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13th Louis Armstrong Fest brings British attention

12th August 2013   ·   0 Comments

By Christopher Tidmore
Contributing Writer

The final hours of Satchmo Fest signified the epitome of cool.

Figuratively, since the leading Louis Armstrong trumpeters on Planet Earth, led by New Orleans’ own Kermit Ruffins, gathered to blow happy birthday to the godfather of Jazz, and close out the 13th annual summer festival in a music-lovers’ free extravaganza.

Literally – at least in comparison to past years – since the festival’s two principal outdoor stages were under the cover of tents outfitted with fans (in both senses of the words), and between them a covered walkway blowing cool water vapor as one crossed the Old Mint’s Esplanade Avenue-facing lawn

“Satchmo-in-shade” banners dubbed it. No need to bring a chair; free seats were provided, and if none were available, a folding chair could be purchased for just $15, with all the monies directed to keeping next year’s celebration of Satchmo absolutely entrance cost free.

French Quarter Festivals, Inc. throws the yearly event, of music, food, and lectures, with the last category drawing Jazz aficionados from all over the world. Topics in the air-conditioned third floor lecture hall of the Old Mint varied from the earliest recordings of Jazz to Louis Armstrong’s handkerchiefs to archetypes of culture. And, the speaker who traveled the farthest, Hannah Langworth of the London School of Economics, reminded the locals how special New Orleans’ festival culture was.

The British subject wrote her dissertation on the Festivals of New Orleans, and she elucidated on the ways the Crescent City impacts her home city and world. She even pointed out some unexpected similarities.

Afterall, she’s an expert on that subject. Langworth writes an online blog, londoncallingneworleans.wordpress.com, which explores the Big Easy’s culture & influence—even upon the UK. In an interview with The Louisiana Weekly, Langworth explained the inspiration for the blog came as “I’d been gathering material for some time for a book I’d like to write about New Orleans and London, based in part on my master’s dissertation.”

Langworth’s mother spent some time studying in New Orleans, “So growing up,” she recollected, “I was always aware of the city and its significance, musical and otherwise, and interested in finding out more about it. Then in summer 2009 I had the opportunity to spend some time travelling in the U.S. before starting my master’s degree, and New Orleans was top of my list of the places I wanted to visit.”

“I became fascinated with the city and its traditions, including its music, and as a result subsequently wrote my master’s dissertation on Louisiana’s legal system/politics and its carnival traditions, which gave me the opportunity to find out so much more about these topics, and about New Orleans in general.”

At first glance, London and New Orleans seem so different, yet in her speech at the Old Mint on Sunday, Langworth noted the similarities.

“In no particular order, both cities have welcomed many different waves of immigrants; both cities have a history of, and still are, important centres for shipping and commerce; both cities have an interesting and somewhat complex relationship with the nations they’re a part of; both cities face geographical challenges; there’s very obvious wealth and poverty, sometime very close together, in both cities; there’s a strong consciousness of history and death in both cities. “

“And there are some particular similarities in some respects between the area of London I live in — Dalston (in north-east London) – and some of the areas of New Orleans I’m especially interested in – namely the Marigny and Bywater. For example, very rapid gentrification and music/nightlife regulation are current issues in both areas.”

She spoke at length—not surprisingly since it was Satchmo Fest—about Louis Armstrong, his time in London, and Royalty, particularly Armstrong’s REX moment.

“As I mentioned in my seminar, I think the fact that Louis Armstrong spoke of being King of Zulu as a lifelong ambition which he gladly returned to New Orleans to fulfill shows that, although he left the city as a relatively young man, the many carnival traditions he witnessed and took part in as a child in the city made an impact on him that stayed with him throughout his life.”

“I think his encounters with English royalty have a flavour of New Orleans carnival traditions about them as they display a playfulness towards political authority that is characteristic of New Orleans, and many other, carnival traditions.”

“When Louis Armstrong performed in London in front of Princess Margaret in 1956 he broke theatrical protocol by addressing her, saying “We’ve got one of our special fans in the house, and we’re really going to lay this one on for the Princess.”

“He performed for King George V in 1932, saying ‘This one’s for you, Rex!’ (possibly a conscious or unconscious reference to the New Orleans Mardi Gras king?) and played the song ‘You Rascal You.’”

When asked how has the love of “Royal” spectacle inspired parades in both cities, and what she thinks about how Monarchy collided with the Duke of Windsor’s visit to the Rex Ball, she replied, “There are some links that can be drawn between the origins of large Mardi Gras parades in New Orleans and the ways in which European royalty have traditionally used a love of spectacle to establish, display and maintain their power, and inspire civic or national pride – for example, the socially elite founders of Comus drew on John Milton’s work Comus which is part of the English royal masque tradition – essentially theatrical productions to honour a royal figure or noble. There’s also a legend that Rex was first established in honour of the visit of Grand Duke Alexei Alexan­drovich of Russia to New Orleans in 1872.”

Then speaking of the famous incident when the former King Edward VIII attended the Rex Ball and bowed before the King of Carnival, she observed, “I think the visit of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor to Mardi Gras was an interesting historical coincidence – it gestures towards the historical connections (mentioned above) between some aspects of carnival in New Orleans and European royal pageantry, and also the ambiguous position of the Duke of Windsor within the English establishment after his abdication.”

“But I think it’s very important to recognize that Mardi Gras in New Orleans, and Louisiana as a whole, draws on so many different traditions, not just European royal spectacle, and includes so many different elements beyond the parades and balls of the large carnival krewes.

“All I an say is that I’ve always felt more welcome and better entertained here as a visitor than in any other city.”

This article originally published in the August 12, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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