My ears pricked up recently when a guest on the BBC’s Desert Island Discs selected as one of the songs he’d like to be stranded with a track by Louis Armstrong – recorded live in Prague. The LP Louis Armstrong in Prague: Lucerna 1965 was extremely familiar from the racks of the city’s secondhand shops. But I had never picked up a copy.
In the end I tracked down two recordings of the show, one the actual album itself, the other a longer recording made by Czech Radio. The highlight of the concert is a version of the phenomenal folk song St. James Infirmary, which Armstrong had first performed in his trailblazing Hot Five and Hot Seven days in late 1920s New Orleans.
Otherwise, frankly, the LP is by no means a classic. Satchmo (from Satchel Mouth) was already an elder statesman in his mid 60s, and this was after the phase in which he did smoother re-recordings of several of his greatest numbers. But still, it is an exciting document of what must have been one of the events of the decade for local music fans.
The only video of the show on YouTube appears to be a Czech TV clip of So Long Dearie, beneath which one user has cutely written: “I was there 47 years ago present there on this concert at Lucerna Prague. It was exceptional event.” I don’t doubt it for a second, Vladao6761.
Armstrong was here for an entire week and it has to have been a gigantic deal to have such a much-loved megastar and musical originator in town. This was after the darkest period of Communist rule, though the Prague Spring was still a few years into the future.
Two local stars – Jiřís Suchý and Šlitr, of the Semafor musical theatre – opened the show, with a long introduction touching on Satchmo’s beginnings in reform school and the chances of their ending up in one. Humorous as it was, heaven knows what the great man made of it, if it was translated for him.
The most charming moment of the show comes at the very end, when Louis Armstrong thanks the people of Prague for their hospitality and praises the city’s jazz clubs. Prague, he says, in that amazing, rich speaking voice, will remain in the band's hearts for as long as they live.
The extended Czech Radio recording also captures the subsequent interpretation of Armstrong’s words by his unofficial guide, Lubomír Dorůžka. Today Mr. Dorůžka is almost 89 and is regarded as the doyen of jazz writing in this country. His son Petr had a regular music show here on Radio Prague for several years and the similarity between his dad’s voice in 1965 and Petr’s today is uncanny.
Speaking of similar voices, I was struck by a familiar sound when I was walking across Old Town Square the other day and came upon a small Dixieland band entertaining tourists.
Their singer was doing a full-on imitation of Satchmo’s distinctive gruff vocal style. But in Czech. It was kind of terrible but made me smile. And it crossed my mind that – albeit in a small and bizarre way – Louis Armstrong is still in Prague.