Huge In Japan

The influence of Louis Armstrong can be felt–or more appropriately, heard–all over the world. Satchmo was an international icon and the real ambassador of New Orleans jazz to hundreds of thousands of people across the globe. Louis’s presence and music were responsible for some genuinely incredible feats. Two Popes requested an audience with Louis; in Leopoldville, Louis’s tour temporarily enacted a cease-fire during a civil war in the Congo; and he was adored by royalty so much that King George V of England gifted Louis with a gold trumpet in 1934. Without a doubt, Louis was truly loved all over the world. This love is still expressed to this day, with many international travelers visiting the Louis Armstrong House Museum daily. Although Louis sold out and dazzled many audiences, his tours of Japan in 1953, 1963, and 1964 deserve a highlight reel. I only wish a documentary was made to demonstrate the impact Louis made on the land of the rising sun.

Louis poses with Shochiku dancing girls at the Tokyo airport in December of 1953

At the end of 1953, Louis arrived in Japan as part of his first tour of Asia, receiving an overwhelmingly large and warm welcome from thousands of his Japanese fans, arguably topping his reception in Europe, where he was also beloved. During this tour, Louis played a number shows not only for his Japanese audience–Louis broke the attendance record for an event in Osaka–but the band also played a considerable amount of dates for the armed forces stationed throughout the island archipelago. This tour came at a perfect time for Louis, according to his manager, Joe Glaser. The oversaturated market in the U.S. made it so musicians could make a considerably large amount more money overseas than by touring the states. Ricky Riccardi, Louis Armstrong House Museum Director of Research Collections, remarks in his book, What a Wonderful World.,“Louis received the largest guaranteed payment of any musician that played Japan at the time.  Louis earned an average of 2,500 per night against fifty percent of the gross.” Joe Glaser’s only lament about the ’53 tour was that he didn’t book Louis there years earlier. Not only were Asian markets starving for premier American acts to tour, but the servicemen and women stationed were prime target audiences abroad as well. The G.I.’s so welcomed A-list talent that a near bidding war for Louis’s availability occurred while in Japan. Nearly half of the All Stars’s performances during Louis’s two weeks in Japan were at various military installations, including U.S. Naval Base Sasebo, U.S. Army camps at Gifu, Otsu, and Fukuoka, Camp Drake in Tokyo and Misawa Air Base in Aomori Prefecture.

The tour was so lucrative that the rest of the Asia tour stops, including planned performances  Hong Kong and Singapore, were canceled so Louis could stay in Japan. It had been reported that the Japan tour was so successful that Louis could have continuously toured Japanese cities for three months and sold out every show.

Louis sits at a table backstage eating Udon noodles in Tokyo, Japan in 1953.

Louis’ multiple tours Japan brought him to major cities such as Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, and Sapporo. Additionally, Louis met with highly esteemed celebrities and even met and danced with Princess Suganomiya, the daughter of Emperor Hirohito in 1963. As for his shows, Japan gave him a bit of a culture shock. Performing to an unresponsive sea of an audience, Louis was initially taken aback by the silent, perhaps entranced Japanese crowd. He responded with even more laborious playing, eventually moving the traditionally calm audience into showing their appreciation with shouts and groovy motions. Of his tour, Louis stated, “Japan–how many people would think the Japanese would dig our music the way they did? Why, all the trumpet players in Japan gave a dinner for me. Took my shoes off, you know, and sit down at this funny table and have a big meal–nothin’ but the trumpets.” 

Louis poses with Princess Suganomiya, the daughter of Japan’s Emperor Hirohito, during a 1963 tour of the country. Princess Suganomiya sits on Louis’ lap, and he smiles broadly for the camera

The chance to meet Satchmo was a rare event for the Japanese. After the initial 1953 tour, it would be another ten years before he would return to Japan, selling out shows all over the country in both his 1963 and 1964 return visits. One of the many fans that met Louis during his tours was famous Japanese trumpet player Fumio Nanri. Impressed by his talents, Louis dubbed Nanri the “Satchmo of Japan.” Nanri passed away in 1975, and the mantle of Satchmo of Japan was passed along to another incredible Japanese trumpet player, Yoshio Toyama. Toyama was so influenced by Louis Armstrong and New Orleans jazz that after graduating college, Yoshio and his wife, Keiko, both moved to New Orleans. For years they played at Preservation Hall, honing their skills and learning about the culture of New Orleans jazz that had inspired them both. Toyama’s time in New Orleans inspired him to create the Wonderful World Jazz Foundation, which annually donates money and jazz instruments to schools in need throughout New Orleans. Inspirational stories such as this are not possible without incredible people and influences.  It’s yet another display of how Armstrong touched people’s lives in countless ways. While in Japan, Louis was made an honorary member of both the Japanese federation of music and the Hot Jazz Society of Japan.

To this day, jazz is still appreciated, studied, and admired by people in Japan. I, myself, have had the chance to meet jazz journalists from Japan at the Armstrong House, making a stop to pay respect to Louis Armstrong and the gift of music he gave to the world. It is truly amazing to be able to see the impact Louis left on the world even many years after his passing. No time soon will Louis be forgotten.

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