I was listening to a late night jazz broadcast one day when I heard a spurious remark made about Louis Armstrong. As a trumpeter in the early ’20s city of Chicago, Armstrong, along with his wife Lil Harden, lived quite the life. Vivid spectacles of show and tell colored the couple’s humble frames of reference as they made their way through numerous bars and entertainment halls. They steered the hustle and bustle of Chicago night life, defining it with crooning solos and colorful jazz improvisations. They were at the top of their game, unmatched by the world, or at least, by the throngs of Chicago musicians eager to play in their stead. What struck me most about Louis Armstrong though, the spurious remark I mentioned earlier, was that he felt that he couldn’t match up with his band leader Oliver. Oliver weaved such beautiful tapestries of sound and structure and Louis found himself stuck in a role he never thought he would play, not able to play something that seemed so readily within his grasp. Midst the fame and prodigious ability we bestow on his legacy it’s blindsided by the fact that Louis faced his own insecurities as base and mundane as ours.
Throughout my life I’m struck by this fascinating similarity, that upon viewing the monolith of ability a portion reveals itself in some small way and gives a hint at the idea that maybe our ideas of greatness are somehow distorted. That perhaps the supreme divisions of the sublime and mundane, of genius and status quo, and of the mortal and divine may just be exactly that. Lines that exist in our minds. Illusions. I don’t deny that there certainly is something to the ability of these prodigious figures, but when the humanity of something that distant and defined is exposed it leaves me with a lasting impression. Our range of experience and emotion may be vast, but they’re somehow dramatically consistent.