Louis Armstrong, memory, & my mother ~


When I was younger, I didn’t care much for jazz. For many of the same reasons I didn’t listen to classical music then, although Mrs. Schumaker made me practice it daily. I still remember Für Elise by heart: I can even do the 5th finger/4th finger trill. But I didn’t listen to it — it wasn’t FUN. ????

And jazz was even harder. Not the Big Band jazz my mother loved, but Miles and Coltrane and what I even now think of as intelligent jazz. Where the music bears listening to again. And again. And 5, 6, even 100 times. Like Bach, it needs familiarity to breed love. I know people who fell in love straight away, but I wasn’t one of them.

imageBig Band was okay. I actually liked it (still do), but it was my mother’s first. Which meant it wasn’t for me, when I was younger. Like the bright floral prints I still can’t see w/out thinking of her. Or her long pearl earrings I have yet to wear — they’re too much hers.

Louis Armstrong, though — he was different. I loved him from the first time I heard him. It was probably Blueberry Hill, one of my mother’s favourites. When I hear it, I’m transported back to the old record player in the corner of the dining room, by the stairs.

imageMusic has that magic power. Play a song, overhear a melody and the years and distance fall like leaves to the ground. Like notes from a cornet. People you haven’t thought of in years walk like ghosts beside you. The tinkle of glasses, the acrid float of smoke… It comes alive in a lyric, a refrain.

Like Louis Armstrong. I hear his unmistakeable rough-cut diamond voice, and I can see my mother as a young woman. I can hear the excitement in my son’s voice when he ‘discovered’ New Orleans jazz. It’s New Orleans, and my husband and I are walking through the French Quarter, me barefoot because I left my shoes in a bar. This is as close to time travel as I have.

imageThere are religions that admonish their followers not to listen to music. Not to play instruments. There’s even a Buddhist precept that states this, but I don’t buy it. I can not believe that any universal good can be against music. Surely it’s the purest language we have? And I say that as a poet, knowing that nothing I have written or will write can compare to a song. No emotion I trigger, no response to my most carefully crafted, polished-until-they-glow words is as evocative as what happens when a song plays us.

So Mr. Satchmo, sir: please resurrect my mother for me, holding her hands out from her body as she moves to the music, that woman years younger than she became. And take me back. And oh, by the way — thank you. A hundred times, thank you

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