Louis Armstrong brought the joy of jazz to millions around the world during his more than 50-year career. Now, the world comes to his home town, New Orleans, every August 4th to celebrate his birthday and recapture some of that rapture.
At Satchmo Summerfest V (Aug. 4-7) I encountered visitors from France, Germany, Britain and New Zealand. Yoshio Toyama, an Armstrong-like trumpeter and vocalist, brought 39 of his countrymen from Japan. And of course, Americans from coast to coast were among the thousands of visitors.
If I've said it once, I've written it five times: jazz festival junkies like myself need to put this festival on their itineraries.
Sure, it's hot Down Yonder in August. This year, it wasn't nearly as bad as what we've been suffering through in much of the country this summer. If you're gonna sweat, might as well do so listening to the Dukes of Dixieland, the Rebirth Brass Band, Ellis Marsalis, Big Chief Donald Harrison Jr. and legions more.
Like its predecessors, Summerfest V amounted to a nonstop pursuit of the many pleasuresfood, drink and musicthat make New Orleans one of our primo party towns.
The Saturday night headliner concert at the Mahalia Jackson auditorium was again the musical highlight of the long weekend for me,thanks to the presence of the brilliant Irvin Mayfield and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra he leads.
This is a crackerjack big band, schooled in the music of Ellington, and it opened with "Such Sweet Thunder" and "Portrait of Louis Armstrong," played with the suave assurance and full palette of tonal colors that the Master himself employed.
But it's Mayfield's own compositions, steeped in the inimitable sounds of his hometown Crescent City, that really got me giddy with excitement. On "Indians," the rhythm section cooked up a bubbling stew of sound as the horns roared in ensemble and solo a salute to the Mardi Gras Indian tradition. "Beat" was similarly sizzling, a piece reminding of the historic ties between the musics of Cuba and New Orleans. "The Elder Negro Speaks" is a second liner's dream, bold and brassy and beckoning all to abandon their seats and sashay behind the band.
"The Mistress a k a The Madam" was a change of pace, a ballad that opened with piano soloing over a gauzy texture woven by the reed section, leading to Mayfield's beautifully burnished work on trumpet. The interplay between the band's various sections and the bevy of talented soloists all help convince me that this is a truly great band, and it's been hitting the road. Catch NOJO if you can.
As for Mayfield, if there's a more exciting writer and arranger for big bands working today, I've not heard him/her.
Ellis Marsalis' Quartet and Jewel Brown, the spirited girl singer from Armstrong's sextet from 1961-1968, were also on the bill, and they joined the band to close the evening with "What a Wonderful World." That tune echoed many times over the weekend; on this occasion, it rang true.
Friday night's Frenchman Street Club Strut has evolved into Summerfest's most popular event, where clubgoers buy a wristband that admits them to some 20 venues.
The Strut began and ended for me with traditional jazz at Cafe Brasil. Piano great Henry Butler's Syncopatin' Steamboaters kicked it off, and Nicholas Payton proved worth the wait with a great set that didn't wrap up until 2:30 a.m. He played full-throttle Dixie as opposed to the contemporary spin he gave to this music on his recorded Dear Louis tribute in 2000.
In between, I caught Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews' jazz-funk band blaring from a balcony to throngs in the street below; a singer, Jasilah, who caught the dark, brooding essence of Nina Simone at the atmospheric Hookah Cafe; and the elegant Ellis Marsalis at the city's premier contemporary jazz club, Snug Harbor.
There's plenty of free entertainment at the Satchmo fest - including two full days of music on four stages surrounding the Old Mint, now a state museum. One stage is devoted to traditional jazz, one to contemporary, one to brass bands and one to children's acts. Inside, historians and scholars offer insight and musical excerpts on various aspects of Armstrong, his contemporaries and his legacy. In addition to informative, they provide an opportunity to cool off in air conditioning.
The grand finale brings every trumpet player on the scene to the main stage for some jamming, a joyful shout to the heavens, bringing down a rainbow-hued shower of confetti on the thousands of revelers.
Summerfest began with a birthday cake and a brass band sing-along at Satchmo's statue in Louis Armstrong Park. Other events include a Sunday morning Mass at St. Augustine's, the oldest black Catholic church in the U.S., and a second-line parade afterward down to the festival grounds.