What a wonderful world festival!
Satchmo Summerfest, New Orleans, Louisiana, USA
If you thought things couldn’t get any hotter than a New Orleans summer, you clearly haven’t seen a midday crowd dancing to a jazz band in a tent during one of these New Orleans summers.
With the brass raised up high, cheeks fully stretched, and sweat pouring down, the band holds nothing back. And, as they give to the crowd, the crowd gives back to them – shouting, cheering, dancing, clapping.
This is the best of New Orleans jazz and, for a whole weekend each year, it fills the area around the city’s old mint.
The annual event is called the ‘Satchmo Summerfest’. Although it is a general celebration of jazz – the musical style born here in the southern US city – the festival has a particular focus on ‘Satchmo’, the nickname of the man more commonly known as Louis Armstrong.
If jazz was born in New Orleans, it was Louis Armstrong that raised it and showed it how to achieve its best. He was the master of the music and developed an incredible technical ability combined with great showmanship. Within a genre that had traditionally relied so much on improvisation, he made everything sound as though it could be done better no other way.
Although he was known primarily for his music, but there was much more depth to the man than that. This is how the organiser of the Satchmo Summerfest, Marci Schramm, puts it when I ask her about it.
“He was a great humanitarian too,” she says.
“Louis was humble. He loved people and he loved to help people. And I think that’s why he’s still so alive today. It’s because he really changed the world of music but he also influenced people. Around the world, he represents America to a lot of people.”
In New Orleans, he represents a variety of things and that’s what the Satchmo Summerfest tries to capture. It’s a small venue for a festival but there are a few distinct areas. Two main stages are where the music happens and throughout the day and evening there’s a mix of local performances, occasional international guests, and tributes to Armstrong. The mood of the crowd can sometimes be relaxed, with people sitting on the ground as they enjoy the music, or you might as easily find everyone on their feet for the more energetic acts.
In the Old Mint building itself, which stands between the two stages, is the most interesting aspect of the festival. It’s where the symposiums are held – presentations about various aspects of Louis Armstrong’s life and the culture of his time. Musicians give talks about his songs, demonstrating with their own instruments; academics reveal their studies into the influence of jazz at the time; historians talk through the details of important events in the musical narrative of New Orleans.
I love the idea that one man can have so many facets to explore and can be the catalyst for so many discussions about music and the evolution of a genre. The festival may be about more than just Louis Armstrong but it seems he is interesting enough to tie it all together.
“Because of this festival, there is still so much interest in Armstrong,” Marci Schramm explains.
“There’s so much scholarship and they are literally still digging up things that have never been found like new recordings, unreleased records and interviews. Louis, he was very aware of his fame and he recorded himself in his daily life at home in his front room, at his dining table with friends, In one of our symposiums, they have him sitting next to his TV, recording himself watching Martin Luther King’s funeral and commentating it. He left a lot for people like us to get to know him.”
The broader idea of the Satchmo Summeriest is not just to celebrate, but to educate. Especially for young people who don’t know who ’Satchmo’ is. I have to confess, I had never heard of this nickname until I was preparing to head to New Orleans. I knew Louis Armstrong for the iconic things – “What a Wonderful World” and “Hello Dolly” but I enjoy finding out much more.
New Orleans is a city of festivals and you could come almost any week and find some kind of festival happening. This is one of the smaller ones – it’s no Mardi Gras or French Quarter Festival – but that’s one of the nice things about it. A ticket only costs $5 and you can come and go all day. The crowds are manageable and it doesn’t affect the rest of the city. Because of all of this, along with the festival’s placement in the French Quarter, it means you can explore the city and try some of the excellent dining options while popping in and out of Satchmo Summerfest to see the events you want.
It’s a good excuse to come to New Orleans… not that you need an excuse! Just like Louis Armstrong, the city has layers and there’s always more to learn. In the same way the crowds come back every year for the festival because it gives them new perspectives of a man they already know, any trip to New Orleans will reveal parts of the city you never knew you should be looking for.
Time Travel Turtle was supported by the New Orleans CVB but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.