Louis Armstrong's centennial celebration wraps up in style this Saturday night, Aug. 4, when the Marsalis family and Harry Connick Jr. play together in honor of New Orleans' most famous son. It should be a night of glorious music and harmony -- and it shouldn't be the end of a worthy campaign that started with a lot of sour notes.
Last year, the controversy over Armstrong's birthdate (Armstrong always claimed it was Aug. 4, 1900, while his birth certificate reads Aug. 4, 1901) was a convenient excuse for city and state officials who hadn't planned any events celebrating Armstrong's legacy. They promised to recognize Armstrong in 2001, but the collective blunder engendered a sad sense of déjà vu, as once again Armstrong was being slighted by his hometown. It was the racism-fueled cancellation of a 1931 Armstrong concert in New Orleans that drove Armstrong away permanently in favor of New York. He ultimately requested that his estate and personal belongings remain in Queens, N.Y., after his death.
So it was a heartening sign that some of those artifacts -- taped Armstrong conversations, photographs and music -- are visiting New Orleans this week as part of the "Satchmo SummerFest" organized by French Quarter Festivals Inc., in conjunction with the University of New Orleans and other sponsors. That's just one small victory in a citywide effort that has shown a rare synergy between the public and private sectors -- with impressive results.
The conference segment of "Satchmo Summerfest" has attracted such top jazz scholars as Stanley Crouch and Dan Morgenstern, along with distinguished Armstrong band alumni like Arvell Shaw and Jewel Brown. Nightclubs Snug Harbor, Palm Court Jazz Café, Café Brasil and others have teamed with the nonprofit New Orleans Jazz Centennial group to offer "Satchmo Club Strut," a coordinated concert series to benefit educational outreach programs. The Marsalis family and Harry Connick Jr. performance at UNO, co-sponsored by Gambit Weekly, is a fundraiser to endow a Music Education chair in Ellis Marsalis' name at the university.
In perhaps the most important symbolic gesture, the City Council recently passed a measure to rename the New Orleans International Airport the Louis Armstrong International Airport. For such accomplishments, all the parties involved in trumpeting Armstrong's centennial deserve praise and thanks.
But when the centennial horns are packed in their cases, after Wynton Marsalis and Harry Connick Jr. return to New York, and as visiting Armstrong fans from all corners of the globe journey home, New Orleans' music industry will still need this kind of coalition-building more than ever. Our indigenous music is constantly touted as a tourist draw (the Armstrong festivities being a prime example), yet when it comes to taking care of our hometown artists, New Orleans still has a long way to go on many fronts.
Affordable, attainable health insurance for musicians remains elusive. Singing legend Johnny Adams, zydeco pioneer Boozoo Chavis and sound engineer Rodger Poché are just three members of the local music community who died without adequate insurance. The New Orleans Musician's Clinic offers medical care to musicians in need, but its resources are limited.
Music education in our public school system is often one of the first programs on the chopping block during budget crises, a trend that must stop. New Orleans' rich marching band, brass band and jazz heritage is part of the fabric of this city and one of its unique cultural traditions. Studies repeatedly show that students who play music and are part of an ensemble are better students and have higher self-esteem. Every child in New Orleans deserves that chance.
Local government also needs to take a more active role in embracing and helping the music community. Far too often, our local politicians embrace our artists at only three functions: festivals, funerals and (political) fundraisers -- at which musicians all too often are expected to play for free. Both the Louisiana Music Commission and the New Orleans Music Commission are underfunded, and as a result spend far too much time dealing with politics and fundraising rather than street-level efforts to assist local musicians. Helping musicians secure grant funding and offering tax-and-accounting seminars are just two areas where judicious use of government time and funds could make a significant impact.
In many ways, the challenges facing the local music industry are a microcosm of the issues facing the entire New Orleans community. As tourism continues to drive the local economy, it's only natural that items such as the proposed expansion of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center get front-burner attention. But efforts to draw tourists to New Orleans shouldn't stop us from paying attention to our own. And if we don't nurture and support our local musicians, it's only a matter of time before they take their talents elsewhere -- just as Louis Armstrong did.