Winning Essay by Byron L., Indiana University – Bloomington
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Picture New Orleans in the early twentieth century. Bright lights, flashy colors and enticing smells light up the night with zest and life. But look deeper, and this stimulating scene fades to reveal a foundation of systematic racial discrimination. Embedded deep in this foundation is a neighborhood so violent it is referred to as “The Battlefield.” Imagine a young black boy, born here to a sixteen year-old mother, whose father deserts them when the boy is two. The boys’ name is Louis Armstrong, and half a century later he will be recognized world-wide for having revolutionized the world of jazz.

Armstrong is a tremendous inspiration to me as an aspiring musician and social justice advocate for four reasons: he was a pioneer, he was a uniting force, he was fearless, and he was determined.

First, Armstrong was one of the earliest black musicians to overcome the racism embedded in American culture and practice. He pioneered the path for a younger generation of African- American jazz musicians, including Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday. Off stage, Armstrong’s political activism was incisive and effective. He sharply criticized the government’s handling of the Little Rock High School integration process in 1957, calling President Eisenhower “two-faced” and “having no guts,” and causing the FBI to keep a file on him.

Second, in spite of his off-stage work, his most important civil rights advocacy was right on stage. His life was a demonstration of the uniting power of music. By bypassing the brain and speaking directly to the heart, his music transcended all divides and healed the spiritual wounds that cause racism. His race became subsidiary to his music in the eyes of the public. As a musician, there is no higher ideal, and this transcendence is what I strive for.

Third, he fearlessly let his personality outshine the resistance of those who judged him based on the pigment in his skin, both on and off stage. He let nothing stand in the way of his artistic voice and expression. This is reflected in his recordings. Armstrong created a turning point in the world of jazz, turning away from an emphasis on ensemble playing and towards soloistic improvisation. He introduced an element of vulnerability by adding vocals to his performances.

Fourth, he climbed out of his impoverished economic beginnings with nothing but his determination and musical passion. In his youth, Armstrong formed a quartet with his friends and performed on the streets throughout New Orleans to make money. This is called “busking.” I understand and appreciate the courage required to busk, having raised the majority of my pre-college music education expenses through playing my violin on the streets. It is encouraging and energizing to know that such a great musician paved the way.

As modern politics attempts to drag us down into messy, savage, juvenile quarreling, Louis Armstrong reminds us that musical art lifts us up to the highest aspirations of human potential, and I am deeply grateful for his inspiration in my life and my music-making.

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