I Had A Dream
I had a dream last night. One of those non sequitur events that segued into, well, a sequitur realization. So there I was, in the bayou swamps somewhere deep down the Mississippi Delta. In a rowboat, of course. And, as dreams work, I found myself in one of those deadly struggles of competition which surely have larger meaning. Another rowboat and I were scurrying with frenzied oars up and across channels to ever-wider necks of the river, side-swiping cypress knees on the way, racing in slow-motion - these were rowboats, after all.
And then...and then...we were pulling up onto a shore...in the snow! Into a white-blanketed prairie, flanked to one side by peaks that could only be...the Grand Tetons in Wyoming? Never-us-mind - the battle now assumed epic proportions. Heart beating faster, I had the bright idea of pulling the boat by its towrope. Blazing forward with new energy, I distanced myself from my opponent for a time. Then, for some inexplicable reason, I started to let the rope out and slacken, my will slacking with it. And I started to realize that I would lose this race. For there, grinning widely, trudging his boat forward, steadily and effortlessly...was Louis Armstrong.
And damned if he didn't make it look easy. But he always had. When I picture Louis Armstrong, I see a man standing, planted into the earth with an upright horn, blasting back the heavens. Only displaying ease and confidence in what he is saying through that hot brass. Clear and true rivers of melodies, flowing to the brim of their banks. This imagery, unfortunately, has been pretty much the opposite of me. Such rivers at times turn my lips to hamburger, with my head slamming the banks toward rupture for any number of real and imagined reasons.
But mostly, I do a lot of rowing in place. I tread the water of scales and technique, sometimes endlessly. Always preparing for a battle that I'm putting off. In between blissful moments of joy and ease where the stratosphere is attainable, I harbor the fear and trepidation of the exposure of a jumbled idea or a lacking skill. Particularly in front of those whom I look up to. I know I need to move past this, but my baby steps in that direction have been neither bold nor comforting.
However, it didn't have to be this way. Louis - he preferred that to his famous Satchmo moniker, I've read - could have told me something. Did he perhaps receive some insight from the rather mythical cornetist Buddy Bolden, fierily signalling the night's jam two miles down the mighty Mississippi in that fabled French Quarter? Their histories intersect chronologically, and it's a fact that Louis and I were contemporaries, after all. Sort of, anyway. When he passed away in 1971, I was five years old. That was before my random introduction to music via a trombone, presented out of the blue, some years later. Nope, that was before I had any idea that music was to be my hard-to-please mistress. Five years old to me meant kick-the-can in the streets and running from scorpions in the hills. But looking back with stunningly clear hindsight, I could have used a push in the right direction... what if he tapped my shoulder then, whispering some magical words of confidence and insight? That could have done it!
It's frankly amazing to think that my life overlapped that of a man who can be considered the father of an art form. Back in the 1920s, Jazz was establishing itself as a new type of music on some level, it is true, but it was Louis Armstrong who became the first embodiment of what it could be. An ever-refilling bucketful of ideas that found their way through his horn, floating on a joyous swing. He was the door that led me to those other sounds that I have come to admire and adore: Dizzy's heights, Monk's quirks, the lightly dabbed notes of Miles. Clark Terry, Blue Mitchell, Dave Brubeck, Wynton Kelly, Chucho Valdez.
But he could have told me that this was going to be hard. All those struggles I would have to go through. The bad techniques to undo, the mechanics to pound into my motor skills. Those wrong paths, time-eating detours. He could have told me, "Listen to who you like, play what you want to say, and keep pl-saying it. Red beans and ricely yours, Louis." Perhaps the time has come to stop rowing for a moment and listen to him.
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