Shut off the lights, close your eyes and listen.
Words don’t matter. Notes don’t make a difference. Your eyes cannot help you. You have to hear it.
As he walks across the stage his voice booms through the auditorium, sans microphone. It rolls out across the audience, all ears listening intently to the deep bellowing of his soulful sound.
“Heeelllooooo people, heelllllllloooo peeeeopppplllleee,” he sings, the sound resonating through the dimly lit theater, the soft sunlight cutting through the stained-glass windows.
Byron Stripling, ladies and gentlemen.
“Today we talk about Louis Armstrong, who came from the poverty of New Orleans and went on to create music that would change the world forever,” Stripling said. “To me, he is like the American dream.”
But today isn’t a history lesson on the legendary trumpet player. No, today is about teaching the audience how to become a legendary musician.
“If you ask somebody about a recent concert they heard, they will usually tell you more about what they saw and less about what they heard,” Stripling said. “But in order to uplift your experience in music you need to direct your senses in a different place as you listen.”
He said the audience must get that focus off of the visual and focus on what the music really is about, using the ears.
“The visual is pervasive throughout our whole society,” Stripling said. “It is really the hypnosis of social conditioning as you focus on everything visual.”
Many people know his name and know what Louis Armstrong looked like but there is an old saying, ‘To know and not to do is not yet to know,’ Stripling said.
“You can have old records, that doesn’t mean anything. That doesn’t mean you know the music,” Stripling said.
He picks up his trumpet and begins to play a Louis Armstrong recording, “Back Home in Indiana,” and a 1928 piece, “West End Blues.”
The notes from the brass trumpet resound through the auditorium, echoing along the walls, penetrating the ears with each sharp tone. The audience is at full attention as he fluently mimics the notes of Louis Armstrong, effortlessly fingering the instrument as if it is an extension of his hands.
“In my teaching what we know in jazz is that it is important to model the masters. This is how we learn the language of jazz, what I was trying to do by playing Louis Armstrong,” Stripling said.
He said the best way to learn how to play is to model, emulate or imitate somebody that has done it in the past. This process of learning is to try to gain a foundation of which to play jazz.
“The only way you get to this is orally,” Stripling said. “Through the mp3 player, the iPod, the recordings and the cd’s.”
Many people do not like teaching this way because it means there is no book. But in jazz, he said, there is no book you can go to to grasp the knowledge. The knowledge is contained within the recordings.
An old recording of Louis Armstrong performing 1933 “Dinah” billows through the theater, one of the earliest recordings of the musician.
“Bo bo be du du bu buh be bo bo,” Stripling sings as he snaps his fingers, explaining how Armstrong set the stage for fast tempos.
The key to learning fast in this fast-paced world is to learn from the successes and failures of those who have gone before, Stripling said.
He said the technology from the 1920’s didn’t do the music justice. As a young man he listened to old recordings of Louis Armstrong and hated them. He said the sound was scratchy, Louis sounded like he had a sock in his trumpet and his voice was lacking definition and fidelity.
“Here’s what I learned though,” Stripling said. “Great art has no expiration date. It became my responsibility as a listener to listen in a different way.”
The computer people have a saying: GIGO- Garbage in, garbage out, Stripling said. It can also mean good in, good out. It is important to recognize the things that we imprint on the fertile software that we call our brain, he said.
“What we encourage you to do is listen to only the best music, the best quality you can find and imprint that on your brain,” Stripling said. “And then when you begin to practice and play only those sounds will come out of you if you have been listening intently.”
He said Louis Armstrong took the sounds and influences of New Orleans to inspire his music.
“See in the 1920’s, whenever Louis Armstrong’s lips touched his mouthpiece, a transformation took place,” Stripling said. “It is these sounds, these people, these musical experiences that shape and mold and sculpt him and through that we hear the evolution of the greatest jazz musician who ever lived.”
Stripling said we are all trying to compose our lives, trying to figure out what our unique talents, gifts and abilities are. And Louis Armstrong was the perfect example of that. He had a bald head, was overweight, had a problem smoking too many cigarettes. And yet he dealt with these issues and reached deep down inside and found where his artistry was.
“All of us have a blank canvas and you can choose to paint that canvas any way you can,” Stripling said. “So the question for you is, ‘How are you going to paint your canvas?’”
Stripling said to go home, shut off the lights, close your eyes and listen. Sing with the Louis Armstrong solos and the Miles Davis solos. Sing it right with them and then get out the instrument and start to play it with them.
“See what it feels like to be a jazz musician, to model that person,” Stripling said. “Because that is the only way you learn jazz. There is no other way.”
–This story was written in Feb. 2013.