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Monday, August 08, 2005

Another New Orleans festival trumpets Louis' legacy

Another New Orleans festival trumpets Louis' legacyAnother New Orleans festival trumpets Louis' legacy

Monday, August 08, 2005
By Nate Guidry, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

NEW ORLEANS -- On the grounds of the Louisiana State Museum's Old U.S. Mint, members of the Pinettes, an all-female brass band, are charging up this Saturday morning crowd with traditional parade music.

The rhythm is held together by the bass drummer, who maintains the beat with a mallet and drum stick, which she uses to tap on a cymbal anchored on the side of the drum.

Just beyond, spectators are converted into dancers. Young children and adults are spinning and waving umbrellas and handkerchiefs in the air like Mardi Gras revelers.

But it's not a parade that has brought this crowd together. They have come to celebrate Louis Armstrong, a man the world knew as Satchmo, the trumpet player with the winning grin, the gravely voice and the broad smile who immortalized "Hello Dolly!"

But Armstrong was much more than that image. He was a groundbreaking musician and vocalist, and a fearless, outspoken humanitarian.

For the past five years, the city has played host to the Satchmo Summerfest, a four-day free festival featuring more than 75 concerts on four stages, food, art and lectures that examine the life and legacy of Armstrong.

Something new was added to this year's festival -- local film producer and director Michael Murphy unveiled "Make It Funky." Filmed during a 2004 concert at the Saenger Theatre in New Orleans, the documentary traces the evolution of rhythm and blues, rock 'n' roll and New Orleans funk music. Central figures include pianist Allen Toussaint, Big Sam's Funky Nation, and the Neville Brothers/Meters, who defined New Orleans funk in the 1960s.

At the festival the crowd was treated to some of the funkiest jazz the city has to offer.

Among this year's headliners were Dr. Michael White's Original Liberty Jazz Band, Rebirth Brass Band, Kermit Ruffin's Barbecue Swingers, Ellis Marsalis Quartet and an evening concert featuring Irvin Mayfield and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. This year's event also featured a jazz Mass at St. Augustine Church.

Sponsored by the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp., the festival began in 2001 during Armstrong's centennial celebration.

"It's the city's best kept secret" said a spectator, New Orleans native Willie Boutte. "This is how the [New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival] used to be. Then the tourists took it over."

Not much of a secret, because it's just past 11 a.m. and already there's standing room only at two of the four stages, and people are filing through the gates by the dozens.

Organizers were estimating more than 60,000 people to attend this year's event, which concluded last night.

"The event has grown over the years," said Larry Lovell of Peter Mayer Public Relations. "In 2001 there were 12,000 people, and last year it grew to 50,000.

Even with the growing crowds, everything remains manageable, and unlike the annual jazz festival that has become a platform for everything musical, the Satchmo Festival features traditional jazz, contemporary jazz, brass bands and a children's stage.

On the traditional stage, Yoshio Toyama & the Dixie Saints, a group from Japan, are energizing the crowd with high-flying improvisations. Over on the brass band stage, the Hot 8 Brass Band is fusing hip-hop beats with traditional brass band music.

Throughout the festival, musicians play Armstrong tributes and people talk about his New Orleans legacy and the impact he had on 20th-century American music.

But who was Louis Armstrong?

"Shakespeare invented Caliban, but who the hell dreamed up Louis?" writer Ralph Ellison once asked.

Armstrong was born in New Orleans on July 4, 1900. At least that's what he believed until his death, and so did everyone else until his baptismal certificate confirmed his actual birth date as Aug. 4, 1901. The baptismal card described Louis as "niger" and "illegitimus," apparently because his father had by that time left his mother and taken up with another woman.

He grew up impoverished, wearing rags and occasionally scavenging from garbage cans. His mother was loving, but she was also a prostitute who frequently left Armstrong and his younger sister to fend for themselves.

Armstrong discovered the trumpet when he was 7 and working for a struggling family of Russian-Jewish immigrants. He would blow a tin horn to draw customers to their junk peddler's wagon.

After learning to play the cornet in a reform school called the Home for Colored Waifs, he started playing in honky tonks around New Orleans.

Eventually, he landed his first big gig with the Kid Ory band, regarded at the time as one of the best jazz bands in New Orleans. He replaced King Oliver, who had left for Chicago.

In 1922, Oliver invited him to Chicago to play in his Creole Jazz band.

After a couple of years and a few recordings, Armstrong left the band to join the famed Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, one of the best black dance bands in New York.

In 1925, at the urging if his second wife, Lil Hardin, a pianist whom he met while both were performing with Oliver, the couple moved back to Chicago, and it was around this time that Armstrong recorded his first record as a leader. Through decades of changing musical fashion, his recordings have remained a benchmark by which jazz music is measured.

Yesterday morning, the crowd gathered at St. Augustine Church for the jazz Mass in honor of Armstrong. The Rev. Jerome LeDoux thanked the Lord for a hot sultry morning, before leading the choir in "He's Got the Whole World," which featured the blast of three trumpeters.

The Rev. LeDoux then spoke of the parallels between Armstrong's music and the spirituals sung by slaves.

"Satchmo got it from the slaves," he said. "Nobody knows the trouble he's seen."

(Post-Gazette jazz writer Nate Guidry can be reached at or at 412-263-3865.)

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