When a friend calls you about a labor of love based on seeing his friend in a dream, it's generally not newsworthy unless your friend is Dr. John and his friend is Louis Armstrong. I had the chance to talk with old friend Dr. John (born Mac Rebennack) about his well received "Props to Pops" tribute for fellow New Orleans native Louis Armstrong last Wednesday at the Hollywood Bowl.
What a killer team of trumpets at the Hollywood Bowl tribute.
Dr. John: "Yes, we had Marcus Belgrave, Wendell Brunious, Terence Blanchard, Nicolas Payton. We had Arturo Sandoval. And Dee Dee Bridgewater singing backup, Anthony Hamilton sang some stuff. We had (Cuban rapper) Telmary Diaz and the Blind Boys of Alabama. My band, the Nite Trippers, and Sarah Morrow, my musical director and arranger completely sold our business for each and every act in every way conceivable.
Strong lineup. And you knowing Louis Armstrong in his lifetime makes it even more special that you put it together in his memory.
Dr. John: "Hey, Louis came to me in a dream and said to do something. So that's what I'm doing."
You sure did something.
Dr. John: "And we're gonna try to keep this going on a record."
I know you've been working toward the Louis Armstrong tribute album. To be released shortly?
Dr. John: "Well we're doing what we could do, you know?"
You're getting there. With you being out on the road, working in the time for the project has to be difficult. What's a favorite memory you have of Louis Armstrong? I know you two were spending time together in New York ..."
Dr. John: "I remember when I first met Louis Armstrong at Joe Glaser's office when he was handling Associated Booking. It was the same year that me and and I think B.B. King signed with Joe. And I remember that Joe had a picture of Louis sitting on a rock in Bucktown and it was facing where Ralph Shultz' Fresh Hardware Store used to be, and where my dad's shop used to be. And I asked Louis about it, if he happened to see Ralph Schultz' Fresh Hardware Store, and he said 'Yeah!' He was laughing his ass off about that. He said he couldn't see my dad's shop across the street. We were laughing so hard about that."
Your dad sold musical equipment and records, so it all ties together. He serviced much of the music gear in New Orleans.
Dr. John: "I mean, my Daddy at that time was fixing radios, or whatever. Most of those big record players had radios in them and speakers, all part of these big, big units.
That was a golden age of New Orleans R&B and music, although it's no slouch right now. You won another Grammy this year for Locked Down.
Dr. John: "Hey you know, I feel like it's a different world than when Louis came to be. I think he came to me in my dream and just said "Do something," and I think that was very hip and understandingful, to know that was something I should maybe do. And so I had to think about it for a lot of days before I got started doing this thing."
How did it feel, seeing all that start to come to life at the Hollywood Bowl in tribute to Louis?
Dr. John: "It was kind of cool, you know, a lot of the stuff that we did there. Say somebody like Arturo Sandoval, he was telling me about Emmanuel Perez who used to play with Buddy Bolden and all of the guys that started jazz. He said Emanuel Perez was from Cuba. And that's where that connection is at. We have a lot of weird connections in New Orleans that's different than any other place."
That's true. And you're the my most spiritually connected friend in New Orleans. That's saying a lot.
Dr. John: Hey, we just trying to keep everything going. It's like a blessing to me every day that (bandleader) Sarah Morrow kept a great little band with me. She's one bad ass musician and the people consistently get off on her. She's helping make this into a real reality. And that's a blessing, you know? Cause change ain't easy."
It never is. It's also a gift to Pops. Of all the dreams you could have, that's not one to ignore.
Dr. John: "I agree with you there."
Stay tuned for more news of Dr. John's Louis Armstrong tributes. If you caught Props to Pops or the Louis Armstrong tribute during Dr. John's residency at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, you know that some special maneuvers are coming your way. Images below from Jeff Beninato (left) and early Louis Armstrong Publicity Photo from the Jazz Club of New Orleans, seen at the Old U.S. Mint, Louisiana State Museum.
You can follow Dr. John on Twitter at: @akadrjohn