Drummer Shannon Powell’s Brilliance Shines in Louis Armstrong’s Light
By Larry Blumenfeld
Shannon Powell’s Traditional All-Star Band (with trumpeter Leon Brown, clarineist Evan Christopher and bassist Peter Harris) at Corona Park, Queens/photo by April Renae
At any given moment, there are sounds of New Orleans in New York City’s air—lately, a little more than usual.
Last week, pianist Jon Batiste, who will lead the band for Stephen Colbert’s “Late Show” come September, had melodica in hand as he led something like a second-line parade out of Union Square Park (see my account and an interview here.) He’ll hold court during what he calls a “social music residency” at Manhattan’s NoMad Hotel June 23-26.
On Saturday, June 20, the Rebirth Brass Band, who pretty much authored present-day brass-band style, brought their parade-honed sound to the mainstage of a festival called “Louis Armstrong’s Wonderful World” in Flushing Meadows Corona Park. Around that same time Saturday, the New Breed Brass Band, full of bright young upstarts, performed on Governor’s Island, within the Nalofunk Crawfish and Music Festival. On Friday, June 26, the Soul Rebels, who’ve slid brass-band tradition comfortably into Afro Latin and hip-hop territory during the past two decades, make their debut at the Blue Note jazz club with a late set featuring rappers Rakim and Slick Rick.
For those who didn’t let Saturday’s persistent spray of light rain dampen their enthusiasm, the “Wonderful World” festival brought Armstrong’s spirit and legacy to life in several ways not far from the legendary trumpeter’s former home, which is now a terrific landmark, the Louis Armstrong House Museum. Ricky Riccardi, that museum’s archivist and the author of an essential book on Armstrong, “What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years,” was over at the nearby Queens Museum, sharing insights and pleasures from his research.
The day’s highlight, the essential heartbeat of the event, was a set from drummer Shannon Powell’s Traditional All-Star Jazz Band. Powell, who headlines too infrequently in New York City, is rightly revered in his hometown, where he’s known as “The King of Tremé” for his prominence in a neighborhood that has nurtured traditional jazz culture and which he still calls home. In some ways, Powell’s Saturday set reminded me of those he led at New Orleans now–defunct Donna’s Bar and Grill, in late 2005, when the city was still gripped by the aftermath of the flood that resulted from levee breaks following Hurricane Katrina; these were transformative gigs, in part for the deep beauty and easy camaraderie Powell’s drumming, singing and presence generated despite the surroundings.
Wearing a backward black Kangol hat emblazoned with a fleur-de-lis on Saturday, Powell stood up at his drum kit twice—first to coax some melody from a ride cymbal during a Sidney Bechet tune, “Blues in the Air,” and next to build (and then slyly cross up) a galloping beat on tom-toms for “Skokiaan.” Mostly though, Powell stood out while sitting back, smiling and making the authority, taste and humor with which he deploys New Orleans rhythms, which he learned as a child and has refined over a lifetime, look easy; and by coaxing the best from his sidemen.
On Saturday, these included musicians who don’t need much coaxing; his rhythm section mates, keyboardist Kyle Roussel and bassist Peter Harris, along with clarinetist Evan Christopher and trumpeter Leon “Kid Chocolate” Brown. Christopher and Brown in particular are both serious students of and accomplished voices in the tradition Powell upholds. Christopher has mastered not just his difficult instrument but also the complex process of articulating the legacy of early Creole clarinetists such as Sidney Bechet, Omer Simeon, and Barney Bigard without mimicry and in a contemporary vein; on that Bechet tune, he moved smoothly from reverence to innovation.
Brown has the sound and tone of a New Orleans traditionalist, the harmonic savvy of a jazz modernist; his singing style and stage presence display a grasp of Armstrong’s blend of ebullience and humility. In Powell’s band, Brown dropped some bebop riffs into an Armstrong favorite, “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue”; he studied such things in depth while a teenager attending the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA). Yet, on “Sleepytime Down South” and elsewhere, he seemed very much to channel Armstrong’s approach.
No wonder. Hours earlier, he had played that same tune on Armstrong’s horn. He and Christopher had visited the Louis Armstrong Archive at Queens College, hosted by Riccardi.
photo: April Renae
Christopher was taken by just how much writing by Armstrong the archive contained about Armstrong’s days in his native New Orleans—“well beyond what we have in published volumes,” he said. Brown marveled at the meticulousness of Armstrong’s penmanship, even in casual notes. Both appreciated his compendium of dirty jokes.
Brown recalled how, as a young trumpeter, he was first drawn to Dizzy Gillespie’s music. But he’d sometimes cut school while at NOCCA, head for Jackson Square, and sit right next to Anthony “Tuba Fats” Lacen, mentor to many, who’d sing him traditional jazz melodies.
“That’s a different dialect,” Brown said, “and it eventually led me back to Armstrong. When I was 19, I started understanding just how deep Armstrong’s music really was, by transcribing the solos and seeing how complex even the simplest sounding thing was.”
At the Armstrong Archive, Brown was struck by how shallow Amrstrong’s mouthpieces were. He got to try out four different trumpets. He played a few tunes, including “Sleepytime Down South,” and, in duet with Christopher, “West End Blues.”
photo: April Renae
“Each one had a different personality,” Brown said. The one he liked best was, according to Riccardi, a Selmer horn from 1964, and the one that Armstrong brought to New Orleans when he returned in 1965 and ’68. “That one really popped,” said Brown, “it really spoke. For a second or two, I thought I understood a little more about how Armstrong might have felt.”
That’s the beauty of what’s contained in the Queens College archive and at the Louis Armstrong House Museum—embedded in these artifacts are feelings and ideas best experienced firsthand. (Here’s a link to a New Orleans Times-Picayune piece I did after visiting the Armstrong House with trumpeter Kermit Ruffins.)
New Orleans will get a better and lasting taste of all that through “Satchmo: His Life in New Orleans,” an exhibit mounted through a partnership between the Louis Armstrong House Museum in New York City and the Louisiana State Museum in New Orleans.
The exhibit will open at Old U.S. Mint in New Orleans on July 29 as part of the annual Satchmo Summerfest and will remain on exhibit through January 2017. The exhibit will also coincide with the 100th anniversary of his first professional gig at Henry Ponce’s in New Orleans in 1915.
The following, from the Armstrong House press release about the exhibit:
According to Armstrong’s autobiography, the young cornetist was offered the job by his friend “Cocaine” Buddy Martin, who asked, “You play the cornet don’t you?” Armstrong responded, “Yes, I play the cornet, Buddy. But I don’t know if I am good enough to play in a regular band.” Martin assured him, “All you have to do is put on long pants at night, play the blues for the whores that hustle all night until ‘fo’ day in the morning.” That was good enough for Armstrong, who fronted a trio of cornet, piano and drums and ended up playing the blues nightly for the next six months in 1915 (while hauling loads of coal from 7 a.m. until 5 p.m. during the daytime ). Armstrong’s career as a professional musician was underway….
Louis Armstrong led an almost impossible-to-believe life, especially during his younger days. Satchmo: His Life in New Orleans will celebrate all of his early influences, including his mother Mayann, who raised young Armstrong by herself; the Russian-Jewish Karnofsky family, who instilled in Armstrong lessons about “singing from the heart”; his first music instructor at the Colored Waif’s Home, Peter Davis, who made Armstrong the leader of the institution’s brass band after only six months; and cornet legend Joe “King” Oliver, who became Armstrong’s mentor and biggest influence.
From the time he was born in 1901 until the time Armstrong headed to Chicago to join Oliver—and change the world of music forever—in 1922, he never stopped absorbing key lessons about music, food, people, race and work. Although Armstrong traveled the world and eventually made New York City his home, rarely a day went by where he didn’t spend a part of it talking about his hometown. He published an entire autobiography on the subject, Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans, wrote letters about it, discussed it in interviews and recorded his thoughts on private reel-to-reel tapes and in unpublished manuscripts. As he told Life magazine in 1966, “Every time I close my eyes blowing that trumpet of mine—I look right in the heart of good old New Orleans.”
The exhibit will showcase over 70 different artifacts, including Armstrong’s first cornet from the Colored Waif’s Home, which will sit side-by-side with the last Selmer trumpet he brought for his final visit home in 1968. Most of the materials on display are from the research collections of the Louis Armstrong House Museum, with the great majority never having been previously exhibited in New Orleans. Armstrong’s great love of New Orleans cooking, and especially red beans and rice, will also feature prominently.