Houston Symphony Marches Into November With Louis Armstrong Songbook

Jones Hall will be rocking New Orleans jazz style this weekend with a tribute to Louis Armstrong.
Jones Hall will be rocking New Orleans jazz style this weekend with a tribute to Louis Armstrong. Photo by John Abbott
Travel back to the golden age of jazz as the Houston Symphony presents Wonderful World: The Louis Armstrong Songbook, running Friday through Sunday at Jones Hall. The multitalented Byron Stripling will salute Louis Armstrong with recreations of iconic hits like “What a Wonderful World,” “Basin Street Blues,” “Mack the Knife” and “Hello Dolly.”

For the uninitiated, Armstrong was known around the world by his nickname "Satchmo" and was widely recognized as a founding father of jazz, one of the few art forms to originate from the United States. His influence as an artist and cultural icon is hailed as universal, unmatched, and very much alive today.

Armstrong developed a way of playing jazz, as an instrumentalist and a vocalist, which left an indelible mark. He recorded hit songs for five decades, and his music is still heard on television, on radio, and in films. He wrote two autobiographies, appeared in more than thirty films, and composed dozens of songs that have become jazz standards.

Ever the crowd pleaser, he performed an average of 300 concerts each year, with his frequent tours to all parts of the world - earning him the nickname "Ambassador Satch" - and became one of the first great celebrities of the twentieth century before his death in 1971.

In short, Louis Armstrong did a lot ... and that was what initially influenced Stripling to become an artist.

"In my daily life as a child, my dad listed to classical music in the morning, he taught music during the day, and he played jazz at night. Later on in the evening, when he’d relax after dinner, he'd put on The Four Tops; Earth, Wind, and Fire; and The Temptations ... and Louis Armstrong. When he played Louis Armstrong, it caught my ear immediately. Music was central to all we did. That’s why I do what I do today. I know music has the power to change people’s lives," he said.

To capture the essence of Armstrong, Stripling is the natural fit since his personality so closely mirrors Armstrong's. With a contagious smile and captivating charm, the conductor, trumpet virtuoso, singer, and actor has ignited audiences across the globe. Stripling was recently named the Principal Pops conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and his baton has led countless orchestras throughout the United States and Canada. He was a featured soloist on the PBS television special, "Evening at Pops," and he currently serves as Artistic Director and Conductor of the highly acclaimed Columbus Jazz Orchestra.

Bringing the two men even closer to comparison, he was chosen, following a worldwide search, to star in the lead role of the Broadway bound musical, "Satchmo." Stripling made a cameo performance in the television movie, "The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles," and he delivered a critically acclaimed virtuoso trumpet and riotous comedic performance in the 42nd Street production of "From Second Avenue to Broadway."

Stripling and Armstrong's personalities might be similar, but their upbringing was quite different ... however, it still led to the same ending. It's all about gratitude.

"Louis Armstrong is a man that was born in the poverty of the streets of New Orleans, and he would have been happy to stay in New Orleans. But The Fates had a different idea. They took him around the world," he said. "He didn’t know his father, and he was raised by his mother and sister, who were both rumored to be prostitutes. But this guy still rises to the very top. If there is an American dream, it would be Louis Armstrong."

"I’m here in the cause of happiness. When we heard the sound of that trumpet and that unique voice and what it gave us? Some people found fault with his voice, but he exploited it. He made us look at ourselves. We saw part of ourselves in him. He smoked, was overweight, and ate too much fatty food, but he was joyful, and there’s joy in all of us too," Stripling added.

Armstrong's spirit of hope is present in his music, perhaps mostly within the hymns he performed. This weekend's setlist includes the spirituals "Just A Closer Walk With Thee," "Down By The Riverside," and "Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child."

"Those songs were important for people because when they sang them, that was the only time they felt free. It was a time to voice your feelings," Stripling adds. "People who are marginalized and discriminated against, and still go on stage with a smile? That's because joy, hope, and passion are embedded within them despite hardship. We spread love even to those who try to crush us. Ghandi taught us that. Artists do the same thing. We can turn people around with the power of music and love."

And no one embodies the humor quite like Stripling. Just watch this clip to see his stage presence and oh-so-talented trumpet skills.

"When I go on stage, the goal is gratitude. We're grateful people showed up to see us. If there’s a legacy of jazz, it’s that it gets handed to you, and you have a responsibility to give that gift to everyone. When I perform, I'm here to embrace you and love you," he said.

And, of course, there's no thinking of Louis Armstrong without hearing the sounds of "When The Saints Go Marching In."

Stripling said, "We always end with 'When The Saints Go Marching In.' Hopefully everyone will be standing up and clapping their hands and experiencing that great music."

Houston Symphony's 'Wonderful World: The Louis Armstrong Songbook' will play at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday at Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana Street. For tickets or information, call 713-227-3974 or visit $29 to $140. Live-streaming tickets are available for Saturday's performance for $20.
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Sam Byrd is a freelance contributor to the Houston Press who loves to take in all of Houston’s sights, sounds, food and fun. He also loves helping others to discover Houston’s rich culture.
Contact: Sam Byrd