Cliff Hanger Satchmo
“Can’t Hold On Much Longer”
I may not be the picture of wholesomeness, watching Fred Rogers at 5:00 a.m. with a beer, a cigarette and a blank expression on my mugg; but you know, I get some of my best thinking done on an all-nighter. Then again, I like New York in June (how about yew?).
Well, whatever; take this ‘Satch-fest’ thing, or whatever it’s called. This is a subject that I’ve been avoiding for the last five years. Avoiding talking about, avoiding writing about, avoiding thinking about. Why? Because a New Orleans love affair with Mr. Armstrong is like that of a faded harlot, after making nothing of herself, bragging about an ex-lover who, when all stories be told, spurned her. I mean, is this the same man that told reporters, about a half century ago, that if he never set foot in this town again that it would be too soon for him (or words to that effect)?
To prepare myself for this writer’s hell, I immersed myself in the subject of Louis, the myth, the legend, the man. I read books, both in his own words and that of others, I played recordings over and over again, I heard rumors of cosmetic surgery, homosexuality and ties to organized crime. I know about at least one of his illegitimate children. I’ve had him for breakfast, lunch and dinner for the last friggin’ month, okay?
What did I come up with? A headache.
Was he a sell out, a philanderer, a musical Buddha, a pawn or a king? Yes. Did he lie about his birthday? Did his Mama ‘sell fish’ to keep bread on the table? Yes. Is his 1927 recording of ‘Hotter Than That’ and ‘West End Blues’ an epiphany of musical innovation? Yes. Did he mind slapping around his old lady if she beefed about his chippies? No. Did he bend over to the Guy Lombardo school of music? Yeah, man!
Let’s start at the beginning. Let’s draw the shades, open a bottle of cheap champagne, disconnect the phone and light up a Lucky. Also let’s chow down on a three-pound meatball po-boy from Matassa’s.
Louis was born a poor black child here (go figure), hustled anyway he could, and was fortunate enough to raise himself up in a time of ‘anything’s legal if you don’t get caught’ New Orleans (same as now).
Then, as now, there were three ways out of the ghetto (in those days most of this town was a ghetto): sex, drugs or music. Period. Racism was taken for granted by him for at least fifty-seven years.
Conflicting reports of how and when he got his first horn, put aside, does not diminish the ability he had for coaxing sounds from that ‘thang’. He simply could, so he did. A New Orleans hustle if there ever is one; take what you got and work it.
His second wife, Lil Hardin, schooled this overweight numbskull in the subtler ways of gaining acceptance to a wide variety of audiences (read ‘white’ here). Louis soon learned what could butter that scrap of bread he had to offer. White America. (you oughta look up ole Lil if you want some schoolin’) Basically he became a twentieth century minstrel, a clown with a horn.
New Orleans is a place that genius’ can live and die in, even now, you can’t throw a rock without hitting a musician; but ‘they be po’. Ya gotta leave town to make it. So he did.
And he never came back! (‘cept once or twice)
He was, and still is, a musical genius’ genius, BUT, the fact remains that our city is a graveyard for people like Buddy Bolden, Kid Ory, Bunk Johnson, Baby Dodds and their ilk .We play lip service to, and take credit for the roots of that thing called Jazz. But, like me, we’re too drunk, lazy, or complacent to nurture and keep it here.
Louis left the country to escape racism and mob control, did you know that? Louie criticized the President about civil rights and the white washing that it gave to Jim Crow. And got blacklisted for it. Hell, neighbor what are we celebrating?
You don’t know Louis like know Louis: Louis was a dumb kid from the third ward who suddenly found out that he had the talent and ability to not only reach the expertise of a master, such as Joe (KING) Oliver, but to surpass it! What are you to do then? Who do you play for?
Louis played for the world.
But he had to sell out. It’s as simple as this: say that I’ve got a whole alphabet to hip you to, but you can’t dig nutthin’ but the A B Cs? Guess what? Then as now, I’ll go where the do re me is and, like the farmer said to the potato: “plant you now and dig you later”.
A hundred years later, and if you’re lucky, if you’re very very lucky, if your listening ear has not become as prejudiced as Louie’s South is. If you are that lucky, you’ll put this rag down and put on the Hot fives and Hot Sevens, light up a Lucky, pop a cool one and dig. If not, you’re a dumb Mother Cracker and only deserve to read Dick and Jane for the rest of your life.
If you’re a woman reading this: Louis was no better than that loser you’ve got now: don’t envy his women. If you be a man reading this: If you ain’t blowin’---you ain’t knowin’ …………and if you can’t get somebody to hear your LMNO’s, how are you gonna get to your XYZs?
Think about it. Myself? I’m gonna put myself to bed with the Saint James Infirmary in my head and wish I was more like the ‘Satch’. Red beans and ricely yours. Amen.