used by permission of the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder
and the Minnesota Historical Society
As a side trip from my regular research, I've spent a week or so of evenings and weekends looking into the facts surrounding Louis Armstrong's appearance at the Coliseum Ballroom in St. Paul on Friday night, July 28, 1939. Please forgive any errors, and let me know what you think.
The 1939 show was advertised as Armstrong's first appearance in the Twin Cities — a point repeatedly stressed in the twin African American newspapers, the Minneapolis Spokesman and the St. Paul Recorder.
But he might also have appeared in Minneapolis in the spring of 1931. That earlier show is mentioned in Jones and Chilton's Louis: The Louis Armstrong Story, but I haven't been able to confirm it despite a grueling newspaper search.
Regardless, today we know Armstrong had visited the Twin Cities about 20 years earlier. From 1918 to 1921, he'd played for the Streckfus line of riverboats — paddle-wheelers that were still (or already) trading on nostalgia for the Mississippi's 19th Century heyday with picturesque excursions up and down the river. That's the gig that brought Armstrong through St. Paul and Minneapolis for the first time.
For Armstrong, then, his 1939 appearance in Minnesota might have been a kind of nostalgic excursion of his own.
One of the only facts you might still hear about the Coliseum Ballroom is that a lot of famous acts played there — Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Jack Teagarden, Ben Pollack, Lawrence Welk, the Andrews Sisters.
During its 38 years, the Coliseum was a quirky, unavoidable, and irreplaceable center of St. Paul's night life, love life, and imagination. It's rarely remembered today, but Garrison Keillor provided a gratifying exception a few months ago, 22 minutes into a speech for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
I began thinking about the Coliseum two years ago, on my first day researching the Victoria Cafe, the orchestra of which recorded the strange "Moonshiner's Dance," which eventually found its way onto Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music.
It turned out that the leader of the Victoria Cafe Orchestra, Frank Cloutier, later acted as the leader of the house orchestra of the Coliseum, four blocks to the Cafe's west. He worked there for thirteen years.
It must have been a good gig. The Coliseum boasted the world's largest dance floor, and offered $100 to anyone who could prove otherwise. Its floor was a rebuilt hockey rink with a 250 x 90-foot playing surface, so a packed house at the Coliseum Ballroom could mean more than 3000 dancers at one time. Leading the Coliseum Orchestra regularly brought Frank Cloutier to the radio all across the Midwest.
The Coliseum's owner — the husky, gregarious, and scrappy John J. Lane — was widely known as "The Musician's Friend." He was also a Ramsey County commissioner at the time Frank Cloutier took the job.
Satchmo Returns Triumphant
In the late 1930's, national fame had only just come to Louis Armstrong.
A front page article in the African-American weekly Spokesman-Recorder credited Armstrong's sudden wave of popularity to his film appearances. An ad featured a photo of Armstrong goofing around with Bing Crosby.
And indeed, in 1936, Armstrong had played a fairly substantial role in Crosby's Pennies From Heaven. The next year, he was in both the Jack Benny musical comedy Artists and Models and Mae West's Every Day's A Holiday. In 1938, Armstrong sang "Jeepers Creepers" to a horse in Going Places, with Dick Powell, Anita Louise, and Ronald Reagan. A New York Times film critic didn't think much of Going Places, but it left him wanting more of Satchmo.
On the day of the Twin Cities show, a wry editorial in the Spokesman-Recorder described how Walter Winchell himself, "the 'Patron Saint' of many an American column reader," had declared Louis Armstrong the King of Swing. The paper seemed to almost grudgingly agree that Armstrong "has brought something to modern music that defies definition, and reams of paper and tons of ink have been used trying to describe it."
Jazz was now being taken seriously as an art form and scholarly work had begun to appear about it. Scarcely three months after his show in St. Paul, Armstrong appeared at Manhattan's enormous Center Theater portraying Bottom in Swingin' The Dream, a jazz adaptation of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Benny Goodman co-starred, and Walt Disney designed the sets.
Things To Do Around The Twin Cities
There were plenty of other things to do around town without paying 80 cents to see Louis Armstrong on that clear, mild summer night.
Several area theaters were showing Dark Victory with Bette Davis for 25 cents. Or you could see Errol Flynn, Olivia De Havilland, and Ann Sheridan in Dodge City, or the W. C. Fields comedy You Can't Cheat an Honest Man, with Edgar Bergen and the somewhat wooden Charlie McCarthy.
Alternately, there was the "Melodies Around The World" ice show at the St. Paul Auditorium — 25 cents in the bleachers, 50 cents to sit at a table. The Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus wasn't scheduled to arrive for another week.
And the Streckfus line ran the paddle-wheel steamer Capitol out of the dock at the foot of Jackson Street. You could take day trips down to the lock and dam at Hastings, or one of the "moonlight dance trips" leaving every night at 9:00 pm. Armstrong had worked on the Capitol in his youth — there's even a 1919 photo of him aboard that boat.
So far, I don't see that the Streckfus excursions were racially segregated in Minnesota in 1939 as they had been elsewhere, before and long after. Maybe, while he was in town for the Coliseum show, Armstrong could have taken a ride on the Capitol, this time as a passenger. Nor do I know for sure if the idea would have appealed to him.
In spite of these other temptations, the 1939 appearance was a rare opportunity for Twin Cities jazz fans. It was their chance not only to see Louis Armstrong, but also to vote with their dollars. On the day of the show, an editorial in the Spokesman-Recorder stated:
Somewhat off the beat theatrically, the Twin Cities seldom have an opportunity to see and hear internationally known Negro artists. When they do come along, we think we should support them.
The week after the show, the Spokesman-Recorder
reminded its readers how lucky they were to have Armstrong play here.
In St. Louis, where there are 100,000 Negroes to draw a crowd from, the Missourians pay $1.10 to hear the same band Twin Citians heard for 80 cents.
It must have helped that jazz, and Armstrong in particular, had a fast-growing white audience nationwide — the 1940 census found fewer than 9000 African Americans in Minneapolis and St. Paul combined.
The Trio Club
The 1939 concert was sponsored by either the Trio Club or the Tri Club, depending on whether you believe a news article in the Spokesman-Recorder or ads appearing on the day of the show in St. Paul's mainstream papers. A Spokesman-Recorder columnist describes the club as "three St. Paul men who invested several hundred dollars."
Beyond that, I don't know much about the Tri or Trio Club. There's no entry for them in the 1939 St. Paul city directory — either in the yellow or the white pages, as we would say today — and my search of the records of Minnesota's Secretary of State showed no clear sign that they ever incorporated.
The Spokesman-Recorder did report that the three investors barely made a profit from Armstrong's appearance, thanks to a rumor circulating prior to the show.
Rumor Cuts Attendance
A thousand people saw Armstrong at the Coliseum that night, according to a follow-up article in the August 4 Spokesman-Recorder. Hundreds more would have attended, had it not been for an apparent act of sabotage:
Some irresponsible individual several days before the date of the dance spread the rumor that the Armstrong band would not appear. Attempts are being made to ascertain the guilty party.
On the day of the show, the Spokesman
offices in Minneapolis and Recorder
offices in St. Paul got more than 100 calls from people trying to find out if the show was really canceled.
We'll never know the motives behind the rumor. For me, the natural hunch would be racism and an accompanying hatred of jazz, although whatever I know about that isn't very specific to late 1930's Minnesota.
Certainly, Armstrong's sudden fame must have made his shows an obvious target for reactionaries along the tour's route. And two years earlier, a scene in Artists and Models with Martha Raye had drawn controversy for its hints that Armstrong's trumpet made the white actress horny.
Closer to home, I can say that 16 years earlier, the St. Paul musicians union experienced friction over the popularity of jazz, and I've stumbled upon a series of 1927 news articles detailing Klu Klux Klan meetings about a mile east of the Coliseum. These sightings seem underscored — literally — by a note appearing immediately below the Spokesman's article about the cancellation rumor. It reports that The Minneapolis Star, a major paper, had used the word "pickaninny" on its front page a few days before.
So it's interesting that the Coliseum's owner, John J. Lane, had a strong ethic of tolerance, according to his daughter: "there was no color line in our house, we had Fats [Waller] over for dinner." Lane often loaned the Coliseum free of charge to organizations needing a place to hold fund-raisers — the musicians union, the Knights of Columbus, the Urban League, the B'nai B'rith. Probably, he called in these favors during his successful bid for County Commissioner in 1926 and his abandoned campaign in 1938.
All this being said, in my experience, the "natural hunch" about history is usually wrong. I simply don't know why the rumor started. Maybe the Tri or Trio Club had enemies I haven't imagined. Certainly, John J. Lane had both friends and enemies in many walks of life, accumulated during his decades-long, high-profile life in the politics and commerce of the Twin Cities. One of Lane's other nightclubs had even been bombed by mobsters a decade earlier.
Armstrong on the Coliseum Stage
So far as I know, there are no detailed accounts of Armstrong's show that night, but I've pieced together a few clues.
Identical ads in two of St. Paul's mainstream papers on July 28 claimed that the "Trumpet King of Swing" would be backed by "17 Swing Artists."
The Spokesman-Recorder repeatedly promised Luis Russell — an arranger and pianist, and a pioneer of "swing" who led the band that Armstrong was indeed working with at the time. Also mentioned is the innovative trumpet player Henry "Red" Allen. This squares, so far as it goes, with the personnel for Armstrong's 1939 recording sessions for Decca, including those in New York on June 15 and December 18:
piano and arrangements: Luis Russell
trumpet: Shelton Hemphill, Otis Johnson, Henry Allen
trombone: Wilbur de Paris, Geo. Washington, J.C. Higginbotham
clarinet and alto sax: Rupert Cole, Charlie Holmes
tenor sax: Joe Garland, Bingie Madison
guitar: Lee Blair
string bass: Pops Foster
drums: Sidney Catlett
But the Spokesman-Recorder
also names three other veterans of Luis Russell's band. One of the great jazz drummers, Paul Barbarin, was presumably touring in place of Sidney Catlett. There was also the "romantic tenor" vocalist Sonny Woods, and two articles mention the "petite song stylist" and "torch singer" Midge Williams — little remembered today, but a much-admired, rising radio star at the time.
The number of backing musicians listed for the Decca recordings, plus Woods and Williams and Armstrong himself = 17, the number of swing artists given in the July 28 ad in the major papers.
The following week, a columnist for the Spokesman-Recorder wished "a million scallions" to the rumor monger who cut attendance, but wished orchids for the audience that did attend, which he found refreshingly peaceable. "Maybe the presence of one of Chief Hackert's skull-busters had something to do with it, but we think not." Brawls and other unseemly behavior appeared to be going out of style, the columnist said. Another follow-up article in the Spokesman-Recorder comes to a trustworthy conclusion:
Armstrong Great Showman
Armstrong gave the crowd its money's worth and the people left the Lexington Avenue dance palace in good humor feeling that they had enjoyed a treat.
— — —
Thanks to the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder — this year celebrating its 75th anniversary — for kind permission to reprint the article at top.
The excellent staff of the library at the Minnesota History Center is forever essential to my work. Thanks also to the Minneapolis Public Library, and the University of Minnesota's Wilson and Music Libraries.
My wife Jenny is unbelievably kind and patient, as you might imagine.
Selected References — More Than Any Other Blog!
St. Paul Pioneer Press, July 28, 1939 ad "Tri Club Presents Louis Armstrong" and "Moonlight Dance Trips" p. 9
St. Paul Dispatch, July 28, 1939 ad "Tri Club Presents Louis Armstrong" p. 8
"Moonlight Dance Trips" and other ads for rides on the Capitol were ubiquitous in the warm seasons of 1939 in the Twin Cities. The one above happens to be from the St. Paul Pioneer Press, July 28, 1939, from the University of Minnesota newspaper collections.
Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, 1939:
— July 21 "Louis 'Satchmo' Armstrong Coming to Coliseum Ballroom, Friday, July 28" p 1
— July 21 ad with Crosby/Armstrong photo, p 3
— July 28 "Louis Armstrong and Band Play at the Coliseum Ballroom Tonight for Swing Fans" p 1
— July 28 "Hear a Noted Artist Tonight" p 2
— Aug 4 "Crowd Applauds Louis Armstrong Band; Rumor Cuts Attendance" p 1
— Aug 4 "Twin Town Talk" p 4
Bergreen, Laurence. 1997. Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life
. Broadway Books.
Jones, Max, and Chilton, John. 1988. Louis: The Louis Armstrong Story, 1900-1971. Da Capo.
Kenney, William Howland. 2005. Jazz on the River. U of Chicago.
Maccabee, Paul. 1981-1995. Research collection for John Dillinger Slept Here. MN Historical Soc. library.
Rust, Brian A. L. 1978. Jazz Records, 1897-1942. Arlington House Publishers.