Who's steppin' it up? Satchmo Fest
Hello, New Orleans, greetings from London. I wish I could be home for Satchmo Summerfest, but even though I have the weekend off, it was prohibitively expensive to come back between gigs. Nonetheless, I have some exciting news to share regarding our annual celebration of Louis Armstrong’s legacy.
As you may know, an important component of Satchmo Summer Fest is the program of seminars at the Old US Mint. One of the presenters is my friend Ricky Riccardi, Project Archivist for the Armstrong Archives, not far from the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Corona, Queens, NY. Last April, at an NYC show Ricky gave me a copy of his recent Armstrong biography, “What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong's Later Years." I was so touched after reading it, I told him that EVERY trumpet player in town needs to read it. Well, guess what? Ricky took my sentiment to his publishers at Pantheon Books and next week, THIRTY of our city’s best trumpet players will receive the book as a gift on the occasion that New Orleans celebrates the anniversary of Armstrong’s birth. How about that?!
It’s a valuable book that documents the latter half of Armstrong’s later career, after he gave up fronting a big band in favor of his small group known as the All-Stars. Many jazz-lovers, supposed Armstrong aficionados, even musicians over the years have expressed ambivalence, even derision for this period. The commercial hits such as Hello Dolly, Armstrong’s Vaudeville-tinged delivery, as well as his refusal to adopt the strategies of others for addressing racism and the injustices of segregation are reasons the All-Star years are often overlooked and criticized.
But, combining first hand accounts with Armstrong's own words from written correspondences, manuscripts, and home recordings on his reel-to-reel tape machine (as Ricky says in his now 6-year-old Armstrong blog, "Our hero, Louis Armstrong, was a packrat. The man saved everything."), Riccardi provides rich insight to reveal an uncompromising artist, shrewd band leader, and devoted humanist. Armstrong’s career was a continuum. “The supposed ‘serious artist’ of the 1920s," Ricky reminded me, "did just as much clowning and recorded just as many pop tunes as the later Ambassador of Goodwill.”
Exchanges with Armstrong's management and anecdotes from All-Star sidemen and even producers, such as George Avakian whom Ricky will interview on Sunday, illustrate Armstrong’s superhuman level of consistency, focus, and artistry; his dedication as an entertainer striving to communicate his message of joy and unity with each and every listener; and his philosophy about being an internationally renowned public figure.
Nobility is the quality Riccardi told me he tried to emphasize most. “I always viewed Armstrong as a noble figure... how he prepared for his shows, how he never coasted, how seriously he took his music and his instrument, how he lived to perform for his audiences, how savvy he was about race, how tough he could be when he felt he--or his musicians--were being unfairly treated, how he had a healthy ego about his abilities, all qualities that sometimes got obscured behind that glorious onstage smile. I wanted that all to come across.”
Now, the reason I think MUSICIANS will dig the book is that the mostly chronological account is a veritable music business handbook. Armstrong was ahead of his time using technology to document his career, replete with old-school lessons about professionalism, fan engagement, negotiation tactics, and survival strategies on the road as well as in the recording studio.
The end result is cause for renewed appreciation on many levels for our greatest Jazz Ambassador. However, Riccardi, who will have a full schedule over the weekend isn’t trying to create camps of fans, Early Louis vs Late Louis. "...You can read my book and still feel the 1920s were Armstrong's greatest period and that's fine. But I just hope the later years are never again taken for granted.”
Big thanks to Ricky Riccardi and Pantheon Books for Steppin’ It Up and giving the New Orleans music community this special gift. Have a great Satchmo Summerfest. Happy birthday, Pops!
Evan Christopher is a noted member of the New Orleans music community and advocates for the cultural workforce. Click here for his performance schedule. He writes MAC-Notes for NolaVie. Email him with your comments about cultural issues, particularly in the music world, at [email protected]