The scholarly conference portion of the annual Satchmo SummerFest has examined just about every aspect of Louis Armstrong's personal life, career and legacy. This year, author John McCusker previews his forthcoming book about Edward "Kid" Ory and Ory's relationship with Satchmo, and there are other panels, free live music and more.
McCusker, a photographer for The Times-Picayune for 26 years, wrote Creole Trombone: Kid Ory and the Early Years of Jazz and has guided jazz history tours in New Orleans since 1994. At the seminar "Dipper and the Kid" (1 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 5), he discusses the relationship between Armstrong and Ory.
Ory first noticed Armstrong when the 12-year-old cornet player was leading the Colored Waifs Band down South Rampart Street on Labor Day 1913, McCusker says. Armstrong had been sent to the Colored Waifs Home for Boys after he was caught firing a pistol on New Year's Eve. Ory, the trombone player and leader of the hottest band in town, told Armstrong he was impressed by his playing.
"That would be like LeBron [James] knocking on the door in some kid's neighborhood and saying, 'You wanna go shoot some hoops?'" McCusker says. Neither Armstrong nor Ory forgot that moment.
After he was released from the juvenile facility, Armstrong followed the Kid Ory band. He finally got a chance to play with the group when he was 19. Joe "King" Oliver left Ory's band to go to Chicago. "Kid Ory called me and said, 'You still playing that cornet?'...[I was] taking Joe Oliver's place in the best band in town," Armstrong wrote in his journal.
Under Ory, Armstrong "learned stylistic direction and modeled himself into a professional," McCusker says. Ory had all the best gigs in town, and Armstrong's fame quickly grew in New Orleans for his wildly improvised and energetic playing. "All you had to do was hum or whistle a new tune and [Armstrong] knew it right away," Ory said. "And if he played a tune once, he never forgot it."
Ory was a mentor both as a musician and a friend to Armstrong, McCusker says. "He doesn't play in other people's bands; he played in Ory's band," McCusker says. "That made it all the more ironic that [Ory is] best known as a sideman."
Ory pioneered a method of trombone-playing called "tailgating," in which the trombone plays the rhythm (usually along with a banjo or piano) while the trumpets and cornets play the melody. Ory often took a backseat to Armstrong's loud and energetic trumpet playing, McCusker says. But Ory remained the foundation on which the rest of his band was able to flourish. In the band's "collective improvisation," the distinguishing trait of traditional jazz, band members improvised while keeping rhythm.
Armstrong eventually followed King Oliver to Chicago, where there were more lucrative opportunities. Ory went to Los Angeles and established himself at several clubs. Then Armstrong got a recording contract with Okeh Records that gave him freedom to hire his own musicians and choose material. At the time, that type of artistic freedom in a record contract was unprecedented.
Armstrong sent for Ory and recruited two other members of Ory's original band, Johnny Dodds and Johnny St. Cyr. They formed his powerhouse band, Louis Armstrong's Hot Five. Armstrong's choice of the original Kid Ory Band lineup speaks volumes to Ory's greatness as a bandleader, McCusker says.
The Hot Five became one of the most successful jazz recording groups ever, releasing jazz standards including "Muskrat Ramble" (written by Ory) and "Struttin' With Some Barbecue."
Other seminars at the Old U.S. Mint during Satchmo SummerFest include Ricky Riccardi's presentations of rare TV clips and films featuring Armstrong, archivist and jazz trombonist David Sagar's talk on King Oliver's band and others.
The festival features contemporary and traditional jazz, brass bands and more on two stages from noon to 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the Old U.S. Mint. Saturday headliners include the Preservation Hall-Stars, Treme Brass Band, Stooges Brass Band, Delfeayo Marsalis and the Uptown Jazz Orchestra, Lars Edegran's Ragtime Orchestra with Lionel Ferbos and others. Sunday brings Kermit Ruffins and the Barbecue Swingers, Leroy Jones and New Orleans' Finest, Wendell Brunious, Don Vappie and the Creole Jazz Serenaders and others. The NOLA Jitterbugs hosts dance lessons between sets.
The festival also includes food vendors and kids' activities on the second floor of the mint. There will be a jazz Mass said at St. Augustine Church at 10 a.m. Sunday, followed by a second-line parade to the festival grounds.
For a full schedule, visit www.fqfi.org/satchmosummerfest