This weekend’s Satchmo SummerFest marks 43 years since Louis Armstrong passed away and 26 years since he charted with “What a Wonderful World,” a posthumous hit after it was included in the movie “Good Morning, Vietnam.”
The geopolitical, social and technological world has changed so much since Armstrong’s death in 1971 that it seems fair to ask what he means today. Is there a place for Armstrong in Katy Perry and Skrillex’s world?
Music journalist John Swenson will address this topic at 2:30 p.m. Saturday in the Old U.S. Mint as part of Satchmo SummerFest’s seminar series. Swenson sees Armstrong as a mythic figure, a Paul Bunyan with a horn. The child from a waif’s home who played on the streets grew up to perform for world leaders, cross the color barrier and work for civil rights without sacrificing who he was — what could be more legendary than that?
Central to Armstrong’s identity was his close affiliation to his home, his New Orleans-ness, even though he left the city in 1922 and never moved back.
“He was personally responsible for codifying the myth that musicians are trying to live up to day-to-day in Jackson Square and in the streets and in the clubs,” Swenson said. “He has an almost palpable human presence in the city.”
When New Orleans musicians leave town to tour, or depart for good, they do so in emulation of Armstrong, he said, serving as missionaries for the music and feeding the legend.
Many have pondered how Armstrong came to resemble such a “mythological figure” in music circles, Swenson said, and one school of thought holds that while he did change cities in a way he never left New Orleans.
“New Orleans was who he was,” Swenson said. “He talked about it; he played it. He represented himself every night as a New Orleans person, even at the height of his fame. New Orleans was central to his art and central to his thought, and this has translated across generations.”
Armstrong’s story covers such a variety of life and musical experiences that most musicians can see their own lives in part of it. Trumpet player Mario Abney identifies with Armstrong’s ability to be himself in his music.
“His oneness with the music is what he means to me,” Abney said. “His boldness paved the way for all of us playing jazz, and Louis Armstrong is relevant to all American music.”
Abney, who plays the Satchmo SummerFest on Saturday at 6:30 p.m., said his appreciation for Armstrong grew after he moved to New Orleans in 2007. He wasn’t born during Armstrong’s lifetime, so his exposure to Satchmo has come entirely through secondary sources. Because he came of age in the Chicago area, the celebration of Armstrong that sometimes feels reflexive in New Orleans didn’t come to him automatically. Still, he always felt he had to understand Armstrong.
“You can’t come through the trumpet without being knowledgeable of Pops,” Abney said. “I’m still learning. It’s a lifetime’s worth of work he left to study.”
When he performs Saturday, Abney plans to include a version of “St. James Infirmary” as a nod to Armstrong, but for the most part, he’ll play his own music.
“I hope that people can hear the relevancy,” Abney said. “It’s not going to sound anything like trad jazz, but it’s all there. It’s all connected.”
Armstrong remains a presence in the life of Glen David Andrews, who plays the festival Saturday at 8 p.m. He still visits Armstrong’s former home in Queens when he’s in New York, and he still collects Armstrong’s music.
“He’s never but a blink away from my mind,” Andrews said. “He performed with all kinds of people all over the world. We should all aspire to be like Louis Armstrong, especially as musicians. He was born very poor in the segregated Deep South and went on to touch the world, and he didn’t hurt anybody along the way.”
Festival organizer Marci Schramm puts Armstrong with Mozart, Frank Sinatra and The Beatles — figures whose music transcends eras and whose influence is so broad that it has become part of the fabric of the culture.
“Any day of the week you can hear his music and it’s not just relevant; it gives you chill bumps,” she said. “Pop stars are fun, but 20 years from now, people may say, ‘I don’t know who that was.’?”