Beneath the sticky Louisiana sun, I lie back on the grass and open my eyes.
I see trees of green…
A low-slung stage stands behind 200 or so people who are swaying with the sun. Beyond black railings, people sit on fold-out chairs. And above them, fingers and faces peer through wrought- iron balconies on candy-coloured walls.
I see skies of blue and clouds of white…
I’m sitting in the summer of Satchmo Fest in New Orleans, a three day festival devoted to local hero Louis Armstrong (where you pronounce the “S” in Louis, by the way.) It’s small, on a festival scale, attracting only 36 000 guests over the whole weekend, which makes it all the sweeter. I can wander between two open stages, sit, snooze, shimmy and even duck into a museum in the middle of the music to learn more about the place. Geek alert on high: this is my kind of music festival.
The Hit That Almost Never Was Today, I find this song one of the most soothing in the world – and it was deliberately designed to be. At the height of civil unrest in 1960s USA, Armstrong delighted in the chance to record something more uplifting, although critics blocked it at the time.
Louis Armstrong’s own life story makes the lyrics even more poignant – and, to me, inspirational.
I’m going to let you in on a little secret: I’ve never been comfortable talking (or for that matter) writing about music. Instead, I have always felt shy. Traditionally, here would be the part where I introduce some anecdote that involved some kind of childhood trauma to explain it.
A beating at the behest of a trombone, perhaps. Skinned by a saxophonist or violated by a violinist.
Of course, in truth, it was the neighbour’s ears that were violated through my clumsy efforts to learn the strings .
Ach, but I’ve met enough people who just love to sneer whenever you talk about music.
“If you don’t know who gobbledeygook-Mildred is, then you don’t like jazz.”
“If you can’t tell me the difference between a blah-de-blah dooberry and the essence of a sound then you don’t know jazz. ”
And, annoyingly looking back. I believed them.
As an adult, it’s clear to see what a ridiculous, bumptious responses those were. Music, like art, is there for us all.
I’m cross that I let them get to me. And I’m cross that as a result I missed out.
SatchmoFest in New Orleans offers a gumbo-laced chance to fix some of that. Not least because of a delicious Armstrong quote that says “if you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know.”
Near everyone I know can recognise that gravelly voice and that wonderful, wonderful world.
Plenty I know could recite his entire discography and place in the annals of music history.
Me? As ever, I’m a little lost by talk of French quadrilles and modal jazz and more interested in the story of the man himself. In particular, the inspiring story of his success.
I hear babies crying. I watch them grow
They’ll know much more than I’ll ever know
And inspiring is the word when it comes to the life of Louis Armstrong.
Because I’m lucky enough to live in one of the most free and tolerant places in the world – and because even here a real sense of equality is far from perfect, it has taken me a long and hard old time to realise just how bad things were just so recently when it comes to rights I take for granted.
I am still shocked to learn that women did not get the legal right to equal pay here until as late as 1970.
That in Australia, the aboriginal people were not counted in the census until as late as 1967.
And that the United States of America, a nation founded on the ideals of equality and freedom, somehow managed to live in a way that when Louis Armstrong, son of the south, became one of if not the best jazz musician in the world, his band was still forbidden to play because of its mixed race nature.
Armstrong could play. But not on the same stage as his white band members.
What on earth and how on earth did the world manage to continue with such nonsense for so long?
Armstrong, the boy, was born in 1901 in this intoxicating city of New Orleans, with its cajun and creole flair and crocodile-laden swamps nearby.
Born the grandson of slaves, his father left when he was young, his mother worked in a brothel and by his teens, somewhat unsurprisingly, young Louis was in trouble with the law. After firing a pistol on New Year’s Eve 1912, he was arrested and – in a sign of the times – sent to a place called the New Orleans Home for Colored Waifs.
In one of those strange twists of fate, the Waif’s Home gave him music lessons and the rest, as they say, was history.
There is two kinds of music, the good, and the bad. I play the good kind.
By now, I’m no longer in sunshine. I’ve made my way through the Louis Armstrong exhibit, housed in the New Orleans Mint, and have shuffled in to the back of the lecture hall. It is 2015, and, astonishingly the ten year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the destruction, desolation, deficiencies and deceit that accompanied it.
The panel talks about the rescue efforts, the loss, and the attempts to rescue the heritage and tradition of music in New Orleans.
It’s a tough listen, and too in-depth for me, a first time visitor to this swampy succulent land.
But that’s the beauty of Satchmo SummerFest: it offers layers for all. Music aficionados, New Orleans residents, and people like me: here to explore the city for the very first time.
“Every time I close my eyes blowing that trumpet of mine—I look right in the heart of good old New Orleans… It has given me something to live for.” Louis Armstrong
And for all the muck of the past that I’ve raked up here (or rather, that the museum carefully presented within the heart of the festival) I think that, ultimately, we can all draw great inspiration from it.
I see trees of green
I see friends shaking hands, saying how do you do.
They’re really saying “I love you.”
Despite the misery and inequalities of the past – and even the misery and inequalities of today – there are still places with sunshine, laughter and music. And that, despite the headlines, most people really do want the world to change for the better.
Yes, as the red beans and rice sizzle from the stand-up stalls nearby and those lyrical notes blend with scratched-out voices, I find myself agreeing with Louis.
Yes, I think to myself, what a wonderful world.
I travelled to New Orleans and the Satchmo Summerfest as part of the #MustLoveFestivals project sponsored by Expedia UK.
As ever, as always, I kept the right to write what I like. A hallmark of a wonderful world.