SATCHMO WAS BLACK IN CHARLOTTETOWN

We’re just back from a very enjoyable tour of the Maritimes, with six universities hosting six shows in seven hectic days. It was such fun that a detailed account of our 1,100 kilometres of driving (thanks, Jane!) through sun, rain, ice, sleet and snow to these warm academic havens will soon follow. Watch this space. (And watch for the delayed CBC Sunday Morning show about Hugh MacLennan in January.)

But first, a story that may shock you. By 1958, Louis Armstrong was world famous as a superb jazz artist. He had toured for thirty years, had appeared in many movies, and his trumpet and memorable vocals had inspired millions of music-lovers.

At home, however, as a black musician, raised in the South, he knew the sting of prejudice. As he put it, “I played in 99 million hotels I could never stay in.”

But then he came to Canada.

July 1958 saw him arrive in Charlottetown as “LOUIS ARMSTRONG AND HIS ALL-STARS in The Greatest Musical that ever hit PEI.”

The recent CBC radio description by Matt Rainnie tells us that the show played to “2,000 people at the sports arena on Fitzroy Street — about the same size as the one he had played the night before in Halifax.” All very good. Except when he and his band went to stay in The Charlottetown Hotel, there were complaints. Apparently some white guests (described to me as “Americans, possibly from the South”) objected to sharing the lobby and the elevators, and possibly the air, with “Negroes”.

And the hotel caved in, and moved the musicians out of the hotel!

This almost unbelievable incident was hushed up until recently, when the historian Jim Hornby brought it to light, and presented an apology on behalf of the city.

There was one mitigating factor, which we, staying in The Dundee Arms, were thrilled to hear about. Apparently Satchmo and his ejected colleagues were warmly welcomed at “The Dundee Apartment Hotel”. So warmly, and with such genuine enthusiasm, that when he learned that his hotel hostess, Lorette Perry, was having her birthday the next day, that morning the most famous trumpet in the world came blasting down the ornate stairs, playing “Happy Birthday To You.”

We got to know those stairs well, lugging our bags up and down, to and from our bedroom, and on our way to The Carriage House, where we gave our show, hosted by Richard Lemm of UPEI.

The coincidences continue. The Carriage House was where this summer Jim Hornby revealed the disappointing details about The Charlottetown Hotel, before apologising on behalf of the city. And before concluding with a rousing jazz concert by local artists!

My thanks to Jane’s cousin, Norman Finlayson (another cousin!) for his help in  researching this story.

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