During his keynote speech at Satchmo Summerfest, musician Wycliffe Gordon opined that nobody but Louis Armstrong could bring off the song “What a Wonderful World,” Just one day later, John Boutte proved him wrong. Sure, Armstrong’s original is a thing of beauty, but the version Boutte did at his Summerfest set was no slouch. As usual, Boutte personalized the song, putting a little underlying melancholy behind the lyrics’ sunny affirmation.
Boutte’s was a standout of the half-dozen sets I caught over the weekend, and perhaps the best testimony to the enduring magic of Louis Armstrong. You couldn’t possibly mistake Boutte’s voice for Satchmo’s, yet the same joie de vivre defined his vocals as he did a set full of standards (“I Cover the Waterfront” was not just a high point of his set, but one of the songs that got a surprising amount of play over the weekend). Never known as anything but a singer, Boutte also played a trumpet solo for the occasion, giving it a long buildup and forbidding anyone from taking photos. The solo itself was no big deal, and Boutte jokingly took a long bow afterwards– but since it came within a beautifully sung “La Vie en Rose,” nobody was complaining.
Not everyone stayed within the Armstrong catalogue, and some went way outside of it: Sharon Martin even dug up Stephen Bishop’s 1976 hit “On & On”, a song we hadn’t thought about since… well, ever. But everyone seemed to feel the spirit at some point: Allen Toussaint threw “Hello, Dolly!” into a set that was otherwise similar to his one from the last Jazz Fest (though with a smaller band, which allowed for more upfront piano). And if you secretly love that song (never regarded as one of Armstrong’s creative peaks), then you were in luck: the Treme Brass Band also did an especially good-natured version; and Gordon referred to the song in “Hello, Pops,” perhaps the most reverent salute to Satchmo to be heard all weekend.
“Hello, Dolly!” was also the jumping-off point for an enjoyable talk by historian Krin Gabbard (“Satchmo After Dolly: A Pop Star at 62”), which looked at the unlikely twists of Armstrong’s career after that 1964 hit. Gabbard’s basic idea was that nobody really knew what to do with Armstrong after his renewed popularity—and his clips certainly bore this out. Most embarrassing was a Barbra Streisand production number from the 1969 film version of Hello, Dolly!, where Armstrong was suddenly hauled out in the middle of the tune, and she stepped all over his lines. Louis was his hipper self in a later clip from the Flip Wilson Show. But here he sang his version of “The Whiffenpoof Song, ” rewritten as a lampoon of bebop—and this happened in 1970, when bebop was long over. The song would’ve gone over the heads of 90 percent of the viewers.
Ah, but there was one payoff: Another 1970 clip, this one of Armstrong with Johnny Cash on the latter’s TV show. Cash brings up the trivia that Armstrong once played trumpet behind early country great Jimmie Rodgers, and the pair re-create that session with Armstrong back playing the horn, something he couldn’t do much at that point in his life. Putting two music icons together hardly ever works, but this meeting was so unlikely that it somehow did.
View OffBeat‘s Satchmo SummerFest 2013 Photo Gallery by Kim Welsh here.