Greetings from paradise, fellow Pops lovers! The Satchmo Summerfest kicked off last night and believe me, the joint was jumpin'. For all my readers who didn't get the opportunity to make the trip to this sweatbox this year, allow me to serve as your eyes and ears (and occasionally mouth).
I knew it was going to be a good trip yesterday morning when the first sounds I heard as I ascended the escalator towards my gate at Newark Airport was Lester Young's 1956 recording of "Louise" emanating out of a Starbucks. And just minutes after seminar curator Jon Pult picked me up in New Orleans, WWOZ radio played a back-to-back combo of "Struttin' with Some Barbecue" (1938 Decca) and "Summer Song." Yes, yes, yes, this was the place.
After getting set up at the Hotel Provincial, I joined up with my parents, who arrived the previous evening for this, their first trip to the Crescent City. We immediately had lunch at Johnny's where I made love to a roast beef po-boy. Hungry? Take a look for yourself:
Heaven on a plate, I say. From there, it was off to the Louisiana Music Factory, where I picked up the new "Off the Record" release, "Cabaret Echoes: New Orleans Jazzers at Work, 1918-1927," brought to us by Doug Benson and David Sager, the two men who heroically made King Oliver's 1923 recordings sound better than ever. As I type this, this disc is spinning in my computer and is completely knocking me out. I've never heard this material sound so clean. And the booklet is astoundingly informative, as well. It's simply an essential purchase for anyone interested in the early history of jazz.
After more walking around and some time off to rest, it was time for dinner. So here we are in land of red beans and rice, crawfish and gumbo, right? And where do the Riccardi's from Toms River, NJ (home of MTV's "Jersey Shore") end up? You guessed it: Mona Lisa, a terrific Italian restaurant!
They even had the checkered table cloths! It was delicious, but don't worry, tonight is gumbo night (and in a few minutes, look out for beignets).
The highlight of the day--and honestly, a highlight of my life--took part in the evening where Yoshio Toyama's Dixie Saints performed at a opening night fund-raiser dinner at the Palm Court Jazz Cafe. If you've followed my Summerfest wrap-ups in the past, you know how much I love Yoshio, who simply personifies the magic of Louis Armstrong. I've never heard another trumpet player match Louis's sound like Yoshio, and he also sings just like him without turning it into a bad Vegas trick. And he's a beautiful cat to top it all, as is his wife Keiko, who plays banjo and piano in the Dixie Saints. WIth the great Lucien Barbarin filling in the trombone chair, the Dixie Saints simply romped with Yoshio tearing it up all night on pieces like "West End Blues" and "Chinatown." It was also the closest I'll ever come to seeing the All Stars as Yoshio's Japanese clarinet player and bassist played Edmond Hall's "Dardanella" and Arvell Shaw's "How High the Moon" as features!
It was just a great time with legends like Dan Morgenstern and George Avakian in the audience and plates of red beans and rice being served (yes, I ate again after the Italian dinner....shhhh, don't tell my wife!). During the set break, Yoshio came up to me and asked if I'd sit in on piano. Now, I've mentioned my piano playing occasionally on this blog but I've always kept it pretty much a secret whenever I'm around anyone one connected with the jazz world that I remotely respect. I'll gladly play the coffeehouses and Italian restaurants of Toms River, but have always felt to be entirely too minor league to cross into New York or New Orleans.
Well, that's slowly starting to change. After a few high-profile jam sessions at David Ostwald's house, I began to get a slight reputation as an okay pianist. Well, Jon Pult went one-step further and booked me for a half-hour solo piano gig at the Palm Court, to be held tomorrow morning at 11 a.m. It's not exactly a concert as it's more of a door-opening, grab-a-seat-and-relax-before-the-seminars-begin kind of thing, but it's exciting. So all the programs printed up mentioned that I'd be playing, which I'm sure came as a surprise to many who just knew me as the Pops nut (I'm even humorously billed as the self-described "Jazz King of Toms River," something that's hilarious if you've actually ever been to Toms River).
Back to Yoshio and the Palm Court: during intermission, he mentioned that he noticed I'd be playing. My biggest booster from NY, Maria Salter, flew down to the Summerfest with Yoshio and told him about my playing. Would I want to sit in for the second set? Holy crap, was he kidding? I said, sure, but inside I was shaking.
When the second set start, matters didn't improve as Yoshio invited some special guests to jam including clarinetist Tim Laughlin and the topper: not one, but TWO piano giants of the city, Butch Thompson and Lars Edegran (Edegran stuck to banjo and let Thompson take the keyboard). When I saw them, my heart sank and I turned to my parents and said, "I better not be playing tonight!" But after a few songs, Yoshio made his announcement and I took the stage, calling out the "C Jam Blues." Well, my goodness, did it feel good playing that Steinway up there with so many musicians who are like heroes to me. We had a ball and I know I surprised a lot of people who had no idea I played. In this photo, you can actually see Edegran--who I've known for three years--looking over his should, somewhat baffled that this Louis nut he has talked to many times could actually play something!
After "C Jam," I called "Avalon" and once again, we were off and swinging. Now, people were starting to stand up, clapping, dancing and taking photos. My mother took this picture which instantly became my favorite, even though I'm almost completely obscured. You can really see the atmosphere in the audience as everyone was just having a ball:
After "Avalon," I took my bow and stepped down, Butch Thompson shaking my hand as he took over the keyboard. Hands down, it was one of the most exciting moments of my life, simply a dream come true.
Fortunately, though I was done for the evening, the music was not. Yoshio called Louis's "New Orleans Function," opening with the funeral dirge "Flee as a Bird" before swinging into "Oh, Didn't He Ramble." It was during "Ramble" when I noticed a dancer in full second line regalia start dancing, complete with an umbrella. The party was on! Others joined her and I knew something special was happening so I grabbed my Flip camera. Now, the lighting's not great and the camera work is occasionally shaky but I hope the joyous mood and atmosphere comes through on this clip, which I've already posted to YouTube. Barbarin gets the crowd riled up on the microphone before the band marches off the stage and around the club. I mean, people were going nuts....only in New Orleans! Enjoy the video:
Then, almost how Duke Ellington calmed the crowd at Newport in 1956 by calling for "Jeep's Blues" after Paul Gonsalves nearly caused a riot, Yoshio immediately launched into a slow "La Vie En Rose." The music was beautiful but the vocal between Toyama and Barbarin stole the show. Barbarin's "French" vocal was hilarious and ending--getting everyone to sing a scat break a la Pops--was so much fun, I can't put it into words. Just watch the video for yourself:
So that was that, the end of a magical night. I don't know how I fell asleep but when I woke up, I was bummed because I couldn't share the moment with my wife Margaret and daughter Ella, who were back in Jersey. Fortunately, thanks to our Macs, we had a great little video chat this morning. Ella, at 16-months, knows her Daddy too well and started handing CDs to the computer screen....including my Johnny Dodds "1926" disc! (She knows where I'm at.)
Okay, it's off for beignets and such. Today is the first official day of the seminars, including a keynote address by Dan Morgenstern and a presentation on the Jack Bradley Collection by Michael Cogswell and myself. Should be great....until tomorrow!