Since 1988, the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Corona, Queens — the house where Louis and Lucille lived — has been hosting programs to introduce neighborhood children to Louis’s music. It has never been a serious classroom exercise, rather an exuberant offering of hot jazz, spirituals, and blues in the beautiful garden behind the Armstrong house.
Louis loved children, although he never had any; he lived to “play for the people,” and his earliest musical experiences were on city streets, with music that didn’t come from an Ipod. I was thrilled to get an invitation from Baltsar Beckeld, Projects Manager of the Armstrong House Museum, to see “Pops Is Tops” for myself. Every year, some of New York’s best musicians gather on three consecutive days, at unnaturally early hours for them, to play for the children, tell some stories, and have a good time. Jazz musicians yearn for receptive audiences, and children are open to rhythm and fun. When the weather is fine, as it was today, the garden is filled with more than two hundred children. Most of them are from the third, fourth, and fifth grades at local schools (P.S. 92 and 19, precisely) but there were four-year olds in the audience as well as enthusiastic grownups like myself.
This year’s concerts feature David Ostwald’s Gully Low Jazz Band — celebrated elsewhere in this blog — Kevin Louis, trumpet and vocals; Dion Tucker, trombone; Joe Muranyi, clarinet and eminence grise; James Chirillo, banjo, David Ostwald, tuba and leader; Marion Felder, drums. Muranyi holds a special distinction as being one of the last, if not the last, of Louis’s alumni still playing, and playing splendidly.
I missed David’s introduction, where he and the musicians demonstrated their instruments, and the band was finishing a slow blues as I came into the garden, but the air brightened when he announced “High Society,” and Felder beat off the right tempo. Not all the children were immediately captivated: feet jiggled in time here and there, but even those who turned around to talk to their friends were happy. But one little girl not far from me sat rapt, attentive, nearly mesmerized by the music. When Chirillo soloed and Felder accompanied him with sticks on the wooden rim of his snare, little boys leaned forward: they had never heard anything like it.
David knows his audiences, so he became a fine cheerleader several times during the hour-long program. “Can you say Louis Armstrong?” he asked the crowd, and when they responded sedately, he said, “I can’t hear you!” until they shouted it out in cheerful unison. He then invited children to come up and strut their stuff, their best dance moves, in front of the band, which was a hit, especially with trumpeter Kevin Louis doing his best New Orleans exhortation, “Ain’t gonna dance / Better get / out of my way!” while rapping on a tambourine, creating a down-home parade in Corona. A serious “Just A Closer Walk With Thee” followed, and when the band shifted into tempo, the children were treated to a Muranyi / Chirillo duet where Joe showed he remembered Louis’s trick from “Mahogany Hall Stomp,” of repeating a simple phrase over changing chords. And, although none of the children had ever heard of Louis’s buddy Zutty Singleton, Felder’s drum solo — press rolls and bass-drum accents — showed he certainly had. The band ended with a rousing “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue,” but the music didn’t end: Louis’s majestic sound filled the garden with songs from his Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography sessions. At the end, the children crowded around trumpeter Kevin Louis, eager for his autograph.
Who knows if this audience held the next Louis, Lester, Billie, or Bird? But there was an extraordinary musical and spiritual osmosis in that garden. Louis, I am sure, was pleased. For more information on next year’s “Pops Is Tops” programs, the Armstrong House Museum (worth a trip from anywhere, if only to see the lovely turquoise kitchen, the mirrored bathroom, and to hit the gift shop), visit www.satchmo.net., or the “Louis Armstrong House and Museum” link on the blogroll.