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Saturday, February 20, 2010

Why American acts never forget the first time

I've reached the chapter of Terry Teachout's biography of Louis Armstrong that deals with his first trip to Europe in July 1932 to play at the London Palladium. This could be the template for nearly every trip taken to the old world by an American musician ever since. Buddy Holly would have recognised lots of this, as would Midlake. The pick-up band, the strange food, the sudden exposure to the vulgarity of local taste (Max Miller was on the same bill), the confusing embrace of the press and the realisation of how distance has lent enchantment and, in that process, altered who you are. Armstrong reckoned the first person who called him "Satchmo" was Percy Mathison Brooks, the editor of the Melody Maker. The Englishman was simply trying to get Armstrong's nickname "Satchelmouth" past the creaky gate of his own drawl.

In America they faced institutionalised discrimination. In England it was more puzzlement. They were turned away from the first posh hotels but eventually found one. In the American press they were alotted their place on the cultural map according to where they came from. The British press could only speak as they found, which wasn't always pretty. One British critic described him as being "an untrained gorilla". However another one said, with inelegant perception, his "savage growling is as far removed from English as we speak or sing it - and as modern - as James Joyce".

The experience of their first British tour is something that makes a profound impression on American acts because it exposes them to a sudden blast of curiosity, affection and scrutiny that never happens anywhere else in quite the same way. They learn a bit about who they are and go home changed. If it goes well it's a kind of relaunch. Armstrong kept his British press clippings throughout his life, even the unkind ones. He wasn't the last.