(Thanks to my old friend Chris Barnes for the Photoshop magic; I had always wanted to do that!)
I got back from Bristol on March 10, exhausted from the jet lag. It was the longest I had gone without my wife and kids so I took the rest of the week off and hugged them incessantly. When I went back to work on Monday, the 16th, I was way behind in needing to plan a new exhibit that would be installed at the Armstrong House in just two weeks. So I've been busier than a one-armed paper hanger with crabs (borrowed that one from Louis) and it won't be letting up until probably sometime in mid-May (probably; probably not).
But I didn't want to leave my old blog a wasteland while I was off doing Armstrong-related stuff around the world. I'd imagine many of my readers were following my exploits on Facebook; if not, here's a link to an album of over 100 photos from my British invasion. But for posterity, let me offer a (somewhat) quick wrap-up for the blog.
I was invited over to Bristol for the 3rd Annual Bristol International Jazz and Blues Festival by the Festival's Executive Director, Colin Gorie, and the Artistic Director, Denny Ilett. Denny visited me in New York last year and pitched the idea of a "New Orleans Takeover" of the Festival, with a special focus on Louis. I was more than happy to represent the Armstrong House for what would be my very first trip to England in my 34-year-old life. I knew I was in the right place shortly after I landed. While going through customs, I had to explain just what I was doing in England. I had a letter prepared from the Festival but they still had lots of questions. Finally, they told me to wait a few minutes. They eventually called me back and said, "We checked your blog--everything checked out." I knew this blog would be good for something! They apologized for taking my time and I said I wasn't in a rush, causing the officer to respond, "Of course....you 'Have All the Time in the World,' right?" Not even through the border and my first Louis Armstrong song reference! I was going to like it here....
Though the Festival was only Friday-Sunday, they flew me out on Monday so I could give some Louis lectures around Bristol in preparation for the main gigs on Saturday and Sunday. I arrived late Monday night and was already put to work on Tuesday afternoon, speaking to a handful of music students at the Cotham School. Coincidentally, "West End Blues" had been on the syllabus so the students had already studied it but they asked me to come in and two hours on just that song alone. That was no problem, as I had already written a 10,000 word blog on the subject a few years ago. But I decided to take them way back and played them records Louis had in his private collection--Caruso, Galli-Curci, Herbert L. Clarke--as well as other earlier Armstrong records where you can hear traces of the birth of the cadenza, including "Changeable Daddy of Mine" and "Once in a While." After about 45 minutes of pre-history, when they finally heard the famed 1928 recording again, it all made sense. The kids were great and thanked me for the graphic level of detail. Glad they weren't scared away!
The next day was a big promotional day, starting with a Festival preview in the Bristol Post with a big photo Yoni Brook took of me holding one of Louis's trumpets. I also had a fun radio interview in the afternoon with Claire Cavanaugh of BBC Bristol. As I'm writing this, the audio is still up on the BBC website for 13 more days so if you'd like to listen to it, click here! (I start one hour and 45 minutes in.)
The bulk of that day was spent sightseeing around Bristol with the help of my friend, Jonathan David Holmes, a young hot jazz enthusiast who runs a popular YouTube channel devoted to vintage music, transferred from his ever-growing 78 collection. Jonathan met me at my hotel wearing a "Louis Sends His Love" button created by our mutual friend, Michael Steinman; needless to say, we got along famously! And before the BBC interview started, Jonathan--a BBC Bristol employee--sat down with me and recorded a 14-minute interview with yours truly about my background and love of Louis. Thanks, Jonathan!
That same day (it wouldn't quit!), I raced from the BBC to the Watershed Theatre to give a two-hour presentation on Louis Armstrong's movie appearances. We had a great crowd and I took them from Rhapsody in Black and Blue in 1932 to Paris Blues in 1960, closing with the famous "St. Louis Blues (Concerto Grosso)" with Leonard Bernstein from Satchmo the Great. I was honored to have the great New Orleans-born vocalist Lillian Boutte in the audience. It was the first time we had ever met, but we felt like old friends from the start. That "St. Louis Blues" emotionally affected Lillian....and she wasn't alone. Here we are right before the show started:
And I love this photo Denny Ilett snapped of me in mid-preach, probably threatening to fight members of the audience afterwards if they disagreed with my sentiments on Armstrong! (The biggest laugh of the night came when I stole Wild Bill Davison's line from Newport 1970: "If I told you how I really feel about Louis Armstrong, I'd be arrested for indecent exposure!")
I had been going nonstop since breakfast but I wasn't done yet. My originally scheduled event for Thursday was scrapped so I saw a small window to take a train to London and experience the big city for a day. My friend--and fellow Pops lover--Julio Schwarz Andrade welcomed me with open arms and I was thrilled to at least get in one day in London. Julio showed me the sights, such as Big Ben:
That was followed by a most memorable lunch with two long-time Facebook friends I had been looking forward to meeting for years: jazz historian Fernando Ortiz de Urbina and noted saxophonist/composer John Altman (that link takes you to John's Wikipedia page; if you don't know him, you do now....what a career!). The stories didn't stop for over two hours....wish we had recorded it!
It was back to Bristol on Thursday night as I had another lecture at the Bristol Institute of Modern Music first thing on Friday morning. This was FUN! In front of about 15-20 young music majors--most from a rock and pop background, but also some jazz singers and musicians--I once again preached about the importance of Pops to the history of pop music. Instead of just playing his greatest records, I played them a TON of stuff. By the end of the 90 minutes, they heard Louis, King Oliver, Fletcher Henderson, Caruso, Count Basie, Rudy Vallee, Bing Crosby, Ethel Waters, Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, Louis Jordan, Chuck Berry, The Beatles, Frank Sinatra, Ke$ha and more. Some of the students and faculty members have kept in touch and they even wrote a nice little recap of my visit on their website. I even got to sign their wall!
I had a wonderful Indian dinner that night with the noted sound engineer Dave Bennett, who does so much for Avid Records these days. In fact, he was behind the reissue of Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography I wrote the liner notes for a couple of years ago (and he's planning more Pops as I write this; details to come!). Thanks for a great meal, Dave and Anne!
After that Friday night dinner, it was time for the actual Bristol International Jazz and Blues Festival to begin. I only had time for one act that night....but what an act it was! I already mentioned my man Denny Ilett, the Artistic Director of the Festival. Denny is also an accomplished guitarist, arranger and vocalist and co-leads an 18-piece big band with trumpeter Jonny Bruce, The Bruce Ilett Big Band. They took out about half the chairs in old Colston Hall to open up the room for the dancing--and my goodness, the people danced. I'm terrible at estimating but I'd say there were probably 1,000-1,500 people at the concert and at least half of them were dancing all night. On top of that, at least 80% of the dancers appeared to be under the age of 40. The big band played all the hits: "April in Paris," "Cherokee" (Charlie Barnet's), "Tuxedo Junction," "Sing, Sing, Sing," lots of Harry James, etc. But I don't think I've ever heard a full evening of that music played by such a powerhouse band in front of a jam-packed room of dancers and listeners. It was more thrilling than any rock concert you can imagine. Anyone who dismisses big band or music or swing dancing should have been there for this. Hell, every human being should experience something like this at least once! No wonder this was America's popular music during The Swing Era...
Here I am with Jonny Bruce and Denny Ilett....keep doing what you're doing, fellas!
Somehow I went to sleep that night and had to be ready for my big showcase on Saturday, 75 minutes on "The Life and Legacy of Louis Armstrong." Dressed in a new jacket my wife picked out for me, I was ready, I was ready, so help me, I was ready:
With such an open topic of Louis's "life and legacy," I decided to skip most of the life and focus on how Louis's legacy has changed since he died. When he passed away in 1971, there was a large number of folks who believed Louis went commercial, stopped being a good trumpet player in the 1930s, was nothing but a clown and was an Uncle Tom when it came to issues of race. As I do in my book, I fought each one of those accusations, but I used materials from the Armstrong House's Archives: Louis's private tapes, Louis fighting against accusations of clowning, Louis on TV talking about racism in New Orleans, Louis playing "West End Blues" in 1961 and much more. I kind of piled up the emotional climaxes at the end, detailing Armstrong's final few months and the story of Louis Armstrong's last tape, which I've blogged about it in the past. Many folks later told me they cried and there were times at the end when I had to breathe and avoid breaking into tears myself.
It might have been one of the best-received lectures I've ever given, but I was helped by having many Facebook friends planted in the audience, including Denny Ilett, Jonathan David Holmes, Jim Denham and Hugh Flint, drummer for John Mayall's Blues Breakers (with Eric Clapton) and quite an Armstrong fan himself. Here's me and Hugh:
1938 Carnegie Hall Concert. Afterwards, the weather was so lovely, we ate outdoors at a pub. We started talking about Pops and I got so carried away, I reached into my bag, pulled out my iPod and a small Bose speaker and started playing unissued Armstrong recordings in the afternoon air. Quite a memorable lunch....thanks Fernando and Jon!
The concert, needless to say, was unforgettable and one of the unquestioned hits of the festival. But for me, it was just a thrill to be among the cats. I finally got to meet the great Ian Batemen, who had to inhibit the roles of Trummy Young, Kid Ory, Jack Teagrden and Fred Robinson in the show, and who leads a sensational Armstrong tribute band with his trumpet playing brother, Alan:
Clarke Peters was an absolute gentlemen and it was an honor to give him a copy of my book:
I've loved Don Vappie for years but hadn't met him before Bristol. Not only a sensational musician, he was a lot of fun to talk to. Once again, I pulled out the iPod and Bose speaker to play him some private tapes of Louis badmouthing Jelly Roll Morton!
Don was over with Evan Christopher's Django a la Creole. I've known Evan for years and he's one of my favorite people on the planet (you might remember he ordered 30 copies of my book to give to every trumpet player in New Orleans....what a guy!). Django a la Creole absolutely tore it up the night before; since I've been back, I've been listening to their three CDs almost nonstop. Yeah, Evan!
Evan's bassist, Sebastian Giordot, was another Facebook friend I hadn't met in the flesh before. He was a monster during the Armstrong tribute, playing with that fat, popping New Orleans sound Louis loved (he did Pops Foster proud on "Swing That Music"!).
Every musician, top to bottom, were delightful to meet but for me, the biggest thrill was Enrico Tomasso. Perhaps you have seen a number of famous photos of Louis with a young man holding a trumpet, greeting Louis at an airport in England in 1968? That's Rico! He started playing when he was 5 (his father was a clarinetist) and was immediately engulfed in Pops after hearing the 1954 Decca "Basin Street Blues." When Louis heard him play as an 8-year-old boy in 1968, he fell in love with his playing, making him come backstage every night at the Batley Music Hall in order to impart wisdom such as "Marry a woman who knows the horn comes first" and "Don't play that jiu jitzu music." They traded letters until Louis died in 1971.
One of the most famous photos of Louis and Rico showed Louis kissing the younger trumpeter's hand in 1968. Naturally, when I met Rico, I had to do the same thing:
During the rehearsal for the concert, I pulled out my phone and shot a short video of Rico invoking the spirit--and sound--of Pops at the end of "On the Sunny Side of the Street." I had goose bumps watching this from the stage.
After the show was over, it was a fun hanging with Rico, Ian, trumpeter Ben Cummings, Ian's son and my London pal Julio for a few hours. We went to the Old Duke for drinks. I knew I was in the right place, when I spotted this Bob Parent photo of Louis and Bobby Hackett on the wall. I included this in my Hackett tribute in January but this was the first time I've ever seen the complete photo--that's Louis's friend, actor Slim Thompson, on the right!
And when we ended up at another Indian restaurant for dinner and realized we were the only ones sitting there, it was only a matter of time before the iPod and Bose came out for another listening session, including an unissued take of "St. Louis Blues" from Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy, "West End Blues" from Freedomland in 1961 and most emotionally, an audio letter Rico and his family made for Louis when Louis was in intensive care in 1969. Rico hadn't heard it since he sent it 46 years ago. On the tape, he played trumpet on "Cake Walking Babies from Home," "Basin Street Blues" and what he introduced as his favorite song, "I Used to Love You," joined by his father, sister and brother. Rico had tears in his eyes by the end of the tape. I was honored to be able to make him hear it again after all these years.
As a little laginappe, I went to hear Dr. John playing the Festival's closing show. He visited the Louis Armstrong House Museum in August, where I acted as a liaison. He was marvelous at the Armstrong House, relaxed and telling stories the entire time. Before he left, I gave him a copy of my book, too. Now, in Bristol, I was lucky enough to attend his soundcheck with maybe a dozen other people in the giant Colston Hall. He looked a little weary after the constant traveling and it was almost showtime, but I still wanted to shake his hand and maybe remind him about the Armstrong House and who I was. I didn't need to; as he was walked offstage, he took one look at me, smiled, and croaked out, "Man, I LOVED your book!" It might be the best endorsement I've ever received.....
So thank you, Bristol for a truly unforgettable visit! Talks have already begun to do it all over again next year. Count me in. And thanks to the Louis Armstrong House Museum for allowing me to go around the world to preach about Pops and the treasures found at the Armstrong House.
And thank you, Louis Armstrong. Thank you for EVERYTHING. It's my pleasure to be your Ambassador, Mr. Ambassador.