Sunday, May 22, 2011

Waiting at Idlewild, John Updike Hears Louis Armstong

Listen to "Flight to Limbo"

“Flight to Limbo” by John Updike. This poem first appeared in Poetry Magazine in the January 1997 issue and is under copyright.

The lines “Louis Armstrong sang in some upper corner,
a trickle of ignored joy” arrive in the middle of John Updike’s “Flight to Limbo.” Armstrong’s voice familiar, the phrase itself familiar, perhaps “Hello Dolly, This is Louis, Dolly.” The weary travelers hear it but the sound does not register.

A place where everyone marks time—limbo.

Updike does not name himself the traveler delayed at the airport bound by anxiety and boredom, but we can picture him waiting, scribbling notes for a poem—“the dazed family with their baggage all in cardboard boxes, girls in the tax-free shops amid promises of the beautiful life abroad.” Maybe he wrote the whole poem while an anxious traveler sat next to him, both caught in the machinations of the late twentieth century, going where we have to go because we want to.

“The plane delayed,
the rumor went through the line. We shrugged,
in our hopeless overcoats.”

A place where no one belongs—limbo.

Armstrong appears as one of several Updikian details in this poem. Maybe it’s happenstance that Updike made Louis’s voice the one to broadcast familiarity in the midst of dazed confusion. Maybe Sinatra could sing it? Dean Martin? Tony Bennett? Maybe, but Updike hit the right note with Armstrong. Even if the passengers missed noting the details of the airport’s miasma, the reader hears Louis singing, cunning coating the comfortable.

Beneath the title Updike placed (At What Used to Be Called Idlewild), place identification is important for the mass of humanity stewing in its own juices and for Louis Armstrong in the 1950s and 1960s, exemplar of life in the in-between.

Idlewild, the name so obvious—the tension between idle and wild—that it hardly bears mentioning. Updike wants us to know that this is a particular international airport, the center of international travel in the 1950s and 1960s. You had to get to Idlewild in order to fly on. Armstrong only had to be driven from Corona, Queens. From here he departed and arrived over and over those years of Ambassador Satch. The U.S. Government sent Louis Armstrong to Europe, to Africa again and again.

Some see Louis Armstrong in limbo in the 1950s, 1960s. A remark intended without disparagement. Not that he lost his way, rather he chose another path. The music he came from, the music he had a large share in making into hot jazz, had passed on to something else. His sound was not a part of the new “something else” and so he invented another way, carrying on, singing, playing in a polyglot world. Call it a holding pattern, these years of Armstrong the entertainer, vis-á-vis the 1920s and 1930s, Armstrong the musician.

Louis Armstrong saw no split. He was a musician and an entertainer. He wanted to give people a good show. He sailed graciously through his triumphs, like Hannibal crossing the Alps, as Edward R. Murrow said when introducing him in Satchmo the Great, the 1957 film documenting his visits to England, Europe and his first trip to Africa where he played in Ghana to an audience of over 100,000.

The talk show hosts routinely asked him if he ever gave a bad performance. He responded to Dick Cavett, Jack Parr, Mike Douglas that he enjoyed every single performance and because his heart was in each one, every performance was good one. This became a mantra trotted out almost nightly.

Because Armstrong told his story over and over, he polished his pearls to perfection. Another one, “I always had what I needed and I never wanted anything more,” was equally sincere. From such tidbits it is easy to construct a Louis Armstrong hagiography. He was angelic, but the devil made him do lots of things. Was he addressing himself when he sang “You Rascal, You?”

For a long, long time he was on top of it every time. In 1959 he suffered a serious heart attack in Spoleto, Italy. He returned to work quickly, but he was never robust after that ordeal. In the 1960s, in Africa again, Velma Middleton, his vocalist, great friend and compatriot, collapsed and was hospitalized. Armstrong was persuaded to continue the schedule, leaving her there where she died.

He hired a new vocalist, Jewel Brown. She appears in many YouTube videos, the set is that big globe with the cutouts of the continents holding it together. She looks good, svelte in strapless gowns, but she’s no Velma and the magic is gone. By then almost every appearance Louis Armstrong and the All Stars made, the band playing, the crowd swaying, was filmed. The camera panned over Armstrong introducing each sideman for solo. Armstrong stepped back, wiped his face with his handkerchief, nodded approvingly. Sometimes you can see that he is elsewhere, his look, one of bored weariness.

Not anxiety of the traveler, he was comfortable on any stage, but there is a parallel to waiting in the airport. Limbo—“Outside, in an unintelligible darkness”—the darkness is always there, Ellison’s invisible man—“Invisibility, let me explain, gives one a slightly different sense of time, you’re never quite on the beat. Sometimes you’re ahead and sometimes behind. Instead of the swift and imperceptible flowing of time, you are aware of its nodes, those points where time stands still or from which it leaps ahead. And you slip into the breaks and look around. That’s what you hear in Louis’ music.”[1]

An altered state, sometimes the tension of waiting helps you arrive. What was Louis waiting for those days? Days when he’d been there, done that?

[1] Prologue, Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison, New York: Vintage Books, 1989, 8. I discuss this passage in a slightly different light in “Willie Armstrong,” posted April 9, 2011.

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