Byron Stripling and Carmen Bradford perform with the Portland Symphony Orchestra in its Louis Armstrong and Friends show. Photo by Sarah McCullough/courtesy of Portland Symphony Orchestra

The legendary jazz great Louis Armstrong had a lot to do with inventing the way popular music is played and sung today. With his unique talent, he helped to artistically define an important period in the early to mid-20th century when the advent of mass media and international travel spread the seminal sounds of New Orleans, Chicago and New York to the rest of the world.

Over the weekend, the Portland Symphony Orchestra enlisted conductor/trumpeter/vocalist Byron Stripling and vocalist Carmen Bradford to present a highly entertaining and very swinging tribute to Armstrong and the “Friends” who contributed to his distinctive musical legacy (and he to theirs). The program may have evoked an era as much as an individual. But there is no doubt that Armstrong was a central figure.

Stripling steered the PSO, with a small piano-bass-drums jazz combo embedded at its center, in the manner of an old-school, rhythm-setting big band leader. This was not surprising, perhaps, since both he and Bradford earned their musical wings working with the Count Basie Orchestra.

The multi-talented Stripling often played trumpet, injecting occasional stylistic nods to the work of Armstrong on that instrument. His deep tenor vocals further accessed the gritty, guttural sounds of the master. Revved up renditions of “Birth of the Blues,” “Saint Louis Blues” and a sing-along take on “Basin Street” were highlights from the affable co-star and a hard-swinging PSO.

One might have hoped for even a little more emphasis on the verve of the early music of Armstrong. But what followed were many fine musical moments.

A smiling Bradford, in a sparkling gown, took the stage for several numbers that referenced Armstrong collaborator Ella Fitzgerald, about whom, as with Armstrong, the singer had first-hand memories to share. A bit of backup singing from PSO players supported her on the Fitzgerald classic “A-Tisket A-Tasket,” while the singer went all in, replete with some first-rate scat singing, on the accelerating tempo of “Mr. Paganini.”


Stripling and Bradford got into some playful, comedic teasing between songs as they reminisced about some of their shared extra-musical memories. They also got into some feisty vocal duets on “Sweet Georgia Brown” and “Bill Bailey.”

A good deal (nearly half) of the program was given over to Gershwin tunes, many of which Armstrong recorded with Fitzgerald in the 1950s.

“I Got Rhythm” got toes tapping among the attentive Sunday afternoon crowd while “But Not for Me” rose out of a rich string arrangement. Shared vocals and a bit of poignant trumpet work highlighted the sweet defiance of “They Can’t Take That Away from Me.”

Bradford wiped her eyes as she made her way through “Someone to Watch Over Me,” noting later that the string part always moves her. The soft swing of “A Foggy Day” and the clarion trumpet work on “Love is Here to Stay” lightened the mood in a concert that not only celebrated Louis Armstrong but a time when musical giants inspired many.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.

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