Archive for July, 2009

My Soul with Your Eyes: Jazz Darsan

Posted in Uncategorized on July 29, 2009 by Josslyn Luckett

You go to my head, Louis, and my heart, my smile, my swinging hips and tapping toe. I know technically we will celebrate your birthday next week on Aug 4 but I love that during your life you had everyone believing you were born on independence day. That jazz legend lives on with me every Fourth of July when my best (only) effort at patriotism is to pull out “Louis Armstong meets Oscar Peterson (a Canadian, ha!),” open all my windows and peacefully rock in the rocking easy chair on my front porch (and if I’m really on point the smell from the baked beans I try to make as good as mom’s and sweet cornbread drifts out to tease the neighbors). But I tell you, everytime I get to “You Go To My Head” I stop rocking. I sit forward. I say “damn” to myself several times, and feel so grateful that you play the full song twice, first horn, then voice. This past Fourth, though I gave the freedom shout in the blog to our beloved Billy Strayhorn, I spent a good part of that day thinking about the power of “You Go to My Head”…from Dinah and Clifford’s version (ahhh), to Billie Holiday’s (who jumped to record it back in 1938 within a year of its release) to the Louis you reveal here that I’m not sure most folks know…I can hardly catch my breath when you testify:

You go to my head
With a smile that makes my temperature rise
Like a summer with a thousand Julys
You intoxicate my soul with your eyes…

Then come to remember my man Haven Gillespie laid that lyric down, not long after he dropped “Beautiful Love”…what was going on with Haven? Did you ever meet him? What I hear is he was born in 1888, one of 9 kids, poor, white Kentucky family, crammed in one basement apartment, til he dropped out of grade school and moved up to Chicago to live with an older sister. Mr. Gillespie was also a journalist, a man who stuggled with alcohol addiction, and the writer of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” The guy who wrote “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” also wrote:

Beautiful love,
I’ve roamed your paradise
Searching for love, my dream to realize
Reaching for heaven, depending on you
Beautiful love, will my dreams come true?

I wonder Louis how you would have responded to the two women sitting next to me the other night at a Kurt Elling concert in Hollywood. They were a generation older than me and one especially seemed like she was in a lousy mood to begin with, but they were quite irked that this white singer was trying to sing the tunes Johnny Hartman ever so masterfully recorded with John Coltrane. I really understand where the hurt underneath the irk comes from, and have shared that same sigh: “here they go again, stealing our genius and selling it back to us” or as Greg Tate brilliantly titled his book about white theft of black culture, “Everything but the Burden…” Louis, I have this feeling you might have just given our two sisters a hug and offered them a round of “sparkling burgandy brew.” I didn’t do this, though I did kind of want to engage them on the fact that that precious, priceless Hartman/Coltrane collaboration, THE soundtrack of black romance that informed the conception of so many boys and girls of my generation…well, aside from Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” every song on that album is written by one of Haven’s white, mostly Jewish composer comrades. So Kurt Elling, at least that evening was a white jazz singer singing songs written by other white men 50 to 70 years before him.

If we are to realize your “Wonderful World,” Louis don’t we need to listen to one another across difference, look for each other’s souls with our eyes? I’m just starting to read about the Hindu practice of Darsan, seeing the divine image…one of the most striking ideas right away for me is the idea that in honoring any of the sculptures/representations of the Hindu dieties, it is as important to see the image as to be seen by the image….Haven’s lyric “you intoxicate my soul with your eyes,” feels right up this same sacred alley. Haven Gillespie had many Jewish song writing collaborators, he wrote one very famous Christmas song, but who knows what else was spiritually spinning round in his brain…Again for the realization, the living breathing, real deal arrival of your wonderful world, Louis, we need you and Haven in Pennsylvania at every public and private swimming pool, goggles off, eyes and souls engaged, warmly welcoming every child. We sure need you and Haven trading seriously swinging eights with the Cambridge PD, right about now. We need that divine seeing, that beauty loving us into your “bright blessed days and dark sacred nights.” Happy birthday, Mr. Armstrong, and thank you and Mr. Gillespie for intoxicating my soul July after July.

Moral Freedom and the Listening-Hearing Self

Posted in Uncategorized on July 4, 2009 by Josslyn Luckett

“He demanded freedom of expression and lived in what we consider the most important of moral freedoms: freedom from hate, unconditionally; freedom from all self-pity (even throughout all the pain and bad news); freedom from fear of possibly doing something that might help another more than it would help himself; and freedom from the kind of pride that could make a man feel he was better than his brother or neighbor.

“His greatest virtue, I think, was his honesty–not only to others, but to himself. His listening-hearing self was totally intolerant of his writing-playing self when, or if, any compromise was expected, or considered expedient.  God bless Billy Strayhorn…”

(from Duke Ellington’s eulogy for Swee’ Pea as printed in the liner notes for “…and his mother called him Bill”–these Strayhorn Moral Freedoms are also found in Ellington’s Second Sacred Concert as spoken text within the tune, “It’s Freedom.”)