Springfield’s Simms says playing Satchmo always a work in progress

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

A twist of the 1933 jazz hit “Stomping at the Savoy” was already in the mix.

But on Monday, with the premier of a new version of “Satchmo, the Musical” just two weeks away, Dean Simms and his nine musicians/players were in the basement of a Centerville home practicing their rendering of the of Ethel Waters and Billie Holiday’s “Am I Blue,” when one of those moments happened.

Through the alchemy of music, the opening phrase of “New York, New York” emerged in the horn section, and soon everyone was at work figuring how to make an already smooth sonic cocktail that much smoother.

Simms — who wrote the musical and plays the title role of Louis Armstrong — said the show, and his own pursuit of music, “is always going to be a work in progress.”

In Simms’ case, it has been a musical pilgrim’s progress.

Now 69, he had his first horn handed to him in 1963 at Grayhill Elementary by Springfield’s then pied piper of music, John Smarelli.

But Simms never really considered using his voice box as an instrument until Leroy “Sugarfoot” Bonner nudged him to give it a try when Simms was performing with The Ohio Players.

He didn’t get around to trying out Satchmo’s gravelly style until the late 1980s, when his mother, Lorene, a director of nursing at the IOOF Home in Springfield, asked him to play for her residents. His set list included “When the Saints Go Marching In,” a Satchmo standard.

And once he could sing a little Satchmo, a practical question arose: “Could I sing like him for an hour? A dozen years later, he rounded up some Ohio State University students to stage his first Armstrong performance in the former Yanucci’s Restaurant on Springfield’s West Side.

Since then, he’s performed it in enough venues to know why Johnny Cash added the word “man” after singing “I’ve been everywhere.”

Stops include, he said: “The Ohio State Fair every year. Vegas, Sacramento, Northern Michigan. Florida a few times. North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Kentucky, Denver, Wyoming.”

Along that winding road, “Satchmo, the Musical” was born and has grown into what he describes as a Vegas-Broadway style show.

As Satchmo, he wanders out into the audience ala Vegas, and all the score and scripting brings to mind the bright lights of Broadway. What plays out on and off stage is not just the music of Satchmo – though “Hello, Dolly” and “What a Wonderful World” are front and center – but the music of Satchmo’s lengthy stay on the American stage.

Simms’ arrangements of those other songs of the time — Jeepers Creepers, the St. Louis Blues, Mack the Knife and Stormy Weather — are served in Dixieland, Swing, Latin and Cabaret styles, sometimes in the same song. The show even throws in a little post-Satchmo “Get funky with it.”

In the name of authenticity, Simms keeps the costuming old-school.

“We all wear tuxes, and the ladies wear flappers,” he said. “I believe you’ve got to look as sharp as possible because we’re representing that era.”

And, in a sense, both evoking and living in it.

“When I’m on stage, I’m in character. I’m in character vocal wise, I’m in character singing wise. That, and I’m a trumpet player, too.”

All of that taps into the homework he’s done and continues to do.

“I study his intonations, I study his diction, I study the way he sometimes will slide up to a note,” change ranges from baritone to first tenor, then drop into “that thick, gravelly voice – and then be able to talk that way.”

And to talk in Armstrong’s voice on the trumpet, too.

Simms said every iconic musician like Armstrong and Sinatra has a handful of distinctive nuances “that makes them who they are” and channeling them requires not only study and observation, but practice and exercise.

“I believe your voice is muscle,” a muscle used just as the cheek and neck muscles are used in playing the trumpet.

And after years of practice — and in the midst of a particularly busy run of performances, he says — “I’m now at my best Louis Armstrong.

Those who want to have a taste of that served up by a seasoned group of players have two chances in the next eight days: A more modest 2 p.m. Friday gig at the Columbus Jazz and Ribs Fest or the full performance of the 90-minute musical at the Des Plaines Theater west of Chicago, where the curtain goes up next Sunday 3 p.m.

Hello, Dolly!

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