The Jazz Theologian

The Jazz Theologian

Ralph & Louis

It’s been a couple of weeks since my last post…I’ve been doing a little traveling and speaking, but now I’m back to my normal life.


A final quote (for now) from "Invisible Man" and a question that I’d like your help with.

The unnamed narrator of Ellison’s masterpiece describes Louis Armstrong in the following way…

"Perhaps I like Louis Armstrong because he’s made poetry out of being invisible.  I think it must be because he’s unaware that he is invisible.  And my own grasp of invisibility aids me to understand his music."



Do any of you have insight as to why Ellison describes this jazz pioneer in this manner?

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Pete Gall

posted July 31, 2006 at 10:20 pm

You don’t think Ellison could have come up with “Struttin’ with some barbecue”?
I don’t know any of the background on Armstrong, so all I can do is take the face value of his music and make a guess.
There’s a Garrison Keillor story found within The Book of Guys (a better book to listen to than read, again) about a cowboy who gets tired of life on the trail and moves into town, but then he gets angry when the neighbors complain about his yodeling, so he hits the trail again. Same stuff happens with women – town or trail, back and forth. He’s miserable and continually stuck in between, flipping back and forth.
Late in the story he runs into a man in a bar – in Missouri I believe. The man is famous for having written these great cowboy songs – the stuff that makes the cowboy ache for the trail – the romanticized stuff about “when I return to Colorado” and such. The cowboy asks the song-writer what the secret is – how can the song-writer offer such inspiration.
The song-writer says something like, “Well, I haven’t been in Colorado for over 30 years, if that’s a clue.”
It was easier for me to conceive of Zionsville – to love it or care for it or hope for it – removed from it. The closer I get to it, the more I get sucked into it, the harder it becomes for me to offer it whatever I may have to offer it.
I become too aware of the “blindness” there – the reciprocal frustration to, and cause of, Ellison’s invisibility.
There’s something about distance or blocking or denying or refusing to look at the real, real stuff that allows a person to make poetry out of the remembered real.
And there’s something about being the cowboy – or Ellison – tied ever so close to the real, that makes a person better able to interact with symbols offered by the poet, or the musician.
Ellison probably got more from Armstrong’s music than Armstrong did. You and I may well have gotten more from Ellison’s work than Ellison did. I sure have experienced readers who’ve gotten more from my book than I did…who got more from reading about my experiences in their stylized memory version, than I got from the experiences.
In his book Doors of Perception (page 29), Aldous Huxley wrote, “However expressive, symbols can never be the things they stand for.” We can talk about The Cross as an exception to that some time, but I think Armstrong or the cowboy song-writer make the symbols, and Ellison and the cowboy find the symbols as gloss on the things for which those symbols stand.

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posted August 1, 2006 at 1:49 am

Wow, it is a while since I read this book, you’ve inspired me to hunt it out again.
My inclination is to suggest that Ellison is saying Armstrong put his “invisibilty” to music without really critically thinking about it.
In terms of a Johari Window, Armstrong was blind (window 2) to his invisibility, even though Ellison’s narrator can see it (and probably so too could Armstrong’s peers.

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