Jewish World Review July 6, 2001 /15 Tamuz, 5761

Stanley Crouch

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America's democracy
has a music to it -- WHEN Louis Armstrong died in Queens on July 6, 1971 -- 30 years ago today -- it was thought that the New Orleans genius was 71 years old because his birthday was believed to have been July 4, 1900.

Armstrong was actually born Aug. 4, 1901. But he might as well have arrived on our Independence Day because he, more than anyone else, defined the individual nature of American music as a high art that rose up from the popular arena.

As an improviser who worked in the collective context of the jazz band, Armstrong represented the freedom of the individual to make decisions that enhance the collective effort, which is the democratic ideal.

Our country is built on the belief that we can be free and empathetic enough for both the individual and the mass to make decisions that improve our circumstances. Just as the improvising jazz musician can dramatically reinterpret a song he or she once recorded another way, we Americans revisit issues and remake our policies when we think we can improve on previous interpretations.

So when Armstrong revolutionized American music in the 1920s, he was giving our political system a sound that transcended politics, color, sex, region, religion and class. Instrumentalists, singers, composers and dancers all understood that there was something in what Armstrong did with music that could apply to them. Like the Wright Brothers, he opened up the sky, and anybody who developed the skill to fly was welcome to take the risk of leaving the safety of the ground.

The propulsion Armstrong used to lift the music became known as swing. It was a particularly American lilt in the rhythm. That lilt had no precedent in all world music. It was a new way of phrasing the endless potential for individual interpretation. One could call it the sound of the pursuit of happiness. That may be why it was so charismatic and why it influenced so many, in and out of jazz -- from Duke Ellington to Bing Crosby to Charlie Parker to Elvis Presley to Wynton Marsalis.

While this has been a particularly bad year for jazz because so many true greats have died -- J.J. Johnson, John Lewis, Billy Higgins, Chico O'Farrill and, this week, Joe Henderson -- the Armstrong legacy remains alive and more than well.

Young musicians continue to come forward, bravely ignoring pop trends in favor of the jazz art.

Just last week at the Village Vanguard, drummer Lewis Nash led a band that included perhaps the next great young trumpeter. His name is Jeremy Pelt. He is 25 and possessed of a fat golden tone, plenty of soul, sophistication and swing. With every note, Pelt held high the banner of independence that declared American freedom within the collective. He is an example in which we see the U.S.A. once again reaffirming itself.

It is through the decisive bravery of reaffirmation more than anything else that our system and our art maintain themselves.

JWR contributor and cultural icon Stanley Crouch is a columnist for The New York Daily News. He is the author of, among others, The All-American Skin Game, Or, the Decoy of Race: The Long and the Short of It, 1990-1994,       Always in Pursuit: Fresh American Perspectives, and Don't the Moon Look Lonesome: A Novel in Blues and Swing. Send your comments by clicking here.


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© 2001, NY Daily News