The Beloved and I went to Birdland last night, video camera and tripod at the ready, to celebrate. Not an occasion of our own, but to raise our glasses and cheer a long run that shows no sign of abating. It’s the Wednesday night gig of David Ostwald’s Louis Armstrong Centennial Band (a/k/a/ the Gully Low Jazz Band) — which celebrated its ninth anniversary. As David correctly pointed out, a two-week gig in jazz is a rare thing. So for the LACB to be on the stand for approximately four hundred and fifty Wednesdays in a row is testimony to their endurance, the love they generate in their audiences, and the lasting appeal of the music they play and the exuberant way they play it. It also says something about the enduring appeal of the man whose music they celebrate, but that should be obvious to everyone by now.
This Wednesday’s gig wasn’t a riotous affair. True, a tidy little cake with one candle appeared during the second set, but the general atmosphere was superficially quiet. But that’s a good thing in a jazz club when it is the attentiveness of a great band (musicians who listen to each other!) focused on their material and the quiet of a happy, perceptive audience, listening closely — people sitting straight in their chairs, grinning, tapping their feet, applauding in the right places. A hip band, a hip crowd. Just how hip was the crowd? How about George Avakian, Daryl Sherman, Dan Morgenstern, Lloyd Moss, the Beloved, and myself.
The band was a first-class version of David’s floating ensembles: Jon-Erik Kellso on trumpet; Vincent Gardner on trombone and vocal; Anat Cohen on clarinet; Mark Shane on piano; David Ostwald on tuba and commentary; Kevin Dorn, “young Kevin,” on drums. Here’s some of what they played — for those of you beyond midtown.
About the music: they began this Wednesday as they always have, in tribute to the Louis Armstrong All-Stars of blessed memory, with a nostalgic WHEN IT’S SLEEPY TIME DOWN that segued, after Kevin kicked it off, into a rousing BACK HOME AGAIN IN INDIANA. (For wise commentary on Louis and the All-Stars, be sure to visit Ricky Riccardi’s site, “The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong,” and save your dimes (get some cash for your trash!) for his book on Louis’s later years, to be published in 2010 by Pantheon.
ROYAL GARDEN BLUES is a song that has been flattened down somewhat by formulaic playing by many jazz bands of varying quality, but it was first a tribute to the place where Louis and King Oliver amazed everyone, so it has to be taken seriously. And Bix Beiderbecke and his Gang did a pretty good version of it as well. (So did Count Basie and the Benny Goodman Sextet, so the song — and its routines — are durable for sure.)
Don Redman’s pretty rhythm ballad, SAVE IT PRETTY MAMA, was recorded twice by Louis — in 1928 with his Hot Five, and in 1947 at Town Hall. In these days of economic uncertainty, saving whatever “it” might be seems like a good idea, and Vincent Gardner sings the simple lyrics with conviction and a bit of amusement.
W.C. Handy’s compositions drew on traditional folk and blues forms, and ATLANTA BLUES is one of his most lively, also memorably recorded by Louis in his 1954 Columbia tribute, a recording produced by the venerable and venerated Mr. Avakian.
I don’t think Louis ever recorded SOMEDAY, SWEETHEART but it’s certainly a lasting tune. Here, the spotlight falls on a quartet: Anat, Mark, David, and Kevin, at points summoning up the happiness that was the Benny Goodman Trio. Or Mildred Bailey’s recording with Teddy Wilson. (Mark knew the verse and played it splendidly.)
Finally, a delightful surprise: the Wednesday manager of Birdland, Brian Villegas, is also a fine singer: he joined the band on IT’S ALL RIGHT WITH ME — and it was more than all right with us. Wishing you fame and happiness, Brian!
If you couldn’t make it to Birdland last night to join in the festivities, you missed something dee-licious, as Louis would say. But some of the same hot jazz and good energy will be there next Wednesday from 5:30 – 7:15, and the Wednesdays into the future. I’m sure David will accept belated felicitations with his usual graciousness.