Going back to New Orleans is like visiting a dear friend after a too-long separation. She greets you with a warm embrace, serves up drinks and good food, then takes you out and shows you a great time.
In midsummer, make that a very warm embrace.
There's good reason to spend the first weekend of August in the Big Easy, where days in the high 80s are referred to as a cool spell, dawlin. It's the annual Satchmo Summerfest, a four- day nonstop party celebrating Louis Armstrong's birth on Aug. 4, 1901. Summerfest started in 2001 for Satchmo's centennial and has become an annual bash.
From the observation deck surrounding the rooftop pool atop the seven-story Omni Royal Orleans hotel, smack in the middle of the French Quarter, you can see to all corners of that fabled neighborhood.
Down there by the river is the Old Mint, an imposing brick fortress now serving as a museum and as ground zero for the festival. On Saturday and Sunday, four stages are well-spaced around the lawn and several dozen traditional and contemporary jazz bands, brass bands and kids' entertainers play all weekend. Inside the air-conditioned Mint, people who knew Louis and others who have scholarly insights into his life and music blend education with entertainment.
Just across Esplanade Avenue, Frenchmen Street juts out into the Faubourg Marigny section. Here, in a dozen music clubs that have sprung up in old buildings in recent years, the Friday night Satchmo Club Strut offers thousands of merrymakers the chance to wander in and out of the venues for the price of a $20 wristband. To really take the pulse of New Orleans music today, skip tawdry Bourbon Street Frenchmen is where it's at.
Turning to the north, there's Rampart Street, and across it, Louis Armstrong Park, location of the Mahalia Jackson auditorium, where Saturday night's featured concert brings together soulful singer Aaron Neville with pianist and progenitor Ellis Marsalis and composer/conductor/trumpeter Irvin Mayfield.
Behind the park, in the Treme neighborhood, is St. Augustine's, built in 1840 and the oldest predominantly black Catholic church in the country. Slaves and free people of color worshipped here along with whites in the early days. On Sunday morning, St. Augustine's is overflowing with parishioners and tourists for a jazz Mass celebrating Armstrong, brotherhood and the uplifting sounds of a gospel choir and organist leading everyone in song.
Now turn your gaze back into the Quarter, to Fins, a restaurant where seminar participants and other guests gathered for a "Red Beans and Ricely Yours" lunch that was how Louis signed off on thousands of letters he wrote over the years. Tony Green's Gypsy jazz trio proved tasty accompanists. Nearby, the Jazz Parlor hosted an opening night reception where the Jazz Vipers were joined by two of the many gravel-voiced Armstrong impressionists in town. And down near the river is the Crescent City Brewhouse, where an Armstrong-themed art exhibit for talented school kids was mounted.
Got your bearings? Good, because one of the great things about this festival is that you can walk to every one of these locations and given the ample amounts of food and drink available, the exercise will do you good.
The Saturday night concert was a dazzler. Irvin Mayfield has molded the recently formed New Orleans Jazz Orchestra into a formidable big band and is writing a suite, "Strange Fruit," that is a work in progress. They played several excerpts a sultry ballad, a bolero-cum-Afro Cuban segment and a second line march that positively reveled in the city's raucous musical history. They also delved into Duke Ellington's "New Orleans Suite," and Mayfield's own pieces did not suffer in comparison.
Aaron Neville is best known for harmonizing with the Neville Brothers, keepers of the flame of the city's R&B, but recently recorded a standards album. For the concert, he warbled five ballads from the "Nature Boy" CD and unveiled a churning "Work Song." Neville was accompanied by the orchestra for some tunes, and by Ellis Marsalis in others.
A lagniappe at Summerfest was the chance to hop on a bus and take a guided tour riding and walking of the neighborhoods where Louis Armstrong grew up. Except that nearly all the landmarks are gone: the houses where he was born and lived with various family members in the gritty Back 'o Town section all fell to urban renewal many years ago. So did most of the clubs where he played there and in the adjacent Black Storyville streets. Four sad-looking relics still stand on a block of South Rampart Street; they once housed a saloon, a vaudeville theater, a dance hall and the home of the family that helped nurture Armstrong's musical bent. They all have historic value but neither the city nor the long-planned national park devoted to jazz's birthplace have taken steps to preserve them.