Hello, Louis!


By Charlene Diehl

Standing on the lip of a new year, I’m joining the multitudes and looking in my rear-view mirror one more time. For me, one of the highlights of the late fall was the Randy Brecker tribute to Louis Armstrong at the Winnipeg Art Gallery (November 26 and 27th).

Randy Brecker with his axe

Brecker is a powerhouse on the trumpet, with a soaring high register and tremendous facility. He is a flexible stylist with five Grammy awards and decades of performing under his belt. You can see how he has earned his international reputation—there’s a relaxed focus about him, and no showboating. He plays because he plays. It’s simply what’s in him.

Saxophonist Vincent Herring shared the front line with Brecker. What a sound—like molasses, liquid and lush. An inventive young pianist, Anthony Wonsey, joined them at the keyboard. Herring and Wonsey are busy leaders, but also play together in Earth Jazz Agents, which accounts for their sympatico.

Winnipeggers Steve Kirby and Quincy Davis rounded out the band. I kept thinking it’s no wonder there are so many skilled young performers appearing in the city these days—with a faculty of this caliber, students in the U of M’s Jazz Studies program have firsthand evidence that this genre produces actual joy when played at this level. What greater motivation is there?!

Highlights? For me, the two duo ballads—Brecker and Wonsey, then Herring and Wonsey—gave the audience an opportunity to really sink into the rich sound and musicality of these performers. I loved every second of both.

But the real hero has to be the music itself. How can “Hello, Dolly!” and “Sweet Georgia Brown” and “Basin Street Blues,” tunes Armstrong made popular decades ago, still be so fresh? There’s tremendous vitality in this music, a buoyancy that speaks to Armstrong’s genius as a musician but also his generosity and humanity. I left the auditorium feeling heartened.

Jazz is as challenged by a values struggle as all of the other art forms. We want to be entertained, but we want art that merits our time and attention. Some of us pine for golden ages past, and others of us impatiently wait for taste to catch up to current trends. A concert of Armstrong’s music is a long way from the hip-hop fusion that enlivens much of the current landscape of jazz, but there was nothing sweetly nostalgic about this concert. It was raucous, physical, and beautiful. It’s a good reminder that our past continues to have currency—this music is still alive and kicking.

At the same time, the historical occasion that spawned and shaped Armstrong also continues to matter. Exactly a century ago, a ten-year-old Louis was scrabbling for money doing odd jobs and singing on the streets of New Orleans. He had already become aware that the racist attitudes that marked his experience were also extended to others, including the Jewish Yanofsky family who opened their home to him. His art and his heart come from that very specific place and cultural moment; what he offered artistically continues to be absolutely relevant.

Obviously something is in the air just now. In the immediate aftermath of the Louis Armstrong tribute, I launched into Esi Edugyan’s Giller-winning novel, Half-Blood Blues, a riveting book that brings Nazi-dominated Europe into sharp focus through a passel of European and American jazz musicians. Armstrong may be a secondary character in the novel, but he is a dominant force in the world it explores.

Then I tripped over a radio documentary on CBC Radio 2’s “Into the Music” called “Louis Armstrong: Real to Reel.” Turns out Armstrong got his hands on one of the first tape recorders, and created over a thousand tapes between the early 1950s and his death in 1971. The recordings are remarkably frank and wide-ranging, and they dramatically expand our sense of the person who lives inside the myth we have created around him. The documentary makes for extraordinary listening, and I have no doubt the archive of tapes will generate more activity by biographers and cultural historians.

So: here I am looking forward and looking backward at the edge of 2012, and on the cusp of a century of Armstrong’s musical life, with the quietly poignant concert closer, “It’s a Wonderful World,” in my memory’s ear. It’s a good place to be.

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In the Pocket

Charlene Diehl

Charlene Diehl is the associate editor of dig! magazine and the director of THIN AIR, Winnipeg’s annual literary festival. Her last book is a memoir, Out of Grief, Singing.