July 6 was always going to be a walk on the sunny side of the street. The weather WOULD be good; I just felt it. Not that I’m the eternal or even sometimes optimist when it comes to weather. Addicted to the sun, a gray day can seriously affect my mood. That’s why I banked on sunshine for Stoptime. Congress Park right after the 4th of July, what could be sunnier?
Those working with me pointed out that this might not be the moment for jejune optimism. “What’s your rain plan” was asked as early as February. Anne Diggory suggested a possibility. She is a member of the Presbyterian New England Congregational Church, only a block from Congress Park. She thought that the church might be amenable to taking in Stoptime in the event of rain.
The Church had already given Stoptime one gift—permission to tap dance on the wood floors of Nolan House’s side porch. Fronting Congress Park, this large, brick Victorian is the site for Sunday School and general meetings. The porches overlook a spacious lawn, an excellent site for Tina Baird’s tap dance. Since the elders had readily agreed to Stoptime’s use of one church building, we hoped they would also agree to use of the church itself as a rain haven. And they did. Anne suggested I announce the rain location on the website. I did—in very small print: In case of extreme weather, Congress Park activities will move indoors to the Presbyterian - New England Congregational Church on the corner of Circular St. and Park Place.
The five-day forecast showed a cloudless sun for July 6. At three days, clouds crept in and by the 5th, the weatherman changed his tune to “rumble of thunder, possible severe late afternoon storms.” The day began in cloudless 70s. in the morning John McQueen and I pounded ten poles, each 8-foot high, into the lawn at various locations through Congress Park. From each pole we hung eight chains of handkerchiefs, seven handkerchiefs buttoned together corner to corner in each chain. The eleventh we installed in front of the Spring Street Gallery. The wind lifted the handkerchiefs and they blew gently.
The park was full of people, especially young people with children in strollers or needing to be chased as they headed for the duck ponds. Most watched curiously but a handful came up to ask what we were doing. We invited them to come back at 5 PM for the Louis Armstrong Festival, told them the handkerchiefs were there for the taking. I hoped people would unbutton a few and button them to their own shirts or give a couple to another passerby. I liked the prospect of everyone in the park sporting at least one handkerchief, like Louis Armstrong who was never without one when he performed.
By noon we finished pounding and hanging the handkerchiefs. We left the park to help Tina Baird install an 8 x 12’ floor she and her husband had constructed. Tina had tried out the floor in her tap shoes in June; they left marks so Tina and Colin bought some flexible hard-surfaced material and painted it black. We transported the three panels to Nolan House and soon enough they’d taped the panels and fastened the protective surface to the porch floor.
Finding Tina was one of the greatest boons of this whole adventure. I knew tap dancing would evoke Armstrong’s early greats, offer a nod to the Hot Fives, as well as remembering the Harlem review, Hot Chocolates from 1929 with “Black and Blue.” But before I could concentrate on tap dance, I had to find musicians.
I needed a jazz band and especially a trumpeter. There are plenty of jazz musicians in the greater Albany region, but none answered the call to play a Louis Armstrong program. Oh, yes, they loved him, but a couple of sets of songs from the Hot Fives, then swing era, moving on to his classics from the 50s, didn’t appeal to any musician I reached. I started early enough, but with no contacts or luck in the beginning, the pursuit only became more difficult. When I did finally begin to tap into the network, the bands were booked, not interested, or way too expensive.
One go-to place was 9 Maple, Saratoga’s premier jazz spot, a lively, lovely little hole in the wall bar. It was only a picture window to me, a place I’d been to once for a late afternoon beer, no musicians present. I tried going on freezing January nights, heard a couple of bands, but the spirit of the thing escaped me. In March I went alone, determined to try harder. I had read about The Pete Sweeney Quartet and this time I had a happier experience. I liked his band and the music, the way they responded to each other and a particular openness with audience. At the break I approached Pete Sweeney, told him about Stoptime, gave him my card and asked if I could contact him about playing for the festival on July 6. He was receptive, the first jazz musician to respond positively. I emailed him and soon we talked. He was willing to take part, find a trumpeter for the occasion, and review Armstrong’s discography. He wanted to perform at 9 Maple in the evening. This added the essential endnote to the festival, but I was still without musicians for the Congress Park segment.
I wanted to know more about the trumpet. Patrice Malatestinic, head of the horn section in Skidmore’s Music Department, helped me in many ways. To introduce me to the live trumpet, she invited Omar Williams, a talented young musician who plays bass, horn and other instruments to meet with us at Skidmore. He played his cornet and trumpet and talked about similarities and differences. Hearing one horn and then the other, listening to Omar’s dissection of the sound isolated from a performance was a great lesson.
Omar is totally engaged with his music, wildly energetic and charming. He teaches in a nearby junior high school and mentors the jazz band. Along with seven others he was starting a new band. They were actually looking for gigs. Interested in swing and combining it with Brazilian sambas, the band’s taste was eclectic and they welcomed bringing Louis Armstrong’s music into their mix.
They signed on. Omar was hard to reach but he always responded in time, cheerfully and with new ideas. I was curious about their sound, and just interested what Louis Armstrong songs they’d be playing and in what style. In early June I drove to Troy for their Monday evening rehearsal session. As they drifted in, Omar introduced each one. Three women, I liked that. Audrey Leduc played the trumpet. She told me she had to leave early. She’d just married two days ago and her husband was off to Germany the next day. Maybe because there was a stranger in their midst, they were all restrained, very polite. This was a far cry from the picture I had of a band warming up. Probably I had listened too often to Louis’s hijinks—watched him trotting back and forth, talking to himself, to the rest of the band, my image of the jazz band at work.
I wanted a photo of the whole group for the website. Omar lives in Troy in a brownstone overlooking a wrought iron fenced park. A picture perfect backdrop. As the eight lined up, instruments in hand, the sky turned very dark. I snapped and we hurried inside just as a violent storm erupted, blowing down limbs, crashing and banging.
They started with “On the Sunny Side of the Side” (by the end of Stoptime I knew that this song will live forever in my mind as a harbinger of stormy weather), then launched into “St. Louis Blues” and “Mack the Knife.” They practiced the Charleston, other 1920s numbers, and a bunch of swing music. They were really into it, serious about their sound and conscious of the blend. At the end they asked me how they sounded. Giving feedback to musicians was an intimidating charge. Years of critiques in the textile studio provided some sort of context, but I was at a loss for the right language. Somehow it worked, they had played only one engagement so they listened willingly and asked plenty of questions. Then they ran through a couple of the numbers again.
Tina entered the picture pretty late. Music, reading, storytelling and workshops were scheduled for the War Memorial and other semi-protected sites. Congress Park’s lawn, concrete and gravel did not offer a great place to tap dance.
So Tina came up with another plan. She had noticed that Pete Sweeney was playing 9 Maple in the evening. She wondered if she could tap in the small space in front of the band. Small does not do justice to miniscule jot of flooring between the bar, seating and the band. She contacted Pete and he was enthusiastic about the idea. They talked music, decided on a plan. Then the prospect of Nolan House porch appeared with its wood floor. Pete was good-natured about Tina’s plan change but he had really taken to the idea.
Back to the day itself. Around two o’clock, clouds moved in. The wind ballooned the handkerchiefs into wide swaths, a sprinkle of raindrops that soon stopped. The park populace lolling about on the lawns, pushing strollers did not much notice the little storm.
I left for Hal Miller’s 4 PM talk at Skidmore College at 3:40. Long planned as the opening event, we hoped everyone would start there then go downtown to Spring Street and Congress Park. As I climbed into a friend’s car for the five-minute ride, I realized that the weather could change everything. John and David Pilot, a friend visiting from New York, had volunteered to watch over things while I was gone. We had not considered that watching over could quickly become falling apart.
My cell rang. Jasper Alexander, owner and chef at Hattie’s, had arrived at the Park with hundreds of chicken pieces. He feared, quite rightly, firing up his grill. The wind-protected spot he’d chosen was good in a wind but offered no respite in rain. I suggested he wait it out and hope this storm would pass over. Call waiting, Omar was watching Eye on the Sky on one phone and calling me on another. He wanted to move to the church and pronto. Too dangerous to risk going to the War Memorial, he said another storm would follow this junior number, a big one. The War Memorial, site of the electricity, was a columned small performance space perched in one of Congress Park’s ponds with a walkway to the lawns. Then John called, he’d checked out the War Memorial, no roof. Great, I hadn’t looked up when visiting to locate the electric outlets. With no protection for the musicians and others scheduled there, I agreed with Omar, yes, go to the Church.
Arriving at Zankel Music Center I found a sizable crowd gathered in the lobby waiting for the doors to open. I put a stack of programs on a music stand. Within a minute the house managers opened the door to Ladd Hall. On the stage was a huge screen, behind it a black curtain, large enough to make a big border around the screen but not so large that it blocked the huge window that IS the back wall of the Ladd Hall stage.
The close view through this enormous window is a few young trees almost brushing the glass. Then the ground dips into a long rolling hill down to the main road that circumscribes the campus. At night headlights occasionally interrupt, reminding me this is a pretend pastoral scene. I’ve sat in the audience in every season, watched the snowfall, the wind blow. Just four nights earlier at the Linda Oh Quartet concert, a hell of a storm blew through, out booming the drummer’s solo with staggering lightning jags close enough to fill the foreground. I am plenty scared of lightning, what was once a wisp of fear has bloomed over the past two decades into full-fledged paranoia. I gave up completely on the music as I plotted my long walk to the far parking lot dodging puddles that I was sure would be lightning laced.
At the moment, there were dark clouds, but certainly another such storm would not batter this window. Hal, in his baseball cap, was standing near the podium, ready to begin. I turned off my cell phone. Hal talked about Louis Armstrong in all his multiplicity. The clips he’d chosen covered every decade. He showed a duet, Louis nudging Velma, making eyes in “That’s My Desire.” I’d seen Louis perform these songs on my computer, but writ this large with the audience laughing all around me was totally captivating. The big surprise was a 1:28 minute clip of Earl Hines at the piano, Armstrong with trumpet walks to the edge of the stage and takes a fresh handkerchief from one of two folded stacks. He wipes his face. Behind the folded stack of fresh handkerchiefs is his discard pile. I’d often wondered how many handkerchiefs he brought on stage with him, where he kept them, how long they lasted. Hal provided the filmic proof. So rare to see Earl Hines with Louis, but all I could concentrate on were the pristine and then discarded hankies with Louis swabbing his face.
And the rain, suddenly it was everywhere and the sky a black hole.
Well, it’s raining—that was all I could register. This thing was not going to go as planned. When Hal called me to the podium, I sketched the changed program, announced that Stoptime had moved from Congress Park to the rain location at the church. I suggested going to Spring Street Gallery first to listen to the Shape Shifting Shepherds and to see the art exhibition because it was open only 5 to 6 PM and then on to the church.
“Scatterimpop”— Clarke & Elky of the Shape Shifting Shepherds packed in a large crowd. They improvised not only to Armstrong’s trumpet and voice but his typewriter too.
I knew that Anne Diggory would have everything under control at the Spring Street Gallery. Where I needed to be was the church. When I arrived Horns on the Hudson was playing “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” The pulpit area was a construction site. A new organ is scheduled to arrive soon. In preparation the wall behind the pulpit is chiefly plywood and ladders, an appropriate backdrop for Stoptime. A fair sized crowd peppered the pews.
Across the lawn Tina and company were ready to go when the rain stopped. Jasper was selling chicken that he had rewarmed back at Hattie’s before setting up under the overhang just outside the church door. “Rhythm! Color! Collage!” the Romare Bearden workshop was in full swing in the anteroom. “Enjoy Joying,” a workshop built around musical exploration of JOY, wandered from one site to another. They settled at last outside near “A Cornet a Day,” the dice game with words from Armstrong’s song titles from his cornet days. A steady stream of players shook the dice in the specially made cornet, rolling them, then arranging the words into poems. Here’s one by Nancy Flint-Budde and Al Budde:
“Come To Lonesome Sobbin’ Camp
Squeeze Fiddle Blues Baby Blues
And so it happened. What I had imagined—a wash out. The program now truncated and fastened in one spot. Crowd camaraderie built momentum and unity sprouted, a happenstance that probably wouldn’t have peaked in the park.
After Horns on the Hudson’s first set Nedra Stimpfle read “Louis Armstrong Is In the Air”—a short exploration of Armstrong’s philosophy and biography drawn from his own writings, two of his very slightly off-color ditties, and poems by John Updike, Ted Joans and Terrance Hayes reflecting on the man and his music.
The sun was out, the sky was clear. Everyone waited for Tina to tap and tap she did, joined in two of the numbers by her student, Jenna Bryfonski. They clearly loved this opportunity to tap to twenties jazz tunes, “Hotter Than That,” “Sugar Foot Strut, “Doddlin” (Horace Silver), “Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya,” and the Shim Sham Shimmy danced to “Beau Koo Jack.” Applause thundered.
At 9 PM inside 9 Maple Pete Sweeney on drums with Pete Giroux on trumpet, Dave Gleason on piano, and Erik Johnson bass launched into songs linked to Armstrong—“West End Blues,” “Struttin' With Some Barbeque,” “Hello, Dolly,” “Basin St. Blues,” “St. Louis Blues,” “Ain't Misbehavin',” “Honeysuckle Rose” and “When The Saints Go Marching In.” I arrived to hear Patrick Stacey singing “What a Wonderful World.”
Patrick was in from the beginning of Stoptime. A man with his own band who often fronts for others, Patrick is well known in Saratoga as a singer and instrumentalist. His music making taste has another side as well. He loves fiddling, creating mash-ups and delivering enticing electronic mixes. I’d met him the previous year during my two-month exhibition at Saratoga Arts. I’d invited all who wanted to join in to create their own Dead at working in the gallery and then installing their works with mine. Patrick, forty-five, chose Oscar Wilde. He improvised on an old Mac, adjusted the qwerty line in the keyboard to spell Oscar Wilde and programmed it with a slew of Wilde’s aphorisms on age and death that continuously reeled out and then back, presenting and then immediately erasing the text.
He was one of the first to volunteer to creative a project for Stoptime. He wanted to DJ creating a two-hour performance spinning Armstrong’s music with a twist. He needed electricity and a protected spot so he chose to locate in the Saratoga Arts Center gallery—a wise choice as he was safely housed while the storm raged. Since I bypassed the park completely when the storm broke, I didn’t get to hear him. He cut a CD and I’ve posted on Stoptime’s website. Go to “Armstrong Electric” page listed on Stoptime Events. With quick repeats and eccentric mixing, here is an improvisational Louis Armstrong in a completely different mode.
Around 10 o’clock, Tina appeared at 9 Maple, tap shoes under her arm. To my quizzical glance she replied, “Pete contacted me on Facebook, inviting me to come down and tap with the quartet.” Though they had talked about songs, their planned collaboration never reached the practice stage. I asked her if she had any idea what the quartet would play or what she’d do. “No,” and flashed her winning smile, “Pete said he’d cue me.” And so he did and Tina took off improvising back and forth between the piano and the drums. In that snippet of floor, Tina’s energy and love for the audience reverberated not just from her tapping toes but her arms, flying fingers and eye contact.
The next morning I awoke wondering whether Louis had ever recorded “Stormy Weather.” I’d never run across it or found a mention, but I knew that that only signaled he probably had. Hadn’t he recorded almost every song that made it to the top of the charts? Wasn’t this what many complained was his big problem—his desire to entertain when he should’ve stuck to the pure thing, the true thing—jazz?
Yes, he did record “Stormy Weather,” August 1957 in Los Angeles with Russell Garcia’s orchestra. Simultaneously, he played every night in Las Vegas—a typical example of Armstrong’s road routine, asking so much of himself and his band. Ricky Riccardi’s telling of this in What a Wonderful World gives the full picture of Louis Armstrong’s health and persistence. Riccardi quotes Russell Garcia’s memory of the recording sessions: “The next morning he came in and pointed his trumpet against the wall. He tried to blow through it, but air came out from the sides of his lips. No sound. He’d keep this up, and then all of a sudden—bang, the sound would come, and his lips would be vibrating and he’d be off and doing fine.” Riccardi goes on to say that the 1999 release of “Stormy Weather” “includes a great number of alternate takes and rehearsals, and one can hear Armstrong struggling, playing air notes here and there while cracking others. When he musters up all his strength and powers over the ensemble on “Stormy Weather,” the results are breathtaking. Though in severe pain, Armstrong was not about to concede anything.”
“Stormy Weather” lyrics refer to the weather but like most songs about the weather, the real business is the human heart. And like most of his singing, he does not sing the lyrics rote, he makes them his own. “I’m weary all the time, if she stays away, old rocking chair’s gonna get me.” It is the heart not the weather that is so Louis Armstrong.
I went into this thinking I desired to bring Louis Armstrong to a 2011 audience, an audience composed of oldsters who’d know the music but more, an audience filled with younger people unfamiliar with Armstrong, an audience waiting to be inoculated with his charm and power. Louis taught me again. The event was only peripherally about Louis. It was a journey that inspired me to meet new people, to create a community together based on mutual commitment, to create a band and make it happen.
The following week I went to Congress Park to see Shakespeare in the Park’s performance of The Merchant of Venice. I sat in a lawn chair for two hours plus watching the Park edge into twilight on a perfect sunny day and thought what a fine day for Shakespeare in the Park. Yes, I thought about Stoptime, the “could have beens”—the buzz of people streaming in and out of the Carousel listening to Louis sing “The Dummy Song” and “Bibbiddi-Bobbiddi-Boo,” stopping at Hattie’s for chicken wiping gooey fingers on the grass, unbuttoning handkerchiefs, making collages…and but that moment was fleeting. Instead I chose to recite this small poem by Galway Kinnell:
Whatever happens. Whatever
what is is is what
I want. Only that. But that.