×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

To Louis Armstrong

When asked to explain what they were trying to do in individual pieces, musicians often say they'd rather the music speak for itself. In considering the biographical revue "To Louis Armstrong," which premiered at the Bell Atlantic Jazz Festival on Friday, that seems like a mighty fine idea. It's difficult to go too far wrong when you start out with basic materials as solid as Armstrong's finest compositions --which, by extension, rank among the sturdiest in jazz history -- and a passel of the finest performers in jazz today.

With:
Musicians: Melba Joyce, Roy Hargrove, Wycliffe Gordon, Christian McBride, John Hicks, Bernard Purdie

When asked to explain what they were trying to do in individual pieces, musicians often say they’d rather the music speak for itself. In considering the biographical revue “To Louis Armstrong,” which premiered at the Bell Atlantic Jazz Festival on Friday, that seems like a mighty fine idea.

It’s difficult to go too far wrong when you start out with basic materials as solid as Armstrong’s finest compositions –which, by extension, rank among the sturdiest in jazz history — and a passel of the finest performers in jazz today. Director Roz Nixon wasted a good opportunity to fully illuminate the legend of Satchmo, however, adding far too little supporting substance to the mix.

At the piece’s onset, Nixon joined the musicians onstage and told the audience she’d be shouldering the role of griot in order to further the narrative. Unfortunately, she didn’t even approach those mystical heights, and ended up sounding more like the narrator of a live action version of VH1’s “Behind the Music.”

Set in Texas, circa 1962, “To Louis Armstrong” follows vocalist Melba Joyce from a stint fronting a local jazz combo to stardom with Armstrong’s band — a move she actually made in her late teens. The piece opens with a medley of several instrumental chestnuts — including filips of “Sunny Side of the Street” and “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue”–ostensibly performed by the locals.

The musicians, all of whom slip in and out of character, conveyed the small-town vibe of the scene quite well, particularly wisecracking drummer Bernard Purdie.

It took an entrance from Joyce — enmeshed in an argument with her dresser-to kick the piece into gear, though. Her knowingly weary interpretations of “I Cover the Waterfront” and “Black and Blue” were dreamily poignant — a tone balanced by a good-humored rendition of “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead, You Rascal You” that Joyce dedicated to trumpeter Hargrove, her stage spouse.

Both Hargrove and trombonist Wycliffe Gordon evoked the spirit of Armstrong’s music lovingly, conveying both the jazz giant’s rambunctious side (in a spicy “High Society”) and his lyrical elegance (a lovely “Sleepy Time Down South”).

Sentimentality takes over in the suite’s latter stages, with Joyce (by now entrenched in the spotlight) leading audience sing-alongs on energetic-but-undistinguished versions of “Hello, Dolly” and “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

To Louis Armstrong

Knitting Factory; 199 seats; $35.

Production: Presented by KnitMedia. Written and directed by Roz Nixon. Reviewed June 2, 2000.

Cast: Musicians: Melba Joyce, Roy Hargrove, Wycliffe Gordon, Christian McBride, John Hicks, Bernard Purdie

More Legit

  • Bryan Cranston First Time in Variety

    Bryan Cranston on His Early Roles, Dealing With Rejection and His 'Erasable Mind'

    Following his 2014 Tony Award for best actor as President Lyndon B. Johnson in Robert Schenkkan’s play “All the Way,” Bryan Cranston is looking to add to his trophy collection this year with his performance as Howard Beale in “Network.” The deranged anchorman — who’s famously “mad as hell and not going to take this [...]

  • Ink Play West End London

    Wary Theater Rivalry Between London and New York Gives Way to a Boom in Crossovers

    Give or take a little tectonic shift, the distance between London and New York still stands at 3,465 miles. Arguably, though, the two theater capitals have never been closer. It’s not just the nine productions playing in duplicate in both locations — believed to be the most ever — with three more expected in the [...]

  • Alex Brightman Beetlejuice Broadway

    How Alex Brightman Brought a Pansexual Beetlejuice to Life on Broadway

    Alex Brightman gives the deadliest performance on Broadway — in a good way — in “Beetlejuice.” The big-budget musical adaptation of the 1988 film directed by Tim Burton has scored eight Tony nominations, including best actor. To play the frisky role, Brightman (“School of Rock”) dons Beetlejuice’s striped suit and an assortment of colorful wigs [...]

  • Santino Fontana Tootsie Broadway Illustration

    'Tootsie' Star Santino Fontana on the Challenges of His Tony-Nominated Dual Role

    Santino Fontana is doing double duty on Broadway this year. The “Tootsie” star scored his second Tony Award nomination this month for his hilarious portrayal of struggling actor Michael Dorsey and Dorothy Michaels, the female persona that Dorsey assumes to win a role in a play. The musical, based on the 1982 comedy starring Dustin [...]

  • Dear Evan Hansen

    Broadway Cast Albums Find Fresh Footing With Hip New Sounds, Viral Outreach

    Mixtapes. YouTube videos. Dedicated playlists. Ancillary products. Viral marketing. Epic chart stays. These are things you expect to hear from a record label discussing Cardi B or Beyoncé. Instead, this is the new world of a very old staple, the Broadway original cast recording. Robust stats tell the tale: Atlantic’s “Hamilton” album beat the record [...]

  • Ali Stroker Oklahoma

    Ali Stroker on 'Oklahoma!': 'This Show Doesn’t Follow the Rules and That Is So Who I Am'

    Ali Stroker is no stranger to rewriting history. With her 2015 Broadway debut in “Spring Awakening,” she became the first actor in a wheelchair to perform on the Great White Way. Three years later, she’s back onstage in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!” as Ado Annie, the flirtatious local who splits her affections between a resident [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content