Goodbye Phoebe and Hello Timme
I first encountered Phoebe when she was handling press and taking care of the musicians at Basin Street East. Our shared love for Louis Armstrong made us friends, as we remained for more than 50 years. Phoebe was one of a kind, and her remarkable energy and enthusiasm never flagged. Ken Burns captured the flavor of Phoebe in his 2000 TV documentary series, Jazz. Phoebe was truly a star, lighting up the screen with that great hat, luminous smile and strictly New York accent. Working with her on the labor of love of her later years, the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation, was indeed an educationin the true meaning of dedication to a cause.
So it was right and proper that Phoebe's life be celebrated with a major event on May 24 at Jazz at Lincoln Center, which had honored her in 2003 with its Award for Leadership. Held free to the public at Rose Hall in the afternoon, there was close to a full house, including many students from I.S. 227 in Queens, named for Louis Armstrongand guess who was responsible for that?
There were fine speeches, none too long, by friends and associates, including Stanley Crouch, Mercedes Ellington, Robert O'Meally, Norma Miller, Queens Borough President Helen Marshall and George Wein (my favorite eulogistI'll never forget the one he gave for Vic Dickenson). At the end, there were touching remarks by Phoebe's son, daughter, granddaughter and grandson. But the meat of the feast, so to speak, was the music, in the good hands of Wynton Marsalis and the marvelous Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestrain my humble opinion, the best big jazz band we have todayand some distinguished guests.
Taste and Trumpet Chops
Inevitably, the musical portions, interspersed with the speeches, began with "What a Wonderful World," far from my favorite except as done by Louis, yet rendered with taste and great trumpet chops by Lew Soloff, backed by the orchestra. Next came another master of the instrument, Jon Faddis, accompanied by pianist Dan Nimmer in Eubie Blake's immortal "Memories of You."
Nimmer stated the verse and Faddis the chorus, first with a mutenot a cup or Harmon, maybe a solo tone of more recent incarnation than I'm familiar withand lovely phrasing that had some Bobby Hackett-like moments, then on powerful open horn, climbing high. It reminded me of a Gibson Jazz Party in the 1970s, when Jon and Eubie duetted on this very song, as the youngest and the oldest of the musicians. Jon was terrific then, but he plays on another level now.
When he was done, Jon took his place in the trumpet section next to Lew, and that brought back another memory from long ago, when these two were roommates (cozy virtuosi?) and I paid a visit, finding them surrounded by Armstrong blue Deccas. There was a spirited two-tempo rendition of "After You've Gone" by Antoinette Montague, with Walter Blanding's tenor sax, and a fine interpretation of Benny Goodman's closing theme, "Goodbye," with Victor Goines' clarinet, and muted Marcus Printup doing the trumpet "echo."
It was good that Benny was recognized as one of Phoebe's "specials"she understood that complicated man. And Latin percussion master Bobby Sanabria guested with the band in a spirited "Caravan," spotting a nice Ted Nash alto bit. Phoebe would have loved "Dream a Little Dream of Me" in a note-perfect duet by Brianna Thomas , who'd done her homework on Ella Fitzgerald's part, and band member Vincent Gardner, who did a commendable Louis, both vocally and trombonistically.
But the musical highlight for this listener was Jimmy Heath's marvelous arrangement of Billy Strayhorn's beautiful "A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing." Jimmy not only conductedand he is not just an arm waver, but the real thinghe also played some moving tenor. The other featured soloist, as usual performing from his section chair, was Wynton, who held his own in the afternoon's trumpet sweepstakes with a statement that was wholly original, true to the composition and setting, and one of those things one instantly wanted to hear again. The band did justice to Jimmy's great chart.