Legends about Salisbury House abound. Lately, we’ve been thinking about one in particular: the oft-told story that Louis Armstrong, the giant of twentieth-century jazz, once stayed at Salisbury House after a 1949 performance in Des Moines. Satchmo is at the forefront of our minds these days, as this summer marks the return of a fan-favorite event at Salisbury House. Our Louis Armstrong birthday celebration is back!http://louisarmstronghouse.org/news/article.php?Happy-Birthday-Louis-Armstrong-102
We have two days of festivities planned. The first, hosted by the Salisbury House Young Professionals, will take place on Saturday night (August 2). Young folks (21-35) who want to partake in A Hot Piece of Brass are welcome to attend. On Sunday (August 3), we’re throwing open the doors of Salisbury House to all visitors, and two bands will be playing on the south terrace throughout the afternoon. A $15 ticket gains you entrance to the House and to the entertainment for this Louis Armstrong Birthday Bash.
Aside from all the merriment, your correspondent wondered: how accurately can we trace the legend of Louis Armstrong’s visit to Salisbury House in 1949? To be sure, an abundance of anecdotal sources indicate that the jazz great visited and/or stayed at the Weekses’ home. However, can the story be confirmed via archival sources? Might a stray newspaper article or two trace Louis’ path from a gig in Iowa to the Great Hall of Salisbury House?
Certainly, Satchmo had a long history in the Hawkeye State. As early as the 1920s, he played in a band on a Mississippi riverboat with several ports of call in Iowa. The the steamers would turn around in Davenport to head back south, and Armstrong recalled playing a variety of Iowa towns during those days. It was also during this period of Armstrong’s life, according to some accounts, that he met Bix Beiderbecke, the legendary trumpeter from Davenport.
Armstrong continued to toured widely in the 1930s, and he also appeared in several films. By the 1940s, his touring dates continued to include Iowa.
On August 1, 1940, the northern Iowa Milford Mail ran a piece about the performances slated for the upcoming Iowa State Fair. Louis Armstrong and his band, among other performers, were booked to play on August 28, 1940 as part of the fair’s “swing festival.”
Three years later, Armstrong performed at another Iowa landmark. The Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, hosted the “Trumpet King of Swing,” as reported in Mason City Globe-Gazette on July 24, 1943.
In addition to these well-known Iowa venues, Armstrong played smaller towns and concerts halls as well. In July 1949, the Waterloo Sunday Courier reported that the jazz legend was slated to play at the Marcon Ballroom, located just south of Iowa Falls.
So: the question remains. In the midst of Armstrong’s semi-regular visits around the the state, where did Salisbury House fit into this story? The (partial) answer appeared in a file saved in a Salisbury House staff computer folder. According to this piece – which was likely printed in the Des Moines Register – Armstrong and his band were invited to Salisbury House by Evert “Hud” Weeks, following a performance at Hoyt Sherman Place in Des Moines.
While this electronic clipping lacks any firm identifiers in terms of printing date or source, it does seem to settle the question. Yes! Louis Armstrong did, in fact, visit Salisbury House.
Still, there’s more to the Louis Armstrong legend as it has come down to us over the years. Some folks say that the Weekses invited Armstrong to stay overnight at Salisbury House because racist policies at local hotels barred people of color. However, no archival source are currently at hand to prove this story. If this story was true, perhaps it would have been included in the above article as well.
We do know that this 1949 visit to Des Moineis was not Satchmo’s last visit to the state. In 1954, for example, Armstrong played the Lake Robbins Ballroom in Woodward, Iowa. He then stayed the night at the Hotel Pattee in Perry, Iowa. The hotel, still in operation today, memorializes the musician’s visit in their Louis Armstrong Suite.
Louis Armstrong died in 1971, but his legacy remains strong today. We at Salisbury House are lucky enough to claim a connection to this American legend. Come out and celebrate with us this weekend!