Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Christmas Album: Satchmo


Day Twenty-Four of our Holiday pilgrimage has arrived before we knew it. This photo and story may not have the glam or the humor that we relish at this time of year, but the person at its center, Louis Armstrong, had a gift for acknowledging our deepest joys and sorrows through his music.

As one of the creators of jazz and a vibrant screen presence whenever he appeared in feature films, including Pennies From Heaven (1936), High Society (1956) and Hello, Dolly (1969), made a memorable impact on generations. We begin today four decades ago as a little girl who was a resident of the Nevada State Children's Home in 1965 recalled a special day when Mr. Armstrong paid a visit. I do think that you'll be amused by the fact that this is among the few times when a great talent such as Barbra Streisand found herself in the shadow of a very fine man and a great artist. Here is the account of that young lady in the orphanage:

It was Christmas, 1965 at the Nevada State Children’s Home, when the children were greeted by a very special visitor; jazz great Louis Armstrong. Along with Nevada Governor Grant Sawyer and pop vocalist Barbra Streisand, Armstrong had come to play “Santa Claus” for an audience of about 60 children. Little Marthamary had just crawled into Santa Sachtmo’s lap to tell him her yuletide requests, when a disturbing episode erupted out of nowhere. Marthamary’s mother, who was also visiting the home, showed up totally inebriated and disheveled singing a tortured version of “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” Marthamary was embarrassed. But this was nothing more than just the latest in a series of abusive incidences that landed the child in the custody of state care.

In Marthamary’s words, many such incidences of maternal embarrassment, mistreatment, and psychological torment had taken place on the grounds of the children’s home, with little, if any, reaction from the staff. She writes, “My mother often took us to the enclosed playground for [the approved visits], surrounding this fenced the playground were three cottages in view. I often saw the counselors and children looking out the windows watching my mother abuse me. No one came to my rescue and no one told the Superintendent, or if they did, they must have thought I deserved it.”

But during Louis Armstrong’s visit to the children’s home that fateful afternoon, the jazz great was the one voice that stood up for a defenseless child that he had never met before.

Satchmo whispered into Marthamary’s ear, “Who is that woman?” And when the child responded that it was her mother, he was indignant. He jumped out and shouted, “Woman who do you think you are coming in here like this? This is a party for children, you children!!! How could you do this to them???” The same energy that Armstrong had brought to the concert stage and the recording studio for over four decades was now being focused on defending a child from continued brutality.

Louis Armstrong could easily identify with Marthamary’s plight because as a young child he too grew up in poverty and had been placed in the New Orleans area “Colored Waif’s Home for Boys.” He understood the hard and tainted reality of growing up in an abusive situation that was complicated by privation and neglect. Thus, he had a fond place in his heart for children, especially those who had been placed into state care. And this concern found its best expression in his care for Marthamary Scherer.

It is here that we see the simple humanity of Louis Armstrong as an organic activist who spoke plainly about the plight of those that society had discarded. Armstrong’s love and concern for the defenseless was borne of a pain and hurt that transcended the barriers of race and forged a unique relationship with the souls of human beings. You see, Louis Armstrong was more than just an innovative musician. He was truly a strong voice that articulated concern for those who could not speak adequately for themselves. And at the heart of this advocacy lies his true greatness

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