by ANN M. COLFORD & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & long the narrow streets in the oldest part of New Orleans, down along Bourbon Street and Canal Street, music is everywhere, seeping from the sidewalk cracks into the soles of your feet. It's a distinctive brand of music, a truly American art form that merges the city's varied cultural traditions into something with the urgency of footsteps and the heat of a southern summer. Jazz may have multiple ancestors, but many roots of the family tree rest in the muddy earth between Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River.
The Spokane Jazz Orchestra pays tribute to the music of New Orleans -- and perhaps its greatest ambassador, Louis Armstrong -- with a concert Friday night at the Bing Crosby Theater. Armstrong and Crosby were good friends, and the two performers fed off each other's creativity, so it's only fitting that the Armstrong tribute should unfold here in Crosby's hometown and in the theater that bears his name.
According to jazz historians and musicians, Louis Armstrong was one of the most influential artists in the world of jazz, long before he became a household name.
"Of course Louis Armstrong was always considered by jazz musicians [to be] the first great jazz improviser," says Dan Keberle, SJO director and professor of music at Whitworth, "but it was not until he began singing songs that he became a well-known personality to the general public all around the world."
Armstrong was a native of New Orleans and a preeminent early practitioner of the city's signature jazz sound. But he didn't hit the big time until he followed his mentor Joe "King" Oliver to Chicago. That's where he first met Crosby, who was touring with Paul Whiteman's band. Crosby had heard about Armstrong from vocalist Mildred Bailey -- another Spokane native -- and looked him up when the Whiteman band visited Chicago. According to Crosby biographer Gary Giddins, Crosby later called Armstrong "the beginning and the end of music in America."
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & o help bring Armstrong's music back to life, the SJO has invited trumpeter and vocalist Byron Stripling back to Spokane as guest soloist. Stripling is a master technician who's comfortable playing many different styles, but the music of Armstrong and his New Orleans cronies has become a specialty. He visited Whitworth eight years ago and wowed both the students and faculty with his prowess and showmanship.
"He was one of the most engaging performers I've had there," Keberle recalls. "He brought the crowd of 1,000 to their feet several times -- so much charisma and style and grace."
Stripling got his start with the Count Basie Big Band, where he played lead trumpet, and currently he's artistic director of the Columbus Jazz Orchestra in Ohio. He has soloed with major symphony orchestras across the country, and he can play jazz styles from traditional to bebop and beyond. But his heart rests with the New Orleans music of Armstrong.
"Louis Armstrong inspired me to play the trumpet," Stripling told an interviewer on KJZZ radio in Phoenix last year. "I had to get more Louis Armstrong and more music of that time ... I never got to see him perform live, but I became a fan like crazy. His music really grabs you right out of the speaker, and you become friends with him."
Like Armstrong, Stripling is a double threat, slipping easily from trumpet to vocals and back again with great charm and stage presence. He can croon a smooth ballad, but he can also growl and scat like Armstrong in his prime -- and he'll be singing some of Armstrong's classics during the second half of the concert, says Keberle.
The concert will open with the SJO paying tribute to the New Orleans style, with tunes like "Down by the Riverside," "Makin' Whoopie" and Hoagy Carmichael's classic, "Stardust" -- all tunes recorded by Armstrong during his long career.
Trumpeter Byron Stripling and the Spokane Jazz Orchestra play a tribute to Louis Armstrong and the music of New Orleans on Friday, May 9, at 8 pm at the Bing. Tickets: $26-$30. Visit ticketswest.com or call 325-SEAT.