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Out Of The Blue
Kaisley Phillips tells a colourful story from Chicago in the summer of 1960.
Louis Armstrong paced the stark wooden floor-boards of his old rehearsal room, South Side Chicago 1960, reminiscing as fragments of his amazing life echoed vibrations and visualisations around the room, bouncing from the ceiling and walls, dancing with the shadows and the specs of dust.
His navy blue pin-striped suit, starched white shirt and bow-tie were covered by his Burberry trench coat as his black snake-skin shoes continued pacing the floor. In a slow, melancholic manner, he took an indigo silk handkerchief from his breast pocket and tenderly polished his old brass trumpet.
His large brown eyes glanced up to the skylight where the sunlight had cast a hazy, smokey blue beam framed by a rainbow from a prism of light. His thoughts were on his departed friend, Billie Holiday. A year to the day after her passing, he placed the trumpet to his well-worn lips and played a run of the saddest music he could muster, bending the bluest of notes whilst meticulously releasing his heart-felt pain. A smile engaged his lips as he imagined speaking to Lady Day, “Go on Billie, sing it, bluer than blue, as you always do. And you know when you do, you always come up with something unexpected.” He imagined her singing, low, fine and mellow. “Yeah, you’re with the Lord now. Go on Billie, and sing to the Lord!”
Still entranced, he took a brown paper bag from his coat pocket and began to chomp on a blueberry muffin. He spied a bluebottle. Impatiently he shooed the fly and opened the window. While at the window he saw a woman with a startling cornflower blue rinse beehive hairstyle stepping out of a blue-black Cadillac. Her name was Marina. She looked like an ageing Audrey Hepburn. “Are you ready?” she smiled up at him.
In a flash, he skipped down the large flight of steps. Waving to neighbours, he jumped into the waiting car, chauffeur-driven by a Cherokee man called Skye, whose long black hair hung slow dancing over his petrol-blue uniform. Silent at the wheel, he listened as the car radio played a mystical tune by Django Reinhart.
The car cruised on, showing Chicago on a hot summer’s evening; passing stores, grey buildings, strip joints, clubs and bars; skyscrapers, neon lights, toots from cars. There was a buzz in the atmosphere which said something was always about to happen. Then there was the magnificent sight of Lake Michigan, mysteriously placed like an aquamarine gem set in windswept sand. Here flows a history of jazz notes which whisper in the air, seeping into the here and now.
Ella Fitzgerald’s sweet tones could be heard now. Louis smiled, enjoying the moment. Skye stumped out his cigarette and Marina stared ahead, like an elegant swan on a secret mission. They passed a soul food café. Tantalizing southern fried aromas mingled in the air, wafting over olive green gingham tablecloths. Left-overs from the glory days of Al Capone hustled through the streets, while junkies did their thing. Brown-skinned ladies with hot-combed hair-dos sashayed to and fro, while mothers with babies continued their endless chores.
Dizzy Gillespie was playing on the radio now. Skye drummed his nimble fingers on the wheel. Louis nodded to the beat. Marina smiled mischieviously as crease lines and crows’ feet framed her face like a lady hatching a plan.
The car sped on to the suburbia of Chicago Heights, with its swimming pools and tea in the afternoon, where the grass is always green with neatly-mowed lawns. Approaching the driveway to her mansion, Louis whispered to Marina, “Are you sure he don’t expect anything?”
“Not a thing,” she smiled.
Entering her palatial home, they were greeted by a maid, a butler, and a giant-sized poodle called Alaska,with a diamond-studded collar and flourescent pink eyes. Alaska held out her fluffy white paw. Louis motioned a ‘how do you do’. Alaska trotted off, satisfied at having met Louis Armstrong in the flesh.
Marina guided Louis to a large oak door. She floated into the snug room, made comfortable with large red sofas, Persian rugs and a very impressive record collection. Bessie Smith, Jelly-Roll Morton, Dexter Gordon, Count Basie, Sarah Vaughan or Miles Davis; you name it and they could claim it.
An old man sat in a wheelchair. It was Marina’s husband Nico, a former jazz club owner. He stared in amazement as Louis entered the room.
“Satchmo, is that you? Hey, I ain’t seen you in a group of time!”
“Yeah,” growled Louis, “it’s wonderful to see you man. I wouldn’t miss your fiftieth wedding anniversary for the world!”
Marina hugged Nico. The three sat talking into the evening, til friends and family arrived. Louis treated them to an outstanding rendition of ‘Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing’, then Marina joined him in a comical duet, singing beautifully to ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’. Everyone wept tears of joy, amazed that Louis Armstrong had arrived out of the blue.
© Kaisley Phillips 2006
Kaisley Phillips is a singer-songwriter living in London.
Why Are The Blues Blue?
Why is Blues music called the Blues? Maybe it is named after the emotion which the music evokes – so the answer would be that blues music is called that because it makes you feel ‘blue’ – that is, melancholic. Then the question has moved one stage: why is that mood, that emotion, named after a colour? Patricia Railing recounts in her article that Hermann Helmholtz showed that different coloured light excites differently the nerve-sense systems connected with emotion. So maybe blue light evokes a feeling of melancholy and for this reason the mood is called the blues.
The question of how different colours evoke different emotions or link to different sounds is an interesting one. Maybe it is a question better answered by psychologists than by philosophers, but it is certainly relevant to any discussions of colour and sound in art. Colour is so different from sound that it is hard to see how connections between different colours and sounds come about.
Synesthesia is the neurological condition in which there is a strong coupling between different kinds of sensory inputs, possibly due to cross-talk between adjacent areas of the brain. There are therefore several varieties of synesthesia. One common kind is grapheme-colour synesthesia, in which letter or numbers are perceived as being inherently coloured. Another form is music-colour synesthesia, in which musical tones produce sensations of colour. However, only about 4% of people have any form of synesthesia, and music-colour synesthesia is rarer still, so this probably isn’t why the blues are called the blues.
Different colours can give rise to different emotions, and different kinds of music likewise. Therefore if a certain colour (blue?) evokes a certain kind of feeling, and if a certain kind of music evokes the same kind of feeling, then the music might become known by the name of the colour.
Blues music may be called that because it uses the ‘blue notes’. These are notes which are played or sung at a slightly lower pitch than the notes of the major scale. This is thought to reflect a historical debt which the blues owes to African work songs.
There are lots of appearances of ‘blue’ in this story, and they are all symbols the storyteller uses for blues music. The world is full of signs, for the simple reason that we put them there. The study of these symbols is called semiotics.