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Heirs Swing Jazz In Louis Armstrong's Shadow

Daniel Kassell By

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Since July 4th, 2000, Louis Armstrong's (LA) celebrated birthday, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra (LCJO) led by the New Orleans trumpeter Wynton Marsalis (WM) has demonstrated American music's roots and it will continue until August 4th 2001 (the more recently discovered baptismal birth date).
"HEIRS TO THE THRONE Masters Play Armstrong", December 7th, 2000 at New York's Alice Tully Hall brought together soprano saxophonist Bob Wilber-Sidney Bechet's student,slide trombonist Lucien Barbarin-nephew of Paul Barbarin the drummer, the writer of "Bourbon Street Parade" and rhythm banjo guitarist Don Vappie-student of Danny Barker with the LCJO New Orleans born drummer Herlin Riley and leader Wynton Marsalis an already recognized heir and progenitor of Louis Armstrong's New Orleans legacy.
"Independence is what this concert is about", Stanley Crouch explains in the program's notes, "By the mid 30's Armstrong. . . . had taught the trumpet players - along with all the other instrumentalists - how to play and how to sing, . . . And he had taught the singers how to 'sing American'."
How well trumpeters have learned to breathe Louis Armstrong's life into their reproduction of his music has always been the question since his passing in 1972. Because New Orleans folk have always revered their tradition and history, it is not surprising that Wynton finds second and third generation players with the instincts to replay the jazz of the 1920's or '30's with the same reverence that originated the music called "jazz".

"There's nothing you can say about Louis Armstrong, we're just gonna' play his music", Wynton plaintively explained after introducing the above guests before counting off "St. James Infirmary", then playing it nice and slow with a relaxed, burnished-brass trumpet sound with that majestic quality of Louis Armstrong. However, it was in keeping with the leaders duty that he sang rather spoke the words to this historic song. Pops shoes are too big for one to fill.

Don Vappie gently established the mood of "Dear Old Southland", Sidney Bechet's own tune that Bob Wilber played using a straight soprano, "recently acquired to attain the full presence" of his mentor Sidney at concerts such as this after so many years playing a curved alto sax shaped soprano.

I remember the "12th Street Rag" from childhood. The repetitive regularity that was always just beyond reproducing accurately always caught my ear. Wynton opened straight but then purposefully began misplacing the syncopations allowing me to enjoy my memories and be captivated by his additions.

Predating even LA was W. C. Handy (who celebrated his 125th in 1999) and his "I hate to see the sun go down . . . St. Louis woman" . . . , (no pun on Louis's name was apparent but if any church wanted to Mr. Armstrong could easily qualify for sainthood), with a Latin back-beat Wycliffe Gordon stood to sing in a strong beautifully proud voice this anthem we might now call "St. Louis's Blues".

Listening to recordings has popularized many a phrase, so hearing Don Vappie and Herlin Riley banter about how "It's Tight Like That" to establish the nature of this LA tune, a true reproduction of the original recording. This audience accepted the idea all dressed up in suits and dresses in the same way I suppose listeners did in 1928, except then many were shocked by the explicit sexual suggestion. Pianist Farid Barron's solo, although following Earl Hines traditional score, injected the first discordant boppish chords, there upon each soloist did their thing until WM resuscitated it by playing as he walked from the left corner to center stage to dramatically take it out.

As the funeral strains evolve, I view the LCJO under the huge shiny organ pipes that decorate the entire rear wall of Alice Tully's stage all the way to the ceiling. The twelve grey suited gentlemen all very diminutive playing the dirge in unison could pass for undertakers. Mr. Vappie injects inspired words "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, when he was alive he was gettin' down with us", before Mr. Riley's drum beat began to build and capture our attention instigating all to join in and play "Didn't He Ramble" during which twelve of LA's disciples bobbed up and down looking unlike undertakers now.

On "Lazy River" Marcus Printup played from center stage blowing very strong and filling the hall with his trumpet while the sax section played eloquently behind. Mr. Gordon joined in to sing like Pops on Hoagy Carmichael's easy going song over the quiet strumming of a smiling Don Vappie on the banjo. The full band chorded for young Marcus who blew right through each note even till the phrase ending, leaving me to wonder when he had time to breathe? He started the next phrase right on the beat without taking the shortcut boppers originated, probably because they didn't have Pops chops.

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