Saturday, August 1, 2009

Greetings From New Orleans!

Hello friends. I'm sitting here in my hotel room on Canal Street, still basking in the glow of Pops after the fantastic first two days of the Satchmo Summerfest down here in New Orleans. Really, for Pops lovers, this is heaven on earth (minus the weather). At one point, David Ostwald, Dan Morgenstern and myself were going back and forth discussing the different keys Louis Armstrong played "When It's Sleepy Time Down South In." At that point, the 1951 Gordon Jenkins Decca recording began playing and we were pointing out all sorts of stuff. George Avakian's song Greg was just looking at us with an amused smile before he couldn't resist: "You guys are jazz nerds!" We proudly agreed with him and reasoned that this was the only time a year that such a gathering of Armstrong nuts like us could get together and discuss such trivial matters and we were definitely going to take advantage of it!

Anyway, I promised I would do some live updates for the festival but it looks like I'll only get this one out today and then probably a wrap-up when I get home on Monday. The truth is, my updates from last year were a lot more fun because I had my all-in-one photographer/videographer/wife Margaret along for the ride...and also, a two-week old fetus...which we definitely did not know about at the time! But because that fetus grew up to be Ella and this humidity is no scene for a four-month-old baby, I had to leave the wife and child behind, making this a somewhat bittersweet trip. But Margaret keeps a steady stream of pictures and updates coming so that definitely helps.

I arrived in New Orleans on Thursday afternoon, having flown from Newark with Dan Morgenstern. The evening brought us to an opening reception and my first encounter this trip with red beans and rice..."my birthmark," as Armstrong put it. The main event that night centered on a keynote address Robert O'Meally which corresponded the breathtaking photo exhibit "Jam Session: America's Jazz Ambassadors Embrace the World." Here I am, backed by a beautiful color portrait of Pops on his throne durnig his 1960 trip to the Congo:


The exhibit is pretty breathtaking, featuring not just Armstrong but photos of Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck, Benny Goodman, Dizzy GIllespie and others during their overseas tours of the late-50s and 1960s. But naturally, the photos of Pops were, to me, the most captivating, including this one from Cairo that was too much for David Ostwald's emotions to handle. You can see why:

And since I'm introducing the cast of characters, here's Ostwald and O'Meally talking shop (and probably Pops) before O'Meally's address:

O'Meally was as smooth as they come, captivating the overflowing audience with his talk about jazz's global ambassadors and peppering it with terrific footage from Satchmo the Great. We were off and running...

Friday began with a breakfast at the French Market Cafe, where we were serenaded by Dr. Michael White's Original Liberty Jazz Band with the impressive young trumpeter Mark Chatters (his proud father Maynard was by his side, playing trombone...keep that tradition alive!). Yoshio Toyarma, the incredible Armstrong-influenced trumpeter from Japan, who I couldn't stop raving about last year, brought his horn and sat in for a rousing "Hello, Dolly":

From there it was off to Armstrong Park for a birthday celebration for Pops (a few days early, but hey, it's still in the "birthday month" of July 4 to August 4, right?). If you squint, you'll see myself and Dan standing together at the front gate (Dan pointed to his mouth and said, "What am I? Gatemouth!"):

A good crowd attended the celebration, featuring this festive-birthday cake:

Finally, I was called up to stand with Dan, George Avakian and Michael Cogswell to lead the crowd in singing "Happy Birthday" to Pops under the giant statue that serves as the centerpiece of the park:


I have to admit, when I came down to New Orleans for the first time last year, I was sadly unimpressed by Armstrong Park. People told me that it had been deteriorating for years and obviously, Katrina didn't help matters. But over the last year, a massive restoration process took part and I have to admit, it pretty gorgeous this time around. A great job by all involved!

Yoshio Toyama and The Dixie Saints then played a short, but powerful set of Armstrong classics. Here's Yoshio, his banjo-playing wife Keiko and the great American drummer Jimmie Smith, who moved to Japan decades ago and has been playing with Yoshio for years:

I've heard many trumpet players in my day but I can't think of another who better captures Armstrong's pure golden sound like Yoshio. I took a few low quality videos and will share them probably when I get back.

After the birthday celebration, it was off to the Presbytere for the first full day of seminars. This is a big year because not only is it the 60th anniversary of Armstrong being named "King of the Zulus" but it's the 100th anniversary of the Zulu organization. To mark the occasion, a tremendous, two-floor exhibit is currently being housed at the Presbytere that chronicles the entire history of the Zulus. They did a spectacular job with the exhibit, which I believe will be up for a few more months. Michael Cogswell then talked about Armstrong's reign as Zulu King before I closed out the day by celebrating the 50th year of Armstrong's massive 1959 tour of Europe, showing video clips of the many concerts and film appearances that survive.

The evening brought on the Satchmo Club Strut down Frenchman Street, with more music than any one human being could possibly enjoy in a single night. The highlight, for me, was watching 98-year-old (!) trumpeter Lionel Ferbos still playing and singing with all his heart. The man's an inspiration. And with Lionel leading the band, he made 90-year-old George Avakian seem like a young man! Jon Pult was there to make sure George took a well-received bow:


So overall, it's just been a dream so far and it's only going to get better today with even more seminars at the Old U.S. Mint. ( If you're in town, stop by and say hello!) And if you're in front of a computer today at 4:15 New Orleans time (that's 5:15 for my east coast readers), go to www.wwoz.org and listen as I'll be interviewed live from the festival right before I present at 4:45. S'all for now, it's breakfast and down here, breakfast equals beignets (I might need two airline seats to get home on Monday!). Time for scarfing...have a great weekend!

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