New Orleans Celebrates Louis Armstrong

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Satchmo Summerfest 2007
New Orleans, Louisiana
August 2-5
Jazz fans have myriad reasons to be thankful for Louis Armstrong. One of them is the annual birthday bash in his hometown, New Orleans. The first Satchmo Summerfest was in 2001, on Armstrong's 100th birthday. The seventh stretched over four sun-drenched days, August 2-5, and was very much like its predecessors. Dozens of the city's jazz artists played and sang in their own unique ways the music that young Louis helped to create.
Kermit Ruffins has sounded the final notes of every Summerfest—fittingly, since he of all his peers best represents the Armstrong legacy. A beloved icon in the city, who is gaining renown around the world, Ruffins sings, plays trumpet, and radiates joy just as Louis did, particularly on rousing numbers like "Palm Court Strut" and "Skokiaan." Like many musicians, he's become a cheerleader for post-Katrina New Orleans. "Living in this city is like living in Paradise," he told the several thousand listeners crowded around the Old Mint's main stage. "I feel blessed every day."
Ruffins called on a half-dozen special guests to share the spotlight, and his set covered many of Armstrong's later pop hits, opening with "Sleepy Time Down South" and ending with "The Saints." Meanwhile, Dr. Michael White's Liberty Jazz Band, which specializes in early New Orleans jazz, delved into the Hot 5 and Hot 7 repertoire of the 1920s, masterpieces such as "West End Blues," "Tiger Rag" and "Canal Street Blues."

Maurice Brown has a new name for his quintet, "Effects." The same exuberant trumpeter as ever, he offered modified versions of tunes from his aptly named Hip to Bop CD and from a second CD not out yet. Saxophonist and singer Grace Darling's languid, tropical-feel version of "Watermelon Man" was a hit, and so was a drastically reworked and funkified "Honeysuckle Rose," as conceived by saxophonist Brent Rose for singer Kaya Martinez. Singer Arlee Leonard displayed a lustrous voice and impressive range during her set, her "Time Keeps Slipping into the Future" serving as a platform for her appeal to politicians to make good on promises to help displaced Orleanians (more than 200,000 of whom are still living elsewhere) get onto the road home. "We need all our people back to keep growing the next generations of Louis Armstrong," she said.

The music went on all day Saturday and Sunday on three stages, devoted to traditional and more contemporary jazz as well as brass bands. There's an educational component to Summerfest, as authorities on various aspects of Satchmo's life and career lecture or take part in panel discussions. I divided my time between the music and the talk, coming away with these nuggets:

  • Legendary Columbia Records executive George Avakian shared stories about his long friendship with Armstrong and dealings with many other jazz greats. Someday, these ought to be published in book form.

  • Historian Tad Jones—the man who discovered that Louis was not born on July 4, 1900, as the trumpet legend always claimed, but on August 4, 1901—was recalled as a great advocate for New Orleans music and a dedicated researcher. He died on New Year's Day, leaving unfinished a widely praised manuscript on Armstrong's early years that may also be completed and gotten into print. And a filmmaker at this session disclosed that he and Jones collaborated on a screenplay that he hopes will result in a movie about Louis' remarkable life.

  • Jack Stewart, another jazz archivist, spoke about a Jewish enclave in Louis' old neighborhood near South Rampart Street, and how it was from Jacob Fink's pawn shop that the youngster bought his first cornet.

A Club Strut on Frenchmen Street, where no fewer than 15 bars, cafes, balconies and even a bicycle shop offer live music, is a Summerfest highlight. The hardy fan can indulge in up to eight hours of jazz for the price—$20 to $40—of a wristband. I club-hopped all night, pausing to hear Big Chief Donald Harrison leading a trio of young sidemen; trumpeter Irvin Mayfield's mock battle with Ruffins; and San Francisco-based singer Jacqui Naylor working with topnotch bassist Roland Guerin and drummer Jason Marsalis at the city's #1 jazz club, Snug Harbor. Her husky voice on a deep blue take of the Hoagy Carmichael classic "Lazy Bones" was especially memorable.

Other nights, other singers at other clubs: Betty Shirley was in Betty Carter mode one night at the Mystick Den, while Sharon Martin roused a good-sized crowd with gospel-infused singing at Sweet Lorraine.

Man does not live by music alone, not even in New Orleans. And not with great restaurants like Arnaud's and The Besh Steakhouse, among many others, just a few minutes' walk from Maison DuPuy, the French Quarter hotel where I slept. A little.

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