When Louis Armstrong played KU

KPR to air unbroadcast recording of 1957 'Satchmo' gig

Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong was performing at Kansas University on March 23, 1957, for a previous engagement when Frank Burge, then-director of the Kansas Union, convinced the legendary musician to play at a pep rally following the men’s basketball team’s loss in the national championship game earlier that night.

Kansas City, Mo., March 23, 1957.

On a wet, dreary spring evening, the Kansas University Jayhawks were battling the North Carolina Tar Heels for the men’s basketball national title inside Kansas City’s Municipal Auditorium. KU had a lot going for it (a home-court advantage, future basketball legend Wilt Chamberlain), and the Jayhawks were favored to win.

But they didn’t. The Jayhawks lost that night in triple overtime by just one point, 54-53.

Max Falkenstien, the legendary local radio sports announcer who spent 60 years covering KU football and basketball games, was there.

“It was one of those nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat kind of games,” Falkenstien recalls, though, “the game itself was not nearly as exciting as the hoopla that accompanied it.”

The game, which would later be described by longtime Sports Illustrated writer Frank DeFord as “the defining game of the NCAA tournament,” has since become something of a legend among KU basketball fans.

What’s sometimes lost about that exciting evening is that while KU and UNC were locked in an epic battle in Kansas City, back in Lawrence jazz trumpeter and singer Louis Armstrong, one of the most celebrated figures in American music, was there to entertain KU fans and later greet the crestfallen athletes as they rolled back into Lawrence early the next day.

Louis Armstrong in 1959

In the Kansas Union ballroom around 2:20 a.m., Armstrong, who also went by the nicknames “Satchmo” and “Pops,” along with more than 3,000 cheering students, welcomed the team’s arrival with a rousing rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

Until recently, nobody knew an actual recording of Armstrong’s performance at that pep rally existed. Enter Don Potts.

Potts, a part-time student employee at KANU in 1957, recorded the performance as well as a short interview with Armstrong that night. But the tape remained buried under a pile of other recordings in Potts’ Independence, Mo., basement for half a century, only to resurface four decades after Armstrong’s death.

Now, 58 years later, KANU will air Potts’ recording for the first time from 1 to 4 p.m. during Saturday’s broadcast of “The Jazz Scene.”

When to tune in

KANU (otherwise known as Kansas Public Radio) will air a recording of Louis Armstrong playing at Kansas University in 1957, along with David Basse’s interview with Don Potts, from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday during a special episode of “The Jazz Scene.” You can listen to the episode live at 91.5 FM or at kansaspublicradio.org. After the broadcast, the special program will be archived on KPR’s website.

Headline and story from the front page of the March 25, 1957, Lawrence Daily Journal-World on Louis Armstrong's performance at a Kansas University pep rally following the men's baskteball team's loss in the national championship game on March 23.

The episode will also include a short interview with Potts, recorded last month with “The Jazz Scene” host David Basse.

Basse, a Kansas City-based jazz vocalist and drummer, wasn’t aware of Armstrong’s 1957 gig at KU until Potts brought it up “in passing” a few years back. The friends had traveled to Lawrence that day to have lunch with longtime KPR host Jim Seaver, who passed away at age 92 in 2011.

“Then, on the drive back, he said, ‘Oh, I have this music that might be kind of interesting. I’ll get you a copy,'” Basse says. “He was really nonchalant about it.”

At that point, Potts had already mentioned the recording to another friend — pianist Paul Smith, who, along with Jeff Schiller of SoundTrek and Studio B Audio, mastered a CD of Potts’ recording of Armstrong’s performance.

When Potts and his wife, Barbara, a former two-term mayor of Independence, Mo., shared the restored audio with Basse for the first time, the radio host actually wept.

“The interview has a poignancy to it, because Don is, at that point in life, so inexperienced,” Basse says of his friend, who later attended medical school at KU. “He has no idea what he’s doing. He really didn’t have any questions prepared for Mr. Armstrong.”

The whole night — from KU’s devastating loss, to the Satchmo rally, to Potts’ impromptu interview — didn’t exactly go as planned, Potts now recalls.

Armstrong and his band had already performed that night for a long-standing Student Union Activities gig at Hoch Auditorium. When the news broke from Kansas City that the Jayhawks had lost, Frank Burge, then director of the Kansas Union, asked Armstrong and his band to perform an impromptu concert at the Kansas Union ballroom, where a deflated group of students had gathered to watch the 9 p.m. championship game on TV.

Burge sealed the deal by promising a meet-and-greet with Chamberlain, plus — according to KUHistory.com — some “premium bourbon” from his own stash.

Back in the ballroom, “people milled uncertainly around the room, most them wearing dead-pan expressions to hide their disappointment in the team’s loss,” according to a report from the Lawrence Daily Journal-World. But when Armstrong arrived and began playing, “the spirit of the crowd seemed to rise and by the time the team arrived, it was at a fever pitch.”

The place was totally “jammed,” Potts says, echoing descriptions from the same article that recalled the ballroom floor, which could easily hold 1,000 couples, becoming “so crowded that many couples went into adjoining rooms and danced to the music over the loud-speaker system.”

Roberta Schwartz, an associate professor of musicology at KU, wasn’t there that night and hasn’t heard Potts’ recording, but she’s not surprised.

“Everyone describes him as being really warm, really engaging. He could play to a house of 5,000 people, and you felt like he was only playing for you,” says Schwartz, who specializes in African-American music and frequently cites Armstrong in her Introduction to Jazz course. “He was this big, gregarious, charismatic personality that people just loved. It would have been something you wanted to experience.”

Potts’ recording captures a seven-song set, including “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South.”

As far as Potts is concerned, Satchmo’s music is the main event — not his six-minute conversation with the jazz icon, which he recorded in a balcony room between sets.

“To call it an interview is kind of a terrific stretch of the imagination,” says Potts, now a retired physician living in Independence, Mo.

Originally, it was Caroll Clark, a KU sociology professor and “jazz buff,” who was going to interview Armstrong. Potts was just there to set up the equipment and “twirl the dials” while the older man fired off the questions.

For reasons unexplained, Clark never showed up that night. But Potts was quick to volunteer for the job. He had harbored an interest in sound engineering since his childhood growing up in Queens, N.Y., where he and his family lived mere miles from Louis Armstrong’s home.

“So, what I told Louis was, ‘This is not going to be anything earth-shaking. I only know a bit about you and jazz, but I’d like to visit with you.’ And he was so kind,” Potts recalls of the musician. “I didn’t know what I was doing, I guess, so he might have felt sorry for me.”

Despite Potts’ bumbling questions (the KU game was a frequent topic), Armstrong remained amazingly patient with the 28-year-old “kid,” Potts says.

He even gave Potts a nickname: Papa D.

The recording of that night may have remained untouched over the years, but the memory left an indelible mark on Potts, a lifelong music lover who once played violin in the Queens Symphony Orchestra.

At the end of the 1957 interview, Potts tells Armstrong that he hoped to be listening to his music for the next 60 or 70 years.

Potts, who turns 85 on Wednesday, is quick to point out that he’s a few years away from that milestone.

But of course, after all this time, he’s still a fan.

“I’ve always been interested in music,” he says. “But the fact that I got to interview Louis Armstrong is what piqued my interest in jazz.”