In 1943, before the phenomenon of bebop held the jazz world in thrall, Louis Armstrong remained one of the music’s most popular figures. After many years of exhausting tours, he had settled into his role as a jazz spokesperson and was leading of an all-star band that included Earl “Fatha” Hines, Jack Teagarden, Barney Bigard, “Big” Sid Catlett, Cozy Cole and other giants of the era.
Despite his international profile, Armstrong retained his humble personality, which made it all the more significant that, at the peak of his success, he would take up residence in the quiet, working-class neighborhood of Corona, Queens. “We don’t need to move out in the suburbs to some big mansion with lots of servants and yardmen and things,” he said of his unassuming abode in 1964, after he had lived at 34-56 107th Street for nearly 20 years. At this home, the New Orleans-born trumpeter would continue to quietly tailor the style of music he helped popularize a generation earlier, all while remaining a major contributor to American culture.
For the past four years, the Kupferberg Center for the Arts at Queens College has been celebrating Armstrong’s legacy as a musical pioneer and hometown hero via the Louis Armstrong Wonderful World Fest, which takes place at Queens’ historic Flushing Meadows Corona Park, just a mile and a half from the trumpeter’s former residence (now The Louis Armstrong House Museum, a National Historic Landmark and a New York City landmark). This year’s edition edition, held July 8, was perhaps the festival’s best yet, owing largely to its high-profile curator, keyboardist Jon Batiste, himself a New York transplant by way of Louisiana.
Batiste, whose platform on national late-night TV is about as big as it gets in jazz, elicits subtle, if noteworthy, comparisons to the festival’s namesake, and not simply for the geographic proximity of their birthplaces.
The keyboardist and bandleader is an unabashed advocate of Armstrong’s music and a booster of traditional jazz in general (he routinely ends his festival appearances with a New Orleans-style second-line march, often to the strains of “When The Saints Go Marching In”). But more specifically, Batiste, like Armstrong, managed to become salient in popular culture without having to shed his idiosyncratic identity as a jazz artist. Batiste accomplished this largely by leveraging social media. His mash-up of the second-line staple “You Are My Sunshine” and Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance” made a splash when it debuted on the album My N.Y. and subsequent YouTube videos in 2011.
Armstrong did something similar by embracing his role as a movie and TV star, which is partially how “Hello, Dolly!” became a surprise No. 1 hit in the rock ‘n’ roll-heavy year of 1964, dethroning The Beatles’ streak of 14 consecutive weeks at the top of the pop chart.
Batiste took a characteristically eccentric approach to his curation of the Wonderful World Festival, with a lineup that sought to propagate Armstrong’s legacy more than preserve it. So while the festival acknowledged Armstrong’s origins with the inclusion of Vince Giordano’s Jazz Age throwback ensemble The Nighthawks, it also nodded to the perpetuation of Armstrong’s legacy via the presence of soul outfit The Dap-Kings (minus the group’s luminescent former singer, the late Sharon Jones); Batiste’s own Stay Human ensemble; the hip-hop artists Don Flamingo, Avenue, and Kris Kasanova; and the Latin-funk collective Havana Roots, a new project led by Grammy-winning producer Andrés Levin and featuring Cuban musicians Cucu Diamantes, Alain Perez and Kelvis Ochoa.
“Louis Armstrong was a God-gifted cultural amalgamation of all the best that America has to offer: He was an artist and humanitarian of the highest order,” Jon Batiste said in a press statement. “Armed with visionary, interpretational genius, and an irrepressible charisma, he broke down artistic, racial, social and cultural barriers. Using his nonpareil trumpet ability, he reinvented American music. This festival is a celebration of what his legacy means to me.”
Following an early afternoon drum circle, which launched the fest on a note of group participation, the program picked up steam as bassist/saxophonist Giordano and his Nighthawks took to the stage with Batiste at the piano for a set of Armstrong classics, including “West End Blues,” “Up The Lazy River,” “Potato Head Blues,” “Black & Blue,” “Dipper Mouth Blues” and others.
The band offered a reverent fidelity to the original Armstrong recordings, with trumpeters Mike Ponella and Jon-Erik Kellso performing Armstrong’s bristling solos note for note. Giordano and Batiste both took turns in the vocal chair, with Giordano adopting Armstrong’s endearingly gravel-voiced tone, and an augmented reed section (featuring Stay Human saxophonist Patrick Bartley) transformed historic clarinet solos—such as the one by Johnny Dodds on “Potato Head Blues”—into fleshed-out, harmonically intricate soli passages. As the band closed with its take on 1926’s “Dinah,” which Batiste giddily intoned against The Nighthawks’ locomotive accompaniment, a couple in their golden years soft-shoed under the shade of a tree at stage-left.
As the leader of The Dap-Kings, Jones (who died of cancer on Nov. 18) was as vibrant a lead singer as there ever was, a soul-bearing and effervescent performer who, like Armstrong, struck an optimal balance between showmanship and sincerity. Her loss created an unfillable void in the The Dap-Kings, but in the wake of great tragedy the band has charged ahead, perpetuating the sizzling r&b grooves and deep, danceable funk that helped launch the ensemble into the mainstream.
At the Wonderful World Festival, the group’s rendition of Sly & The Family Stone’s “I Want To Take You Higher,” led by the phenomenal vocalist Saundra Williams, was rambunctious in attitude and uplifting in spirit, and featured barbed solos by Bartley on alto saxophone and Stay Human’s Corey Wilcox on trombone.
The band later cut a cavernous groove for the cameo appearance of guest emcees Kris Kasanova (hailing from Brooklyn), Avenue (Boston) and Don Flamingo (New Orleans), who rapped original verses against iconic beats like “I Ain’t Mad At Cha” by Tupac.
The collision of musical styles on stage was apt for a festival curated by Batiste, who constantly extols jazz’s elasticity, its ability to expand and accommodate new genres. Though some may have seen it as unconventional, the performance drew a clear line (if not always a straight one) from the legacy of Armstrong to the music of today.
In a clear homage to Armstrong’s unofficial role of international jazz ambassador—the trumpeter famously traveled to Africa on a series of tours in the 1950s—Batiste featured the Havana Roots Collective as the festival’s final act, expanding the Cuban band’s ranks with members of Stay Human and The Dap-Kings. The group’s searing Latin fusion defied regional or genre limitations, creating a feisty amalgam of grooves from sources as diverse as Cuban son, Weather Report jazz-rock, Afrobeat, Latin swing and more, often within the same song.
With a horn section led by Brian Lynch, a trumpeter known as a Latin music specialist, the band concocted air-tight grooves out of layers of percussion and melody, prompting clusters of dancers to erupt across the festival’s grassy field.
That kinetic energy persisted as Batiste and his Stay Human cohorts descended the stage to the bristling melody of “When The Saints,” snaking their way through the audience in a traditional second-line celebration. Though predictable for a Batiste show, it was an especially fitting end to a festival designed to honor the spirit of Armstrong, an artist whose colossal talent and boundless magnanimity effectively transformed the sounds of his birthplace into a worldwide sensation. That it was taking place in Queens, Armstrong’s adopted hometown, was proof that, in jazz, most legacies are meant to be shared. DB