I’ve always loved jazz and the blues. I could say it’s because I grew up in the mountain country of Appalachia, a ‘made to order’ environment for singing the blues. But that would be a lie. Probably, it was from listening to my dad’s mix of 78 rpm records: 40’s big band music, country songs from folks like Loretta Lynn and Jeannie C. Riley, the Ink Spots, and the incomparable Louis Armstrong.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved the 60’s rock ‘n roll, but the rhythm and the words of jazz, the soul-touching emotion of it, ignited something within me. Still, it was the rockers who inspired me to wander . . . far from my roots.
Mid-semester of my junior year at Marshall University, I left school. Soon I had plans to audition for the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City.
When my feet hit that New York City street for the first time, luggage firm in my hands, I was grinning like the Cheshire cat, my heart thumping louder than the surrounding din. I was just 20. Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman, and Neiman Marcus had replaced the mom and pop storefronts that dotted the narrow streets of my hometown. The contrast between West Virginia’s fertile mountains streaked by two lane roads and this hulking concrete and glass jungle surrounding me was stunning.
I took to New York. My radar effortlessly tuned to the world-class shopping, bars, restaurants, entertainment, and music that was just blocks from my new home. Within a week, I’d passed my talent audition at the American Academy, and soon found a job at NBC. Honking taxis, skyscrapers, and pushy pedestrians now seemed as familiar as the aging brick buildings, manicured lawns, and bell-bottomed students of my alma mater.
On summer weekends, New York’s charm began early, sometimes awaking me to the vibrant sounds of a parade: drummers beating rhythm as trumpets, trombones, clarinets, and flutes, banners and majorettes, and all the glitter, color, and magic of a marching band would swing its way down Fifth Avenue. Laughter. Confetti. Contagion. The freedom and pomp of this glorious city made me feel like I could do anything.
I don’t remember how I met Bobby, but we became fast friends. A Queens, New York, native, he loved the city’s enchantment as much as me. He wasn’t dating anyone and when he needed a date, he’d sometimes call. I’d gladly oblige. Having followed his father into the entertainment industry, he always told fascinating stories and had interesting friends. But when he phoned to ask if I’d like to meet Louis Armstrong, I nearly split his eardrum.
It was Armstrong’s birthday party—black tie. Bobby had two invitations. He would rent a tuxedo, but I had to find a dress. The black velvet number I chose cost more than a week’s salary—scoop neck, short, and sexy, with colorful satin trim. Very sixtyish and stylish.
A few hundred people must have attended the lavish affair, most of them black, so we stood out. Bobby shook hands and introduced me, as we made our way through the crowd. When we got to Catherine Basie, one of the organizers and Count Basie’s wife, she pointed Bobby to the guest of honor. Because of his ill health, many thought this might be Armstrong’s last birthday.
The legendary cornet player faced forward, his back to a table. People approached him to pay respect and to gawk at a legend, but there wasn’t a line. Bobby knew Armstrong through his father and nudged me toward him. “Go speak to him.”
What do you say to an icon, a trail-blazing black man, whose talent and charisma had broken down racial barriers, but whom many now said was washed up and possibly dying? With my eyes fixed on the man I’d admired from Ed Sullivan, local juke boxes, and my dad’s records, I edged my way to his table. His white-toothed smile was as legendary as his cornet, and seeing it almost made me speechless. Still, I smiled as I approached his table. “Mr. Armstrong,” I said, finally next to him, “I’m Karyn Cantees. I just want to tell you I’m honored to celebrate your birthday here tonight.”
His eyes fixed on me. “You having a good time?”
The raspy familiarity of his celebrated voice, made me pause, but I finally managed a “yes, sir.”
He looked around the lavish room and sincerely stated, “Someone went to a lot of trouble.”
“You deserve this. It’s very glamorous.”
He laughed! Louie Armstrong laughed his famous, great laugh for me. Or perhaps at me. “I suppose it is,” he said grinning.
“Someone yelled from the next table. “Pops!” That’s what his friends called him. He turned and waved, but immediately turned back. Someone pushed in behind me. He winked—at me I think—and he took my ready hand. It felt warm around mine. “I’m so happy to have met you. I really love your music.” He nodded and said “I’m glad you could come” as my hand slipped away.
Others stepped in and Bobby was again at my side. “Nice man.”
“Y . . . yes,” I stammered. “Very nice.”
We stayed for a couple of hours, amid the music, the dancing, and the laughter, moving slowly through the beautiful crowd. When we left, the party was still ablaze.
Had the evening ended, my heart would have been full, yet in the spirit of the night, we stopped at a jazz and blues bar in lower Manhattan. People dotted the room like ants on a ditched picnic hamburger, but Bobby knew the bartender, and we quickly had drinks.
As I stirred my Golden Cadillac, an attractive gypsy girl across the room, wearing scruffy jeans and a colorful bandana, drew my eye. I know her! An entourage of young men carrying instruments, surrounded her. The familiarity of her face, made me think of Louis Armstrong. That same kind of knowing, but not knowing.
Was she famous? I couldn’t quit staring. Finally, my mind cleared.
Three years earlier, after high school graduation and during the summer, I’d lived with my Aunt LoRayne in Richmond, Virginia; I’d landed a job at an upscale women’s dress shop. Unbelievably, the woman standing before me had also worked there, and she had been my best pal in Richmond—Susan! (Not her real name) We’d double dated and hung out that summer. She’d worked bridal, I’d worked sportswear. What were the odds of seeing her in a New York City club?
She looked unlike her southern self, when we had worked and played in Richmond. The hair was blonder I think, longer, and certainly the clothing had changed. When she recognized me with the dapper Bobby, her gaze seemed to perceive a tall tale: I’d moved on up with the tuxedo prince and she’d moved on down with the musical pauper. No question, Bobby’s and my attire stood out amongst the blue-jeaned club goers. I wanted to tell her I was probably more broke than anyone after having to spring for my dress. We hugged, but spoke sparingly in the noisy club as their entourage waded through the crowd, toward the door.
Did she say the saxophone player . . . or the drummer, was her husband? No time to explain my outfit and the evening—that Bobby wasn’t my guy. Before they walked outside, we exchanged phone numbers.
That night I went home dazzled. A good friend had taken me to meet a legend, and I’d run into a friend I thought I’d never again see.
Louis Armstrong died the next year, before his birthday. I’d attended his last birthday party. Not surprisingly, I never saw or heard from Susan again. And, well, Bobby . . . he remained one of my closest friends, but after I left New York, we lost touch.
Life is ever-changing as people naturally come and go. It’s the soul and rhythm of life. Some fly by so quickly we scarcely notice, others dash by, maybe not as fast, but leave an indelible mark. Some stroll. And some thankfully stay.
Every time I hear Louis sing, “I see skies of blue and clouds of white, the bright blessed day, the dark sacred night . . . ”
I realize the magic and mystery of life isn’t meant just for heaven, but exists in the here and now. Where each life affects others. Where the music in your soul touches me and I touch you.
St. Paul promises us that for those who know Christ, our encounters will always work toward good. And they will have purpose. In a world where people skitter in and out of our life, where face-to-face encounters are less frequent, we can be heartened that our prose, the simple disjointed words of our hand, can “reach out and touch” more people than St. Paul could have imagined. Filling the globe with music.
Please finish the song, Mr. Armstrong.
“ . . . and I think to myself, what a wonderful world. Yeah.”