… was the date one of our greatest Americans claimed as his birthday. Later records uncovered said it was August 4, 1901, but there are times of life when mythological truths are truer than actual facts. July 4 is our Independence Day and associated with the precious gift of “freedom” and 1900 was the turn into the 20th century, a time in our history that this man played a considerable part in defining. Hence, the perfect birthday!
Of course, no one really understands what freedom is, more so than ever today. One dictionary definition calls it “the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint.” All well and good. And yet so many are hiding behind this idea to justify their insistence that no one take away their assault rifle while themselves taking away the power of half our population to make choices about their own bodies. Or would be screaming bloody murder if a football coach insisted his players chant to Buddha on the field or prostrate to Allah, but think it’s perfectly fine making them all pray to Jesus. In both cases, with the highest court in the land affirming this dual standard of freedom.
And though on July 4th we should be thinking about these things as the fireworks fill the sky, most would rather spend their time preparing the barbecue or organizing the softball game at the picnic. I get that and sorry to ruin your day by basting the chicken in some Harsh Reality Barbecue Sauce.
But if you prefer a more positive approach to celebrating the 4th, let’s go back to that remarkable American born, mythologically or not, on this day 122 years ago. He has passed from amongst us just over half-a-century ago, but his presence is a mere click away. He lived the great American rags-to-riches story that we all love and cherish, born as poor as a proverbial church mouse in a culture that refused him the rights promised in the Constitution and grew to be one of the most famous Americans world-wide to ever walk the planet. Though his fame was indisputable, his material riches were modest and even when he could afford a penthouse in New York, he chose a modest house in Queens with kids hanging out with him on his front stoop.
On the July 4th side of the story, he embodied true freedom and independence every time he sang or played the trumpet. While the drums, bass and piano walked below him firmly on the earth, he soared to the heavens with spontaneous melodic inventions that released something in the listener’s own self-imprisonment, promising the bird flight that gave us a respite from gravity. His musical freedom was no self-indulgent nonsense spewing out whatever came into his head. It was crafted through the difficult marriage of intuition and knowledge. He knew exactly where every note was supposed to be in its place and through the art of phrasing and variation, shifted it just enough to make it sing out even more boldly, more beautifully, more swingin’!He showed us that freedom is not simply acting without outer restraint to say whatever you want to, but a discipline that arises within certain restraints that allows us to say exactly what needs to be heard. He opened the windows in the stuffy rooms, released the joy entrapped in our awkward, clumsy bodies, opened the hands clenched in fists and freed the joy sent to the basement in a Puritan uptight and needlessly stern culture.
And 1900? This was the year in which ragtime was leaning toward its next incarnation as jazz and jazz is the music of freedom that defined so much of the 20th century, both in the United States and the world. Our man was sent by the State Department as an Ambassador of Freedom and played in front of the Queen of England, the President of Brazil, the Emperor of Japan, the Chiefs in Ghana while always mixing with the people of all ages and classes and races with his broad, joyful smile.
So do America a favor and on this special day, spend some time playing the music of this American genius for yourself, your children, your neighbors. Go to Youtube and look up the clips of him singing Just Closer Walk With Thee with Mahalia Jackson, When the Saints Go Marchin’ In with Danny Kaye, Umbrella Man with Dizzy Gillespie. Research the story of his influence on Charlie Black and what he said in 1957 in North Dakota.
If we’re going to take Independence Day seriously as worthy of our country, we should use the time to reflect on what it really means and why we need to defend and protect it and move it forward to its initial promise. The above is one of the happier ways to do this that I can imagine.
Have you guessed yet who I’m talking about? If not, I’ll give you one hint and the rest is up to you. Though he shares something in common with him, he’s not the man who walked on the moon.