Sunday, July 4, 2021

Satchmo's Day

Though a later birth record says Aug. 4, 1901 was Louis Armstrong’s birthday, he himself always claimed it as July 4, 1900. Since he was the herald of true freedom and independence and his voice helped define the 20thcentury, I always go with Louis’ claim over a mere piece of paper. 


The original Declaration of Independence, as we now know, was not exactly the real deal. 


We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all white upper-class Christian cisgender heterosexual straight men who are property holders are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights —and damn the rest of humanity. 


Louis, by contrast, played music for all of humanity. And so in his honor, I share ( © 2021 Doug Goodkin) one of two chapters about him in the new book. Listen to his music today to celebrate and remember a true Father of the country we’re still waiting for. 



“He was the first genius I had ever seen. It is impossible to overstate the significance of a sixteen-year old white Southern boy’s seeing genius, for the first time, in a black man.”

-      Charlie Black


The year was 1931 and the place was Austin, Texas. A  college freshman walks into a dance club hoping to meet girls. When he enters, the band is playing and he stops in his tracks, all time standing still and 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. … 


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. He was just being himself.


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 crossed 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.


Stay alert. And remember that sometimes you can change the world just by being yourself.


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