1. – buddy bolden’s blues legacy
they said i’m crazy
but they still play my crazy
blue black shit today
we came from farm land, cane field and cotton country, outta rice paddies and satsuma groves, following the river both down and up to the city to try to set up home where a newly emancipated man could live at least halfway free and a woman didn’t have to be some man’s mule just to raise her family.
we brought with us the profound sense of betrayal as the retreat of federal troops was masked by the hoods of nightriders, fellows whose daylight faces we all knew. the hard hoofs of horses announcing the flaming torches flung through the paneless windows of our one-room rural homes. the no work for smart negroes and very low pay if you were dumb enough to accept what little was offered.
we had fought the civil war. we had survived the bewilderment of emancipation and now when we should be free we woke in the mornings and found ourselves harvesting strange fruit. we were the blacks with the blues. the unlettered ex-slaves whose agrarian skills offered no protection in the hinterlands and no employment in the cities. but caught between the busted rock of reconstruction’s repeal and the hard space of being put back into a semi-slavery place, we had no choice but to move on down the line. thus we came to the crescent seeking at least a shot.
everywhere we touched down we created settlements. st. rose, luling, boutte, kenner—the first mayor was a negro. carrollton—we built parks and celebrated with sunday picnics, and on into uptown new orleans creating all those neighborhoods: black pearl (aka “niggertown”), hollygrove, zion city, gerttown and what we now know as central city.
no matter how hard big easy bore down on us, urban exploitation was still a bunch better than constantly falling behind on the ledger at the general store, owing more and more every year, barely enough to get by. in the summertime chewing sugar cane for supper and maybe catching a catfish for sunday dinner. in the winter time making turtle soup to last the week if you could catch a turtle and always beans and beans, and more beans. somehow, even though we still had beans and beans and more beans and rice, it just seemed that red beans and rice was nice, nicer in new orleans than it ever was in the country and besides there was plenty fishing in new orleans too, in the canals, in the river, in the lake, in the bayou, in fact, more fishing here than in the country. so although the city never really rolled out a welcome mat, our people nevertheless still managed to make ourselves at home.
we found some work on the streets and in the quarter, but mostly made work cooking, carrying and constructing shit. some of us groomed horses, a healthy portion of us worked the docks. we eked out a living, gradually doing better and better. and it was us country-born, farm-come-to-city black folk who indelibly changed the sound of new orleans, who brought the blues a blowing: loud, hard, and without pretense, subtlety or any genuflecting to high society, these blues that were just happy to have a good time and were equally unashamed to show the tears of pain those country years contained, how the hard times hurted we simple, unassuming people who both prayed and cursed as hard as we worked, we who were not afraid of a good fight and never hesitant about enjoying a good time each and every opportunity we got to grab a feather or two out of the tail of that ever-elusive bird of paradise.
we were the fabled blues people who brought to the music a vision no one else was low enough to the ground to see. and no one should romanticize us. we were hungry, we were illiterate, disease-ridden, and totally unprepared for urban life, moreover often we were live-for-today-damn-tomorrow merciless in the matter-of-fact way we accepted and played the dirty, limited hands that life dealt us.
ours was a brutal beauty. a social order where no child remained innocent past the age of four. where the sweet bird of youth had flown, long gone well before twenty-five arrived. where somebody calling your mama a whore was just an accurate description of one of the major lines of work. where your daddy could have been any one of five men you saw for a couple of days through a keyhole when you were supposed to be sleep, but were up trying to peep what it was that grown folks did that kids were not supposed to do.
our people brought an unsophisticated, raw sound that cut through all pretensions and gutsily stripped time down to the naked function at the junction of hard-working folks careening into saturday nite let’s get it on. and of course by any standard of social decorum, we were uncouth and so was our blues, but it was this blues produced by we blues people that turned-out the music floating around new orleans, tricked it into something the world would soon (or eventually) celebrate first as jass (with two “s’s” as in “show your ass”) and then as jazz (with two “z’s” as in “razzle, dazzle” keep up with us if you can).
it was our don’t give a shuck about which way is up as long as we have a moment to get down.
our red is my favorite color morning, noon and night.
our play it loud motherfuckers let me know you deep up in there.
our this ain’t no job and you ain’t no boss so you can’t tell me shit about when to start, when to stop, or how nasty i get.
our if i drop dead in the morning ‘cause i done partied all nite then just go ahead and dance at my funeral pretty baby.
our i’d rather play it wrong my way than right the white way cause they way may be correct but it sure ain’t right.
it was this attitude, these blues, which turned new orleans music into something worth spreading all over the world. and it was we who were the roux in the nouveau gumbo now celebrated as crescent city culture.
it was our crude but oh so potent elixir that raised the ante on the making of music, it was our brazen red-hot, blue sound and the way the first creators acted when they screwed up their lips to produce the untutored slightly tortured host of notes which made the cascade of ragtime rhythms sound tame. we simple but complex characters who have been consistently overlooked, undervalued, and our social background scarcely mentioned in all the books (where do they think we uptown blacks came from and what do they think we brought with us?); we who were persecuted by the authorities worse than negroes singing john brown’s body lies a smoldering in the grave at intermission during a klan rally; it was us black heartbeats and our defiant music that made the difference.
and, yes, we had to be more than a little crazy to challenge the aural status quo the way we did, so, it is no surprise that buddy bolden, the preeminent horn player cut from this cloth, was an insane black man whose ascendency to the throne just made it easier for the odorous forces of the “status crow” (as caribbean scholar/poet kamau braithwaite calls it) to pluck bolden from the top of the heap and heave him into a mental institution and keep him there for almost thirty years, wasting away until he died.
they may have silenced our first king but they could never silence our sound. and regardless of what anyone says or does, nearly a hundred years later, no matter whether they admit it or not, know it or not, like it or not, it is the bold sound of black buddy conjuring some raw, funky blues in the night, layering his tone on whatever was a given song’s ultimate source. this neo-african gris-gris is the sonic tattoo marking the beginning and making up the essence of the music we now call jazz.
2. jelly’s boast (backed up in writing)
i started jass with
latin tinged, cafe colored
if buddy bolden—or someone black like that—started jazz then how could ferdinand lementh “jelly roll” morton fix his mouth to boast that he “invented jazz in 1903”? simple, my man was the first to write it down, to figure out where and how the notes go when put on paper just so a musician trained in the reading of music but untutored in the ways of the raucous folk could play these wild new sounds or at least a rough approximation, or at least play the heads, the melodies.
and while a lot of folks like to claim that jelly’s skill was because of the creole in him most of those same folks know nothing about the deep draughts jelly drank from the brackish bottom of the blues’ most funky well. jelly had songs that could make a prostitute blush and a pimp hide his face in shame. storyville wasn’t no conservatory and jass wasn’t no waltz. jelly knew this. he knew about the blacks. he knew about the whites. and especially about everything that went down in between. like all good blues folk he also had a mean streak, that cut-you-if-you-stand-still and shoot-you-if-you-run temperament necessary to survive saturday nights in the roughest parts of town.
no doubt it was because of jelly that the story freely circulated that jazz was born in a brothel, specifically the cathouses of storyville. but all that’s said ain’t necessarily so. sure, jelly played jazz there, but just cause jelly played for tricks and whores that don’t mean that’s where his songs came from. the music was actually made outside elsewhere and later on brought inside those doors. which is not to take nothing away from jelly because figuring out how to write it down was no mean feat, especially those lusty sounds his brothers uptown would just let rip, day after day and night after night, pouring their sacred souls into the secular atmosphere. jelly would listen, and listen, and grin, and hold those sacred riffs inside his jaws and against the crown of his mouth and later spit out onto paper those notes which a bunch of others had written in the air. i’m not saying jelly wasn’t original, i’m just saying a good scribe can always write more than he or she individually knows, especially when they are present at the creation and have the initial shot at drafting up tunes taken down from the motherlode.
given the mixed nature of jelly’s pedigree and his back-a-town, alley-crawling cravings, he was able to create music for all occasions. music for right now if you were ready to get it on and music for later after all the squares were gone. music colored by what jelly suggestively called the spanish tinge.
and what was this latin tinge that jelly so glowingly spoke of? was it african rhythms run through the backyard of the caribbean? one critic talks vociferously about the arab influence—what he maybe means is the moorish number that spain slyly claimed as an original contribution, or mali’s twist on the islamic prayer chant—arab influence, huh? arab sounds altered by contact with african souls and soil, and rearranged caribbean stylee (which “stylee” is just africans in the west reinventing our ancient selves). that mambo, that rumba, merengue, clave, son and so forth. those pentatonic scales, modes, falsettoes and nasal drones. yeah, it’s all arab straight from the heart of africa. jelly knew, that’s why he said the tinge in the latin rather than the whole roman enchilada.
anyway, as much as he wrote and as important as his compositions are, in the final analysis we remember jelly because jelly didn’t forget the import of what he heard, because jelly found a way to write without emasculating the music’s swagger, without perfuming the funk, without covering the flesh in a veil of false modesty.
we remember jelly because jelly accurately remembered us. and lord, lord, lord even if he had never written a note, just one quick listen will confirm how marvelously potent his playing was. that mr. jelly, mr. jelly, he sure could play that shit.
3. the beauty of bechet
sax moans river strong
spurting song into the sea
of our aroused souls
the cornet and its first cousin the trumpet were the first solo instruments of jazz, the first horns to carry the tone of defiance, slicing the air with the gleaming sassiness of a straight razor wielded with expert precision on someone who was dead but didn’t know it yet (the hit was so quick that the head fell off before the body knew it had been cut). these brass siblings were the hot horns that caught the feel of august in the sun, a hundred-pound sack shading the curve of your aching back. especially the trumpet with its ringing blare which could be heard cross the river on a slow day when somebody in algiers was practicing while a bunch of other bodies was sweating, toting barrels and lifting bales on the eastbank riverfront.
the second brass voice was the nasty trombone. you stuck stuff up its filthy bell. it was not loud but was indeed very lewd. a toilet plunger its regular accessory. of course you had drums and some sort of harmony instrument, a string bass where available, a tuba, sousaphone, banjo or even a piano in certain joints.
now the reed of choice was the clarinet. long. slender. difficult to master. the snakelike black reed. and that was the basis of your early jass bands.
everybody had a part. bechet was a clarinetist. an excellent clarinetist. extraordinary even. but no matter how well he sucked on that licorice stick he could never get it up the way he wanted it. get it to make the sound inside bechet’s head. until he heard the sound of the soprano saxophone. the fingering was similar so he was familiar with covering and uncovering the holes. familiar with the right stiffness of reed and the just tough enough strength of embrochure. what the soprano saxophone did was enable him to challenge the trumpet—just ask louie armstrong or give a listen to clarence williams and his blue five when bechet and louie took turns walking them jazz babies on home.
this mytho-poetic orpheus sired by omer soaked his reeds in mississippi muck and washed down the horn’s bell in bayou goo.
what bechet did was press the humidity of crescent city summers into every quivering note he played with a vibrato so pronouced it sounded like a foreign dialect.
what bechet did was alter the course of history, the clarinet faded after bechet switched and the saxophone became the great horn of jazz. sure there were a couple of great trumpets in years to come (little jazz, fats, dizzy, brownie, and, of course, miles) but none of them turned the music around like the saxophonists did, like bechet, like bird, like trane not to mention hodges, hawkins and the prez, and the list can go on and on. the point here is that bechet was the one, the first, the progenitor of a royal succession that is all but synonymous with jazz as an instrumental music.
and what was even more incredible back in the twenties and thirties was bechet’s sense of africa as source and blues people as the funnel through which the source sound was poured. bechet speaks of that specifically. in bechet’s autobiography he goes on for pages (pgs. 6-44 out of 219 pages of text) talking about his grandfather who danced in congo square, overlaying the legendary bras coupe (a runaway, maroon warrior of the early 1800s) story onto the life story of his grandfather handed down to bechet through bechet’s father, thereby insuring that the statement of resistance was made, the resistance that fuels the internal integrity of our music.
bechet was an early african american griot. one of the first to consciously understand the music he played so well. to articulate the ancestral worship implicit in the call and response. or as bechet describes the music: “It’s the remembering song. There’s so much to remember. There’s so much wanting, and there’s so much sorrow, and there’s so much waiting for the sorrow to end. My people, all they want is a place where they can be people, a place where they can stand up and be part of that place, just being natural to the place without worrying how someone may be coming along to take that place away from them.” in brasil they call this feeling “saudade,” this longing to be whole again, this we know that we were whole once and with all our being quiver with an anxiety, an almost unbearable longing, to be whole again, this hope—dare i say this optimism colored by the reality of the blues—that, yes, someday, someway, we will be whole in some soon come future.
like a mighty river which never ceases to flow and which has seen it all before, bechet’s sound was an ever unfurling cornucopia of lyric delight, its alluvial melodies inundating us, fertilizing our spirits, rendering us both funky and fecund.
bechet’s music was brazen, was brilliant, was growling sun bold. startling in its intensity. powerful in its keening. knowing—he was a philosopher of sorrow, was both intimate with hurt as well as on a first-name speaking terms with joy. while life had its ups and downs, bechet played it hard at both extremes and always with a sparkle of hope shining irrepressibly behind and through whatever tears temporarily clouded his eye.
all of that, all of his life, his individual self and his people’s birthright, all was played through the bell of bechet’s horn, so strong and unmistakable. unmissable. one listen and you got it. the force hit you. you felt it. bechet. bechet. he seemed to be that special sound you had been waiting all your life to hear.
4. freddie keppard, (unfortunately) fooling his self
keeps a handkerchief
cross my horn / don’t record a
lick—they won’t steal me
freddie was not the first and certainly was far from the last to think he could avoid being used by opting not to belly up to the capitalist roulette wheel of commercialization, not to get bumped to the curb by the pick-and-roll of economic exploitation combined with technical innovation. everytime the man comes up with a new machine, invariably the new machines end up being, among other things, another cash-generating tool—and all in the name of progress and progressiveness.
but paradoxically beyond the obvious remunerative inequities and the misplaced hosannas to pretenders posturing as kings, the real rough side of the mountain is the inevitable further behind we fall if we refuse to use what little opportunity the new technology presents. when we decline to play we are ignored, when we do play we are exploited; but at least when you play you get a hearing even if someone else’s echo of your sound makes more dough than do you the originator.
moreover, it was the technology of being heard that enabled jazz to spread its wings. the music could never have flown worldwide were it not for recordings, were it not for musicians everywhere being able to “hear” what these wild new sounds sounded like. our music could not be explained with words or written down with symbols, had to be eared to be appreciated. contradictions abound, were it not for the technology the music would not have spread and simultaneously the technology was used to exploit—a nutshell synopsis of african american relations to the modernist means of production.
of course, some of us, saw the downside coming so we attempted to duck. working with the limited vision that we oppressed people often manifest, somehow freddie thought he could lessen the impact of cultural appropriation by refusing to play the game. fat chance. which is why few jazz fans know the name freddie keppard. don’t even know what instrument he played, when or where, or why he should be known.
the lesson of brother keppard is a hard dose to swallow but when you are on the black unskilled-labor end of america’s 20th-century economy you don’t have many choices. you can throw a hankerchief up over your shit if you want to, attempting to hide the specifics of your fingering, how you do the things you do, you can petulantly sit in the corner with your face to the wall while the parade marches past, you can even bark out curses at the seemingly endless procession of white rip-off artists, but as the poet said centuries ago, the dogs who hang in the camp may bark but the caravan moves on.
and though freddie keppard was the uncrowned king of new orleans trumpet playing in the wake of buddy’s incarceration and oliver’s departure, nonetheless his name is seldom mentioned in the chronology of jazz trumpeting precisely because he was eclipsed by nick larocca and crew who were wise enough not to pass up the opportunity to play their sincere but nonetheless insubstantial versions/revisions into a rca victor machine thus assuring themselves the “we-was-here-first claim”—the original dixieland jass band in 1917 was the first to record a jazz record while freddie keppard stood on the sidelines, smiling as he stuffed his handkerchief back in his pocket. you see, after one listen to the pale cacophony recorded by odjb, freddie was confident that they never were able to capture even an approximation of his sound. he won the authenticity battle but loss the jazz war. pale though they be, we know what larocca sounded like. and keppard, well he’s just a footnote fanatics and academics point to. time and time again, the truth marches on: even when we can’t win, even when the deck is stacked and our getting hustled is a foregone conclusion, even then if we don’t play, we’re worse off than if we play and lose. in the long run, our only chance is to play, to keep on losing until we win because if we don’t play for sure we will never win.
5. the singing of a king/
STOP—my horn so strong
i call louie to chi with
just a sixteenth 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.
6. nick larocca’s secret diary
anglos give dagos
money and fame for playing
i’ll make this short and sweet: back in the days, new orleans anglos didn’t like “niggers” and wasn’t too particular about “dagos.” had italians living in the same neighborhoods with negroes, thus the many corner stores with retail establishments at the front door and living quarters either just behind or just above the one-room store. which is not to say that italians and negroes were viewed as one and the same or that the two got along fabulously with each other, but rather which is to say that the grey space between black and white was far broader than is often recognized, especially in retrospect when people now considered white are talked about as though they were always considered white. in fact, in some quarters, rather than the descendants of the romans, the italians were considered at best as “dirty whites” who had been mixed with blacks via hannibal crossing the alps, and thus, in the good old color struck usa, it took a couple of generations and unrefusable offers from the mafia for italians to be integrated as whites into the segregated black/white duality of american society.
in any case the reason there were so many italians and jews involved in early jass is not simply because the music was their creation but rather because the music was the music of the outsider, and to a significant extent italians and jews were outsiders, especially as far as the upper reaches of twenties american society was concerned. while the italians and jews wanted to assimilate, they also celebrated difference, hence the predominance of blackface among this sector of a society which overall celebrated whiteness pure as the driven snow. think about it. what would cause someone who is on the periphery to risk access to the interior by going further out and painting their face black or playing music blackly?
don’t say i got the answer, but do say, at least i got the question. in any case, the important point to consider is that of all the branches of black music, jass was the one that whites (both anglos and wannabes) were more comfortable embracing. or should i say, jass was the form they were more able to embrace. (max roach jokes that frank sinatra’s first claim to fame was that he could snap his fingers on the beat and sing at the same time, just like black singers, and it didn’t matter how he sounded he could do it and thus is lauded as one of the great singers of all time except of course if you compare him to the authentic sounders of his time. think of a sing-off between sinatra and nat king cole.)
the white embrace of jass was significant. unlike the other forms of black music which were less flexible, jass was so malleable that literally anyone could play it, not necessarily well and certainly not in innovative ways that moved the music forward, but anyone could play it nevertheless and thus, unlike blues which took several decades for most whites to emulate, or various forms of gospel which are yet to be mastered by whites, jass gladly made room for the whole of humanity within its sounding.
Q: how were we repaid for creating a form which every human could use to sound their existence?
A: with so-called scholars, a few musicians, and a bunch of fans claiming that whites created or co-created jass. thus, when the odjb cut those first victor jass sides, the question of creating and innovating was effectively conflated and confused with emulating and manufacturing. we provided the recipe, they made the bread. but then again this is america, and that was the jass age.
7. the grimace behind armstrong’s grin
they turned my birth place
into jail space—don’t bury
me in new orleans
new orleans can be an extreme case of domestic abuse, like they say, don’t take it, leave, don’t hesitate, ready or not pack your shit, don’t even think about going back, cause they don’t really love you, not them control freaks who think they are kings and you are a feudal peasant in blackface, folk are in denial about new orleans when you hear them say: it’s bad but not that bad, like as if he’s a good man and you know how hard they are to find, nephew just gets a little upset sometimes and smacks you around but he loves you, really, really do, really? don’t believe the hype.
louie knew. from the front gate to the back door armstrong had it straight, he was hip. home was where the heartbreak was. he had seen his father disappear; could have played hamlet looking for a ghost. had seen his mother tricked. had witnessed the best sound of an earlier generation sent across the lake to be housed with the mentally deranged—an enraged black man circa the teens and twenties was not insane, anger was a healthy response to what was being laid down. but anger and seven cents still wouldn’t get you on the front of the bus. behind a screen is where you sat if you were black. louis wasn’t no tom which is why he refused to be their token even after his spirit was gone: “when i die don’t bury my body in new orleans” is what he said and meant, and since louis has passed on and his wishes were fulfilled, i.e. he is buried elsewhere, since then there are some new faces in higher places, a darker hue holds the whip, plots the comings and goings of how the system systematically shits on the unstrong, the unknown, the poor without a pot to piss in and have to pay rent to a landlord for the window out of which they throw it. your eyes may roll, your teeth may grit, but none of the real power will you git. not in new orleans, not until there is some change for truth. it may sound like i’m preaching but i’m not macking, i’m just steady facting about the way she blows down round the gulf coast in a heavenly slice of hell some people call the most fun you can have anywhere in america you go to new orleans you ought to go see the mardi gras cause there ain’t much else hanging heavy in the air except the exhaust of used red beans and ricely yours and mine twenty-four hours at a time, big easy be steady bumping shit to the curb as they hustle every harry, dick and john out of whatever money they got cause the winners down here ain’t no saints and sinning ain’t no crime. and if you don’t know what i mean you better ask somebody cause new orleans may be big and easy but if you want to get ahead you’re better off leaving cause they’re most glad when you’re dead so a funeral they can hold, an image they can unhold uncontradicted by the reality of poverty and exploitation, the bayou is a cesspool and nobody comes through the slaughter without some stank clinging to their clothes.
new orleans may be the cradle of jazz but it’s also the tomb, they bury musicians here. louie knew, that’s why he flew to chi and vowed to be someplace else when he died. don’t bury me in, shit here is so low they got to bury you above ground, even while you still walking around trying to figure out your next move, which is why they razed louie’s pad, made the move to build a bigger jail, it’s called public housing for negro males. and if it sounds like i’m bitter it only means you just got a little taste of the special sauce, stale bread, po-boy seasoning in louie’s red hot wail. but then again, maybe it’s the bitter that makes the sweet so strong. whatever. no matter how you slice it, there ain’t but one way to do it and that’s to do it as best you can. morning, noon, midnight and dawn, can’t we all just get along? hell no, not in new o. where it’s legal to gamble but the majority ain’t got much to bet with or on, except the vicious ways we kicking our rolling songs, crazy cooking our deep-fat fried food, and trying to hit a home run with the slim end of a very short stick. just like in bid whist you got to play the hand you was dealt cause that’s all you got to fan with. some folks have ways and means, other folk got songs and dreams. and that’s the way it comes and goes way down yonder in new orleans. some of you might wonder what all this has to do with jazz, well it’s like louie armstrong says, if you have to ask, you’ll never really know. why was we born so black and blue? well our mamas birthed us black and the white folks made us blue, what else is left but to do what you got to do. throw me something mister they beg in the streets, but if you know like i know you best get your ass in the ring and swing like louie. you’ll never see the forest unless you climb down out of the trees, live your life the way you wanna, just don’t get buried by new orleans.
–kalamu ya salaam
from the book BE ABOUT BEAUTY