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Imagine Louis Armstrong playing your prom

Closeups of Louis Armstrong and an issue of the Daily Evergreen promoting his upcoming performance for the Junior Prom.
Louis Armstrong and his band were the featured performers for Washington State College's 1951 Junior Prom.

In the spring of 1951, legendary jazz musician Louis Armstrong took the stage at Bohler Gymnasium to play for Junior Prom. Tickets cost $3.25 per couple, and the theme was “Bayou Blues.”

In previewing the performance, the Evergreen’s Jeannine Holt wrote:

“The exceptionally danceable music of Armstrong will be interspersed with short jazz numbers for which he is so famous. Current popular numbers that Louis is know for such as ‘Blueberry Hill,’ ‘La Vie En Rose,’ and, ‘C’est Si Bon,’ will probably appear in the program.”

By the 1950s, Armstrong was renowned worldwide. He began his career in the 1920s as a trumpet and cornet player, but he added scat singing later that decade and his lively, raspy voice was instantly recognizable by the 40s. He popularized the jazz solo, performed on radio, in movies, and on television, and was featured on the cover of Time magazine in 1949.

Following World War II, Armstrong served as an ambassador for the U.S. State Department, visiting countries from Russia to Africa.

About this series

The contributions of America’s communities of color have long helped shape Washington State University, sometimes in ways that wouldn’t become apparent for decades or generations to come.

Re‑Exploring History is dedicated to taking a fresh look at those moments during the early‑ to mid‑20th century where African American academics, performers and entertainers left their mark on the University’s future, even while having to navigate segregation and other societal obstacles.

The series relies heavily on the historical sleuthing skills of WSU staff member and Ph.D. student James Bledsoe and Mark O’English with the Manuscripts, Archives and Special Collections section of WSU Libraries.

Read previous installments featuring Booker T. Washington and Roland Hayes.

For Horace Alexander Young, WSU associate professor of music and an accomplished musician himself, Armstrong’s visit to Pullman serves as inspiration and an important piece of the school’s past.

“WSU was taking the lead on bringing people of color to campus over more than 100 years of history,” said Young, who earned his MA at WSU in 1983. “It’s really exciting to look back on that history.”

Armstrong’s visit to Bohler Gym was part of an extended West Coast tour. Music student Velma Middleton was to sing with the ensemble, according to the Evergreen on March 22, 1951.

Dress for the event was semi-formal, with men expected to wear suits, and women “formals.”

“Plan to attend the Junior Prom either as a dancer or a spectator,” the Evergreen read. “This dance will long remain in the minds of those who spend the memorable evening at ‘Bayou Blues,’ dancing to the music of world-famous Louis Armstrong.”

It’s possible that legendary baseball coach Buck Bailey helped bring Armstrong to Pullman through their mutual friend Bing Crosby. Bailey, who led the Cougars’ nine for 32 years, golfed with Crosby regularly in the offseason. The famous crooner Crosby was from Spokane, and played one year of baseball at Gonzaga.

Armstrong’s visit was the first of three all‑time jazz greats over four years in the early 50s. Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington followed him to Pullman, to the thrill of music fans in the community.

It’s fitting that Armstrong was the first of the three music icons to visit WSU. He’s considered one of the fathers of jazz, and helped take the style from a regional sound to an international phenomenon.

Armstrong was, “the root source that moved jazz onto the path along which it has developed for more than 45 years,” according to New York Times jazz critic John S. Wilson.

Listen to a broadcast of Louis Armstrong and His All‑Stars, recorded shortly after their stop at WSU.

Re-Exploring History will next feature jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald.

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