Some of my favorite childhood memories are of sitting in the living room and listening to music with my father. We’d listen to radio stations playing Puerto Rican music from the 1930s and 1940s and jazz stations and big band music. And we’d listen to his albums with much of the same music. On the day he died I remember searching the dial for the jazz station – what I didn’t know was that was the day that NYC’s only full-time jazz station had become a country station. When my father first came to NYC he spent a lot of time in jazz clubs and I have photos of my parents in various clubs from when they were dating and after they first married.
What was really fun was how much my father knew about the artists and he would school me and answer any questions I had. One of his favorites was Louis Armstrong – and if you’re a lover of jazz then Armstrong would have to be one of your favorites, wouldn’t he? For the three weekends BAM is featuring Dr. John with a different focus each weekend. I bought tickets for all three shows – and the first show is a tribute to Louis Armstrong.
The lobby of the Peter Jay Sharp building was crowded. There’s a small gallery off the lobby, the BAMcafé upstairs, BAM Rose Cinemas, and the Howard Gilman Opera House, which is where the concert was taking place. I wanted to check out the gallery but Chase Bank was having a private reception in there. Damn Chase. In the lobby was a celebration of BAM’s 150th anniversary with lots of photos, old postcards, and programs. There were photos of people who’d been on stage there and while I was looking at them a woman walked over and touched the photo of Paul Robeson as if it was a religious icon. It was such a private moment in such a public place.
Here’s a photo of the opera house 100 years ago.
When I got to the balcony, I could see that the opera house had been beautifully renovated. It really is a palace. I asked the usher, who was standing right behind me, if I could take a photo of the empty theater and she said no. So here’s some online photos of the opera house.
By the time the show started I was surprised to see that the balcony was almost empty. The first two rows of the center section were full after that it was me and few other people. The orchestra section was full so that was good.
Dr. John came out in a purple suit, hat, and his voodoo walking stick and sat down at the grand piano at center stage. Dr. John’s band is David Barard on bass, Alonzo Bowens on tenor saxophone, Gary Winters on trumpet, John Fohl on guitar, Jason Mingledorff on baritone saxophone, Sarah Morrow on trombone, Kenneth Williams on percussion, and Raymond Weber on drums. Different artists took turns performing with the band. Dr. John shared vocals with all the singers or sang solo. There were several people playing trumpet who either played with Dr. John or for a guest singer and Dr. John. This was the most interesting part for me – one of the many reasons why Louis Armstrong is so great is because he was both a master vocalist and master trumpet player. Everyone on that stage was one or the other but no one could do both.
First up was the The Blind Boys of Alabama and Roy Hargrove. They did “What a Wonderful World” and “That’s My Home” and it was just as beautiful as you’d expect it to be. Hargrove’s playing is quiet and low-key.
James Andrews is a young bold trumpet player. He definitely had a lot of good attitude. I always have difficulty with accents so for some of the songs where Dr. John sang lead, it was hard for me to parse the lyrics so I could figure out what the song was. Because even if it was a familiar song Dr. John and his band change the melody so much that it becomes a different song. René Marie has an interesting look – shaved head with strands of blonde hair hanging down in the front. She and Dr. John did an interesting take on “Blues in the Night” that was more New Orleans funky and lazy than bluesy and lazy.
Wendell Brunious is one sharp dresser and another low-key trumpeter. He and Dr. John performed “Memories of You.” Then Marie came out again for “My Sweet Hunk o’ Trash.”
When Dr. John announced the next singer I knew I was among my people. The applause for Rickie Lee Jones was some of the loudest of the night. She performed an off-kilter slow and sensuous version of “Makin’ Whoopee” with Dr. John and Brunious.
The applause for Arturo Sandoval was the loudest of the night – both before and after he played. He’s everything you want a trumpeter to be – bold, brassy, and loud. He was the only musician to lead the band. He and Dr. John performed “I Wonder.” Sandoval started the next song off mic – he was the only person playing loud enough not to need a mic. Telmary Diaz, a Cuban rapper and street poet, joined him for a samba-like song that she talked/rapped in Spanish. The only word I got was mentira so not enough to figure out what song it was and I couldn’t understand Dr. John. Sandoval and Dr. John then performed “Do You Call That a Buddy?”
Hargrove came out again for another song I couldn’t identify. His breath control was amazing and the crowd went nuts.
Kermit Ruffins was the last trumpet player of the night. Another song where I couldn’t understand Dr. John’s accent but there was a brilliant back and forth at the end with the trumpet and the vocals.
Andrews came out for “When You’re Smiling.” In my head I was calling him Little Satchmo and I see in his bio that his nickname is Satchmo of the Ghetto. It certainly fits. His smile and the way he carries himself made me think of Armstrong. This song had a long instrumental intro.
Brunious was next with Dr. John and then Andrews was back out with Marie and Dr. John singing a love duet. Hargrove and Diaz joined Dr. John on organ. Diaz performed a fast talking moving song. During the musical break Dr. John entertained us with a dance.
The Blind Boys of Alabama came out again for “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams” with Andrews (or was it Ruffins?). During the trumpet solo there were some lovely dark tones and heavy bottom that contrasted with the lighter tones that the others were playing that night.
Sandoval played the only instrumental of the evening – I immediately recognized the song with a Latin beat but cannot for the life of me remember the title. Again he played away from the mic and was loud enough to be heard in Manhattan.
The Blind Boys of Alabama, Marie, and Dr. John started a slooooow verision of “When the Saints Come Marching In” and then sped up to the more traditional version as everyone else (except Jones) joined them on stage. Each trumpeter took a solo and when they played all together I got chills. The crowd was up and swaying and clapping along.
Dr. John danced off stage while the audience continued to clap and yell and sing. It was a wonderful night and I can’t wait for the next two shows – one with Dan Auerbach and the other about the music of New Orleans.
By Carene Lydia Lopez