If you’ve ever wondered what a world-famous musician dreams of, the answer is: another world-famous musician.
New Orleans piano legend Dr. John says that Louis Armstrong came to him in a dream, inspiring him to create an album celebrating the jazz great’s music.
Saturday night at The Joy Theater, Dr. John, his band and friends will play an album-release show for “Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit of Satch.”
New Orleans musicians who contributed to “Ske-Dat-De-Dat” are joining the show, including trumpeters James “12” Andrews, Terence Blanchard and Nicholas Payton, drummer Herlin Riley and guitarist Derwin “Big D” Perkins.
“We got a lot of great musicians coming,” the traveling Dr. John said Thursday before a sound check at the Pensacola Saenger Theatre in Florida. “That’ll be a spiritual, hip thing for that night.”
“Ske-Dat-De-Dat” debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s jazz chart in August. The Associated Press dubbed it “as relaxed as it joyful.” USA Today called it “essential listening.” Paste Magazine noted, “You can still count on Mac ‘Dr. John’ Rebennack to zig instead of zag.”
Dr. John met Armstrong in the 1960s, near the end of the singer-trumpeter’s life.
“We became partners for a little time during Louis’ life, back when we was both with Joe Glaser (manager and booking agent),” Dr. John said. “That was something spiritually hip, that two guys from the 3rd Ward was connected.”
Dr. John loved Armstrong’s recordings since his childhood.
“I remember a lot of songs that Louis did, whether it was from the Hot Seven days or the Hot Five days or whatever he had back in the game,” Dr. John said. “Those were the records that was kicking to me. I also remember records that he did with, like, Billie Holiday. ‘Sweet Hunk O’ Trash.’ Certain things stuck out to me a long ways.”
The direct inspiration for his Armstrong tribute album, however, came to Dr. John in a dream in which Armstrong told Dr. John to interpret the Armstrong catalog his way.
“I picked out songs that hit my spirit,” Dr. John explained of the album’s selections. “And I tried to get them rearranged to where it fit what Louis told me in my dream.”
Earlier this week, family, friends and members of the New Orleans music community attended funeral services for another beloved figure in New Orleans music history, studio owner and engineer Cosimo Matassa.
Matassa died last week at 88. Like Armstrong, he’s a beloved figure in New Orleans music and the world’s music. In the 1950s and early ’60s, the young Dr. John worked as a session guitarist and producer in Matassa’s studios.
“Cos’ sense of humor got us through a lot of stuff that we wouldn’t have gotten through otherwise,” he said. “But there was also some part of him that had a determination to figure out how to get through the session.”
One of the best recording sessions he had with Matassa happened despite the “slight hurricane” that had reached the city, Dr. John recalled.
“The electricals in the studio didn’t go out,” he said. “Cos had total confidence nothing would happen. That turned me out to believing in Cos in a different way. But we already believed in the guy because of so many things.”
When he was 7 or 8 years old, Dr. John also remembered, his daddy took him to Matassa’s J&M Recording Studio on North Rampart Street. Dave Bartholomew was supervising a session that day for singer-guitarist Smiley Lewis. The players included saxophonists Alvin “Red” Tyler and Herbert Hardesty and trombonist Waldren “Frog” Joseph.
“That was a beautiful session,” Dr. John said. “I think it had some triggerment towards me doing what I did later. And I remember Dave Bartholomew leaning over and playing the last chord with the band. … He made it a 9th chord. That was so hip. I went home and figured out how to voice that chord on the piano. That was like the first recording session I ever saw in my life.”