This week would have been Louis Armstrong's 106th birthday, and he's not just getting his usual party -- the Satchmo Summerfest he's also getting a present. To commemorate its 50th anniversary, the storied Monterey Jazz Festival has partnered with Concord Music Group to dig into its formidable archives (the fest has recorded nearly every performance on its stages since 1957) and start releasing some of those never-before-issued shows from some of the jazz world's most legendary artists. The first set of releases are from a suitably elite crew: Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughn, Thelonius Monk and, of course, Pops himself -- all of which hit the street at the end of August. Louis' performance is from 1958, the festival's second year, and features one of the last versions of his band the Louis Armstrong All-Stars.
It's an interesting record. The late '50s must have been a strange time for Armstrong, at least at a place like the Monterey festival, which drew serious, highly literate jazz aficionados. He was ridiculously famous and well-regarded, more than a household name (one biographer called him "the most famous black man in the world, until Muhammad Ali came along), and had circumnavigated the globe with his band many times over. His last great triumph, knocking the Beatles out of the top chart spot with Hello, Dolly was yet to come. He'd also made what most consider his only (and shocking) step out of the grinning, mugging character he'd built a career on by speaking out against school segregation in Arkansas the year before -- canceling a "goodwill ambassador" tour to the Soviet Union as a result. But he was way past his years as a musical innovator, and the hot sound to the world of jazz in the late '50s was coming from Miles, Mingus and Monk. Hot jazz from down South was still a few years away from its first wave of nostalgia with Preservation Hall.
Fittingly, Armstrong's introduction for the set comes from Dizzy Gillespie, whose laid-back bebop-cool tones convey that there is nothing he'd rather be doing than being the man who gives Satchmo to the crowd. The first track, "When It's Sleepy Time Down South," sounds like a warm-up; Louis rolls through it like it's work. The first half of the set is classic Satch, and fun to hear, with plenty of rhyming hepcat jive-talk and favorite selections like "Tiger Rag" and "Now You Has Jazz." The second half of the set, like with most live recordings, is where the band heats up, with long versions of "These Foolish Things," "Stompin' At The Savoy," and the "St. Louis Blues," which musically couldn't be warmer and looser. The only drawback is Velma Middleton, the mediocre vocalist Louis kept with him for the latter part of his career much to critical chagrin. A version of "Mack the Knife" is the only sour note. It's as rote as the opener, and a weird insinuation that Armstrong was pleasing a crowd that he might not have been that interested in pleasing any more. All things considered, it's an interesting artifact. Except for the high point of Hello, Dolly, the late '50s was really the beginning of the end of Armstrong's life, and a period when he was the most important and famous irrelevant jazz musician in the world. Nobody would ever do what he did again, but that's because he made it so they didn't have to.
New Orleans, of course, is not lacking in people who love all things Louis, and the seventh annual Satchmo Summerfest is proof. It's also one of the only good reasons to go outside during the day in August. The fest takes place in the French Quarter, with food, live music and activities going on from Thursday until sundown on Sunday at and around the Old U.S. Mint and the French Market. Music is happening on three stages, including sets from a pair of Armstrong's musical descendants, Kermit Ruffins and Trombone Shorty, closing the fest out on Sunday night on the contemporary jazz stage.
For the studious types (or anyone who'd like a dose of air-conditioning) the seminars that run daily as part of the festival set the Satchmo Summerfest apart from the standard New Orleans brass-band-and-red-beans outdoor event. Accomplished jazz scholars, New Orleans historians and record geeks can participate in seminars and panel discussions on the city's jazz heritage. The stellar lineup includes University of Michigan history professor Penny Von Eschen's seminar on Satchmo and civil rights, an issue in his biography that's been hotly debated. Sunday afternoon sees panel discussions remembering three great losses to the local -- and national -- jazz community from the past year: historians Tad Jones and Dick Allen, and clarinetist Alvin Batiste. Finally, on Saturday afternoon, Peter Ecklund expounds on Louis Armstron's solo in the song "Potato Head Blues," which, Woody Allen fans might remember, was on his character's list of reasons to live at the end of the film Manhattan.
- Brad Edelman
- The Satchmo SummerFest celebrates Louis Armstrong's birthday and musical legacy.