New Orleans Celebrates Satchmo's 107th Birthday
“ This year's fest offered music at 21 locations along Frenchmen and Decatur streets, including such unlikely venues as a tea room, a bike store and the auditorium of an assisted-living high-rise. ”
It's no coincidence that trumpet playersmany of them singers to boot - were front and center at the eighth annual Satchmo Summerfest in New Orleans the first weekend of August. Lots of the city's best-known musicians arrange to be on tour up North come sweltering summertime, but many others stay put. At least a dozen top-flight trumpeters took part in the four-day salute on what would've been Louis Armstrong's 107th birthday.
Kermit Ruffins, the closest the Crescent City has come to producing another Pops, joined Yoshio Toyama, "the Satchmo of Japan," in Armstrong Park for the opening ceremonies. With a statue of Louis behind them, they played and growled their Louis impersonations on "Happy Birthday" and several "good old good ones," as Louis liked to say. Both men kept busy entertaining the thousands of local fans and visitors all weekend and were on stage with three fellow trumpeters for the closing blast: joyous romps through "Hello Dolly," "Mack the Knife," "Wonderful World" and "The Saints," among many others. Rainbows of confetti burst from the upper balconies of the Old U.S. Mint museum onto the exhilarated crowd.
First stop on my Satchmo Club Strut to-do card that Friday night was to hear Jack Fine, a spry 79-year-old with a penchant for the blues and a gift for wry twists on familiar lyrics. Fine was also flanked by two rhythm guitars the next day as the gypsy jazz band Vavavoom graced a stage at the Mint. The club strut keeps expanding. This year's fest offered music at 21 locations along Frenchmen and Decatur streets, including such unlikely venues as a tea room, a bike store and the auditorium of an assisted-living high-rise.
My next stop was for Lionel Ferbos, who at 97 is the city's oldest working musician. The trumpeter still hit all the right notes as leader of his traditional band, and despite a dour appearance onstage, his face lit up afterward when three young ladies posed with him for a photo. The next day, Ferbos reminisced about his presence in 1970 at a 70th birthday party for Armstrong at the Newport Jazz Festival. He and fellow panelists Orange Kellin and Lars Edegran were and still are members of the New Orleans Ragtime Orchestra, which was invited by festival producer George Wein to the party. Excerpts from a never-released film of the occasion showed Louis coaxed into some second-line dance steps across the stage. Trumpeters Randy Sandke, Marlon Jordan, Clyde Kerr Jr. and Shamarr Allen raised the roof at Ray's Room in the later hours of the club strut.
There were no horns at all at what proved to be the night's most memorable set. Piano master Ellis Marsalis has a steady gig at Snug Harbor, New Orleans' premier club for jazz, and was joined by a trio of young sidemen for 90 minutes of enchantment on superb melodies such as "Corcovado," "Bag's Groove," "Rhythm-a-ning" and the leader's own "Orchid Blue." That tune began life as a ballad, blossoming into a mid tempo swinger. Marsalis, who seemed in especially good humor, was captivating in musical dialogues with a promising young vibes player, Roman Skakun.
Three stages were set up around the Old Mint for the Saturday and Sunday celebration, where brass bands, traditional and contemporary jazz bands played from 11 a.m. until early evening. The 90-degree-plus heat kept me inside the air-conditioned museum for much of the weekend, listening and learning from jazz-industry notables Dan Morgenstern, George Avakian and Gary Giddins, among others, and watching dozens of newly available film clips of Armstrong at work and play.
I did emerge late Sunday for trumpeter-singer James Andrews' Crescent City Allstars, a septet that roused the crowd with jazzed-up versions of a dozen or so Big Easy classics, from "Jambalaya" and "St. James Infirmary" to "Iko Iko" and other funky hits from the city's rhythm-and-blues heydays of the 1940s and '50s. Then came Ruffins, Toyama and Co. for the joyous finale to a wonderful weekend.