Band revives Louis Armstrong's improvisations at Arrowhead


PITTSFIELD -- When young Louis Armstrong played in Chicago, no one took notes on his improvisations. But tonight they will resound in the hills -- when the Springfield-based Dixieland Stomp presents "The Life, Times and Music of Louie Armstrong."

The free concert lecture will look back at the cultural, social and musical environment that helped Armstrong become the most famous New Orleans Jazz trumpeter of his time.

Led by bass trombonist David Neill, Dixieland Stomp will perform selections from throughout Armstrong's career, including hits such as "Hello Dolly" and some of the earliest tunes from his days in Chicago.

"You can't just go out and buy an original arrangement by Louis Armstrong," Neill explained. "There's no sheet music that I know of that survived from those days.

"These are guys that would just get together and play -- it was never written down."

About six years ago, Neill found someone in Canada who had transcribed original Louis Armstrong recordings from 1926 and 1927. In a transcription, Neill explained, "they write down the exact notes that are performed" -- just as Armstrong played them.

The Dixieland Stomp musicians include Dave Bilodeau on trumpet, clarinetist Ed Mari, Gene Bartley on trombone, bass trombonist David Neill, Joe Hoye on tuba, and newcomer Ben Falkoff on banjo.

"When Louis Armstrong did his "Hot 5" and "Hot 7" recordings, it was just a trumpet, clarinet and trombone, along with either a piano or a banjo," Neill said.

Neill plays a transposition of the second trumpet part.

"That's sort of typical with a lot of Dixieland groups of the 20s," he explained. "The instrumentation was never really solidified, and so every group had its own little differences."

Still, he said, "Louis can play one note on the trumpet and I know it's him playing. It's that recognizable."

Betsy Sherman, Director of the Berkshire Historical Society which manages Melville's literary homestead, explained that they like to host events at Arrowhead with broad historical appeal.

"Certainly, Louis Armstrong and his music was popular here in the Berkshires," she said.

"During the summer we tend to focus on Melville," she said. "In the off-season, we look for different things to offer."

The presentation, which will take place in Melville's rustic barn or outdoors if the weather is warm, provides an opportunity to showcase the historic property. "A lot of [the audience] are people who have not been here before," Sherman said.

Neill has brought a variety of programs to Arrowhead almost annually for the past five years, including a history of brass instruments. A college music major, after a long career in the insurance industry he now manages and performs with 7 different musical ensembles.

"Playing a brass instrument is like all or nothing," he said. "I have to put in a minimum of an hour of practice a day just to have the strength to get through two hours of performing."

"It's like having a second wife -- it's a big commitment."

Originally a Bebop fan, Neill grew closer to the music and the man through his research into Armstrong's life.

"It's a fantastic story," he said. "I knew he came from nothing. His mother was a part-time prostitute. His father was never around. From the age of five he was on his own, out on the streets."

From these troubled beginnings, Armstrong rose to become an international musical sensation.

"He was on the front edge of all these changes that occurred in music history," Neill said. "[His music] was extremely iinventive, both technically range-wise and harmonically. He always tried to improve himself until the day he died. You can hear the soul in his music."

Tonight, at Arrowhead, experience these historic notes played live -- one more time.

If you go ...

What: Louis Armstrong tribute

Where: Arrowhead, Pittsfield

When: Tonight at 7

Admission: Free

Information: (413) 442-1793,


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