It’s very simple. For just about ten years, David Ostwald (tubaist-raconteur) has organized regular Wednesday jazz sessions at Birdland in midtown Manhattan, getting congenial friends together to honor Louis Armstrong. Depending on the phase of the moon, the band is called either the GULLY LOW JAZZ BAND or the LOUIS ARMSTRONG CENTENNIAL BAND. Names don’t matter much — GULLY LOW BLUES was one of Louis’s most stirring recordings of 1927, and the CENTENNIAL BAND plays music associated with The Master.
David could not be there this night — April 14, 2010 — and it took two players to replace him. One was Vince Giordano, singing, announcing tunes, and playing banjo, keeping the rhythm riding. Bass chores were handled nimbly by Brian Nalepka, who slapped away in fine style and also sang on SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET. That hero of the snare drum, Marion Felder, kept a swinging pulse without raising his volume. In the front line, a newcomer to Birdland (but not to us), clarinetist Dennis Lichtman wove beautiful curlicues around the melody, making every note count. Dion Tucker, sometimes gruff, sometimes tender, shone in solo and in ensemble. And Gordon Au constructed lovely solos whether the band was lamenting or shouting.
(I only found out something about Gordon’s heroic ancestry — and that’s because the Beloved asked the right question: did you know that his “Uncle Howie” is the extraordinary trumpet / tuba / trombone / vocalist Howard Miyata, with the High Sierra Jazz Band and the New El Dorado Jazz Band? Gordon didn’t take lessons from his uncle, but Howard did give his young nephew a cornet . . . from which marvels have come.)
The band began, as it usually does, with WHEN IT’S SLEEPY TIME DOWN SOUTH that segues into INDIANA, the way Louis used to begin his concerts with the All-Stars:
Then Vince called the joyous Fats Waller tune, I’M CRAZY ‘BOUT MY BABY (something Louis sang and played so beautifully in the Fifties). And Vince sang, exuberantly:
ON THE SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET, a classic at a number of tempos, was Brian Nalepka’s choice for a vocal feature:
(For his feature, Dion Tucker did a sorrowing I SURRENDER, DEAR, but I had technical problems with the video — the sweet-natured waitperson came over in the middle of it to ask us culinary questions. Sorry, Dion!)
Returning to the Land of Waller, Vince called for a brisk AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ — at a tempo that reminded him of the 1929 version that Bill Robinson recorded with a small Ellington contingent:
Dennis Lichtman showed his fluid swing on BLUE SKIES (fitting because Louis loved Irving Berlin’s melodies and, I think, recorded this one circa 1943 with his big band):
An audience member (was it Steve?) called out HELLO, DOLLY! when Vince asked for requests:
The second set began with a rocking CHINATOWN, MY CHINATOWN:
Vince reminded us that Louis’s recordings of WHEN YOU’RE SMILING are slow and spacious, frankly operatic:
And — for a closing rouser — the band launched into AFTER YOU’VE GONE:
All for you, Louis!