Saturday, March 24

Jazz ensembles honor Armstrong's innovative stylings


To a certain UCLA professor, Louis Armstrong’s sense of
humor may have been as great as his musical genius. For the
recording of his classic “What A Wonderful World,”
Armstrong invited a live audience in to watch the musicians. Though
the song already had a small choir, he taught the audience the song
on the spot and had them sing along.

“That was a fun thing, like a party almost,” said
Kenny Burrell, professor of music and ethnomusicology and director
of the Jazz Studies program.

Burrell, who played guitar on that historic recording, is now
producing today’s Big Band concert at Schoenberg Hall in
honor of Armstrong. The concert, which features UCLA’s Jazz
Orchestra and Latin-Jazz Ensemble, will be followed by the premiere
of the documentary film “On the Sunny Side of the Street:
Louis Armstrong’s Final Chorus.”

Armstrong’s sense of fun and improvisation seemed to be in
the air at a recent Latin-Jazz Ensemble rehearsal. Skilled solos
flew back and forth between musicians as they skipped nimbly from
piece to piece. Led by UCLA Professor Bobby Rodriguez, the group of
volunteer student musicians eventually tried to learn one of
Armstrong’s songs. After several quick run-throughs and style
changes, the group had it down well enough to laugh and applaud the
efforts of their fellow players. This dedication to a high level of
musicianship and a joy in playing is something Armstrong would
certainly approve of.

“(Armstrong) developed a completely new sound of music, of
jazz, of trumpet playing,” said UCLA student and trumpet
player John Daversa.

Having spent 15 years playing jazz professionally and, more
recently, directing his own Big Band in Los Angeles, Daversa has
been strongly influenced by Armstrong’s example.

“One thing he represented was individuality and
originality, which is the definition of what a jazz musician
is,” Daversa said. “(I’m) playing with the intent
of being like Louis Armstrong, being true to my own

Armstrong was revered not only as a jazz musician, but as a
national pop culture icon, appearing in films like 1967′s
“Hello Dolly” to sing the title song. His humor and
personality cut across genres, and early recordings, like the No. 1
hit “All Of Me,” established him as one of
America’s premier entertainers. Jazz musicians, however, know
him as the father of the genre.

“He was a seminal figure ““ our first great jazz
instrumentalist. Everyone who came after him owes him a debt
because he was the first one,” said Burrell.

Armstrong was the first truly innovative jazz soloist, a
position which defines jazz music. Equally versatile in several
instruments, his trumpet playing became the cornerstone influencing
such musicians as Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. Even Frank
Sinatra was inspired by the vocals of the lovingly-nicknamed

“The way he sung, no one would be that brave
nowadays,” said Sean Pawling, a first-year music student who
plays trombone in the Latin Jazz Ensemble.

Armstrong’s larger-than-life personality, on stage and
off, was recorded in a documentary on his final concert. “On
the Sunny Side of the Street” also includes interviews with
George Wein recorded just weeks before Armstrong’s death.
Wein, producer of the Newport and Playboy Jazz Festivals, is
bringing his film to UCLA for its West Coast premiere.

Students like Pawling hope the rest of campus takes advantage of
the chance to see a great performance by the two ensembles.

“(Jazz is) the least listened to (genre), sadly. “¦
It’s a huge bridge between classical and the music we listen
to today and people don’t realize that,” Pawling

Daversa agreed.

“It’s become so historicized that it’s become
a little stale in the marketable genres,” Daversa said.

With a longer history than newer, more instantly accessible
styles like rock and hip-hop, it’s easy to forget jazz is
still very much alive. Other films, like Ken Burns’
“Jazz,” have helped to establish the music’s
place as an American art form, but also serve to emphasize
jazz’s past greatness at the expense of today’s

A major trend in today’s jazz is neoclassicism, the
performance of “classic” jazz works by artists like
Miles Davis and Thelonius Monk. In essence, many jazz musicians
choose to play it safe rather than take the chances of an innovator
like Armstrong.

“The whole idea of those artists is that they were ahead
of their time,” said Daversa.

In deference to this, the Jazz Orchestra and Latin-Jazz ensemble
will pay tribute to Armstrong by playing pieces in an array of
styles even Satchmo never considered. UCLA professor and director
of the Jazz Orchestra Llew Matthews has written new arrangements
for the occasion.

“It’s a celebration of (Armstrong’s)
individual genius ““ in Latin music, or Dixieland, or modern
jazz or Afro-Cuban music,” said Daversa.

Hearing the music of such a profound creator in fresh ways may
be just what it takes to inspire the next generation of great jazz
musicians. If not, Burrell hopes, at least the joy and passion of
one of America’s greatest entertainers will come across.

“He was so warm and loving, and it was reflected in his
music and his audience,” Burrell said. “He was a
beautiful, beautiful musician.”

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