'Louis': Music Over Movie Making

Sometimes, marvelous music makes a mediocre movie seem better than it actually is.

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That the musicians were able to play in the style made popular during the 1920s was particularly important because black audiences, we are always told, have no interest in "period" films or anything else associated with earlier times. Sociologists and academics have largely defined the black American experience as no more than a halting march through one woe after another, all exclusively distinguished by bigotry.

The Marsalis band made one thing quite clear to those in the Apollo seats: In jazz, joy has always been the uppermost goal, and joy is why jazz has been universally embraced. Listeners have learned that whenever the music faces all of the shortcomings brought into life by the blues, the joy at the center of jazz is philosophical, spiritual, courageous, witty and affirmative in a way well beyond the sentimental. We all take slaps and punches and get stomped by the blues, which jazz acknowledges but fights back against with an evergreen memory and the performed realization of joy. Cynicism and bitterness do not appear in the best of jazz.

What I found most moving in Louis was the idea that a little black boy, even in a seamy section of a city at the turn of the 20th century, might have dreams and fantasies that he could make real through his music. Armstrong recalled having such dreams when he lay in bed at night and heard musicians playing out somewhere in the street. These days, that sense of possibility is not promoted among black boys in a school system that fails them and fails the nation.

Just as they countered the lesser aspects of the film, Marsalis and his musicians offered what all serious artistic work offers: proof that a far-from-soppy sense of vitality remains in place and is always ready to be "in the service of happiness," as Louis Armstrong once said of his work. Armstrong was right then and will remain right. So will jazz.

Stanley Crouch is an essayist and columnist based in New York. He has been awarded a MacArthur and a Fletcher and was recently inducted into the Academy of Arts and Sciences. The first volume of his Charlie Parker biography will appear within a year.

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