The urge to share this ecstatic experience came upon me yesterday because of a conversation I had with the thoughtful, surprising art historian Claudia Cage. We drifted sideways into the question about our power and ability to perceive (and thus inhabit) our lives. Some people can’t help but view their saga as tragic, and often they have very solid evidence to support this darkness. But others — like Claudia and myself — choose to look for joy, for laughter, as salvations.
Those who know my turn of mind might not be surprised at the music that I sent her, then the Beloved, my friend Gretchen, and now you. It is that most wondrous expression of art and power, a performance that makes me cry — with joy, with exultation, a whole complexity of emotions — every time I hear it.
WHEN YOU’RE SMILING is fairly thin melodic material, and jazz groups tend to romp through it faster and faster, as if to conceal how little there is to work with. But not our hero, who understood its deep message and the operatic possibilities of those long held notes. I would love it if every singer or everyone who wanted to sing was able to study the vocal chorus (which begins with a scatted version of the trumpet break — talk about beautiful structures!) — its warmth, its casual seriousness, its great human compassion. Louis isn’t insisting that his moral message is the only one; he is not up in the pulpit. Rather, his is a gentle arm around the listener’s shoulder, saying sweetly, “Hey, man, I know this world is hard. It can wear you down to nothing. But if you welcome joy and live it, then — who knows? — things will get easier. You have nothing to lose by smiling, man.”
And then the trumpet solo, an angel from on high sending us his golden clarion message: do your best to be happy, and all will be well. Amazing music out of a deep, wise, jubilant soul.
For anyone who still holds to the tired view that Louis Armstrong’s creative life sputtered and died after 1928, I prescribe a course of repeated listening. And, rather like antibiotics, you can’t stop taking the joy-medicine even if you feel better.
On that note, I will say that I live in a Long Island suburb; my apartment windows face a four-lane main road. Across the street from me, a new exercise studio opened a few months ago, and they feature Zumba to music so loud that I feel it in my socks; it makes the windows vibrate. I wish them no harm (although I do regularly ask them to turn it down a bit) but I secretly wish I had a cosmos-rattling sound system in my apartment. I would open my windows, duck down where I could not be seen, and play this version of WHEN YOU’RE SMILING so that everyone’s windows rattled . . . but with joy, with delight, with the feeling that it is better to be alive while you have the chance. (Once a day only, and my goal would be that I would then pass people on the street and some more of them would be smiling, perhaps some one even humming the song.)
In this very unpredictable century, I find it comforting that this video has been seen nearly four million times on YouTube. Send it to someone you love; it beats anything that comes in a box and it is much easier than a trip to the mall. I wish with all my heart that someone could play this performance for the Dalai Lama — who already knows its truths — as a loving embrace.
Love your life with all its imperfections and it will love you back. It may not be possible to make the whole world smile with you, but you can spread joy as you go on your daily rounds. Louis did, and modeling oneself on Louis is a pretty good choice.
May your happiness increase.