9th Annual Satchmo Summerfest Heats Up New Orleans


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Ninth Annual Satchmo SummerFest
New Orleans, Louisiana
July 30-August 2, 2009

Sauntering down Frenchmen Street in New Orleans late on the night of July 31, I thought: I am indisputably in the right place, at the right time, mingling with more happy people per square foot than could be found anywhere else in the world.

The occasion was the annual Satchmo Summerfest Club Strut, one of the greatest parties in this great party town. If you think midsummer in the Deep South isn't your cup of iced tea, the thousands reveling in the music from several directions, along with the food and drink and camaraderie, might change your mind.

The ninth annual Louis Armstrong Centennial birthday party—they started in 2001, when on August 4 (contrary to Louis' insistence on a July 4th birth date) the music's founding father would have turned 100—was a bit bigger and better than its predecessors.

The Club Strut offered music in 19 different venues along raffish Frenchmen Street, which juts off from a corner of the French Quarter. For the price of a wrist band ($25, or $75 for a VIP pass that included free food and drink) locals and tourists got royally entertained from 6 p.m. until 2 a.m. or beyond. (I conked out at 1:30). Thousands of others just celebrated in the street for free, serenaded by the marching Treme Brass Band and by smaller groups playing on three balconies overlooking the street.

Some choice moments:

Trumpeter-singer Shamarr Allen belting out "Meet Me on Frenchmen Street," an anthem to what has emerged as the musical mecca in this city. It's no Bourbon Street, and that's a good thing. Allen's amusing banter with sidemen and audience is engaging, but it's his musicianship—he accompanied Willie Nelson on a recent tour—that marks him as a rising star.

Bluesman Chris Thomas King revisited his contributions to the Oh Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack.

Drummer Herlin Riley crossed into another zone on his "Caravan" solo while leading a quintet that featured Wessell "Warmdaddy" Anderson. Sitting in, Lucien Barbarin, sans his trombone, leaped into the vocal on "Lil Liza Jane" and veered into "Shake Your Money Maker," with some impromptu lyric innovations.

Tony Dagradi's New Orleans Saxophone Quartet wove intricate harmonies on bop and jazz classics, notably Ellington's "In a Sentimental Mood."

Trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis led theUptown Jazz Orchestra, a big band good enough to bring brother Branford back to his hometown to play tenor. The 15-piece band swung persuasively on several numbers from the classic Count Basie-Neil Hefti Atomic (Roulette, 1957).

Youngest brother Jason Marsalis closed out my night at the city's premier jazz club, Snug Harbor, leading a quartet on some imaginative originals from his new "Music Update" CD. Marsalis, initially a drummer, has developed into a superb vibraphonist. He welcomed saxman Anderson to sit in on two standards and closed with a straight-ahead blues, titled intriguingly "Western Vacation Ranch.".

The music continued Saturday and Sunday at the Satchmo Fest's outdoor stages at the Old Mint Museum. Armstrong's music was everywhere—I heard "Sleepy Time Down South" and "It's a Wonderful World" done every which way, and his fun-loving spirit was contagious.

Seguenon Kone, on an extended visit to the Crescent City from his Ivory Coast homeland, has assembled an eight-piece African and New Orleanian band that emphasizes the forceful rhythms driving music from both places. He plays a giant timbale-like contraption, fitted up with hanging gourds and other percussion aids, that he wears around his neck while dancing and spinning around the stage. His compositions have a trance-inducing quality.

Singer Leah Chase recalled an Armstrong rarity: Louis once joined with vocalist Leon Thomas in recording Pharoah Sanders' "The Creator Has a Master Plan." Her version, completion with Thomas-like hip yodeling, paid homage to both innovative singers.

Trumpeters were in the spotlight all day Sunday:

Lionel Ferbos, at 98 the oldest working musician in the city, still has chops and his voice, too, and was featured in Lars Edegran's Ragtime Orchestra.

James Andrews' Crescent City All-Stars focused on the rhythm and blues music that New Orleans sent out to the world in the 1950s, brassy versions of classics by legends such as Earl King, Allen Toussaint, Professor Longhair and Andrews' own grandfather, Jesse Hill, whose "Ooh Poo Pa Doo'' remains a sing-along staple here.

Kermit Ruffins, the most Satchmo-inspired trumpeter-singer of all, closed out the festivities as usual,then presided over a trumpet summit that propelled one last "The Saints" and "Happy Birthday" into the blue sky.

There was more club-hopping. I checked out trumpeter-bandleader-civic leader Irvin Mayfield's swanky new club at the Royal Sonesta Hotel, where elegant singer Johnaye Kendricks mixed standards with some adventurous originals.

On another memorable night, John Boutte, a great singer, was backed by a fine trio at d.b.a. Boutte's high tenor handles jazz standards, gospel and r&b with equal skill, and his occasioinal rants about "loudmouths" in the audience and gripes about a quirky sound system are endearing parts of his act as well.

Just up the street, Herlin Riley led a quintet in a late set with trumpeter Marlon Jordan and the ubiquitous Wessell Anderson in the front line. His opening whacks on a tambourine, creating an inimitable New Orleans groove, set the pace for "Night in Tunisia," and he remained in stellar form all set. Things only got better when brothers Branford and Delfeayo showed up and sat in for more than an hour.

Before the closing "St. Louis Blues," Riley paid tribute to Armstrong. "All of us who play jazz, or any kind of American music, are standing on Louis' shoulders," he said. Amen.

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