sent to several friends. They saved a few of the spares that didn’t get sent:

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The Armstrongs also saved a copy of their room service bill from the Memling Palace Hotel:

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By far the best step-by-step account of Armstrong’s day in Leopoldville comes in the form of this five-page State Department memo. We hope you can read it in full but a few highlights are worth pointing out. First, there’s the summary at the start: “Presentation of Louis Armstrong to trouble-torn Leopoldville was a happy success from strict PR standpoint. Government, press and mass were delighted to have him and cooperated wholeheartedly to give him a city-wide reception. Though Congolese don’t yet dig the on-beat music of Satchmo, they like the idea of his coming.”

It’s also interesting to note that the manager of the Stadium felt Armstrong would be lucky to get a crowd of 1,500 but in the end, 10,000 people attended his concert. The memo also details the security measures in place to keep Armstrong safe: “Security was a prime problem. To guard against any extremist group that might exploit Armstrong’s visit by staging violence, we spent endless hours and days contacting top Congolese officials to take the proper security cautions. We saw Commissires’ President Bomboko twice, Colonel Mobutu for one hour and Kulumbu (Provincial Minister of Interior–in charge of police) twice, and also called on the U. N. military. The results were almost too excellent–Armstrong was protected so constantly by the police, at times he appeared to be in a police state.” Armstrong had certainly come a long way from his childhood in “The Battlefield” of New Orleans.

The memo also details numerous obstacles, including a late start resulting in Armstrong’s performance dipping into sundown. The Congolese didn’t feel comfortable out after dark and started heading for the exits, causing Armstrong to shorten his set; some in the press took this as a sign that they just didn’t enjoy the music but given the climate in Leopoldville, one can’t blame the locals for not wanting to stay out longer than they had to.

Here is the full five-page memo with all the details:

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That is quite a recap! There are more State Department memos in a similar vein such as this one from Ambassador Timberlake to the Secretary of State about how the Congolese might not have understood Armstrong’s music, but “Louis appearance highly successful from standpoint over-all psychological impact on this troubled city.”

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In our Archives, we have three photos from Leopoldville that are mandatory to share. This one survives in Louis and Lucille’s collection in a large framed version:

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Armstrong’s friend Jack Bradley managed to collect a color photo from this moment, though we don’t know who the photographer was (notice the Pepsi sign in the background):

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In 2013, the widow of photographer Kenneth Miller donated this photo Miller took of Louis greeting one of the Congolese in Leopoldville:

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For those who haven’t seen it, Universal-International News featured footage of Armstrong’s Leopoldville visit in one of its newsreels, currently available on YouTube (the soundtrack, needless to say, is decidedly not Armstrong):

Press on Armstrong’s Leopoldville was plentiful. Here are some clippings we have collected in our Satchmo and Jack Bradley Collections:

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That last article mentions, “In Leopoldville, Satch was really a gasser. They knocked out a song crowning him, ‘Okuka Lokole,’ meaning, ‘A jungle wizard who casts spells with a voice like ringing bells.” Sure enough, Armstrong returned with a special book with the lyrics to three tribute songs, as well as a reel-to-reel tape. Here are the pages in the souvenir book (anyone care to translate?):

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Here’s the reel-to-reel tape that was presented to Louis with all three songs:

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And probably for the first time shared in public, here is the audio of that tape (check out the Armstrong-inspired phrases from the trumpeter on the last track):

Click here to create a free account and listen to the rest of this tape on our Digital Collections page
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It should be mentioned that there were some naysayers. The following letter comes from Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs William B. Macomber and was written to Congresswoman Marguerite Stitt Church in response to questions from Church’s constituents concerning “the effectiveness of Mr. Armstrong’s abilities as a representative of American arts” and a complaint about the Leopoldville concert not being free of admission. Macombe was eloquent in his three-page rebuttal to Rep. Church, reprinted below: 

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And in the heightened Cold War state, Moscow accused the United States of sending Armstrong to “distract” from the trouble in the Congo:

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Here’s an editorial from a unknown newspaper describing Armstrong’s Leopoldville visit and ending with the same Soviet claim, concluding, “Poor Satchmo, the tool of perfidious U. S. imperialism.”

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Armstrong himself didn’t seem to think of himself as “Poor Satchmo.” Instead, he compiled a scrapbook of his own filled with clippings from the Africa tour, many of which described his time in Leopoldville. Here are some samples from this scrapbook, all covered with Scotch tape and with some of Armstrong’s handwritten annotations:

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Armstrong frequently brought up Leopoldville in this ensuing years. In a 1964 interview recorded at his home in Queens, Armstrong was asked by Fred Robbins about his music being better appreciated overseas than at home. Armstrong diplomatically answers that without the reception in the United States, there wouldn’t be any ovations overseas, but still manages to bring up what he accomplished in Leopoldville:

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And we’re going to end where we started with a return trip to The Mike Douglas Show in May 1970. Douglas was so knocked out by the Leopoldville story that Armstrong told in March that Armstrong returned to show and brought along his copy of the photo of him being carried on the chair into the stadium. Here is video of that moment:

“With my people?” A perfect punctuation mark on one of the greatest moments of Louis Armstrong’s career!

Published by Ricky Riccardi

I am Director of Research Collections for the Louis Armstrong House Museum.

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