New Orleans clarinetist Dr. Michael White met the South African trumpet legend Hugh Masekela in 1985. They sat in adjacent seats on a flight to New York from Finland after performances at the Pori Jazz Festival. Masekela lived in New York for decades during South Africa’s regime of apartheid and in those painful, if prolific, years he gained an international following. White was just starting to make his mark with New Orleans style.
“It was a long plane ride,” recalls White. “When I said I was from New Orleans he got excited and started talking about Louis Armstrong and the big impact he had on his life and career.”
As the years passed, White kept seeing Masekela on concert tours; they kept talking about Armstrong. “When I became a consultant for Economy Hall Jazz Tent [at The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival] I asked Hugh if he was interested in doing an Armstrong tribute concert. He said yes.” White paused. “That was about ten years ago. He has a very busy schedule.”
Masekela’s huge hit, “Grazing in the Grass,” has become a standard in the Treme Brass Band repertoire and for school bands in Carnival parades for years. Masekela was 14 years old in South Africa when an activist Anglican priest gave him a trumpet and organized a youth band. In 1953, on a trip to America, Father Trevor Huddleston met Armstrong and told him about the band. Armstrong gave Huddleston a trumpet for the band. Masekela never forgot the gesture, nor Huddleston, who was subsequently exiled for opposing apartheid.
“I think anybody from the 20th century, up to now, has to be aware that if it wasn’t for Louis Armstrong, we’d all be wearing powdered wigs,” Masekela once said. “Before Louis Armstrong, the world was definitely square, just like Christopher Columbus thought.” Masekela returned to South Africa when Nelson Mandela, freed after 37 years in prison, was elected president in 1991.
On Thursday May 4, Masekela, 78, and White, 63, will finally unite for a Louis Armstrong tribute at Jazz Fest. White: “I think we’ll do a couple of songs from Armstrong’s early period in the 1920s and in those pieces, my style on clarinet will be more in the vein of Johnny Dodds,” the New Orleans clarinetist who moved to Chicago when Armstrong did, and played on the Hot 5 recordings with Armstrong in 1926. Dodds had a muscular tone with rich blues harmonies to complement Armstrong’s soaring melodic range on trumpet.
“He used several clarinet players over the years until the All Stars became his touring band. I hear that fire and creativity in the early Hot 5 and Hot 7 recordings. His greatest period of visibility and success came many years later with the All Stars. The music was lighter and more commercial. I was telling my [Xavier University] students the other day that in the 1950s Armstrong was one of the most famous Americans and probably the most famous black man on earth. Who was a more famous African-American then? He toured Africa and was treated like a king.”
In 1960, the year Masekela moved to New York, Armstrong did a four-month State Department tour of African countries. CBS newsman Edward E. Murrow traveled with him for a documentary, The Saga of Satchmo. The iconic image of that trip is Armstrong lifting his trumpet with the pyramids of Egypt behind him.
In mid-March, White sent Masekela a list of 50 songs from the Armstrong repertoire in different periods of his half-century career. The band will include Leon Brown on trumpet, David Harris on trombone, Don Vappie on banjo, Rickie Monie on piano, and Kerry Lewis on standup bass. “I’m very excited that this is finally coming to fruition,” said White.
“A Salute to Louis Armstrong featuring Hugh Masekela and Dr. Michael White,” Thursday, May 4, 4:15 to 5:30 p.m., on the People’s Health stage at the 2017 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.