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Satchmo Summerfest 2010: A blowout far better than BP's

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Satchmo Summerfest
Louisiana State Museum's Old U.S. Mint.
New Orleans, LA
August 5-8, 2010

"Happy birthday, Pops!"

Kermit Ruffins shouted to a couple of thousand revelers as the 10th annual Satchmo Summerfest neared its joyous conclusion. Then he tilted his trumpet toward the blue sky and played a chorus of the birthday song while the crowd wished Louis Armstrong a happy 109th. Then he played it again, jauntily, giving it that old jazz feeling, before turning the mic over to the dozen others on stage for the trumpet tribute to the legendary jazzman whose imprint on his native New Orleans remains indelible nearly 90 years after he left to seek fame and fortune, and nearly 40 years after his death.

One by one, the other trumpeters stamped their own personalities on the familiar refrain, chorus after chorus, demonstrating dazzling prowess in the case of other band leaders who had played the fest earlier, to tentative runs by youngsters who'd won "Satchmo of the Future" competitions leading up to the August 5-8 festival, and whose efforts drew applause and encouragement from others onstage and in the audience jamming the city's Old Mint museum lawn.

Ruffins stepped back up after everyone had soloed, calling for jams on other favorites —"Second Line" and "When You're Smiling'' and inevitable "The Saints," punctuated by shouts of "Who Dat?" and fist pumps from the crowd—the city remains euphoric over the Super Bowl triumph—before the traditional rainbow of confetti fluttered down and another Summerfest drew to a close.

Armstrong's actual birth date was August 4, 1901, according to baptismal records unearthed years after he died. Louis always maintained he was born on July 4, 1900, a date that bolstered his undeniable credentials as an all-American hero. After a spate of centennial tributes around the world on July 4, 2000, New Orleans decided to honor its native son on the real hundredth, in 2001, and Summerfest was born. The one-time celebration brought enough tourists into town in the August doldrums that organizers turned it into an annual affair.

It's fitting that Kermit Ruffins has led the grand finale every year. The trumpeter and singer, a co-founder of the renowned Rebirth Brass Band in the late 1970s, is a revered figure in New Orleans because of his talent, his exuberance on stage and seemingly inexhaustible energy, and his evident love for what he does and for his listeners.

In an interview during the seminar portion of Summerfest, Ruffins recalled his 2009 visit to the Armstrong house in Queens, N.Y., where his idol lived the final 30 years of his life. After listening to tapes Louis made of dinner table conversations and chats with visiting friends, and playing a number or two on Satchmo's front stoop, Ruffins said, it was like his life "hit the reset button."

"I'm having so much fun, trying to make these people have the time of their life," said Ruffins, a tireless booster for tourism-dependent New Orleans who has gained some national notoriety for his role in the HBO series Treme. Sounds like a line from Armstrong's own autobiographies.

Ruffins wasn't the only local hero onstage for that final tribute. Yoshio Toyama, who hails from Tokyo, has been at Summerfest every year leading his band, the Dixie Saints. Yoshio moved to New Orleans for several years in the 1960s to learn traditional music from the masters, and is a big star in Japan, playing trumpet and singing in a gravelly voice to jazz-loving audiences there. Every August he and his band are back in the U.S., to play at Armstrong's house and grave site in New York, and to bring dozens of instruments he's collected during his tours as gifts for schoolchildren in the Big Easy.

Another Satchmo wannabe, Shamarr Allen, joined the trumpet tribute after leading his own band, the Underdawgs, on a set of mostly funk and hip-hop on a second festival stage. Allen's got real jazz cred, as he showed in a gig at a downtown club a few nights earlier, as well as the kind of outsized personality required of star performers.

My favorite moments at Satchmo Summerfest weren't trumpet-related. They came courtesy of Delfeayo Marsalis, trombone-playing brother of the city's number-one family of jazz. He led a quintet revisiting tunes from the one and only Armstrong-Duke Ellington record, joining with tenor player Derek Duguay in stirring renditions of "Black and Tan Fantasy" and "Cottontail" and wrapping up with a relaxed, reflective Armstrong anthem, "What a Wonderful World."

Marsalis was also at the annual Friday night club strut on Frenchmen Street, when music is offered at 20 different venues for the price of a wrist band. He fronted his Uptown Jazz Orchestra in a 90-minute set that focused on Basie-like charts, with the horn sections constantly riffing behind soloists and challenging one another to build excitement. The trombonist displayed his sensitive side on "Skylark" and wryly introduced a composition by elder brother Wynton (or "Winston"), "Fantasmagorical Bordello Ballet," that was based on the Charles Mingus classic, "Haitian Fight Song."

Just as the 16-piece band had settled into its chairs, the front door to the big club Maison opened, admitting a burst of music from a brass band that had been hired to march up and down the street to entertain outside crowds. In an only-in-New Orleans moment, Marsalis turned to his mates, waved his arm like a WWII battlefield lieutenant about to storm an enemy hill, and led his horn-bearing troops through the crowd to the street. No battle ensued; the guys just joined in playing some brass-band warhorse and the leaders embraced. Then, back to the club to play.

The club strut stars all those Big Easy musicians who haven't escaped the August heat on northward tours. Guitarist Carl LeBlanc presented singer Ella Smith for an animated "Fever" and other R&B classics; Tony Dagradi was on a balcony with his New Orleans Saxophone Quartet for harmony-rich versions of Duke's "Sentimental Mood" and the rump-rousing "Gemini Rising." Walter "Wolfman" Washington channeled his inner Ray Charles, singing "Mary Ann" and "Watermelon Man" among others while firing up his guitar and leading his ultra-soulful band.

Henry Butler sang too and summoned up Professor Longhair on piano; clarinet master Dr. Michael White turned up the heat on "Summertime" on this hot, sultry night.

We closed out the club strut at Snug Harbor, the city's primo jazz club, where Jason Marsalis led his quartet in a midnight set that showed again why he's one of jazz's top young tunesmiths. The vibraphonist draws on real-life experiences as inspirations for his songs, to whit: "Foreign Contaminants," written after he absorbed a kids' movie soundtrack and grafted on his own mischievous Monkish touches; "Bells of Ascona," echoing the beauty of a Sunday morning in the Swiss Alps town where a jazz festival is hel, d; and the kaleidoscopic melody fragments and tempos of "A Day at the Amusement Park."

Yes, it's very hot in New Orleans in August. Happily, the air-conditioning is on full blast, and our hotel, Maison DuPuy, has a pool where refreshing breaks help, day and night. The music is what brings you back, music you won't hear anywhere else in this wonderful world. Thank you, Satchmo, et al, for that.

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