The year was 1931 and the place was Austin, Texas. A college freshman walks into a dance club in search of girls. When he enters, the band is playing and he stops in his tracks, all time standing still. The world as he knew it about to be shattered forever. A man is on stage playing a trumpet and it is as if Gabriel had descended from the heavens. As he tells it later on:
“Steam whistle power, lyric grace blended together, letting flow from that inner space of music things that had never before existed. …He was the first genius I had ever seen. It is impossible to overstate the significance of a sixteen-year old Southern boy’s seeing genius, for the first time, in a black man. …
That was the moment that started me moving to the Brown vs. Board of Education, where I belonged. That experience opened my eyes wide and put to me a choice. ‘Blacks’ I had been taught, “’were all right in their place.’ But what was the place of such a man, and of the people from which he sprung?”
This young man was Charlie Black. He later became a lawyer and helped win a victory for de-segregation of schools in the famous 1954 Brown vs. the Board of Education case.
And the trumpet player? None other than Louis Armstrong, the most beloved and influential musician of the 20thcentury. Louis was not on the bandstand trying to fight for needed social change. He was simply doing what he loved and following the muse of his genius. But look at the repercussions. A young white man who came into the club looking for girls came out of it with a new life purpose. This Southern boy who mindlessly accepted that the “proper place” of black folks was below the white ones suddenly realizes that everything his parents, teachers and national culture taught him about race was a lie. He draws a line that says “I will not participate in this” and crosses the tracks to the other side of town to fight for social justice.
Why this happened to him and not his friends seeing and hearing the exact same thing is one of life’s great mysteries. Why one soul is suddenly opened to its life’s purpose and another simply orders another beer is beyond our understanding. But perhaps something like this has happened to you. And if not now, then tomorrow.
LISTENING SUGGESTION: Listen to Louis’s solo on The West End Blues and imagine that this is what he was playing when Charlie Black entered—such freedom, such power, such divine improvisation in his historic solo!