The premier American jazz festival dedicated to the life, music and legacy of New Orleans' native son, Louis 'Satchmo' Armstrong August 4-7, 2011 at the old US Mint, now part of the Louisiana State Museum, in the French Quarter.
I’m heading for the 11th Annual Satchmo Summerfest in New Orleans. It was there last year that my self-image as a knowledgeable listener got banged on like a little drum, a tamburello, ironically enough, if you translate the words into Italian.
The Saturday program at The Palm Court Jazz Café last year on Decatur Street read: 12:30pm – 1:30pm - Louis Armstrong’s Musical Gumbo: Trumpeter Clive Wilson, drummer Herman Lebeaux, and pianist Butch Thompson (long associated with Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion,”) explore the New Orleans ingredients – the elements and styles - that contributed to Louis Armstrong’s revolutionary trumpet playing.
There was Clive Wilson, esteemed trumpeter and jazz historian, saying that when musicians like Buddy Bolden began changing the musical landscape in the 1920s, Louis Armstrong was paying attention. “The popular music at the time was in 2/4 time,” Wilson said, then played a song in which the beat was one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four. OK, I got that.
Next came my musical Waterloo. “Musicians like Bolden began to accent the melody in different places and converted it to 1 / 2 time,” Wilson said, and played “Hail To The King ” as an example.
Butch Thompson, piano, Herman Lebeaux on drums, as Clive Wilson plays into a coconut shell to demonstrate how trumpeters "talk." In the old days, they'd use a bucket that may have doubled as a spittoon.
“Clap on the downbeat, not the upbeat. Anyone clapping on the one will be shot!” he said with an impish grin.
I was cool with that. Until I nearly got shot. I’d always thought I was the hippest guy in the room when I clapped or snapped my fingers knowledgeably or nodded my head sagely when everyone else did the same on the next beat. To say that I was embarrassed would be an uderstatement.
The audience was full of the people I’d scoffed at for being so uncool as to not hear when to hit the correct beat. I sat on my hands. Left to my own devices, I’d have exposed myself as a fraud. To this day, I still catch myself doing what the trumpet playing HBO Treme character Delmonde Lambreaux says dismissively of audiences in Portland, Oregon. “I’ve been there. They clap on the ones!”
In addition to this watershed moment, the rest of the afternoon's information about jazz in the Armstrong era was less deflating to my self-image.
Butch Thompson explains how musicians play ahead or behind the beat.
“Guys like Armstrong are historians who happen to be musicians. You’ll hear influences from gospel to Buddy Bolden to King Oliver in Armstrong’s music. Some of the phrases that Satchmo invented survive to this day – the end of “Tin Roof Blues” and “Savoy Blues” are two examples.” Then the trio played the phrases.
King Oliver and Clark Terry could “talk” on their trumpets by playing into buckets. Wilson, with Butch Thompson at piano and Herman Lebeaux on drums, played into a coconut shell to demonstrate. I got completely lost when Wilson, who came to New Orleans in 1960, showed a video of “Careless Love” and talked about stuff like strings improvising with diminished tones. Improvising I get. Diminished tones? Maybe I’ll learn more this year.
“Some musicians play ahead of the beat and some play behind the beat,” he said, and the trio played “The King Porter Stomp” to show how it’s done. At least I could follow that.
And, Lord have mercy, I knew to clap on the downbeat.
One more time...
"I used to come to New Orleans when I was in college in Minnesota. I could even afford it then," Butch Thompson said after the seminar. I must say, it's really cool to meet a musician I've admired for years, and told him so. These guys were so accessible and talked with everyone who wanted a minute after the seminar.