Isabelle Birch, a 9-year-old with rhythm, bounced on her aunt Leah Gillmore’s lap, hands moving, toes tapping to Louis Armstrong’s classic jazz Sunday. “That’s good music they were singing,” Isabelle declared after the Cornet Chop Suey Jazz Band from St. Louis finished its gravel-throated tribute to Satchmo in the Firehouse Courtyard.
After years of rebranding as a festival showcasing all types of music, the 44th annual Sacramento Music Festival, which goes into full swing every Memorial Day weekend in Old Sacramento, is honoring its Dixieland and jazz roots, and Armstrong, who grew up poor in New Orleans, epitomizes that sound.
While Birch and her 13-year-old sister Elizabeth Powell grooved to “West End Blues” and “Hello, Dolly,” their great aunt Carole Dobbins, 76, of Rio Linda grew misty-eyed. “I grew up in the ’40s, and my father and mother always loved that music and I love these musicians,” Dobbins said.
After piano player and vocalist Paul Reid, who does a great Satchmo impersonation, growled his way through “Hello, Dolly,” Gillmore – wearing a beige sun hat that allowed her ponytail to flow through, remarked: “That’s awesome the way he does that.”
Powell, the teenager in the audience, called the Armstrong tribute “a learning experience – being a clarinet player, I got to hear the baritone sax and the clarinet.”
While the festival, which continues Monday, still offers a smorgasbord of rock ’n’ roll, Latin, blues, zydeco, country, hip-hop and African Caribbean sounds, “our theme is ‘back to the roots,’ and this is an example,” said media chair Lyle Van Horn. “It’s working – we took in more money Saturday than we did the same day last year.”
Cornet Chop Suey laced its set with Armstrong facts. “The song ‘Struttin’ With Some Barbecue’ is about struttin’ with a long-legged woman,” explained trumpet player Brian Casserly. Though Armstrong worked for years without a recording contract, his improvisational style shaped generations of jazz musicians to come, Casserly said.
Following his 1947 film “New Orleans,” Armstrong toured the globe with Louis Armstrong’s All-Stars. His version of “Hello, Dolly” broke the Beatles’ streak of three straight No. 1 hits in 1964. He died in 1971.
Dave and Marcy Gorham of Los Angeles were among the hundreds of fans who gave Casserly’s band a standing ovation when it closed with the Armstrong anthem “What A Wonderful World.” Dave Gorham, 82, said the couple came to Sacramento to visit relatives and take in the music festival. “This particular group is extraordinary,” he said.
The festival featured many longtime fans who came from across the state or the country to get their jazz fix. “I’m from Sarasota, Fla., and I’ve been coming about every other year since the ’90s,” said Carol Femia, who dressed the part in her newsboy cap made of turquoise sparkles. “You wear your makeup, your earrings, your hats, scarves, jewelry,” she said. “You can be sartorially uninhibited.” Fans clad in boas, bangles and bowlers were everywhere.
Femia said she got her Dixieland fix Sunday with the High Sierra Jazz Band. “I think there’s a more traditional jazz, blues, soul and funk sound this year,” she observed. “Two years ago they played a lot of country and had more big name bands.”