Back in 2000, 11 years ago, I was working with the Louisiana Office of Culture, Recreation and Tourism (known colloquially as “CRT”) to work on some projects involving Louisiana music. The then-Secretary of Louisiana CRT was Phillip Jones, who approached me about an idea for a festival during August that could help bring visitors to the city, using music as a “hook.” This was right about the same time that Ken Burns’ series on jazz was hitting PBS, so a tie-in with Louis Armstrong was a natural. He had always told his public that he was born on July 4, but local historian Tad Jones, now deceased, actually found baptismal records that showed that Armstrong was born on August 4. So the timing was perfect.
I’m certainly no festival promoter, but I was a recent member of the board of French Quarter Festivals, Inc., which is the group that produces the annual French Quarter Festival, as well as Christmas New Orleans Style. I recommended that the Executive Director, Sandra Dartus, meet with Jones,and together they agreed to take on the idea of an Armstrong festival. Dartus was sold on the idea, and took the concept to the board of FQFI. Brenda Thornton, then President of the FQFI board, was very enthusiastic about the event, and the FQFI board agreed that the organization would take on the production of a new festival. And thus, Satchmo SummerFest was born.
Over the last decade, Satchmo Summerfest has grown slowly but surely. It’s still not on the radar of jazz lovers outside the U.S., though, for the most part, and that’s something FQFI needs to address much more. But the organization still needs help from the New Orleans and Louisiana state tourism officials because there’s a lot of marketing that needs to take place to take the festival to another plateau. Local hotels need to pitch in to help too, which seems to be a no-brainer because their business will certainly benefit from a festival that attracts an international audience.
Satchmo Summerfest is an undiscovered gem. It has great music–jazz of all kinds–and it’s still small enough to be enjoyable for locals and visitors too. There are fascinating workshops on the life and times of Armstrong, a Jazz Mass at historic St. Augustine Church in Treme and second-line back to the Old Mint (Satchmofest’s first and original location). Of course, there’s a lot of great food. This year the front and back sides of the Mint will be tented to provide some shade for festival-goers. I think the Festival’s growth is constrained somewhat by not being located in Armstrong Park, where the event should be held (how much more natural could that be?), but perhaps that will be remedied once Armstrong Park is finished, supposedly by the end of this year. Armstrong Park’s shaded areas, trees, and set-up for staging, plus its location encompassing Congo Square and the Mahalia Jackson Performing Arts Center, and the headquarters of the National Jazz Historical Park would make Armstrong Park ideal for this festival. Maybe this time next year, we’ll be celebrating Satchmo’s life and music in the park that bears his name.