Wednesday, August 4, 2010


*Inspired by the New Yorker essay on Winston Marsalis’ tribute to Louie Armstrong, I’m sharing this edited version of a Southpaw (The Manila Times) column on the musician.

It still sticks in the mind, that opening scene from “Good Morning, Vietnam!” Americans bringing home their dead and wounded; strapping lads missing limbs, eyes and, in some cases, missing souls. Youth wondering what they’d done to deserve the hell they’d just gone through. Wondering, too, what the little, yellow gooks had done to deserve burning rain and hurtling rockets, and the loss of the land tilled by generations of ancestors.

The gore and filth of war, the misery of men forced to kill in order to survive; the psychic scream as one puzzled over the meaning of such choices. Local folk, from a chopper vantage point looking like so many ants, except that they weren’t chasing after food but fleeing for their lives. And meandering across this grim landscape, laughter wrapped in a gravel voice, the lilting strains of “What A Wonderful World.”

Can’t count the number of times I’ve badgered jazz-bar DJ's to show the video from the movie, ignoring the frowns of neck-tied yuppies who preferred Kenny G. Poor souls, tired and frazzled, never quite catching up in the race for mammon; the last thing they needed were cadavers leaving scarlet trails in their tequilas.

It’s not masochism that draws me to the video. It’s just this yearning to make some sense of a crazy world. Louie Armstrong’s song may not offer answers, but it sure gives comfort, a reassurance that even if men and women succeed in their deeds of mayhem today, tomorrow may be a different story.

Armstrong’s chuckle doesn’t represent oblivion or escapism. Its power comes from a lifetime of braving storms. It is the belly laugh of a man who has clawed and crawled through the muck and discovered pearls under the swill.

Satchmo. Father of jazz, the music of contradiction and discordance. Black genius whose songs flowed across the plains and boondocks, and touched both eastern cosmopolites and rednecks, though so many places were closed to him and his integrated band.

Satchmo of the puffed cheecks. Satchmo of swing, a rhythm that never fails to send feet tapping, fingers snapping, and ass and tits bouncing.

The world celebrates his birthday on July 4, that quintessential American holiday where millions broil hotdogs and corn on the cob beneath the rockets’ red glare.

Actually, Armstrong was never sure about his birthday. Records show two separate dates. But for years, he was America’s unofficial ambassador of goodwill, spreading the young country’s magic dust across ennui-filled Europe.

An old AP compilation of anecdotes on Satchmo’s travel notes that he may have been the lone person to go back and forth through Checkpoint Charlie at the height of the Cold War. East German guards and American troops would melt at the sight of his black, joyous face.

His was not an easy life. The illegitimate son of a poor New Orleans woman, he was left with his grandma. Then he got his ma back but had to drop out of elementary school to support her and a younger sister. He wasn’t always a ball of cherubic glee. The young Armstrong roamed the streets selling rags and coal. He stayed briefly at a home for delinquent boys. But he had talent, a lust for life and an internal compass that kept him away from them cliffs of no return.

He wasn’t an activist in the usual sense. Armstrong preferred blowing the blues away to marching on the streets. But he fought fiercely for his people and once canceled a foreign tour to protest the insults hurled at the young students of Little Rock, Arkansas.

Night after night, Satchmo rolled across America, across the world, blanketing the earth with dulcet notes that celebrated life even in its bleakest moments.

His was a wry voice but never bitter. He had that husky, conspiratorial tone down pat, a friend sharing slightly wicked secrets with you. Satchmo always seemed to be urging: go, push, just one more step, just one more jump, just a little more tilt to those hips.Because it was Armstrong, the man deemed more trusted than one’s own kin, you took that leap. And when you landed unscathed, you, too, would flash that giant grin.

If I think of Satchmo these days, if I go back nightly to my old lullaby, it is because events seem to drag back old, haunting memories.

Too many bags returning from the field. Too many officials lying through their teeth. Too many people too ready to slash and flail for the slightest cause. Too many getting pulled, inexorably, into the rushing currents of hell.

Coming out weary from a day’s grind of bad news, happiness is pulling your head back and closing your eyes to listen to an old friend saying, hey, kid, lighten up. It’s still a wonderful world.

1 comment:

noel said...

That song, in a rasping counterpoint to images of unforgiving mayhem, made one wonder if indeed at times hope were better spelled out rather than intimated in notes.

But in images of festive, rousing marches back from interring souls within their own pasts; in improvising notes on life for the living; in making statements even in mutely insistent, protesting silences, Satchmo forsook neither life nor hope against bigotry.

Thanks for reviving the magic and refreshing the promise that, whatever it may become, it will somehow be a better, a more wonderful world.