The Music Center at Strathmore, the National Philharmonic Orchestra, Maestro Piotr Gajewski conducting and jazz musician Byron Stripling playing the trumpet in a tribute to Louis Armstrong and his beloved New Orleans. What could be more perfect?
Not Armstrong. Stripling, whose humor, swagger and insight match his internationally renowned musical talents, pays tribute to Louis Daniel Armstrong — also known as Satchmo, or “Pops” to his friends — as “the imperfect person who was perfect.
“Isn’t that what we’re all looking for in our lives?” asked Stripling, who came up through the jazz world as lead trumpeter with the Count Basie Orchestra under the direction of Thad Jones and Frank Foster, made his Carnegie Hall debut with the New York Pops and has even portrayed Armstrong Off Broadway and on television. “As we compose our own lives, we can always point to him, this imperfect person who found everything that was perfect about himself, so he could play music for us and just through that make us feel better.”
Currently the artistic director and conductor of the Columbus Jazz Orchestra, Stripling speaks with pure admiration for the man he never met but found incredibly inspiring. “Louis was always there, because the sound coming to my ears took me on a journey, almost changed my life,” he explained. “I didn’t have the good fortune to hear him live, as I did some of the other greats, but still the influence is amazing.”
Indeed, Armstrong’s influence over music, history, pop culture and the civil rights struggle in the United States — is a force to be reckoned with. Born in New Orleans in 1901, the gravel-voiced trumpeter shaped jazz at its earliest stages, escaping poverty and the Jim Crow South to travel the world as an ambassador for the great American art form known as jazz. His good friend Bing Crosby described him as “the beginning and the end of music in America;” his greatest hits are part of the musical lexicon, from “When the Saints Go Marching In” to “Ain’t Misbehavin’” to “Hello Dolly” to “What a Wonderful World,” and he was a movie and TV star as well as a pop and jazz icon.
“He was the guy who could save movies,” explained Stripling with a chuckle. “If the movie really (stank), all they had to do was put him in there.
“With his personality, being from New Orleans, he had this joie de vivre — joy of life — that emanated from his being. We felt that on screen, we felt it on stage, we felt it through the recordings,” Stripling pointed out. “You didn’t have to see him: you could feel it. Certainly when you saw his keyboard smile and heard that gravelly voice, which was so unique. And that was one of the things he taught us: that it doesn’t matter what kind of voice you have, you take your unique talent and gifts and you exploit them.
Unlike Armstrong, whose deep association to New Orleans is part of his legend, Georgia-born Stripling doesn’t identify with a particular hometown.
Photo Credit: John Abbott
Stripling’s trumpet brings Armstrong to mind as an homage, he said, not an impersonation.
“I don’t have any connection to anywhere,” he said, noting that his father was a musician and professor and his mother a public school teacher. His family moved often as his father pursued advanced degrees at various universities and musical engagements in different towns. His parents put an emphasis on reading, deep thinking and formal education that Stripling said remains part of his psyche to this day, and even though he left the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music just short of graduating to go on the road, the school granted him a diploma, to the relief of his mom and dad. “To them, a college degree was not an option,” he said. “In our family, the mantra was ‘Do whatever you want, but you’re going to college.’”
College was not an option for Armstrong, who worked odd jobs, attended segregated schools until dropping out, and lived with different family configurations. At age 11, he fired his stepfather’s pistol into the air, was sentenced to serve time in New Orleans’ “Colored Waif’s Home” and was assigned the task of blowing the bugle at the raising and lowering of the flag. From there, he moved to marching bands, to clubs with New Orleans jazz legend King Oliver, to brass bands and riverboat cruises to New York and Chicago and ultimately, to international superstardom.
“The bottom line is, can you affect people through art?” Stripling asked. “Can you change people’s lives through art? Louis Armstrong did that. That’s what my goal is.” With that in mind, Stripling looks at his performance at Strathmore with the National Philharmonic as a way to connect the audience to music that can affect them.
“This is not, like, an Elvis impersonation for me,” he said. “What would Louis Armstrong want me to do if I were to say thank you to him for music? That’s not acting like him, that’s not doing his voice, that’s not waving a handkerchief. It’s not that.”
Stripling talked about the advice Armstrong’s former bass player Arvell Shaw gave him before performing a tribute with Shaw’s Louis Armstrong Legacy Band. “I asked him, ‘How should I play?’ and he said, ‘You play you. Be yourself. We’re just saying thank you to Louis,’ because that’s what Armstrong would want.
“I can’t be him, I can only be my authentic self and say thank you,” he added. “Give a nod to him for how much music he left us. As long as people leave the theater with that sense of joy from him, then I think I’ve done my job.”
The National Philharmonic’s “Sounds of New Orleans: A Tribute to Louis Armstrong” will begin at 8 p.m. Saturday, March 30 at the Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. For tickets, ranging from $10 to $72, call 301-581-5100 or visit www.nationalphilharmonic.org