Music is a great bonding element, but it appears that Michael Varekamp’s love of iconic trumpeter Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong’s work has an added deeprooted layer to it. The 41-year-old Dutch jazz trumpeter is the star of the next installment of this year’s Hot Jazz series, which will take place nationwide between May 5 and 12.
He will be joined by compatriot vocalist Machteld Cambridge, as well as Israeli reedman Kobi Salomon; veteran Israeli drummer Shai Zelman; New York-resident Israeli trombonist Yonatan Volchuk; and Canadian bass player Donovan Bullen.
Varekamp last played here five years ago, also as part of the Hot Jazz series, when he performed material that has been made famous by Armstrong, although this time the sonic mindset will be different.
“The last time I wrote arrangements of Armstrong numbers in a more contemporary style,” says the Dutchman. “This time, it will be more traditional.”
Varekamp says he feels very close to Armstrong, and not just because of the American’s music. “Louis’s story is a bit like my own story. I am black, and I was given away for adoption, to a white family, when I was six months old,” explains Varekamp. “When I was around 38, I decided to look for my biological parents.”
There was a major surprise in store.
“Two days before I met my biological mother, I dreamt I was Jewish,” he says. “So imagine how I felt when my mother told me she was Jewish!” That added information put Varekamp right in Armstrong territory. Satchmo’s mother was “a lady of the night,” and she placed her infant son in the care of a Jewish family in New Orleans. “So you can see, there is a very strong connection between us,” he says.
There’s even more substance to the Armstrong-Varekamp link. “My biological mother told me she loved jazz, and she loved the music of Louis Armstrong and [legendary trumpeter] Miles Davis. I must have heard a lot of that while I was still in my mother’s belly,” he says.
That may go some way toward explaining why Varekamp became so enamored with Satchmo’s music at such a young age. “I heard his music on one of my dad’s records when I was 12 years old – I started playing trumpet when I was 10,” he recounts.
It was love at first note. “There was such a wide range of emotions in his music,” Varekamp continues. “There was something about his spirit that really got to me.”
Anyone who has ever seen a clip of Armstrong performing would probably be bowled over not only by his captivating singing and incredible playing technique but also by his infectious smile and laugh and his insouciant body language. But it was purely the music that pulled on Varekamp’s heartstrings.
“We’re talking about the late 1970s when I heard that Armstrong record,” he says. “There was no YouTube around back then, so I couldn’t see him perform.”
Today, Varekamp travels the world to spread the word about Satchmo and his musical and spiritual legacy.
That also includes presenting workshops about Armstrong. “I tell people about his playing, his timing and his dedication and the way he grew up,” says Varekamp. The latter also conveys a strong message of how you can improve your lot in life, the way Armstrong did. “I also tell them about the way he improvised and played around with small ideas.”
Varekamp is also a firm believer in not overdoing things. “Armstrong was very clever about leaving things out of the music, things that were superfluous. Miles Davis also did that.
The great players had their own way of editing themselves and deciding what not to play.”
Besides his jazz development, Varekamp also got a solid grounding in classical music, receiving an honors degree from the Royal Conservatory of Music in The Hague. “I haven’t played classical music for a long time, but it makes you strong and gives you a sense of discipline and technique. It is an important part of how I play today,” he says.
Over the last couple of decades, Varekamp has mixed it with a wide array of fellow musical explorers, including one of the art form’s most colorful characters, late Chicago-born trumpeter Lester Bowie. “It was great fun to work with Lester,” recalls Varekamp. “We toured together with his big band and played his music. I’d say he was a real artist, a real performer.”
On the forthcoming Israeli tour, Varekamp will attempt to do some of the Great Man’s oeuvre justice with a program that includes numerous musical nuggets, such as “Summertime.” “Cheek to Cheek” and “Hello Dolly,” all of which Armstrong performed with jazz diva Ella Fitzgerald. Varekamp says that Cambridge, his “Ella” for the Israeli shows, is made of different stock. “I’d say she’s more like [jazz singer] Dinah Washington. She’s a natural singer and a natural performer as well.”
Ganei Tikva on May 5 at 9 p.m., the Gerard Behar Center, Jerusalem, May 7 at 9 p.m., Zappa Club Herzliya on May 10 p.m., Modi’in Einan Hall, May 9 at 9 p.m. The Tel Aviv Art Museum May 10 at 9 p.m. and on May 11 at 9:30 p.m., and at Haifa, Abba Hushi House May 12 at 9 p.m.