In May 1956, jazz great Louis Armstrong was at the center of a dance party that would become one of the greatest crossover moments across the Atlantic Ocean.
Armstrong traveled to Accra with CBS journalist Edward R. Murrow. The legendary broadcaster was in the process of filming a documentary on Armstrong, “Satchmo the Great.” They’d been on tour in Great Britain when Murrow convinced Armstrong and his band to stop over in Ghana for two days. Murrow envisioned getting shots of the cultural connection between an icon of Black American music and an African nation on the verge of freedom.
Ghana was still the Gold Coast then, and was in the process of transitioning to complete independence 10 months later. The first independent African nation, Ghana hosted many African American leaders, with Armstrong among the earliest.
Armstrong, his wife Lucille and the rest of his entourage were greeted by thousands at the Accra airport. They met with prime minister Kwame Nkrumah and visited a university, greeting fans all along the way. The visit was recorded by Robert Raymond, an Australian national and member of the Department of Information Services, who wrote about it his book Black Star In The Wind, about those heady early years in Ghana.
The two-day visit culminated in an open-air dance concert, with chiefs from various regions attending. Performers from various villages performed for Armstrong and his All Stars, showing off the drumming and dancing from their home. When the Americans’ turn came to entertain, they naturally drew on the repertoire they were already well known for. Their rendition of Indiana, though, didn’t move the crowd at first, as Raymond recalls:
Then, away across the far side of the arena, a solitary figure arose. It was an old, old man, with a stave, from some northern tribe. Slowly, gravely, he advanced towards the band, in a kind of shuffle, attuned somewhere deep in his mind to the beat of the music. We waited. Was this the catalyst that would fuse the cultures? It was not enough. So an American took the initiative. Lucille Armstrong stood up and went out into the arena to join the old man. Side by side, under the bell of Armstrong’s swinging trumpet they slowly danced, as Lucille watched the old man’s feet shuffling in the dust, and matched his steps.
Lucille Armstrong and the Ghanaian elder get the party started as more elders make their way to the dusty dance floor, until old women, young women with babies on their backs and young men draped in traditional gear all joined in. Satchmo grinned as the traditions of Black America and Africa melded. The moment was nearly forgotten until historians rediscovered the footage and posted it online for a new generation.