What a Wonderful Night 60 Years Ago at Ljubljana’s GR

Louis Armstrong in Ljubljana
Louis Armstrong in Ljubljana

On a foggy early spring day, Slovenia’s capital was lucky to witness one of the most noble concerts in its entire history. Incredible 60 years ago, the greatest musician of the time, Louis Armstrong, with his band All Stars, performed at Ljubljana’s GR – Ljubljana Exhibition and Convention Centre.

Slovenia was at the time one of the six republics of the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia; the other five republics forming Yugoslavia were Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, and Macedonia. Hence, one might wonder how such a prominent musician coming from the capitalist country of USA performed in a communist country. The reason was not that magical but rather very simple: the performance was in a frame of a project under the auspices of the U.S. government which was promoting American culture in countries of Eastern Europe. Interestingly, and certainly not surprisingly, the Yugoslav government was not opposed to his concert, as it enjoyed Armstrong’s jazz virtuosity just as much as the regular folks did.

To make the story even more special, the event consisted of another surprise. Namely, the concert was supposed to take place in the GR – Ljubljana Exhibition and Convention Centre’s Kupola Hall on the 31st of March 1959, and not on the 1st of April 1959, when it actually happened. The reason for this turn of events was not in the April’s Fool Day but rather in a very thick fog that was on the last day of March floating above the Ljubljana’s airport so that the plane was diverted to Croatia’s capital Zagreb. From there, the musician and his band hit the road not with Jack (as Armstrong’s fellow Ray Charles might have put it) but rather with cars. The start of the concert was, thus, delayed not only due to the diverted flight, but also for the ride on the highway between Zagreb and Ljubljana.

Slovenian audience was since 4pm eagerly awaiting in front of the GR for the start of the concert at 8pm. And as the promised concert didn’t start neither at 8, nor at 9, nor at 10pm, and so on, the waiting crowd was getting mad but still remained in its spot as one of the organisers came to the stage every 30 minutes to announce that “Armstrong is very close and he should arrive any moment now”. The upset crowd was complaining but still waited for, perhaps, the concert of their lives. They surely were incredibly patient, despite an upsetting situation, as the reports say that Armstrong and his All Stars band finally arrived at midnight, while other reports say that the concert finally started at 1.30am and the audience was still there, in the Kupola Hall.

In any case, be it midnight or 1.30am, when Armstrong and his band entered the stage, the audience first angrily shouted and booed towards them, but immediately as the King of Jazz started playing, everyone forgot the all-day-long waiting and just went crazily happy singing and dancing. At the end, the musicians who presented the newest Porgy and Bess album, received, also not surprisingly so, a long-lasting standing ovation and pleads for more songs, despite early morning hours — some reports estimate the end of the concert to be around 4am in the morning. So that the night that started with wondrous facts of the crossing between communist and capitalist soul ended up being a shared moment of pure and wonderful love for music no matter the thickness of the fog or the April’s Fool Day.

GR via Kongres Magazine