Wednesday, July 31, 2013

New Orleans Here I Come!

Two-and-a-half weeks ago, I happily celebrated my sixth anniversary of running this blog....followed by a lengthy, unexplained silence. Ugh, I hate doing that, trust me. And don't worry, the disappearing act wasn't from celebrating too much. No, it's been a crazy few weeks as almost all of my existing free time (very little to begin with) has been filled with getting ready for the Satchmo Summerfest, the annual all-Pops weekend that is occurring in New Orleans from August 1-4.

This will be my sixth trip to the Summerfest and it will, by far, be my busiest one. If you happen to be in New Orleans, here's where to find me (just about everything is at the Old U.S. Mint):

11:30 a.m. - I'll be interviewing my hero, Dan Morgenstern, about his years writing about jazz and specifically, writing about Pops.

4:30 p.m. - A video presentation featuring Louis in duets with Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Danny Kaye, Jack Teagarden, Pearl Bailey, Johnny Cash and many others....Louis Armstrong and His Friends!

3:30 p.m. - I'll be previewing the upcoming Mosaic Records Armstrong set I'm co-producing, aided by David Ostwald and the one and only George Avakian!

4:30 p.m. - My second video presentation will be a screening of the 1962 German television special, "The Satchmo Story," featuring Louis and the All Stars digging into some material they didn't play too often at the time.

3:30 p.m. - More on this in a second...

4:30 p.m. - My finale is a presentation titled "Louis Armstrong and New Orleans" and it will feature more video of Pops being interviewed and performing songs associated with his hometown.

And then for something completely different: I'll be performing with the Satchmo Summerfest All Stars!

A little background: most of the Satchmo Summerfests I've attended have featured many of the same presenters. Not only are they all historians, but many of us are musicians, of varying degrees of fame and notoriety (I'm playing "The Cookie Cab" in Toms River after the Summerfest for $50 and a cookie...that shows you where I stand). Anyway, the powers that be have put together a supergroup that will feature Yoshio Toyama, trumpet and vocals, David Sager, trombone, David Ostwald, tuba and leader, Bruce Raeburn, drums, Dan Morgenstern, vocals, myself on piano and special Summerfest headliner Wycliffe Gordon on trombone and vocals.

Yes, it's going to be insane backing up that front line of Toyama, Sager and about the big leagues! But I've been waiting my whole life for an opportunity like this and I can't wait to dive in.

If you're interested in following the exploits of the All Stars, we're having a quasi-open rehearsal at Preservation Hall at 2 p.m. on Friday. Then our debut  is outside on the main stage at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday. And finally, if you're not sick of us yet, we'll be inside doing a seminar at 3:30 on Sunday, where we'll each talk about our musical background and play some more music.  Should be a gassuh!

This year's Summerfest is shaping up to be the biggest one yet, filled with more music and seminars and activities than ever before. You can find out all about it here. And of course, if you want blow-by-blow updates of my experiences (eating and musical), you can always find me on Facebook.

And here's one more great thing to share. Back in April, I gave a copy of my book to clarinet great Evan Christopher. While talking on the phone with him a few months ago, he said that every trumpet player in New Orleans should read it. I thought that was a beautiful sentiment, but wasn't expecting Evan to ask, "How can we make that happen?"

I didn't know, so I wrote my old publicist at Pantheon, Josie Kals, and ran it by her. She loved the idea so much, she said Pantheon would donate 30 books to the cause! I signed them all last night and shipped them to New Orleans this morning. When Evan gets back to New Orleans soon, he'll begin distributing them around town. I've seen his list and it's impressive: Kermit Ruffins, Trombone Shorty, Connie Jones, Chris Clifton, Wendell Brunious, Mark Braud, Duke Heitger, Leroy Jones, Kevin Louis....and on and on. Basically, if you're in New Orleans and you own a trumpet, you're probably going to get a copy of my book, courtesy of Evan and Pantheon. Major thanks to them! You can read all about it on Evan's fabulous NolaVie blog.

S'all for now. New Orleans here I come and when I get back and the dust settles, regular blogging shall commence again. Til then!

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Six Year Anniversary of the Blog!

Six years ago today, I finished a grueling summer day of painting houses for my father’s painting business, my summer job since high school and my permanent job since graduating with a Master’s degree from Rutgers in 2005. But this was an unusually exciting day, and not just because it was a Friday, the end of the week. I had the idea of starting this blog, one that would be devoted completely to Louis Armstrong’s music. I had been shopping around my book for a year and was getting soundly rejected at every turn so I figured it was time to try and make a name of myself. At 5:51 p.m., I made my first post, Introduction to This Blog, followed by my first real entry on We'll Be Together Again.

It ended up being one of the most important decisions of my life.

As they say, the rest is history. It's been a joy doing this for the last six years. And the anniversaries have always been extra important to me because of what else was going on in my life. My first anniversary was less than one month away from my first appearance at the Satchmo Summerfest in New Orleans and right after my first Armstrong lecture at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem . My second anniversary was right before I handed in my finished book manuscript to Pantheon (and I was also a new father!). By year three, I was the Archivist for the Louis Armstrong House Museum. In 2011, I spent my fourth anniversary in a TV studio in Baltimore, celebrating the arrival of my book with a book tour through the east coast. Last year, I was prepping for my 17th Armstrong lecture at the Jazz Museum in Harlem and writing liner notes for Armstrong sets for Universal and Sony.

And today? Things keep getting more and more surreal (by that, I mean better). The book is now out in paperback and doing very well. I'm still the Archivist for the Armstrong House and I still pinch myself every time I show up for work. I'm now prepping for my SIXTH appearance at the Satchmo Summerfest in New Orleans (one that will make use of my "talents" as a piano player--more on that later). And if you've been with me recently, you know that another dream has come true as I'm co-producing and writing liner notes for a Mosaic Records 9-CD box of Pops that should be out this winter. 

I also just got back from my first trip to Chicago, where I gave two presentations on Pops for the "Straight Ahead Jazz Camp" thrown by the Jazz Institute of Chicago and Columbia College. The headliner was the Wycliffe Gordon, who not only worships Louis but is one of the nicest people I've ever met.
 A special treat was a visit to Meyers Ace Hardware at 35th and Calumet....former home of the Sunset Cafe! Here's how it originally looked inside:

 There's not much left from the days when Louis, King Oliver--and the mob--ruled the South Side of Chicago but David Meyers, who owns Ace Hardware, is most appreciative of his location's history. In fact, he gave me a tour of some of the original remnants from the Sunset Cafe, including a mural that originally appeared on the bandstand:

If you're in Chicago, and have time to make the trip to Ace Hardware, do so. Not only is David a great guy, but he sells beautiful mementos including postcards and framed photos of the Sunset in its heyday. 

While in Chicago, I also made the pilgrimage to what is now a luxurious Bloomingdale's department store...but on the evening of June 1, 1956, it was Medinah Temple and the site of Louis's famous "Chicago Concert."

I was listening to the "Chicago Concert" as I approached the building (it will be on the Mosaic set, by the way). I wanted to go in but didn't want to be harassed by salespeople as I wore my headphones. But when I got to the climactic last chorus of "You'll Never Walk Alone," I did enter and stood in the lobby for about a minute. It was quite emotional.
And of course, being in Chicago, I ate like a maniac. For those grisly details, look me up on Facebook. But speaking of Facebook, this has been my cover photo for many months:
If you permit me a bit of self-promotion, that's a photo of my desk at home, loaded with projects I have been lucky to work on over the last few years.  From left to right:
 Jazz at the Hollywood Bowl - Universal's 2011 reissue of one of the greatest concerts of all time: a JATP set, Art Tatum, Ella Fitzgerald, the Oscar Peterson Trio and the best edition of the Armstrong All Stars all in one night. I was more of a consultant on this one, though I did offer my version of "Mop Mop," which was missing from Universal's copy.

Louis Armstrong in Philadelphia Volume 1 - This was the last hurrah of my late friend, Gosta Hagglof, on his beloved Ambassador label. It was also my first liner notes gig, which was an honor. It wasn't ready until just before Gus passed away so it never saw the light of day but he did have several hundred copies pressed that are now in the possession of the Louis Armstrong House Museum. We sell them in person at our gift shop but hope to set up an online store soon! Stay tuned.

What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong's Later Years - Yeah, yeah, my opus. Apparently, you can get it used for about 24 cents these days. Regardless, if you do get it, I thank you sincerely and don't forget to search "Listening to the Book" for my never-ending chapter-by-chapter audio soundtrack.

The Armstrong Box - The good folks at Storyville put out this 7 CD + 1 DVD box that's a great summary of live Louis from 1947-1967. I wrote the liner notes booklet and blogged about it here.

Satchmo: Ambassador of Jazz - Universal put out this beautiful set that caused quite a sensation upon its release in 2011--remember when Elvis Costello recommended it over a new release of his own music? I was lucky enough to be an insider on the project, helping with photos, doing the track selections for most of the discs, and wading through unissued material for three bonus discs at the end. It quickly went out-of-print but you can still find it used on Amazon. Here's my old blog about it. 

The Complete Columbia/OKeh and RCA Victor Recordings 1925-1933 - I was lucky enough to write the liner notes for this major release last year, produced the recently departed Seth Rothstein. Though the finished set had some issues--chronicled here--it was still an honor to write about this music and especially to work with Seth, who was really wonderful. He will be missed tremendously. 

Satchmo at Symphony Hall 65th Anniversary: The Complete Performances - This one was really my baby as I found the complete concert in Gosta Hagglof's collection at the Armstrong Archives, brought it to the attention of Universal's Harry Weinger, became co-producer of the set overseeing sound restoration and photo selection and ended up writing the liner notes. Again, this blog has more details about my involvement, but I remain very, very proud of how it turned out.

That covers everything in the photo....but there's been more! I haven't mentioned this on the blog, but earlier this year, I was contacted by Dave Bennett of the UK's Avid Records label with the proposition to write liner notes for a new reissue of one of my all-time favorite albums, Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography. Avid split the original album onto two budget, 2-CD sets, the first part containing the first 3 LPs (and my notes) and the second part containing the remainder of the album, as well as the complete Louis and the Good Book and Satchmo Plays King Oliver. Grab 'em!

And finally, on July 4, I went outside in the ridiculous humidity, sat in my car with the windows up and engine off and preached--and sweated--about Pops on the nationally syndicated Jim Bohannon Show. I thought it was a fun interview; you can listen to it online here.

Now I am not vain enough to say, "None of the above would have happened if I didn't start the blog!" That's ridiculous; the liner notes writer is never the most important person of any project. Having said that, I'm very proud of my involvement in all of the above (and don't forget the Mosaic set!) and it's safe to say, I would not have had anything to do with any of those projects if I didn't start the blog. The only reason I started it was because I wanted to promote Louis Armstrong's life and music more than I was doing as a mere house painter/fan and so any time I get to write liner notes, offer consultation, produce a set, well, I'm just doing what I've always dreamed of doing. 

And I sure wouldn't have kept it going without the support, e-mails and comments from you, my dear readers. I'm sorry I don't get to post as regularly as in the old days (though this year has had its flurries!) but it's still a joy to be able to write anything I want--and as much as I want!--about old Pops here whenever I can. So thanks for everything and for supporting all of my Armstrong-related endeavors and here's to the next six years and beyond!

Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Beautiful American

Happy Fourth of July, everyone! Of course, to my fellow Pops nuts out there, that translates to, "Happy Birthday, Louis Armstrong." Yes, Louis wasn't born on July 4--I've covered that in the past and will do so again on Louis's actual birthday, August 4--but Louis believed it was July 4 and that's good enough for me.

Of course, there's lots going on today. WKCR is doing their annual Armstrong Birthday Broadcast (if you need a break, I'll be doing a one-hour live interview tonight on the Jim Bohannon Show at 11 p.m. EST). And at the Louis Armstrong House Museum, we're having a special concert featuring Bria Skonberg's Hot Five (concert is SOLD OUT but if you're hankering for Bria, she's performing with the great Marty Napoleon tomorrow night in Long Island; details here).

It's obviously a big day for us at the Armstrong House, but it's also been a big summer as our new exhibit, "Swingin' with the All Stars: Louis Armstrong and Baseball," has been a hit (a solid double in the gap). Because of the proximity of our July 4 celebration and the Major League Baseball All Star Game coming to Queens on July 16, I was asked by my higher-ups to pen a little piece about Louis the American, the baseball fan and the man. We hoped one of the major New York newspapers would pick it up, but alas, they were already booked. The local Queens Courier agreed to run it but I'm kind of proud of it and wanted to share it with a larger audience. So here's my contribution to today's festivities celebrating "The Beautiful American":


Cultural critic Gerald Early once said, “When they study our civilization two thousand years from now, there will only be three things that Americans will be known for: the Constitution, baseball and jazz music. They’re the three most beautiful things Americans have ever created.” Early could have added a fourth "beautiful thing" that's uniquely American: Louis Armstrong.

Born in poverty, raised in the most dangerous section of New Orleans and armed with only a fifth-grade education, Armstrong changed the sound of music forever with his trumpet and his voice. in the process, he became one of the most recognizable and beloved entertainers the world has ever known, almost singlehandedly becoming the face--and sound--of America's greatest art form, jazz. He traveled around the world, "in the cause of happiness," as he famously once said. A noble cause, indeed.

 But as famous as he became, he never lost his humble nature. For this reason, he chose to live in a modest home in a working class section of Queens with his fourth wife, Lucille. Even with his fame and fortune, Armstrong refused to leave the neighborhood. He lived there from 1943 until his passing in 1971. 

Today, Armstrong's home has been transformed into the Louis Armstrong House Museum, which will be celebrating its tenth anniversary of being open to the public this October. Thousands of visitors from all across the globe, including scores of school groups, made the pilgrimage to Corona each year. 

A lot of attention will already be focused on Queens this summer as baseball's All Star Game is coming to CitiField. To tie in with this event, the Louis Armstrong House Museum is presenting an exhibit this summer about Armstrong's love affair with baseball. It should come as no surprise that one of America's greatest icons was also a passionate follower of America's national pastime. 

As a child growing up in New Orleans, Armstrong played baseball with his friends on the Black Diamonds, though it was the music of passing funerals—which often included future mentor Joe “King” Oliver and the Onward Brass Band—that really captivated him. When he returned to New Orleans a major star in 1931, he had the honor of having a baseball team named after him, "Armstrong's Secret 9." (Though the team had talent, they didn't win many games because they were too proud to slide in the new uniforms Armstrong purchased for them!) Later in life, Armstrong became an ardent follower of the Brooklyn Dodgers, especially admiring Jackie Robinson, whom was the subject of one of the trumpeter's famed collages. As someone who broke down quite a few barriers of his own for his race, Armstrong appreciated Robinson for more than just being a ballplayer. 

But Armstrong's stance as a Civil Rights pioneer was not appreciated during his lifetime. By the time of the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s, young African-Americans viewed the ever-smiling Armstrong as hopelessly out-of-date. They didn't realize that Armstrong had just as much of an interest in the third of Early's "beautiful things"--the Constitution--as he did baseball and jazz. In 1956, when his hometown of New Orleans passed a law prohibiting integrated bands from performing together in public, Armstrong kept his always integrated band, the All Stars, away from his hometown for almost a decade. "I'm accepted all over the world," he said, "and when New Orleans accepts me, I will go home."

The following year, Armstrong watched with interest as Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus sent the National Guard down to Little Rock Central High School to prevent nine black school children from entering. Armstrong blew his top to the press, putting his career on the line by saying President Dwight D. Eisenhower had "no guts" for letting Faubus run the country. After Armstrong's explosion made headlines, he refused to back down, telling reporters the following day that he would not go to the Soviet Union "until they straighten that mess down South. And for good....Because they've been ignoring the Constitution.....They're taught it in school, but when they go home, their parents tell them different. Say, 'You don't have to abide by it because we've been getting away with it a hundred years. Nobody tells on each other. So don't bother with it.' So, if they ask me what's happening if I go now, I can't tell a lie."

When the Little Rock integration crisis was resolved, Armstrong sent a congratulatory telegram to Eisenhower. Yet, what hurt him more than anything else was the criticism he received in the press by both white and black figures. It wasn't too long before the "Uncle Tom" epithet got trotted out again. On a private tape recording made with friends in 1961, Armstrong blistered, "
When the fuck have I Uncle Tom'd in my life? Here I am blowing that fucking horn for people all over the world."

Today, Armstrong's stance on Little Rock is seen as one of his defining moments. After his initial outburst, the elevator operator in the hotel he was staying at told him, "Mr. Armstrong, that will be in the history books." And he was right. 

Even with his frustrations over the treatment of his people, Armstrong remained a proud American and one of the country's greatest cultural ambassadors.
 In 1959, Armstrong was asked about his title of "Ambassador of Goodwill," Armstrong told a German reporter, "I'm an American first of all. And I don't know let my country down. And that's the way it should be."

That's why it seemed so right to celebrate Armstrong's birth on July 4 every year. He was told as a child that he was born on July 4, 1900 and he stuck with that until his dying day on July 6, 1971. When researcher Tad Jones discovered a baptismal certificate 15 years after Armstrong's passing that stated Armstrong was actually born on August 4, 1901, many longtime Armstrong fans felt a sense of disappointment. Armstrong should  have been born on July 4. 
Who was more American than Louis Armstrong? Even when Duke Ellington dedicated a composition to Armstrong in 1961, he simply named it, "The Beautiful American."

Because of this, the Louis Armstrong House Museum continues to celebrate Armstrong on the Fourth of July every year. This year is no different, as the event will feature a performance by young Armstrong disciple Bria Skonberg. Armstrong's favorite dish, red beans and rice, will be served. A special recording of the trumpeter performing the "Star Spangled Banner" will be played to tie together Armstrong, baseball and America. Even after the Little Rock ordeal, Armstrong continued to play the "Star Spangled Banner" after almost every performance.

While in Palm Springs in 1960, a journalist asked him, 
"You were born on the Fourth of July, which is America's birthdate. And you played the 'Star Spangled Banner' at different places at different times. What feelings or what impressions go through your mind when you play it?"

Armstrong said, "Well, we had military training in the orphanage [Armstrong spent a year-and-a-half at Colored Waif's Home for Boys after he was arrested on New Year's Eve, 1913] and 'Star Spangled Banner,' we was taught that. That was our National Anthem. And you're supposed to stand up and salute. And I was taught to play that tune with every spark I had in my soul, on our land, that's the way we was taught. And when we play it, that's the feeling I have. When the hoist that flag..." At this point, Armstrong launched into a gravel-throated, half-sung, half-scatted version of a portion of the National Anthem.

"Do you have a happy feeling when  you play that song?" the interviewer asked.

"I feel that I'm somebody!" Armstrong responded forcefully. "Yeah, when I finish playing 'Star Spangled Banner,' I feel just as proud as anybody that ever picked up a gun, shouldered a rifle and say, 'Forward march.'"

By the mid-1960s, a tiring Armstrong was still performing to packed houses around the world, especially after his 1964 hit, "Hello, Dolly," though he was now, more than ever, performing to predominantly white audiences. He still told the press about his love of baseball, but by that time, a scrappy new team emerged in Queens, just a short distance from Armstrong’s Corona residence: the New York Mets. By the end of the decade, Armstrong had become a Mets fan, even attending Game 5 of the 1969 World Series and sporting a Mets cap at home.

Privately, though, Armstrong had a desire that Lucille didn't make public until 1973, two years after he passed away. "The two things Louie wanted to do in his lifetime that he never did was to record [the Beatles'] 'Yesterdays' and sing the 'Star Spangled Banner' at Shea Stadium," she told radio host Joe Franklin. "And he used to have me rehearse with him. I'd write out the lyrics for the 'Star Spangled Banner' and he would rehearse it and rehearse it and rehearse it. And he'd say, 'They're going to ask me one day.' And they never got around to it. "

This Fourth of July, if you really want to do something patriotic, listen to Louis Armstrong's version of "The Star Spangled Banner." (It's on YouTube.) You'll understand why, after hearing Armstrong close a performance at Newport with it in 1958, author James Baldwin turned to jazz journalist Dan Morgenstern and said, "You know, that's the first time I've ever liked that song." Read up on Armstrong's invoking of the Constitution during the Little Rock episode. Watch some baseball. Celebrate jazz, baseball and the Constitution, and most of all, celebrate the uniquely American--and uniquely beautiful--Louis Armstrong.