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Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Sound of Joy

Matt Wright, July 3, 2011
Matthew 5:43-48

Jesus said, "You have heard that it was said, `You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."

I want you to listen to the Sound of Joy:

[“Mahogany Hall Stomp,” Louis Armstrong And His Hot Seven]

Eighty-two years have passed since Louis Armstrong recorded Mahogany Hall Stomp in one of the greatest periods of artistic inspiration humanity has ever known. No one alive today can escape his influence – the way he completely reshaped popular music is evident today in every song you hear on the radio or download from iTunes. His voice, which one journalist described as “a wheelbarrow crunching up a gravel driveway,” remains instantly recognizable more than forty years after his death. His face, seemingly never without its million-watt smile front and center, is the very picture of happiness.

As I wrote this homily, I was playing Louis Armstrong’s music in a house full of family members, and my three year old niece, Morgan, who knows nothing of Armstrong or his effect on our times, responded by dancing non-stop around the living room between bites of her Fruit Loops. If you’re trying to make the case for music as a universal language, Morgan is “Exhibit A.”

Armstrong’s story, and American history, could have been very different; the bright light of his life could have remained obscured by hardship and bitterness. No one familiar with the circumstances of his early life would have been surprised. But at every turn, Louis chose not only to love his enemies, but also make them his brothers and sisters. He was not perfect. He was not Jesus with a horn. He was a complicated human being. But In a world where “an eye for an eye” is too often our default setting, his response to life and his vision of his calling illustrates as well as anything I can imagine what can happen when we take Jesus’ charge to heart.

Although he was born August 4th, 1901, all his life, he believed he was born on July 4th, 1900, and it seemed only right for this quintessential American figure. But there were no fireworks in “Back O’ Town” New Orleans when Louis was born to a part time prostitute and a father who abandoned the family in short order. Shifted from relative to relative, he attended the Fisk School for Boys where he was first exposed to Creole music. To keep his mother from prostitution he delivered newspapers, hauled coal, and dumpster dived for discarded food which he then sold back to local restaurants.

Louis knew discrimination from an early age, not only from whites, but also even more from light skinned blacks who made a special effort to separate themselves from their darker skinned brothers and sisters. It was a Jewish family, the Karnofskys for whom he worked doing odd jobs, who showed him that discrimination was not limited to blacks, and how to overcome its corrosive effects: “They were having problems of their own,” he wrote later. “I was only seven years old, but I could see the ungodly treatment that the white folks were handing the poor Jewish family that I worked for.” Their remedy in the face of prejudice was to show kindness to others and better their circumstances through hard work. They gave him his first horn and showed him how to live “real life and determination.” These were lessons Louis never forgot. In tribute to them, he wore a Star of David around his neck for the rest of his life.

Despite this, Louis was often left on his own to roam the streets of Storyville – absorbing music and the lessons of the street. In short order, he was in trouble. He first made the papers when he was arrested for shooting his stepfather’s pistol into the air on New Year’s Eve, and sent to The New Orleans Home For Colored Waifs, along with Karnofskys, one of the two seminal experiences that would help make him the man we know.

If you look at the Home as a kind of antecedent for Homeboy Industries, and Captain Joseph Jones as an early day Gregory Boyle, you wouldn’t be too far off. Jones was someone who saw value in cast offs, and young Louis was his crowning achievement. Jones saw Louis’s interest in the horn, and brought him to the attention of Professor Peter Davis, who put a cornet in his hands and discipline in his soul. Armstrong would never be without either again.

How tempting it is for us to look at troubled young lives in our community today and write off those young faces, just as it was in New Orleans a hundred years ago. The example of Louis Armstrong and the work of groups from the Waifs’ Home to Homeboy Industries show us that we do so at our own peril. Odds are the world should have overlooked Louis Armstrong. Yet, try to imagine the world without him. It is truly unimaginable.

Throughout his life, Armstrong continued to absorb the darkness of racial prejudice, conflicts with mobbed up club owners, and the taunts of a younger generation of black musicians like Dizzy Gillespie, who accused him of pandering to white audiences to make a buck. While Armstrong was far from silent when the occasion demanded, once publicly calling President Eisenhower a “gutless, uneducated plowboy” for trying to limit federal involvement in desegregating Little Rock’s Central High School, most often he responded with the pure light of his horn, the truth in his voice, and the radiance of his smile.

Biographer Terry Teachout points out that, “That smile was no mere game face donned to please the paying customers. It told the truth about the man who wore it. In return for his unswerving dedication to his art, he knew true happiness and shared it unstintingly with his fellow men.”

Late in life, Armstrong recounted this story to a journalist:
“Years ago I was playing the little town of Lubbock, Texas, when this white cat grabs me at the end of the show – he’s full of whiskey and trouble. He pokes on my chest and says, ‘I don’t like niggers!’ These two cats with me was gonna practice their Thanksgiving carving on that dude. But I say, ‘No, let the man talk. Why don’t you like us, Pops?’ And would you believe that cat couldn’t tell us? So he apologizes – crying out and carrying on… And dig this: that fella and his whole family came to be my friends! When I’d go back through Lubbock, Texas for many, many years they would make ole Satchmo welcome and treat him like a king.”

The final paragraph of Teachout’s definitive Armstrong biography, POPS, sums it up:
“The whole story of Louis Armstrong’s life is in that one encounter. Faced with the terrible realities of the time and place into which he had been born, he did not repine, but returned love for hatred and sought salvation in work. Therein lay the ultimate meaning of his epic journey from squalor to immortality: his sunlit, hopeful art, brought into being by the labor of a lifetime, spoke to all men in all conditions and helped make them whole.”

Let us pray: Dear Lord, as we face the challenges of the world we live in, and struggle to truly love our enemies, help us to remember the example of people like Louis Armstrong, who was no different from any of your children, yet found a way to spin joy from pain, happiness from hatred, and light from darkness. Bring us strength and courage to face each day without bitterness, to let old wounds heal, and if the sun truly rises on good and evil alike, help us with each new sunrise to tip the balance in favor of the good. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

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