the singing of a king/
STOP—my horn so strong
i call louie to chi with
just an 8th note—START
the reason jim crow was so violent is that, after world war one, black folk refused to go silently back into what segregationists euphemistically called “their places.” instead we prefered to believe that any space we wanted to inhabit was our own, territory we had a right to, and didn’t really want to be up next to some cracker no way, just wanted a sweet spot we could inhabit in peace, but it was not to be. but by then we were fighting for our rights (or like when the sheriff tried to close down a garvey gathering in new orleans with the words that wasn’t no mark-us gra-vee going to speak here tonight, he was silenced by the uprise of black folk, arms in hand who insisted on their right to hear marcus mosiah garvey—and mr. garvey did speak that hot night in new orleans, thank you).
it was in this atmosphere that the “idyllic” southern scene, which never really was as romantic as popular culture portrayed, revealed its true colors: red, white, black and blue, as in beatings, lynchings, and assorted mayhem, as in we black and were fire driven by recalcitrant whites who by dint of terror herded us into tightly policed, economically exploited, physically oppressed, and psychologically damaging, blues-hued, segregated communities under social siege—especially intelligent black men, most of whom had never seen the inside of anyone’s school but who could figure, invent, innovate, create, construct, organize, rearrange, tend and grow with the best of anyone on the planet except they, these intelligent ex-slaves, were seldom allowed to demonstrate their innate capacities, thus geniuses were fated to empty spitoons, carry rice sacks and spend three quarters of their lives behind the butt end of a mule or on the working end of a shovel or, if they were women, the limited choices were: wet nurse, clean and cook for a pittance, or lie to some white john about how long his little was. except if one could play music. in which case the music gave you wings, actually was a ticket to ride, a way out of jim crow’s den of inequities. so people who might have been professionals of all sorts had they had the opportunity to pursue those professions, picked up horns or mastered drums, learned to do amazing feats with guitar string and a pocket knife or literally rewrote piano literature, gave new meanings to musical entertainment and captivated the entire planet with a dazzling display of aural inventiveness that significantly upped the ante on what was considered quality entertainment as well as what was possible in the realms of melody, harmony and especially rhythm—i mean how did armstrong play that horn like that, not to mention he sang an entire song without words. wild!
so the singers, dancers and especially the musicians were the first african americans to routinely travel thereby getting the then rare chance to check out the world scene. these men and a handful of women became the most famous people in their communities unrivaled by any other profession—including doctors and college professors, plus, they were overwhelmingly working class, didn’t need anybody’s sheepskin to certify that they knew what they knew, only needed to be able to blow that thing, sing that swing, or step lively while kicking up their heels properly keeping time with their feet, only needed to be themselves. yet, make no mistake, this self they were was not a simpleton who just happened to have a good voice or an ear for melodies. no, we are talking innovation at a level which no one previously conceived. (i mean, for example, nude dancing been around since there was human skin, but it took josephine to consider wrapping her black hips in the phallic curves of a couple of dozen yellow bananas and shaking that thing in such spherical sensuous ways that even the legendary lovers of gay paree tripped, flipped and damn near fell head over heels in love with a brownskin cutie who, without so much as working up a sweat, coolly demonstrated two dozen more ways of playing with a yo-yo.)
looking in the rearview mirror we sometimes get a backwards view. we think louie was loved because he was a clown but if we only knew. wasn’t a hornplayer no where around—especially not euro-trained—who could even so much as carry mr. armstrong’s horn case to a rehearsal for a pick-up gig not to mention engage in no out-and-out cutting contest. we forget that louie taught america how to both swing and sing at the same time, how to scat on the one hand and go to the core of the lyrics on the other, not to mention how to jump bar lines with melodic phrasing whose trapeze-like gambits from note to note left others stumbling along like they had two left feet and had never experienced the thrill of trilling a g over high c.
the beautiful people called the twenties the jazz age because nothing else gave you the full feeling of being alive like black music did. and though they pretended paul whiteman was the king, beneath the skin everyone knew who the real creators of jazz were. worldwide these originators were in demand, and, as the history of america has always demonstrated, whenever and wherever there is a demand backed up by dinero, the supply shall definitely roll forth.
thus these colored troubadours swiftly moved from city to city, scoping out what was new and getting the down-low on the economic, political and racial picture in every place to which they might go. soon musicians started coming back home wearing clothes no one there abouts had ever laid eyes on before, with tall tales recounting command performances regaling kings and things, or swinging round the clock on ocean liners crisscrossing the seven seas, and not to mention jamming in countless places where english wasn’t even spoken. and of course these ambassadors of swing picked up on a variety of wild ideas about possible lifestyles. yes, they changed the world with their music but they were also changed by their contact with worlds they had never imagined.
and while it is true that each frog is acclimated to the waters where he was born, still, given the jim crow realities of the twenties, our people were always ready to jump and, as a profession, the musicians were the first out the pot. indeed, that was one of the reasons for learning to play in the first place, i.e. to get the opportunity to blow town and get paid at the same time. nice work if you could get it and back then the most certain way for the average negro to get it was to be into the music, which is why when king oliver wired the invite to louie there was no hesitation in armstrong’s step as he packed his grip preparing to split. how else could a poor, uneducated, but highly intelligent black man get to see the world?
armstrong, and countless others, came from a call and response culture and when opportunity knocked, these folk were wise enough to immediately answer the door, the same door beside which a packed travel bag was usually kept at the ready just in case such an unanticipated but nonetheless highly appreciated chance might roll by and allow an ambitious person with musical talent a chance to make a strategic exit.
given the realities of poverty, jim crow, and the general hard way to go handed out to people of color, it is easy to understand that jass didn’t just slip reluctantly out of town but rather cake-walked away singing a simple song: if you don’t believe i’m leaving, count the days that i’m gone. in fact, leaving town was a sign of this music’s intelligence.
—kalamu ya salaam