Two New York City jazz experts wanted to help New Orleans beat those post-Katrina blues, so George Avakian, 87, who began producing Louis Armstrong's records in 1940, and musician David Ostwald, 51, whose band specializes in "Satchmo" songs from the 1920s and '30s, did what Armstrong fans must do in August: They boarded a flight for New Orleans to attend the 6th annual Satchmo SummerFest.
Both men were guest speakers at the four-day tribute, which honors the birthday and the birthplace of the "father of jazz." Despite Katrina's widespread destruction, both experts say they found the spirit of Armstrong's music alive and well in the city.
"It's really wonderful!" Avakian says of the festival.
"Yeah, but for a while there I was worried you weren't going to make it this year, George," says Ostwald.
Ostwald, who delivered the event's opening address, recalls how his older friend suffered a frightening fall several months ago in New York City. Avakian smiles.
They were attending a cocktail reception at the New York Public Library when the accident occurred. Avakian, who played on Count Basie's softball team in 1938, recalls that he was talking to a sportswriter at the party, and describing a game against another team of musicians at New York's Central Park. Avakian was playing right field. He scooped up a hit and hurled it toward home plate. As Avakian gestured, though, he kept falling backwards.
Ostwald, who said he was standing about 10 feet away from Avakian, recalls what happened next. "I heard this big -- thud! -- near me. The room went silent and a gasp went up. I was like, oh my God, something has happened to George.
"Sure enough, I turned around. George is lying down --"
"Flat on my back," Avakian chimes in.
"I leaned over him with tears in my eyes," Ostwald says.
Fearing a concussion -- or worse -- the younger man then did what any quick-thinking Satchmo fan might do. Instead of holding up three fingers to test his fallen friend's mental acuity, Ostwald said: "George! What year was 'Potato Head Blues' recorded?"
"1927," Armstrong's record producer retorted, correctly.
Ostwald recalls heaving a sigh of relief, then saying: "Get up, George. You're OK."
True story -- Avakian nodded. And as if to set record straight, the older man continues the tale he began in the New York Public Library: "I was playing right field ... and I made the play against [band leader] Jimmie Lunceford's team."
Despite the beginning of hurricane season and the heavy toll Katrina inflicted on New Orleans, Avakian made his fifth consecutive trip to the city for the annual Satchmo tribute.
"People should come to New Orleans anyway because it's a colorful city, but especially because it's the birthplace of jazz," Avakian says, adding that Satchmo is truly the father of jazz's unique sound. "He really is the one who changed the whole sound of American music."
Ostwald, who this year made his third consecutive trip to the Armstrong festival, nods in agreement.
A tuba player and founder of David Ostwald's Louis Armstrong Centennial Band, the younger man says Avakian deserves credit for producing or reissuing most of Armstrong's records.
But Avakian suggests that Ostwald is young and impressionable. Still, the older man recalls that -- in 1940 -- he did in fact reissue the first collection of Armstrong records, which were out-of-print even then, titled: "Hot Jazz Classics."
Working with Armstrong, Avakian went on to produce or reissue dozens of Armstrong's hit recordings. "Everything Louie has ever made has been reissued by now in the United States as well as in Europe," he notes.
Avakian and Ostwald smile, chatting easily with musicians and other Armstrong fans in the shade of the French Market at this year's festival. Both men say they will head back to New York after a Sunday jazz mass at St. Augustine Catholic Church in the historic Treme neighborhood, followed by a second-line march back to the French Market for the final day of SummerFest.
Yes, they toured the flood-damaged neighborhoods, which they found "very depressing." But Armstrong never stayed "down" for long, they say -- and neither should New Orleans. Avakian and Ostwald vow to return to the festival next year.
The city's suffocating summer heat can be the bane of locals and tourists alike. But if you're a Louis Armstrong fan, Satchmo Fest in New Orleans is the place to be -- in August.
- Cheryl Gerber
- George Avakian (left) and David Ostwald offer reasons to travel from New York City to New Orleans in August.