The date: October 12, 1931. A sixteen year-old white male from Austin High School in Texas, who in later years would help shape the future of the United States, bought a ticket to see "Louis Armstrong, King of the Trumpet, and His Orchestra" at the old Driskill Hotel. He knew nothing about jazz or this "King," he recalled many years later, but did predict that a lot of girls would be at the dance. So, of course, he figured he should attend. What he heard and saw astounded him.
"Steamwhistle power, lyric grace, alternated at will, even blended," he recalled. "Louis played mostly with his eyes closed; just before he closed them they seemed to have ceased to look outward, to have turned inward, to the world out of which the music was to flow."
Armstrong was 31 years old at the time. He had already changed the world of American music with his Hot Fives and Hot Sevens records and was spreading the gospel of jazz with a big band. A few weeks after this concert, Armstrong would record versions of "Stardust" so instrumentally stunning and vocally different from the original as to be placed in the category of the avant-garde. "Pops" was at a peak of creative power.
The young man, named Charles, was a freshman at Austin High studying Greek classics. Charles had cordial relations with black folks, and liked most he knew, especially an elder named Buck Green. Green was born and raised enslaved. When Charles was 10 years old, Green, then 75, taught him how to play harmonica. Yet, overall, whites in Austin, Texas mainly saw American Negroes in a servant's capacity. Charles later realized that black professionals and intellectuals were there too, but those sorts of "colored" folk were invisible, simply because people refused to see them.
So nothing prepared Charles for what Louis Armstrong represented: "He was the first genius I had ever seen...The moment of first being, and knowing oneself to be, in the presence of genius, is a solemn moment; it is perhaps the moment of final and indelible perception of man's utter transcendence of all else created. It is impossible to overstate the significance of a sixteen-year-old Southern boy's seeing genius, for the first time, in a black."
Charles, by the time of these reflections in 1979, had already made his mark on history, and was an old lion reflecting on his life. He recalled that back in those Depression-era days some black folk "were honored and venerated, in that paradoxical white-Southern way" but as for genius"fine control over total power, all height and depth, forever and ever? It had simply never entered my mind, for confirming or denying in conjecture, that I would see this for the first time in a black man. You don't get over that."
That night, Charles was standing in the crowd with "a 'good old boy' from Austin High. We listened together for a long time. Then he turned to me, shook his head as if clearing itas I'm sure he wasof an unacceptable though vague thought, and pronounced the judgment of the time and place: 'After all, he's nothing but a God damn nigger!'
"The good old boy did not await, perhaps fearing [a] reply. He walked one way and I the other. Through many years now, I have felt that it was just then that I started walking toward the Brown case, where I belonged. I realized what it was that was being denied and rejected in the utterance I have quoted, and I realized, repeatedly and with growingly solid conviction through the next few years, that the rejection was inevitable, if the premises of my childhood world were to be seen as right, and that, for me, this must mean that those premises were wrong, because I could not and would not make the rejection. Every person of decency in the South of those days must have had some doubts about racism, and I had mine even thenperhaps more that most others. But Louis opened my eyes wide, and put to me a choice. Blacks, the saying went, were 'all right in their place.' What was the 'place' of such a man, and of the people from which he sprang?"
Charles didn't deny the blinding, Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus-become-Paul experience that transformed him that night. He accepted what he heard and felt and what he knew he saw. When brought face-to-face with an "other" who, in society, represents all equated with "inferior," yet that other is the total opposite of society's judgmentis not only "superior" but geniusyou have a choice to make. Charles had to make a moral choice whether to go against the social norms about "race" in his Southern white upbringing. He eventually became, according to that upbringing, a traitor to his race and his class, what the redneck "good old boys" would later call an unrepentant "nigger-lover."
I was first exposed to jazz circa 1973, when I met a fellow who ran Kappy's Record Store over near 10th Ave., on 42nd St. in NYC. We really clicked and when I told him I played piano and went to Music & Art HS, and had just started at City College of NY as a music major, he asked if I liked jazz...I said yes but I didn't know much about it, but that I did have sheet music for many popular 1920's through 1940's tunes by noted composers (Porter; Gershwins; Irving Berlin; Rodgers & Hammerstein/Hart; Jerome Kern; Lerner & Loewe; etc.) that my mother had sung beautifully starting in the 1940's including tons of famous show tunes, and I played many of those songs already
I was first exposed to jazz circa 1973, when I met a fellow who ran Kappy's Record Store over near 10th Ave., on 42nd St. in NYC. We really clicked and when I told him I played piano and went to Music & Art HS, and had just started at City College of NY as a music major, he asked if I liked jazz...I said yes but I didn't know much about it, but that I did have sheet music for many popular 1920's through 1940's tunes by noted composers (Porter; Gershwins; Irving Berlin; Rodgers & Hammerstein/Hart; Jerome Kern; Lerner & Loewe; etc.) that my mother had sung beautifully starting in the 1940's including tons of famous show tunes, and I played many of those songs already. SOOOO... he started me off LP's by Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum, Bud Powell, Errol Garner, Bill Evans, Monty Alexander, Charlie Byrd, and Dave Brubeck... does it get any better than that? ...No, it doesn't. I was hooked!!
I met and had a master class with the late music giant John Lewis, leader of the Modern Jazz Quartet! This was at CCNY in 1977. I was blessed! It was an incredible class... how could it have been anything else?!?!
The first jazz record I bought was...I bought numerous records from my friend at the record store, as mentioned above. He introduced me to nothing but music giants/legends! I think The Dave Brubeck Quartet, Greatest Hits, was actually the first one.
My advice to new listeners... study first--understand the rudiments--solfeggio, keys, scales, and basic chords. Read a book or take a class that includes the study of chord progressions, especially in jazz. It should ideally be a piano class so you can play multiple notes together. Have a good EAR or else it's not really worth it in my view...to become a musician, a good EAR for music is about as fundamental as breathing! Learn to read chord charts--i.e., lead sheets - wherein you play various voicings of the chords--major, minor, dominant 7th (alterations of these, you can learn over time - the basic chords are most important for starters), plus the melody, on the piano or keyboard. If you have to read the exact notes, then it's not the same as actually internalizing it & getting it all into your head. If you can do this, I think you're ready not only for listening to jazz, but understanding many concepts of it! Of course...anyone can listen to jazz... but I think it's so good to also have a grasp of it.