Many jazz bands pay tribute to the man Eddie Condon called, in whimsical admiration, “Mr. Strong,” but few have done it with such tenacity and success as David Ostwald’s Gully Low Jazz Band — also known as the Louis Armstrong Centennial Jazz Band. Every Wednesday night for the past eight years, they have turned Birdland into a friendly New York shrine to his beloved memory.
Last night, the Beloved and I came on the scene a few minutes late, so we missed the opening “Sleepy Time Down South” which turns into a rousing “Indiana,” in the manner of the All-Stars, but once we settled down, the band was romping through the Hot Five classic “Once In A While,” with gusto and deep feeling for the idiom.
The band consisted of David Ostwald, tuba and bon mots; Howard Alden, banjo; Rob Garcia, drums; Joe Muranyi (who played alongside Louis in the last edition of the All-Stars), clarinet, vocals, and anecdotes; Vincent Gardner, trombone; Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet. And we had the good fortune to join British friends old and new: John Whiteborn, the renowned jazz essayist and historian Peter Vacher, and Clive Smith — in town on the way to New Orleans.
Because George Avakian was seated at the bar (having just celebrated his eighty-ninth birthday at Birdland) David opted for “Melancholy Blues,” which had been first issued on microgroove in the Fifties on an Avakian project, The Louis Armstrong Story, as well as “No One Else But You.” A cheerful “Them There Eyes” featured a Kellso solo full of downward cascades and some exuberant Gardner trombone. Left to his own devices, Joe Muranyi told a story about Louis and Red Allen, New Orleans friends, and then sauntered through an easy “Rosetta” that echoed PeeWee Russell to great effect. The second set offered a nearly-riotous “Everybody Loves My Baby,” harking back to the glory days of 1925. Kellso (now a happily married man) was in fine form, and Gardner was especially vibrant, yet never abandoning the ensemble for virtuosic displays. And the rhythm section swung as it does every Wednesday.
But everything changed when David asked Vince Giordano, enjoying the sounds, to sit in. Vince usually brings at least one hefty instrument, but he was unencumbered by tuba, aluminum string bass, bass sax, banjo, or tenor guitar. However, he sat down at the piano, stage left, and prepared to join in. Perhaps stimulated by this happy oddity, David called “Maybe You’ll Be There,” a song only devotees connect with Louis, as it appears just on a few 1949 radio broadcasts as a Jack Teagarden feature. Written by the pianist Charles LaVere, it combines mournfulness and hopefulness: I search for you, and you don’t appear, but maybe . . . . Vince played his ensemble parts very simply, reading the chords off the music in front of them, but offering ringing Hines octaves and Jess Stacy tremolos, affecting everyone on and off the stand. Gardner showed just how original his interpretation of Teagarden could be, and the Kellso cadenza that ended it all was a gracious piece of sorrowing Baroque. David offered Gardner the spotlight for “Mississippi Basin,” one of those songs requiring the singer to extol the virtues of manual labor on the docks. Gardner played it plunger-muted, but without irony, and sang the banal lyrics as if they were emotionally valid, two great accomplishments.
And, in a handful of minutes, all of Louis’s great virtues — the irresistible swing balanced with his passionate seriousness — had come to life, without a note of “What A Wonderful World” to be heard. It was alchemy indeed.