No, Louis Armstrong, sorry to say, it is not
a wonderful world.
All the joy you spread around the globe with your music, laughter and affection for your fellow man can't stop the wars, or cure the poverty, crime and drugs that bring misery to millions, including many in your beloved hometown of New Orleans.
But for one long weekend, at least, one corner of the French Quarter was a wonderful little world of its own, as several thousand of your fans celebrated what would have been your 102nd birthday on Aug. 4 at the third annual Satchmo Summerfest.
I watched as indeed friends greeted friends, shaking hands, hugging one another, blacks and whites, and they really did seem to be saying, "I love you." Caught up, one suspects, in the spell cast by four days of music by Louis Armstrong and his disciples, and by the food and drink and ambience for which New Orleans is justly renowned.
Summerfest took place July 31-Aug. 4, the latter being the actual birthday in 1901 (the July 4 date proclaimed by Satch having been disproven by historian Tad Jones).
Some might recoil at the prospect of a mini-vacation in midsummer in steamy New Orleans, but having been to all three of these festivals I can vouch for the weather – it's not much different than summer in New York. And air conditioning is everywhere.
Musically, the festival is composed of three movements. There's a Friday night "club strut," when a $20 wrist band allowed admission to any of 17 clubs and specially commandeered balconies along funky Frenchmen Street. On Saturday and Sunday, local brass and jazz bands both traditional and contemporary perform for free on four stages ringing the Old Mint museum.
Saturday night's concert is star time, with this year's headliners being Patti Austin with Ellis Marsalis, Irvin Mayfield and the recently formed New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, comprising 17 of the city's most talented young jazz pros.
Disappointingly, although this year's festival was the best-attended yet, the concert - with proceeds going to music scholarships - drew only a few hundred listeners to the Mahalia Jackson Theater in Armstrong Park.
Marsalis and trumpeter Mayfield opened the show with duets reminiscent of albums the piano patriarch made with son Wynton. A highlight was a down and dirty "West End Blues" on which the immensely talented Mayfield grafted his own flourishes onto the famous Armstrong opening cadenza.
Mayfield led the orchestra in excerpts from Ellington's rarely heard "New Orleans Suite," concluding with Duke's "Second Line" segment followed by the more rousing Crescent City anthem by that same name; Mayor Ray Nagin was prodded into demonstrating just how parade followers are supposed to dance.
The two days of outdoor music were a cornucopia of local talent. Drummer Shannon Powell led an all-star quintet in a hard-bop hour; the Pinettes, the world's only all-female brass band, were a kick to watch, as were the more polished New Orleans Nightcrawlers; Yoshio Toyama came from Tokyo to play and sing in the manner of his idol; and the irrepressible Kermit Ruffins presided at the grand finale, when several trumpeters joined in "Happy Birthday" and "The Saints" as streamers rained down from the Old Mint balconies.
The club strut afforded opportunities to hear a diverse array of more local talent. The reconstituted Hot Club of New Orleans, at DBA's, updated the 1930s legacy of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli. Piano professor Henry Butler's modern jazz trio fought the acoustics in the cavernous Club Brasil. Ruffins' Barbecue Swingers and keyboard whiz Davell Crawford were squeezed onto upstairs balconies. And Delfeayo Marsalis was the night's attraction at Snug Harbor, pairing his trombone with up-and-coming trumpeter Maurice Brown. Their rendition of Billy Strayhorn's "Intimacy of the Blues," with the two horns locked in a mock duel, ended my night on a real high.
There's an academic side to the Satchmo salute. Jazz scholars and people who knew Louis gather upstairs at the Mint for four days of presentations on various aspects of his life and career.
Some of the fascinating topics I checked out included the following:
- A talk by legendary record producer George Avakian on how he tried for much of his career to bring Armstrong and the Ellington orchestra together to make an album; he never succeeded, but the music plays on in his mind.
- Brass band bass drummer Lawrence Batiste reminiscing about growing up in Armstrong's old Back o' Town neighborhood.
- Author Don Marquis recounting his 40-plus-year search for information about Armstrong predecessor Buddy Bolden.
- Armstrong buddy Jack Bradley's reminiscences, and excerpts from his collection of Armstrong on film. A documentary, originally broadcast on Edward R. Murrow's "See It Now" series on CBS-TV in the 1950s shows Louis touring the world in all his glory.
Now for a disclaimer: As a visiting journalist in a city where tourism has become the life's blood, I was treated royally. The Convention and Visitors Bureau and no fewer than 10 restaurants rolled out the gold, green and purple carpet.
So if you want to take my review with a grain of cayenne pepper, you're entitled. But I can report with clear conscience that my breakfast at Brennan's, lunch at Antoine's and dinner at Arnaud's were among the best meals I've ever been served.
So, thanks to Bonnie Warren, our hostess at Brennan's, for sharing tales of ghosts and other local celebs over the poached eggs and bananas Foster; to Collete Guste, a fifth-generation Alciatore, for the tour of the 15-room, 163-year-old Antoine's, oldest restaurant in the country continuously operated by one family. And for the shrimp and avocado salad and baked Alaska; and to Susan and Lee Hennessey for guiding us through the four-course menu at Arnaud's and sending us on our way in time for Patti Austin's concert. (I vow to return to finish my bread pudding!)
Thanks also to Rachel Collier Vella at Hard Rock Cafe, where the Satchmo Room's memorabilia includes a horn he once played (ask Rachel how she tracked this artifact down); to the gracious hosts at Bella Luna, where pianist Tom McDermott and clarinetist Tim Laughlin serenaded us with conversation-stopping renditions of old New Orleans classics over lunch; to Mother's, the po-boy capital; to the Crescent City Brewhouse for fine local beer; and finally to Richard and Ulla at the Funky Butt, where the food was as great as the music.