Dr. John will help close out the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival presented by Shell on Sunday with a tribute to a New Orleans legend just as renowned as he is: Louis Armstrong.
The city’s favorite son came to Dr. John, born Malcolm John Rebennack, in a dream. He told him to “do your stuff your way.”
Last year, an album was born: “Ske Dat De Dat: The Spirit of Satch” (Concord), which does just what the ethereal Armstrong requested: Hallmarks like “What a Wonderful World” and “Mack the Knife” are transformed with Hammond organ, pulse-pounding piano fills and even choir harmonies from the Blind Boys of Alabama and spoken-word injections from rapper Mike Ladd.
And as any tribute to Armstrong would require, there is a generous host of guest trumpeters: Nicholas Payton, Terence Blanchard, James Andrews, Wendell Brunious and Arturo Sandoval.
Armstrong and Rebennack, 74, crossed paths incidentally in the late 1960s when they shared the same booking agent. The younger man was exposed to Armstrong’s music through his father, Malcolm Rebennack, an appliance store operator who also sold records.
The elder Rebennack’s taste in music was varied: He liked Cajun, hillbilly and gospel, but his preference was jazz.
Rebennack remembers his father sitting him down to listen to Armstrong records and recalls walks they would take together during which his father would point out places the famed trumpeter had lived and performed.
There also were parties. Several members of Rebennack’s family were musicians, and he remembers his Aunt Dottie Mae bringing him to a house party where Dixieland trumpeter George Girard, clarinetist Pete Fountain and other members of the Basin Street Six were playing.
“They were a badass band,” he said. “I remember them all carrying their instruments through the swimming pool, even the bass player. They wouldn’t stop playing. It cracked me up.”
That same brand of theatricality followed Rebennack as he transitioned from a teenage session musician to a solo artist who incorporated images of New Orleans voodoo and Mardi Gras into his stage shows and music.
Before then, his earliest influences were the pantheon of New Orleans piano greats: Huey Smith, James Booker, Art Neville, Allen Toussaint and Professor Longhair.
Longhair in particular affected both his playing and his attitude toward music. Rebennack not only produced Longhair’s landmark “Mardi Gras in New Orleans” recording, he performed on it, too. “It really means something special to me. That was probably the proudest record I ever did,” he said.
Many who describe him say Longhair had his own language, style and way of recording that were unorthodox but always seemed to work. “He didn’t have high highs or low lows; he took things in stride,” Rebennack said. “I remember on the ‘Mardi Gras in New Orleans’ session, he detuned Boudreaux’s drums and John, out of respect, never retuned them. And they sounded great on that session. I thought, ‘Wow — it’s like something spiritual is happening.’ What I’m trying to get at is, he gave you his spirit, but also gave you whatever he had to offer. And he could push you into doing things that was correct.”
Rebennack has released seven albums since Hurricane Katrina devastated the city 10 years ago. “Locked Down” (Nonesuch), released in 2012, was an opportunity to work with Dan Auerbach, of the Black Keys, and he and Auerbach recently reunited in a Los Angeles studio for a follow-up.
At Jazz Fest on Sunday, Dr. John will concentrate on the Louis Armstrong album and promises to bring out a few “special guests.”
Surveying a post-Katrina New Orleans today, Rebennack said he remains as sad about certain pockets of the city as he did in the storm’s wake 10 years ago.
“They did a lot of good with bringing (film production) there, but the city has still changed,” he said. “And that’s sad. I’m not saying it should always be the same. But I see the Lower 9th Ward being a lot different than what it was. I see that there’s not been a lot going down there in the 9th Ward to help New Orleans grow back.”