by W. Royal Stokes
The international cast of nearly fifty musicians on the Seebühne Torre stage celebrating today's 100th birthday of Louis Armstrong did him proud on this evening of a day that since the early hours of morning had itself been appropriately paying tribute to this great artist with a program of nature's Fourth of July "fireworks," that is, all but deafening minutes-long rolling claps of thunder accompanied by lightning that illuminated the dark skies as if by a giant strobe light in the very hands of God.
But the skies had providentially cleared by evening, a welcomed circumstance for the thousands who are here at Ascona Jazz, a "festa", or "party", as your reviewer was advised earlier in the day at a chance encounter with festival founder, producer, and artistic director Karl Heinz Ern, who is continually afoot twenty hours or so a day checking out his truly masterful creation.
With five main stages, lakefront and other ristoranti, and piazzas up back streets alive with performance, the focal point from 8:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. was the program alluded to above at Seebühne Torre. The first third of the nearly five-hour musical bash was devoted to re-creation of the early, Chicago-based, career of Armstrong, when he dueted intuitively with his mentor King Oliver at Lincoln Gardens and documented in seminal 1920s recording sessions the introduction of the soloist to jazz with musical companions the likes of saxophonist and clarinetist Sidney Bechet, pianists Lil Hardin (the second of his four wives ) and Earl Hines, clarinetist Johnny Dodds, trombonist Kid Ory, and drummer Zutty Singleton. Embracing such classic tunes as "Heebie Jeebies," "Cornet Chop Suey," "West End Blues," and "My Monday Date" with deep feeling and creative authenticity, the musicians on stage in selection after selection demonstrated via their individual and collective artistry an excellence of performance that bespoke the awe in which this greatest of all jazz artists is held worldwide. Nor was the audience neglectful of the respect due to the great trumpeter, singer, band leader, and entertainer, according the performance rapt atention and frequent and thunderous applause.
The international cast of players for these five sets included trumpeters Abbi Hübner, Horst Schwarz, Keith Nichols, and Tom Baker, who also performed on tuba; trombonists Gerd Goldenbow and Michel Supnik; clarinetists Klaus Möller, Reimer von Essen, and Evan Christopher; pianists Peter Cohn, Keith Nichols and Christian Hopkins; banjoists Thomas Streckebach and Martin Weatley, who also performed on guitar; drummer Trevor Richards, and Miss Lulu Whithe's Red Hot Creole Jazzband.
With pianist Keith Nichols directing the Paolo Tomelleri Big Band, the scene then moved into the 1930s, when Armstrong fronted, as soloist, the pianist Luis Russell's orchestra. The plaintive cry of "I Ain't Got Nobody" was given inspired expression by the trumpets of Tom Baker and Keith Smith and the latter's voice. Smith, incidentally, while tailoring his vocal timbre to Armstrong's gravelly chops, did not do so with exaggeration but rather, as did the other voices and the several trumpets during the evening, paid tribute in kind to the greatest innovator and style setter of the idiom. May we observe that such as Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and Lester Bowie, all of succeeding eras of jazz, acknowledged the massive shadow of Armstrong hovering over every jazz artist down through the decades.
On "I'm a Ding Dong Daddy" Tom Baker intentionally stumbled, à la Armstrong, into scat, and his cornet and Keith Nichols' vocal lent the needed ghostly effect to the comical "Skeleton in the Closet," which Armstrong performed on screen in one of his many cinematic appearances. Keith Smith's trumpet soared on the Armstrong ballad and theme song "When It's Sleepy Time Down South." Not to leave out most deserving mention of the background provided these several featured players, the Paolo Tomelleri Big Band handled the 1930s-style arrangements with convincing accuracy and considerable flair, the unit's soloists acquitting themselves with much distinction.
By the mid-1940s most of the Swing Era big bands had folded their tents, sending their members into either obscurity or into small bands and combos. Armstrong saw the handwriting on the wall and disbanded as well, forming the sextet that carried him, with many personnel changes over the next quarter of a century, into his final days, his All Stars. Trumpeter Keith Smith and cornetist Tom Baker, trombonist Dan Barrett, clarinetist Charlie Hollering, pianist Ray Sherman, bassist Joel Forbes, and drummer Charlie Antolini stood in for the evening's honoree and for such mostly departed greats who made up the combo as trombonists Jack Teagarden and Trummy Young, clarinetists Barney Bigard and Peanuts Hucko, pianist Earl Hines, drummers Cozy Cole, Big Sid Catlett, and Barrett Deems, and bassist Arvell Shaw, the last named the only survivor into the present.
Keith Smith sang the Raymond Burke-adapted (for Louis Prima) lyrics of "Black and Blue," eliciting from the song both its original somber ironies and a touch of empathetic humor, as with his deft handling of the phrase "My only sin is in my grin." Keith's voice and trumpet rendered "That's My Home" as the gorgeous ballad that it can be, and with Baker's pitch-bending heraldic cornet leading the pack, "Honeysuckle Rose" became an ensemble free-for-all that had the audience shouting encouragement, most especially to drummer Antolini, whose fusillades shook the rafters.
A unit I had not yet checked out was up the promenade, and underway and in full swing as I soon learned, so I was compelled to split the "Tribute to the 100 Years Of Louis Armstrong" scene not far into the final set by the Leroy Jones quintet. I did stay long enough to share appreciation, along with the still fully packed house, for the artistry of this creatively talented and virtuosic trumpeter whose improvisations have him often seeing around corners to his next spontaneous invention. We already had earlier in the week noted and commented upon the uncanny fellow reading of musical minds that Jones and trombonist Craig Klein are capable of when they are holding forth together, and pianist Dirk Raufeisen, bassist Götz Ommert, and drummer Sebastian Merks are equally strong members of this very cohesive combo. The leader's somewhat more modern-tinged horn lent new twists and turns to "When It's Sleepy Time Down South" and his vocalized "Hello Dolly" splendidly captured the effervescence of that latter-day Armstrong classic.
The Paris Swing Orchestra was in full fury as I entered Seebühne Piazza, Pierre-Louis Cas just launching a tornado of a marathon solo on the Lionel Hampton classic "Flying Home", perhaps not outdoing Illinois Jacquet's take on the number, but coming close. Ellington's "In My Solitude" featured a vocal trio and was clearly a favorite for the standing throng, for many a sigh was heard as the number was announced. Glenn Miller's "Moonlight Serenade" positively hushed the audience with its aura of dreamy days gone by. Horace Henderson's "Big John Special" was nicely moved along by Christophe Davot's solid rhythm guitar, a device little heard since the demise of Freddie Greene and Steve Jordan. "Nagasaki", perhaps best known as a Benny Goodman Sextet offering, was a super up-tempo cataclysm driven with villain zeal by drummer Michel Sénamaud. Soloists of great reach and impressive originality of interpretation abound in the 15-strong Paris Swing Orchestra, and the arrangements and adaptations by alto saxophonist Marc Richard and trombonist Jean-Pierre Dumontier, while inspired by the sources the band draws from, are ingeniously crafted to fit the special needs of this very vital band of Swing Era persuasions. The only thing missing was Lindy Hoppers executing over-the-top air steps in front of the stage -- but,"Ouch!", those cobblestones, in the event of a misstep and fall!
W. Royal Stokes is author of Swing Era New York: The Jazz Photographs of Charles Peterson (Temple University Press, 1994), The Jazz Scene: An Informal History from New Orleans to 1990 (Oxford University Press,1991), and Living the Jazz Life: Conversations with Forty Musicians about their Careers in Jazz, also from Oxford.
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