Trumpeter Rayse Biggs Bassist Ralph Armstrong tried damn hard to get the audience to buy into his comic shtick Thursday evening at the Music on the Plaza, a weekly concert series held on St. Clair Street in downtown Grosse Pointe, MI. As a sideman, Armstrong has worked with a bunch of prominent musicians such as saxophonist Eddie Harris, vocalist Aretha Franklin, soul crooner Curtis Mayfield, and pianist Herbie Hancock, just to list a few. For a number of years, Armstrong has been the workhorse in saxophonist James Carter’s quintet responsible for the bulk of the manual labor.
Thursday was the first time I experienced Armstrong as a bandleader. Watching him clown was tough because I genuinely admire him. He's a standout in a city top heavy with bass players. It's not uncommon, however, for a musician of Armstrong's caliber to have a bad night. Armstrong and his band faced a crowd that unfamiliar with his track record and who were obviously disinterested in his jokes. Most of the audience probably didn't have anything better to do, and felt it was too nice of a summer evening to waste at home watching sitcom reruns. Armstrong tried to perk up the crowd with some jokes when he should've just played.
Armstrong felt it necessary to prefaced each selection his quartet played with a corny joke. The jokes weren't remotely relevant to the compositions the band performed. For example, before they played Just Friends, the first song on their set list, Armstrong encouraged the crowd to continue to support the arts. Then he shamelessly quipped that if not for the arts instead of entertaining them he would probably be mugging them. The audience became so quite you could literally hear a cricket pissing on a piece of cotton.
He poke fun at the mayor of Detroit who the police arrested hours before Armstrong took the stage. I had an urge to heckled the bassist, but when the audience did not respond to his jokes, Armstrong and pianist Henry Gibson played a duet on Dear Old Stockholm. When they played the last note, I wanted to rush the stage and yell:"Yeah, Ralph that's what we came to hear!" Unfortunately, I never got the chance because the bassist told another lame joke about wanting to help the mayor pay his legal tab.
The bassist's jokes received a few chuckles. Overall, his shtick bombed. I mean really bombed. Most of the jokes were inappropriate. I wanted Armstrong to just play, but he stuck to his game plan.
Trumpeter Rayse Biggs clowned, too. On the Divorce Blues, Biggs played the trumpet and the flugelhorn simultaneously. The crowd went nuts. Then, for no apparent reason, the trumpeter literally started speaking in tongue. After biggs finished mumbling, I surveyed the audience for the their reactions. They looked outright confused.
I’ve experienced Armstrong at the top of his game on many occasions, and I think he’s a good reputable musician, but I can’t figure out why he behaved so foolishly.