Michael Jackson step aside. Louis Armstrong is the true "King of Pop(s)," a fact brought home last weekend when thousands of Armstrong fans thronged to the U.S. Mint building in New Orleans to celebrate the second annual Satchmo Summer Fest.
Armstrong's music and iconic presence was ubiquitous in the Crescent City as scores of local musicians pitched in for three days of Armstrong music to an audience that ranged from around the block to halfway around the world.
Visitors arriving at Louis Armstrong International Airport Thursday evening were greeted with a free concert in the airport lobby by Kermit Ruffins and "Sista" Teedy Boutte, who performed a tribute to Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald.
Ruffins was in his element all weekend. Though the large majority of New Orleans trumpeters pay homage to Armstrong, Ruffins comes closest to embodying the whole package -- a great vocalist and trumpeter who lives the New Orleans aesthetic.
Ruffins is a complete showman, with Armstrong's capacity for making people happy.
On Friday morning some of the world's foremost Armstrong experts began a series of lectures with a fascinating opening piece by critic and columnist Stanley Crouch.
Crouch gave an entertaining performance short on academics and long on myth making. The short, stout speaker bugged his eyes at the crowd and musically mumbled some of his lines for comic effect at key points, drawing huge laughs as if in a kind of performance tribute to Armstrong.
But Crouch is a sharp, tactical thinker and a terrific wordsmith, so he used those moments as attention-getters, setting up powerful statements about Armstrong. He repeatedly emphasized the point that Armstrong was a total original who almost immediately transcended his influences to develop a unique personal style.
"That's what all great geniuses have," Crouch said in a moment of shining clarity. "They're never anyone but themselves."
Moving around the podium with a boxer's economy of motion, and punctuating his observations by pointing right-handed jabs at the air, Crouch avoided much discussion of Armstrong's trumpet playing, concentrating instead on his singing.
The strategy moves Armstrong out of the realm of instrumental virtuoso into the world of mass celebrity. Crouch's vision of Armstrong was a portrayal of a pop icon far greater than Frank Sinatra or Elvis Presley.
"Armstrong has never been loved or appreciated more than today," Crouch argued.
Crouch also spoke to the problems Armstrong faced as a black visionary in the racist Jim Crow society of the Deep South.
"He was no more alone," Crouch said, "than when he was at home."
On Saturday and Sunday the conference speakers on the third floor of the old U.S. Mint were competing with the sounds of live music from four stages surrounding the building.
One stage showcased traditional New Orleans jazz, another featured brass bands and a third presented contemporary bands. The fourth stage was a potpourri of children performers and instructional sets.
The great New Orleans saxophonist Donald Harrison opened the contemporary jazz stage with a tribute to another local institution, the Mardi Gras Indians. Harrison's father was a chief of one of the local tribes and participated in the historic "Indian Blues Album" with his son.
On the traditional jazz stage the Dukes of Dixieland played a powerful tribute to the music of Armstrong's era. The Dukes were the only band in the festival with a direct musical connection to Armstrong, having backed Satchmo on record.
Group leader, drummer Richard Taylor, acknowledged Armstrong before launching into "Bourbon Street Parade," which featured a great trumpet solo from Mike Fulton.
The Dukes have not always been the most exciting band in their 51-year history, but the current version is a terrific outfit led by Taylor's energetic drumming and great solo voices throughout the band in Fulton, trombonist Ben Smith, Earl Bonnie on clarinet, Scott Obenschan on piano and Everett Link on bass.
Though only in its second year, the Satchmo Summer Fest has all the earmarks of a successful event. Tourists came in droves despite the sweltering August heat.
Steve Koven, a pianist from Toronto, brought his wife into town to celebrate their anniversary with Satchmo.
"'What A Wonderful World' was our wedding song," he said. Koven participated in an impromptu jam session at the Palm Court Cafe, playing piano on "Sweet Georgia Brown" and "Bye Bye Blackbird."
"The thing that appeals to me about Louis aside from his being a musical genius is that he was a great entertainer," said Koven. "He was music."
Sunday morning brought the most beautiful weather of the weekend and a massive second-line parade from the Treme neighborhood behind the French Quarter. A cooling breeze blew in off the Mississippi as trumpet notes echoed off the railroad retaining walls and the antique Mobile and Ohio railroad car parked on the tracks across the street.
The Treme Brass Band played a spirited set with its two-trombone octet busting a medley of "Exactly Like You" and "Take the A Train."
The biggest crowd of the weekend flocked to the OffBeat Traditional Jazz Stage on Sunday for Kermit Ruffins, whose all-star band included trombonist Corey Henry, a major player on the local brass band scene.
Ruffins gave the crowd all it wanted and more, strutting on stage in a powder blue short sleeve shirt and shorts suit and fedora to sing a beautiful "When It's Sleepy Time Down South" -- then channeling Armstrong with an emotionally powerful rendition of "Black and Blue" and a rollicking "Jeepers Creepers," holding the bell of his trumpet up to the side of his mouth as he sang to amplify his voice.
Ruffins showcased trumpet player Mervin "Kid Merv" Campbell, and the event closed with a trumpet jam led by James Andrews that brought eight trumpeters on stage in a rousing finale that had fans second-lining in front of the stage as confetti guns fired from the Mint's balconies showered them with brightly-colored streamers.
Out on Decatur Street a youngster tap danced on the sidewalk for loose change people threw into a cardboard box as they passed by. Nearly 100 years ago the young Armstrong worked these same streets for tips.
I asked the kid what he knew about Louis Armstrong.
"He play wit' da Saints," he said with a huge smile.
I almost corrected him until I realized that Armstrong didn't have to be a football player for the kid to be right.
"You might have something there," I said as I tossed money into his box.