Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Juicy Parasol of Freedom

Here’s a unique way to celebrate Independence Day. Go to Youtube and type in “Louis Armstrong Dizzy Gillespie Umbrella Man.” This remarkable clip from The Jackie Gleason Show features two of the key jazz innovators turning a simple song into a masterpiece of intricacy, nuance and hard-swingin’ joy. But the highlight is when Dizzy pops his P on “parasol” and sprays Louis with a little spit. Without missing a beat, Louis works “Your parasol sure is juicy, boy!” into his solo.

Everything about the clip is a summary of the genius of jazz, a musical “declaration of independence”— musicians who can sing what they play and play what they sing, who urge each other on to greater heights of self-expression, who find the notes not played in the melody and play them. But the juicy parasol moment is the height, showing how the jazz musician is wholly present, aware, responsive and in the moment, able to act and re-act while creating something new note by note in full view of the audience. Think of a unicylist riding on a tightrope juggling fire while carrying on a conversation and you get an idea of what an extraordinary art form this is. It is expressive freedom born from endless hours of discipline and practice, but with joy and spontaneity always in the foreground. A hard-won independence freely given to all who take the trouble to earn it anew through their efforts.

Then there’s that other document called “The Declaration of Independence” drawn up by Thomas Jefferson. He and his fellow founding fathers were not only interested in political freedom, but also freedom from superstition and fatalism and feudalism. He was a prime representative of that era called the Enlightenment, not a Buddhist Enlightenment, but in some ways the opposite—the celebration of the analytic, rational mind, of science and scientific thought that would free us from ignorance and pave the way to an enlightened civilization. Visiting Monticello this last Spring, it was clear that Jefferson was a lifelong practictioner of scientific inquiry, meticulous observation and technological innovation. On the day he signed the Declaration of Independence, he also recorded in his journal the details of the day’s weather pattern. Something like, “Signed a world changing document. Temperature rose two degrees.”

Jefferson, for all his genius and eloquence and humanitarian values, was a good example of how the rational mind never can wholly run the show. What can be more irrational than writing “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…” while slaves worked in your field, a field stolen from the Native Americans who once lived there? The Fathers missed a great opportunity to declare a truly inclusive freedom and their failure gave birth to a civil war and a great deal of human suffering in the centuries to follow.

One such descendant of continued oppression was born on July 4, 1900 in the poorest neighborhood of a ghetto, never finished school past 5th grade, sold coal out on the streets, was sent to a juvenile reform school at 12 years old for two years, married a prostitute at age 18. His childhood was a sociological nightmare, but he went on to become one of the most influential voices of the 20th century. His name was Louis Armstrong.

Well, recent research shows it was really August 4, 1901 that Louis was born, but for years it was the grand mythological date of Independence Day at the beginning of the century and that feels right. As Dizzy once said of Louis, “No him, no me” and perhaps every jazz musician today can say the same. And yet so many American school children still don’t know who he was or have heard his ebullient trumpet and raspy voice floating freely over the chords of the song.

So on this July 4th celebration, those of you with children should go beyond mere fireworks and do two things:

• Read part of the Declaration of Independence to them.
• Play a Louis Armstrong recording.


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