What a Wonderful Satchmo Summerfest
It's been 105 years since Louis Armstrong came onto this Earth, and 35 years since he left it, and yet the music he created and laughter he inspired continue to bring enjoyment to listeners today.
That's especially true in his hometown of New Orleans which, despite the ravages of Hurricane Katrina, staged its sixth annual Satchmo Summerfest August 3-6, 2006.
Summerfest is part outdoor festival, part club crawl, part lecture series, with generous helpings of food and drink in a city where indulging and imbibing are elevated to art forms.
There will never be another Louis, but New Orleans has given us another trumpeter/singer, Kermit Ruffins, whose musicianship and exuberant personality have had crowds on their feet dancing for years. As is the tradition, he closed out the festival, leading a quintet that boasted Jazz at Lincoln Center's Herlin Riley on drums. They played a half-dozen of Satchmo's hits, a couple of Ruffins' own, and Kermit continued to lead cheers for the city's rebirth. Then he summoned several fellow trumpeters onstage for a last grand blast to the blue sky, a happy birthday salute to Armstrong.
Back in the 1950s, the State Department sent Armstrong on world tours to help win friends abroad for America. Maybe it's time for an encore. Kermit Ruffins can charm any audience; he'd have those Sunnis and Shiites dancing in the streets of Baghdad. All aboard, Condi?
I also caught Ruffins' set at a new club he co-owns on Frenchman Street, where the Satchmo Club Strut sashays in and out of more than a dozen bars and restaurants. Ray's Boom Boom Room's grand opening was a festival highlight, another sign that the post-K musical community in New Orleans is coming back. His night set was more in an R&B vein, and he capped it off by taking the lid off the rolling grill occupying most of the bed of his pickup truck and treating several hundred fans to barbecued chicken and pork.
John Boutte is another performer worth going back to for seconds. The unusually animated singer wowed me at the Boom Boom Room one night, blending gospel and blues with the Great American Songbook, bantering with the audience and veering into social commentary with observations about New Orleans' less-than-reverent attitude toward Louis Armstrong in the segregation era. Trumpeter Leroy Jones and guitarist Todd Duke proved simpatico accompanists. Hart McNee on flutes replaced Jones the next night at another club, DBA, where Boutte took note of the early evening downpour and tossed off several "rain tunes, and then, "I Can See Clearly Now.
Cafe Brasil imported a couple of legendary jazzmen for the club strut. Frank Morgan, whose lyrical alto sax playing is like an island retreat in the often-turbulent sea of modern jazz, stuck mostly to familiar tunes from the Monk-Coltrane-Miles repertoires. Later that night, trombonist and conch-shell player Steve Turre closed the night out with a boisterous set that was further enlivened when Troy "Trombone Shorty Andrews, another New Orleans legend in the making, joined in. Across the street, Ellis Marsalis and Astral Project played at Snug Harbor, the city's premier modern jazz club.
Earlier in the evening, I caught a set apiece by the Va Va Voom Gypsy Jazz band and Hot Club of New Orleans.
The annual seminar series brings together a number of jazz historians, scholars and longtime friends of Armstrong to talk about the man and the musician, watch films and listen to recordings that illustrate their chosen topics. Among the speakers:
David Ostwald, bandleader specializing in music of the '20s and '30s, called Armstrong "a man who looked for the good in everyone he met and recounted anecdotes from throughout his life that reinforced his point.
Michael Cogswell, keeper of the Armstrong house and archives in Queens, N.Y., discussed plans for a new visitors center where a vast collection of memorabilia can be properly displayed.
John McCusker, a Times-Picayune photographer who has chronicled the landmarks left in the city from jazz's early days, talked about and showed pictures of how many of them fared during Katrina: "The good news is the vast majority were not affected. The bad news is most were in pitiful condition before the storm.
Bob Porter, record producer and radio DJ, expounded on Armstrong's association with jazz impresario Norman Granz in the 1950s, and played some tunes from a never-released concert Louis and his all-stars gave at the Hollywood Bowl in 1956. Porter hopes to tie up bureaucratic loose ends and get the whole concert, including only-on-LP sets by Ella Fitzgerald, Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson and others, out on CD next year.
The whole festival took place in an eight-block stretch from the French Quarter's French Market stalls out to Frenchman Street in the Faubourg Marigny. All of it was a leisurely stroll away from the Wyndham Canal Place hotel where I stayed (the views of the river and Quarter from the upper floors are unparalleled). My thanks also to the Omni Royal's Rib Room, Court of Two Sisters, House of Blues and Angeli's where I dined all too well.
It's no secret that tourism is the lifeblood of New Orleans, and everywhere I went people expressed thanks to visitors for coming and urged them to tell their friends back home to come on down. If I could, I'd go back for a few days around Aug. 29, when Wynton Marsalis is leading several days of commemoration on the anniversary of Katrina. I can't make it down again, but maybe readers can.