A tune, a painting, a poem, or a story begin as something personal that emerges out of a person’s urge to say a thing by what means they can best say it. Sometimes it resonates so others, strangers, can feel at home in what was made, as though it is their own voices sounding there. After that, nothing is ever the same.
We don’t always know these moments when we’re in them. We have to look back from a distance over time to try to pick them out of memory’s soft static. But they stick with us all the same. We take them to heart, each in our own way. Often there’s a need to share the experience. Sometimes, there’s a longing to add something of our own. From the personal to the universal to the personal and on and on again. That’s the pulse of it. It don’t mean a thing if ain’t got that swing.
I don’t know when Jazz was born. No one does. And it’s just as hard to peg that tipping point when it entered the lifeblood of our worlds. I do know that Louis Armstrong made the first recordings that listed him as bandleader on November 12, 1925. The sides recorded for Okeh Records were “My Heart” and “Cornet Chop Suey.” Johnny Dodds was on clarinet, Kid Ory on trombone, and Johnny St. Cyr played banjo. Lil Hardin-Armstrong was at the piano. That must have been a hot moment. It wasn’t mine. Not directly. But many decades later I got a taste of the cheesecake baked in that oven.
Looking Back on Louis
I had deadlines. Time was getting away from me. That’s the thing with time: the more it eludes, the more we feel it pressing. The shorter it becomes, the wider and deeper and closer its shadow. I felt that, though there was no time to think it. Bug-eyed and claustrophobic, blinkered with purpose, I scurried room-to-room looking for a book that had the quote that said the thing I could not say without it. Ken Burns’ Jazz was on the video. My wife had put it on, and I stopped to look over my shoulder.
Louis Armstrong was playing. There were pictures of him in his youth, and Wynton Marsalis narrated Satchmo’s Chicago years with King Oliver, setting up his move to New York and the Fletcher Henderson band. There was the muscle and bone trumpet. There was the toothed voice smoothing a song to its soft wood where the grain was bluest.
I saw Armstrong once. I was nine or so. He was playing at the Jones Beach Marine Theater on Long Island and my folks had taken me. We unfolded chairs on the sand that night, and the scents of coconut and almond from tanning oils was still on the air. Mom fussed with a grocery bag, the brown paper crackling as she arranged salami sandwiches, Oreos, and boxes of Cracker Jacks to make them fit neatly under her seat, along with a jar of pineapple juice and our folded windbreakers. Dad inspected a playbill. He put his arm around Mom when she was done. She shrugged him off, and he faked a laugh. But they did not argue. It was nice to ease into the silence between them.
The stage was a floating one, a mock riverboat. I’d never seen so many lights or any as bright as the stage lights that appeared that night with the dark sky and the sea all around. Mom looked at me. Dad leaned over to look, too, and rested his chin lightly on her shoulder. They wanted to see what my face was like in that light. Theirs were radiant.
A metal thump of a switch threw everything into darkness but the stage. Someone said something through a loudspeaker and a band bounced out a beat behind the opening curtain. A swell of voices and applause broke over me. I’d never heard anything like it or felt anything like that music that sucked up the sounds of the crowd and flung them back in toots and squeals, jittery 88s, and long, brassy howls that cut the fat jump of the backbeat. Louis appeared stage right, ankling toward center. Then he lifted his trumpet, tilted his head back to catch the mouthpiece on his lips and blew one hard and high—and the world kicked it up a notch.
In the film, Marsalis’ tone was reverent. A number of years earlier, when I heard him lecture about the future of Jazz at Brooklyn College, he crooned another tune. Armstrong might have had something to say once, but he had betrayed that for show business. He was a clown, a “step-n-fetchit.”
People change their minds. If they’re honest and care about what they say, no matter is ever closed. In the years between Brooklyn College and the Burns film, Marsalis looked back. Armstrong had gotten inside his chops, and Marsalis came more fully into his own because of it. You could feel it in his music. You could hear it in his voice. I sat down to listen to him speak, and my wife moved closer to me on the couch. The baby slept in his bouncy chair behind us.
I didn’t know anything about Jazz when I was that kid at Jones Beach. The song I recall most clearly is a novelty number called “Cheesecake.” Louis grinned and popped his eyes and rubbed his belly while he sang about munching and gobbling pastry and sharing it with his girl. And I was happy. Louis and the band, the audience, my folks and me; all of us just happy and all at once and there was nothing like it.
After the show, my dad gave me the playbill and stood me in line to get Satchmo’s autograph. I was shy to approach where Louis was sitting, but the musician held out his hands and put them on my shoulders. Then he cupped my face in their warmth. “Handsome boy,” he said and lifted me to his knee. “You’re a handsome boy.” His eyes were glassy and tired and very red. But they were good eyes, the kind so open you can live and move around inside them. I could breathe there.
“Did you like the show?” He raised his eyebrows like anything I might say already delighted him.
I did not speak. Not even to ask for his autograph. He took the playbill from my hand, signed it, and gently set me back on my feet. Dad was in a hurry. He wanted to get to the parking lot where Mom was waiting by the car and he wasn’t sure any more where that was, so he pulled me along. “Move!” he said. “Do you see your mother?” I tried to slow down, and he jerked me up harder. “Watch where you’re going!” I was looking back over my shoulder to where Satchmo nodded and smiled and waved, vanishing and reappearing in slices of light that flickered between the moving forms of the crowd.
We did find my mother. I suppose it took awhile, because I remember Dad muttering “Where is she?” over and over again as he tugged my arm. She was by the car no doubt, and that was parked exactly where he’d left it.
My wife was asleep against me. The Louis Armstrong part of the film was over, so I clipped the tube. I was glad to let the time go like that. It’s only when you stop racing against it like it’s running out on you that you realize there’s always some to while away. I could hear Louis’ trumpet way at the back of my memory, and I wondered if I could remember the lyrics of that song. I figured I could. When everything around is quiet, words come to you.
Originally available at Prick of the Spindle/Looking Back on Louis