How can Ella Fitzgerald, Star Wars and the Invisible Man be related? Jazz.
My Great Grandmother recently passed away, and amongst her things my Great Aunt found an old recording that my sister and I made for her as eleven year olds. I don’t remember filming it, and it showed us both playing instruments and reading poetry through many unprofessional stifled giggles. Embarrassingly, I kept squeaking towards the high notes on my trumpet with very expressive eyebrows, instead of playing the ‘velvet tones’ I prefer to remember. When I could hold a note, I enjoyed playing jazz most of all, finding that the orchestra too often favoured the delicate strings and allowed the brass section to blast two notes every fifty bars. Improvisation was daunting at first, but once you learn to navigate the flats of the scale and jump in trills, jazz became invigorating to play.
Before giving up music for sport, I played the lead in the main theme tune of Star Wars when record breaking Olympic sprinter Linford Christie visited our school. Except, ironically, he was late. By the time he showed up, the top ‘G’ was a bit of a struggle for my strained lips as we had been playing on repeat in anticipation. There was an angry red circle on my lips, but this was overshadowed by the fact he’d just been charged with doping, and it was the end of his successful career as an athlete.
Skip ahead a couple of years, and I’m a young teenager working in the neighbouring village of Walberswick. Early each weekend, I cycled past the common, over the River Blyth at the harbour, and through the misty moors to work at a vintage home ware shop. That’s where the romanticism ends. The evil lady in charge banished me to a small dusty shed, filled with trinkets, toys, jewellery and ornaments. It was lonely work, walking up and down the wooden floors with my feather duster. My only solace was a CD by the artist Ella Fitzgerald. I fell in love with her low dulcet tones and smooth honey vibratos, and she even mastered the ‘bippity-boppity-boo’ jazz sounds that any Disney fan will recognise from Pinocchio, with Louis Armstrong’s ‘When you wish upon a star.’
Listen to Ella Fitzgerald duet with Louis Armstrong, performing ‘Dream a Little Dream of Me’ here
I soon quit that job, realising I could still listen to Ella and Louis without working there. A few years later, a yoghurt company released an advert featuring the sounds of Nina Simone, sparking a national debate on whether it was a man or woman singing. My closest connection to jazz at that time was my obsession with reggae, which played on the bluesy swinging rhythms and classy toots of the brass section. I even dated a guy called Jaz for a short while, although he wasn’t really into jazz as he was experimenting with writing songs on his acoustic guitar.
More years passed, and every time I went to pick up the trumpet again I found an excuse not to: the dorms at uni are not very sound proof; the case is too heavy to carry; I can’t find time to practice; the keys are sticking and the pipes need cleaning. Last summer, I found the black leather case with the gold buckles, and clicked opened the clasps. The rich black velvet, moulded to the exact shape of the trumpet, held it closely and reluctantly let go as I scooped the instrument out. Popping in the silver mouthpiece, I looked at the tarnished brass body that was once so bright and unblemished. The curls of metal that my fingers wrapped around, the small discs of mother of pearl that sat atop the three keys, the wide black hole which magically released my breath into music. I played one long low boom of a ‘C’, and my fingers attempted to climb up the scales but my mouth couldn’t remember how.
At university, I studied a haunting novel called Invisible Man* by Ralph Ellison. It depicts the narrator, hidden underground and invisible to society, recalling his former invisible life as a black man living in 1930’s Harlem, America. Music has a profound escapist effect on the protagonist, whose actual name is never disclosed. He sits in his cave, listening to his radio-phonograph playing Louis Armstrong’s “What Did I Do to Be so Black and Blue.”
Listen to Louis Armstrong’s ‘Black and Blue’ song here
Whilst listening, he realises that Louis Armstrong was able to transgress the social racial boundaries through art, and form a black identity in his music. His language mimics jazz, with identifiable breaks and diction creating blues rhythms. He loses himself in the song: ‘I not only entered the music but descended … into its depths.” The lyrics of the song echo the struggle for identity that the narrator suffers as a black man himself:
I’m white…inside…but, that don’t help my case ’cause I…can’t hide…what is in my face
How would it end…ain’t got a friend
My only sin…is in my skin
What did I do…to be so black and blue.
My love affair with jazz music is not quite over yet.
*Not to be confused with H.G. Wells’ science fiction novel, The Invisible Man
‘The Visual Art of Invisible Man: Ellison’s portrait of blackness,’ by Lena M. Hill, http://mfs.uchicago.edu/public/institutes/2012/InvisibleMan/prereadings/InvisibleMan.pdf
‘An Urge to Make Music of Invisibility: Ralph Ellison’s Fiction,’ by Sara Wood, http://www.49thparallel.bham.ac.uk/back/issue9/wood.htm