Louis Armstrong was above all else an entertainer, a beloved figure ever since the early 1920s when the nation's ears first perked up to the sound of the jazz he was helping invent.
From jazz pioneer to big band leader, movie and TV star, to his "Ambassador Satch" years fronting the All-Stars on tours around the world, he won countless friends abroad for America. People instinctively smiled right back at Louis, spreading joy wherever he appeared. and at that gravelly voice and glorious trumpet.
But Armstrong was also a serious artist, credited with bringing soloists to the fore of what had been an ensemble form of music during its beginnings in New Orleans. He practiced relentlessly throughout his career and played and sang with such brilliance as to captivate jazz audiences to this day, more than 31 years since his death.
That entertainer/artist dichotomy was reflected in the Satchmo Summerfest II celebration of his 101st birthday that unfolded over four days, Aug. 1-4, in his native New Orleans. Brass bands and other traditional groups, as well as more contemporary musicians, blew up a storm for the three-day festival, playing on four stages outside the Old Mint in a corner of the French Quarter.
Meanwhile up on the third floor of this imposing 200-year-old museum, academics and other aficionados were discussing their research into nearly every aspect of Satchmo's life, from his poverty-stricken childhood and incarceration at age 12 through his discovery of music and his own genius for it, his years playing at Storyville and in other dives, his celebrated moves to Chicago and then New York, his key role in advancing integration in the music and in American society all have been the subjects of extensive inquiry.
Satchmo Summerfest was supposed to be a one-time salute in 2001 to commemorate his 100th anniversary and reaffirm his vital role in the development of this uniquely American music. (A third motive: to help fill the city's hotel rooms during the doldrum days of August). That festival succeeded so well, on all counts, that city leaders are trying to establish it as an annual event a mini-Jazzfest with two days of outdoor concerts, a nightclub crawl, a star-studded concert on Saturday night, a jazz Mass and second-line parade, and, of course, abundant food and drink.
The festival opened with a reception at the city airport, renamed in Louis' honor a year ago. Kermit Ruffins, a trumpeter, singer and bon vivant in the Armstrong mold, led his Barbecue Swingers band through a couple of hours of traditional favorites. They were joined by vocalist Tricia "Sister Teedy" Boutte for a segment with Ruffins reprising the Louis and Ella Fitzgerald duets. On one or two numbers, trumpeter Jon Faddis made a guest appearance.
The following night's club crawl offered a one-price cover charge good at 10 different locations in the Frenchman-lower Decatur street neighborhood. It was kicked off, appropriately, by the New Orleans Nightcrawlers, one of a new breed of the brass bands that have been a staple of the city's music for more than a century. The 10-piece Nightcrawlers stir traditional jazz, funk, r&b and other sounds into their bubbling musical gumbo.
Pianist Henry Butler's Steamboatin' Syncopators boasted an all-star lineup, with Wendell Brunious on trumpet, Freddie Lonzo on trombone and Shannon Powell on drums, and rollicking versions of a dozen old standbys.
3Now4 is one of the city's premier modern jazz groups, led by Astral Project bassist James Singleton. The quartet's music is a bit spacier now that Tim Green on tenor has replaced veteran trumpeter Charlie Miller, who was aboard for the excellent self-titled CD. Dave Easley's pedal steel guitar has that wonderful, clean Les Paul-like sound.
I caught partial sets by the venerable Harold Battiste with some modern masters, and by brothers Delfeayo and Jason Marsalis, and in true New Orleans fashion the music was still long and strong at the 2 a.m. hour when activities were scheduled to wind up.
On Saturday, I was drawn to the brass band stage, where DeJean's Olympia Brass Band played a touching tribute to the recently passed Harold DeJean, the saxophonist who revived this band in the 1950s and led it for nearly half a century. The Storyville Stompers and New Birth bands followed, their youthful makeup furnishing assurance that this good-vibe music will survive well into this millennium.
Dr. Michael White, the city's premier traditional clarinetist, fronted the Liberty Jazz Band, wowing the crowd with a breathtaking (literally) long solo on "St. Philip Street Breakdown," then working alone with his rhythm section in a "Summertime" that fitted the languid summer afternoon like a hand in a silk glove.
The day's highlight, though, was Louis himself, on screen, as his longtime friend, Jack Bradley, shared his collection of shorts and snippets from the many movies Armstrong appeared in starting in 1932.