After struggles, Satchmo Summerfest taking off

Satchmo SummerFest may have one of the biggest names in American music as its focal point, but organizers have struggled to put it on in recent years.

Marci Schramm, executive director of French Quarter Festivals Inc., which produces the weekend of music and seminars, said that it hasn’t had the same financial support the French Quarter Festival has enjoyed.

At times, organizers wondered if it was fiscally prudent to continue. The commitment people felt toward the importance of Louis Armstrong and holding a traditional jazz festival in New Orleans drove them to keep it alive, and this year the event’s fortunes changed when Chevron signed on as Satchmo SummerFest’s title sponsor.

The accompanying infusion of capital has made a huge difference.

“We’re excited to be able to sit back and enjoy every minute of it,” Schramm says. “There isn’t that stress of ‘How are we going to pay for it?’ ” Satchmo SummerFest starts Friday at the Old U.S. Mint, but Schramm thinks the multiyear commitment Chevron has made will have a long-term impact.

“I think this will be the last year of it being a little, boutique festival, and we’re looking at really, really growing it for future years — out into the neighborhoods, maybe into Armstrong Park. Making it like a summertime French Quarter Festival is our goal.”

Meschiya Lake and The Little Big Horns have played French Quarter Festival, but Friday they will make their debut at 5 p.m. at Satchmo SummerFest. For the swing band about to release its second album, “Fooler’s Gold,” a gig at one of New Orleans’ signature festivals is particularly meaningful.

“It’s like being recognized at home,” Lake said.

Historically, traditional jazz has been taught by one generation to its successors in neighborhoods and on bandstands. Lake and The Little Big Horns are part of a community of musicians who came to it because of their love of the music. They began their careers in New Orleans busking on Royal Street, becoming Frenchmen Street regulars, and now perform regularly at the Windsor Court as well.

Still, she faces the same challenges as other musicians playing Satchmo SummerFest. “To write a new song that fits in with the old songs, that’s where we’re at,” Lake says. “Keeping roots and tradition, but making it new and appealing to a younger audience so these songs can continue.”

When they perform, they’ll follow traditionalists The Dukes of Dixieland and precede New Orleans piano great Allen Toussaint and trombonist Wycliffe Gordon. Toussaint and Gordon will make their debuts as well at Satchmo SummerFest this year, and they represent organizers’ efforts to expand the event. In honor of Armstrong, vocalist John Boutte, best known for singing the theme song to HBO’s “Treme,” will play trumpet before a live audience for the first time since the seventh grade when he performs at 4:15 p.m. Friday.

“He said, ‘I don’t know if it’s a good idea or not, but I’m going to do it,’ ” Schramm said.

Organizers look forward to growth, but this year Satchmo SummerFest will have the familiar vibe that has characterized it in recent years, with many musicians, fans and panelists returning to the event as they have year after year. Armstrong producer George Avakian will once again speak as part of the seminar series, and author and archivist Ricky Riccardi will again bring film footage of Armstrong from throughout his career. On the first afternoon at 12:30 p.m., Dr. Michael Cogswell, director of the Louis Armstrong House Museum, will talk about the records in Armstrong’s personal collection, which ranged from Miles Davis to party comedian Redd Foxx.

Cogswell will play reel-to-reel tapes of Armstrong commenting on the music while listening to it, which Schramm said will both humanize the music legend and help explain his enduring place in the culture.

“The spirit of him is still so alive,” she said. “He was such a special person because he had talent, gifts and charisma that most people on this Earth could never have. But he put himself out there. He wasn’t such a private person; he was very accessible.”