Louis Armstrong and the Spirit of a City

I first visited New Orleans several years before Katrina, immediately after my five weeks of TFA training in Houston. I caught a ride with another corps member who was going to teach in NOLA, and went and stayed with some friends who were just finishing up their two years. The city was a lot cheaper then, and all the TFA corps members lived in these gorgeous 19th century houses they were renting in the Garden District, exactly like this one:


Their stories about teaching in late 90s New Orleans were not encouraging. I hadn’t been anything to write home about during my Houston summer school teaching assignment, but Houston kids, even in the poorer wards, called you “sir” or “m’am” and were generally a low-key, respectful bunch (a lot more low-key and respectful than my students that Fall in the Bronx, to be sure.) My friends in New Orleans described a scene of near-constant violence among the students, with the expectation of violence from the teachers as well. As one of them put it, nearly every teacher in their middle school was throwing kids up against the lockers on a practically daily basis. (Louisiana still allows corporal punishment, though I don’t think locker throwing is technically included.) Another friend, an elementary teacher, didn’t mention much locker throwing, but described a scene of total pandemonium due to the city’s adoption, several decades earlier, of the progressive “open classroom” concept of one huge room with multiple teachers (in theory) supervising dozens of children who (in theory) would move as their individual needs prompted them from one station to another in a self-directed journey of learning. In practice, my friend said, they had no choice but to act like regular teachers pretending to have separate classrooms to teach regular school, cordoning off their kids with a few movable chalkboards but constantly on the alert for kids who would slip off to hang out with another group for an hour or two and needed to be tracked down.

My friends helped me do the things tourists do in New Orleans on the off-season- walk along Lake Pontchartrain and through Audobon Park and eat beignets and red beans and rice and go out of town to see some armadillos and gators.  Some of the colleagues of my elementary teacher friend threw her a goodbye dinner (she was moving back to New York) with crawfish etoufee and jambalaya, and they had the quiet, steady demeanor of teachers who had spent decades enduring the insanity of dysfunctional schools, and were all Creole, mixed white and black. And then we went to a couple brass band clubs at night.

The clubs– a ways away from the French Quarter– were full of black people drinking cheap liquor in plastic cups and dancing to the trombones and trumpets and snare drums and electric bass(the kinds of clubs that show up in the HBO show Treme, though I must confess I haven’t watched more than a couple episodes.)

All of which is to say New Orleans is pretty different from the rest of the country. Different culturally, racially, and musically.

Louis Armstrong, whose 115th birthday was yesterday, was one of the poorest Americans ever to grow up to be rich and famous in 20th century America. He really did grow up in a Storyville brothel, the son of a prostitute; the word “Jazz” referred to the music performed in brothels, and probably comes from the same root as “jism.”

He was a gifted performer who understood what early and mid-20th Century America wanted from a black entertainer. And he was anything but alone in his generation: Sidney Bichet, King Oliver, Kid Ory, Jelly Roll Morton, Buddy Bolden, and many, many others came out of New Orleans at almost exactly the same time or a few years before him, extending and making more complex the music of the brass bands and funeral and Mardi Gras marchers and previous hundred and more years of New Orleans’ mixed Caribbean and American culture.



But what he did was a “quantum leap in complexity,” as one of my teachers loved to say. His 1928 solo on”West End Blues” is famous for its complexity and chromatic ornamentation.




After a few days in New Orleans, I went back home to my parents house and then to New York to start teaching for real. Every day, I’d come home feeling like a middle school had run over me, and listen to the same few albums: a compilation of Jorge Ben‘s Brazilian pop, Joao Gilberto’s versions of Antonio Carlos Jobim songs, or “Satch Plays Fats,” Louis Armstrong’s most listenable 1950s record. I’d fall asleep, wake up in the middle of the night, put on the one of the same three albums, and start planning for the next crazy day.


Now I have one radio-phonograph; I plan to have five. There is a certain acoustical deadness in my hole, and when I have music I want to feel its vibration, not only with my ear but with my whole body. I’d like to hear five recordings of Louis Armstrong playing and singing “What Did I Do to Be so Black and Blue” — all at the same time. Sometimes now I listen to Louis while I have my favorite dessert of vanilla ice cream and sloe gin. I pour the red liquid over the white mound, watching it glisten and the vapor rising as Louis bends that military instrument into a beam of lyrical sound. Perhaps I like Louis Armstrong because he’s made poetry out of being invisible. I think it must be because he’s unaware that he is invisible. And my own grasp of invisibility aids me to understand his music. Once when I asked for a cigarette, some jokers gave me a reefer, which I lighted when I got home and sat listening to my phonograph. It was a strange evening. Invisibility, let me explain, gives one a slightly different sense of time, you’re never quite on the beat. Sometimes you’re ahead and sometimes behind. Instead of the swift and imperceptible flowing of time, you are aware of its nodes, those points where time stands still or from which it leaps ahead. And you slip into the breaks and look around. That’s what you hear vaguely in Louis’ music.

-Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

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