Jazz Orchestra's Satchmo is often 'note for note' The return of Louis Armstrong


Baltimore-born bass player Ben Wolfe is on the phone in a hotel room in North Carolina talking about Louis Armstrong and about the stand-up string bass and about jazz, which is the music he loves to play.

"I think he was a huge influence in jazz," Mr. Wolfe says. "On all bTC the music. His influence is bigger than an individual instrument."

Mr. Wolfe plays bass in the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, which comes to Baltimore Sunday night to play a concert of Armstrong's music at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. It's more or less amazing he's able to talk at all. He's just flown in from L.A. to Chapel Hill for a series of 19 one-nighters in 21 days, just like the old big-band days.

The 12-piece Lincoln Center orchestra is playing concerts called "The Majesty of Louis Armstrong," celebrating the music of the man who all but single-handedly invented the jazz solo and surprised the world into recognizing that jazz could be an art form.

The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra concerts are an homage to a great artist, not a gathering of the fan club of Satchmo Armstrong, the genial pop star of "Hello, Dolly!" and "What a Wonderful World."

"We're not the Hot Five or Hot Seven," says Mr. Wolfe. "But we try to play his music . . . correctly."

Louis Armstrong's Hot Five and Hot Seven bands (which included his second wife, Lil Hardin Armstrong, a talented pianist) were among the greatest combos in jazz history. James Lincoln Collier, writing in "The New Grove Dictionary of American Music," says that by 1927, the Hot Five's "Hotter Than That" Armstrong "possessed the finest technique of any trumpet player in jazz, a reckless confidence and an extraordinarily rich melodic imagination."

"Hotter Than That" is in the Lincoln Center band's repertory. So ++ is "Heebie Jeebies," a Hot Five scat song that established Armstrong's reputation as a jazz singer. And so is "Weather Bird," the duet between Armstrong and Earl "Fatha" Hines, a piano player nearly his equal, which is often called one of the greatest collaborations in jazz history.

"Jon Faddis and Marcus Roberts do that in the same way," says Mr. Wolfe. Mr. Faddis, the trumpet player, is the orchestra's musical director, of course. Marcus Roberts, the piano player, has the No. 5 album on the Billboard jazz charts.

"We're definitely playing his music in his style," says Mr. Wolfe, who is 32 and therefore born in the era of Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, doyens of the modern jazz trumpet. "We have to concentrate sometimes."

Mr. Faddis, 42, is a thoroughly modern player, so strongly influenced by Gillespie he was called his "musical son." But he's also recorded a "Suite for Pops" -- "Pops" being Armstrong. And as the be-bop pioneer Gillespie said, "No him, no me."

Mr. Faddis' playing of Armstrong's solos has been described as "dead-solid perfect, whether the fiery riff on 'Chinatown,' or Armstrong's formidable invention on 'Jubilee.' "

"I liked everything he played," Mr. Wolfe says.

Mr. Faddis shares trumpet duties with Nicholas Payton and Warren Vache, two sterling and widely acclaimed younger musicians.

"They have big shoes to fill," Mr. Wolfe says. "Some of Armstrong's solos are played note for note. They do a superb job."

Mr. Wolfe, who was born in Johns Hopkins Hospital and lived until he was 5 or so on Lafayette Avenue, grew up in Portland, Ore., where his first instrument was tuba. He played electric bass in high school until he got seriously interested in jazz and turned to the acoustic bass.

He's played with Harry Connick Jr.'s band and with Wynton Marsalis for nearly a year. Mr. Marsalis, perhaps the finest trumpet technician of today, is artistic director of the Lincoln Center jazz program and a founder of the orchestra.

"The Majesty of Louis Armstrong" concerts reflect his view of jazz as a continuum that starts, roughly speaking, at Rampart and Perdido streets in turn-of-the-century New Orleans, arching through the generations until now.

That's an idea Mr. Wolfe is comfortable with. His major influence was the late Paul Chambers, the brilliant bass player with the Miles Davis quintet. But he admires such luminaries as Jimmy Blanton, the great Duke Ellington bassist, and Pops Foster, the New Orleans musician who played with Armstrong in the '30s.

"I play mostly a supporting role," he says. He gets to solo only on "Tiger Rag," an encore. "But the bass always has a big responsibility."

He provides the rhythmic bass line that don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing. And Armstrong swung more than any other player of his time.

Mr. Wolfe finds himself playing two beats to the bar a lot, the rhythm of New Orleans jazz, and he likes it.

"I just love that music," he says. "All great music has its satisfactions. I'm just happy to be working."

Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra plays Louis Armstrong

Where: Meyerhoff Symphony Hall

When: Sunday, March 5, 7:30 p.m.

Tickets: $16 to $34

Call: (410) 783-8000

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