Louis Armstrong’s wonderful world

Louis Armstrong’s wonderful world

Chazen Jazz Concert will feature master’s music — and a look at his life

Louis Armstrong flashes his trademark smile in a 1955 photo.
Louis Armstrong flashes his trademark smile in a 1955 photo.

Jerome Chazen of Nyack doesn’t remember precisely how he first discovered the genius of Louis Armstrong, only that it was in college, at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, sometime around 1944.

But he does remember the first time that he heard Louis Armstrong play.

It was in Madison, not all that long after. Mr. Chazen had graduated from jazz novice to jazz aficionado, scouring the second-hand stores for old 78 records to build his growing record collections from the detritus of the Great Depression. He had begun writing a column about jazz for the student newspaper. And when Louis Armstrong came to town with his band, young Mr. Chazen arranged to interview him.

Nearly 75 years later, Mr. Chazen remembers that conversation with Mr. Armstrong, and what he learned about the performer and composer. Mr. Chazen had a particular question. His collection of Armstrong records was happenstance and eclectic. “If I saw a record by a musician I knew or appreciated, I would buy it,” he said. “Especially if it was Louis Armstrong. I wouldn’t care what he was playing — I just wanted the record.”

Listening to one of those records, Mr. Chazen thought the music sounded like that of Guy Lombardo, “a certain kind of swishy dance music.

“I couldn’t make sense of it. Why would Louis Armstrong sound like Guy Lombardo?”

So Mr. Chazen asked Mr. Armstrong that question. “Guy Lombardo?” Mr. Armstrong replied. “I love that cat!”

The trumpeter told the college student how he had stayed in a hotel in Chicago in the 1920s, while he was performing in a nearby club. One night, walking from the hotel to the club, he saw many people standing in line. “A big long line of people stretching around the block,” Mr. Chazen recalled. “He followed the line and saw they were standing in line to get into a theater where Guy Lombardo was playing.

“If all these people are waiting to get in to hear this guy, they must be on to something,” Mr. Armstrong said.

Mr. Chazen said that Mr. Armstrong “was an appreciator. He was very much in tune with the audiences he was dealing with. Louis believed in playing for an audience. If the audience liked it and loved it, that was his job.”

Mr. Chazen next saw Mr. Armstrong perform in 1947. Mr. Armstrong was playing in a Chicago night club — only 150 miles or so away from Madison. Mr. Chazen drove there with a group of friends. “That was a lot of fun,” he said.

Tuba player David Ostwald and his Louis Armstrong Eternity Band will entertain at a concert November 10 in Pearl River.

Later, after Mr. Chazen graduated and moved back to New York, he would hear Mr. Armstrong several times at concerts and clubs. Mr. Chazen still has a picture of the two of them, snapped by a cigarette girl who worked the floor of the club Mr. Armstrong was playing.

In recent years, Mr. Chazen has worked to bring jazz to Rockland, sponsoring a series of concerts through the JCC. (See box.) This year’s concert will feature the music of Louis Armstrong performed by David Ostwald and his Louis Armstrong Eternity Band, and an audiovisual presentation by Ricky Riccardi, director of research collections for the Louis Armstrong House Museum and author of “What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years.” Mr. Riccardi will tell stories of Mr. Armstrong’s life, including the important role a Jewish family played in his childhood. His talk will be accompanied by rare photographs and videos from the museum.

David Ostwald is a tuba player. His band, originally the Gully Low Jazz Band, has been playing the famed Birdland jazz club in Manhattan as an Armstrong salute since the centennial of Mr. Armstrong’s birth in 2000.

Mr. Ostwald’s first musical love was the classical tuba. When he was in sixth grade, his mother had taken him to see Rudolf Nureyev in Sergei Prokofiev’s ballet of Romeo and Juliet.

“There was a number, ‘The March of the Capulets,’ that had this tremendous tuba part that overwhelmed me,” Mr. Ostwald recalled. A few months later, during recess, he saw a tuba in the band room, picked it up, and played.

“The band leader could have been angry,” he said. “Instead he gave me my first lesson on the spot. There weren’t a lot of kids who were dying to play the tuba.”

A few years later, he went to Sam Goody’s Record Store to buy a new classical recording of Bach’s double violin concerto. Checking out the cut-out bin of remaindered discount records, he found a Louis Armstrong record. He bought it. “I went home and listened to it,” he said. “I had my epiphany and became a huge Armstrong fan on the spot.”

Mr. Ostwald didn’t become an actual jazz musician until he was a 21-year-old college student at the University of Chicago, and friends asked him to join in a jazz band. “I can’t,” he said. “I need to be able to read the music. I can’t improvise.”

So they prepared some sheet music. After he became familiar enough with jazz to be comfortable playing without the written score, he began to wean himself off them and learned to improvise. He also learned that the tuba in a jazz ensemble plays the role of the bass instrument, a constant presence in the sound.

“That was very attractive to me,” he said. “I could play instead of just counting the measures in the orchestra. In the orchestra, you play one or two notes on the tuba, then you lay out for 10 minutes and then you come in again.”

Besides Mr. Ostwald on the tuba, the Louis Armstrong Eternity Band includes a trumpet, a clarinet, a trombone, a banjo, and a drummer.

“We don’t copy Armstrong’s performances,” Mr. Ostwald said. “We play tunes that he wrote and that are associated with him. We don’t make an attempt to recreate the recordings. We play them our own way.”

What: Chazen Jazz Concert

When: Saturday, November 10, 8 p.m.

Where: Pearl River High School
 275 East Central Ave., Pearl River

Who: David Ostwald’s Louis Armstrong Eternity Band and Louis Armstrong historian Ricky Riccardi

How much: $25

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