By Bill Parry
Flushing Meadows Corona Park was transformed into the Big Easy as Rock ‘N Roll Hall of Famer Dr. John headlined the third annual Louis Armstrong’s Wonderful World Festival Saturday.
The 75-year-old legend from New Orleans’ Third Ward shuffled onto the stage near the New York State Pavilion, using a voodoo staff as a walking stick, and joined his band, The Nite Trippers, for a powerful set of his signature swamp funk, a hybrid that combines blues, zydeco, and boogie woogie.
When the six-time Grammy Award-winner was inducted into the Hall in 2011, Dr. John said New Orleans music was not invented.
“It kind of grew up naturally, joyfully, just for fun. That’s it. Just plain down-to-earth happy-times music,” Dr. John said. “When I was growing up in the Third Ward, I used to think ‘Oh, man, this music makes me feel the best.”
The thousands in attendance appeared to agree, singing along to some of his biggest hits such as “Right Place, Wrong Time,” “Such a Night,” and “Iko Iko.” Many danced as Dr. John pounded his Yamaha piano, adorned with a skull staring out at the crowd.
Jazz legend Louis Armstrong grew up in the Third Ward as well, but lived his final three decades in Corona. His house at 34-56 107th St., which was designed by New York State Pavilion architect Robert Johnson, was given to the city after his death in 1971.
It is a National Historic Landmark owned by the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and administered by Queens College, the largest cultural campus in the borough, whose Kupferberg Center for the Arts presented the daylong free event Saturday.
The festival celebrates Armstrong’s immense cultural legacy and raises awareness of Kupferberg’s three performance spaces and community events.
“We are spreading culture to all of our neighborhoods with over 150 events a year in libraries, schools and community spaces,” Queens College Assistant Vice President Jeffrey Rosenstock said. “This event is a culmination of those efforts and it’s a way to build our brand. Last year Lauren Hill’s performance drew 20,000 people and 80 percent of them were from outside Queens. We added 10,000 names to our mailing list. This year, all 7,000 that reserved ticket were added to the list. Basically what we’re doing is building our data base.”
The lineup included jazz trumpeter and singer Kermit Ruffins, a fixture at Mardi Gras and the New Orleans Jazz Festival and a scene stealer in the HBO post-Katrina series “Treme,” which also featured cameo appearances by Dr. John.
A beer garden set up inside the lobby of the Queens Theatre served potent Hurricanes, adding to the Bourbon Street feel of the evening, but there were no gumbo or traditional po’ boy sandwiches served by nearby vending trucks. There was a band without ties to the Crescent City that fired up the crowd just before Dr. John took the stage.
Soulive, a jazz/funk trio that originated in Brooklyn, said they thoroughly enjoyed playing their set at Flushing Meadows Corona Park. Guitarist Erik Krasno, drummer Alan Evans and his organ playing brother Neal were all familiar with the old World’s Fair site.
“The crazy thing is me and my brother grew up in Brooklyn and we used to see this place from the highway all the time,” Alan Evans said. “But it’s our first time stepping foot on the grounds. What a great vibe, it’s beautiful in here, man.”
Krasno currently lives in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
“I was never here before either and it’s a real kick to perform at the old World’s Fair and I can be home in 10 minutes,” he said. “The park is cool and the people really know their music, and I love playing with Mac. He’s one of the true greats in all of music.”
He was referring to Dr. John, whose real name is Malcolm John “Mac” Rebennack, who claims to be no stranger to the borough.
“I’ve played Queens before, oh yeah,” Dr. John said in his familiar Nola drawl. “I remember playing here some years back, yeah. Can’t remember exactly where or exactly when, but yeah, Queens is great and it’s good to be back.”
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparr