The Devil’s Music

Black and White. Part 3

Life is not fair. Louis Armstrong’s destiny was to be a criminal. It’s where he comes from, after all, the wrong side of the tracks. New Orleans. A place where a boy’s wild energy is an accepted terrorism. Well, that’s boys for you.

One night our young ruffian holds a pistol – for a black man this is enough. Firing it is another. A hand takes his shoulder and a door slams shut on his liberty. Louis does not like being squeezed. He has no freedom, only with it he is dangerously wild. In the shabby care home he is forcibly sat in the orchestra and unwilling fingers wrapped around a trumpet.

He might not know how to play it, he knows the music well enough. He has grown up with it all his life. Somehow it takes his fingers and it flows unsteadily. As the beauty of the sounds increase so does his passion. Now there is nothing else in his life.

Energies that were once dangerous now flow into the traditional melodies of the South. Through some twist of fate he finds his heart’s power trapped. No longer inward looking, his caged heart reaches through the bars to a vivid beauty.

A wild young Louis finds work on the steamships of the Mississippi. This is the time of the Great War and Louis is not invited. Discrimination in the South is complete, and like South Africa there is little opportunity. Little enough for a White, whose only opportunity is to exploit. Most candles are snuffed with violence and the grind of life. Louis is lucky. An exuberant pistol shot that should have cost him his freedom gave him it instead.

His music is the music of the time. Small bands playing gay dance melodies on the decks of lazy river steamers. Only Louis’ energy is not the kind to be held in by the rigours of form or even tradition. There’s too much energy inside him to be held inside in his small human form. One expression of this is that he always needs to break the rules.

Thankfully these broken rules no longer lead to the penitentiary. They raise eyebrows, bring scorn from the band leader. Brilliant flashes of inspiration explode from his trumpet and the band stare. He simply can’t stop, he stands and blows his own thing. The others simply can’t stop him. Manic energies that would have maimed now astonish. For there is no stopping this kind of energy. You either make the most of it or you destroy it.

They are muted in his shadow. Louis is their friend. Bands play as bands, toot along cheerily playing with the tune, with each other. As a gathering. Louis doesn’t only play with them, he plays for himself. Nobody has played alone before. Nobody has done it alone, mind you, nobody ever thought to either. Out of his own passion, Louis has created the jazz solo. His fierce energies find expression in a form wholly unknown to them. Suddenly Louis is special in a world of anonymous people. Content with their anonymity though.

Louis Armstrong quickly finds his feet as a leader of his own band. The business of running a band is now part of how he plays. He is tough with those he employs, for he needs to be tough with himself. He knows full well what a rebellious bunch they are, if only that he is rebellious. His leash is thick and it is short. Without a cornet he would be unleashed himself. He knows how to sit on a powder keg whilst flicking ash. And enjoy it. Because he knows what sells.

He isn’t in the business of sitting there and waiting for passers by to nod and smile, humiliate a lower price of him. It just ain’t like that here. He can feel when his audience like something, and when they go cold. These are not modern times and his audiences expect to be drawn into the music. Their expression tells Louis if he has hit their sweet spot or not. His solos explore their needs. Pulling, pushing them here, there. Taking it further, sideways, reigning it in. Wrapping them in an ecstatic musical fever. He knows them now with years of playing. He knows every little trick to whip them into a passion of gaiety.

Off their heads in a fantastic dance of the purest white voodoo.

Only his experiences in the North are different. He can’t move the white people, they sit with glazed eyes staring unmoved. He is concussed by incomprehension. Only it isn’t his not understanding, it is their not hearing. If they heard, they would hear his voice, it is as if they are deaf! They listen as an animal might, hearing the noise but not the message it brings. Their feet stay somehow still, as if unconnected. He can’t pull their strings and make them dance for there are no strings to pull.

It will take Louis years to understand what they really want of him. Because they want perfection and still sit there like marionettes. It’s a square that Louis can’t circle. His ability to stretch their solid boundaries is limited because he is using the right tools but you can’t grow flowers in sand. That doesn’t mean he can’t hear the noises his music makes when it bangs up against them. A flash of inspiration is Louis’ key.

They want perfection, only they want it inside their little box. That means they cannot have what he has to give the fluid folk of the South. They like change, they like the excitement of the new. In the North they want their newness over and over again. It is as if they want to hear him play his recordings – only on stage, live. It is as if they want to hear him play his recordings – only on stage, live.

Well this is not something Louis likes. He hears the orchestras and their instrumental skill. Making music that has all the passion of a porcelain plate. Beautiful and… empty as the void of space. It leaves him reeling for music should move one.

Repetition is not something Louis likes, he doesn’t understand it. He puts his cornet into forward gear again. He doesn’t drive it wide now, he drives it high. He feels his way into what these people want, he defines the corners of their thinking, defines them with music. He repeats the exact notes from the night before, only it is so intricate so refined that every time it sounds fresh and new.

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