Saturday, January 9, 2010

Lewis "Satchmo" Armstrong


There are certain singers and players that had great influence on my preferences for music. None had a greater impact, with the exception of Sinatra, than Louis "Sachmo" Armstrong.

Since the purpose of this post is to allow you to listen to a master, I do not want to try to reinvent the wheel while giving you a brief history of his life and work. What follows is the short bio available at

* Born: 4 August 1901
* Birthplace: New Orleans, Louisiana
* Died: 6 July 1971 (heart attack)
* Best Known As: The charismatic jazz trumpeter who recorded "Hello Dolly"

Louis Armstrong was the most famous jazz trumpeter of the 20th century. Like Jelly Roll Morton, Armstrong began playing in New Orleans clubs and saloons in his early teens. By the 1920s Armstrong was touring the country and leading his own band, the Hot Five (later the Hot Seven). He continued to tour and record throughout his life and was particularly famous for his innovative, loose-limbed improvisations; some call him the first great jazz improvisor. His gravelly voice and sunny persona were a hit with the non-jazz public, and later in his career he became a sort of cheerful ambassador of jazz, even appearing as himself (more or less) in movies like High Society (1956, with his good friend Bing Crosby and starlet Grace Kelly) and Hello, Dolly! (1969, with Barbra Streisand). The theme song from the latter film became his most widely-known recording.

Armstrong's nickname Satchmo was an abbreviation of "satchelmouth," a joke on the size of his mouth... He was also nicknamed Gatemouth, Dippermouth, Dip, and simply Pops... Armstrong was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an "early influence" in 1990... In 2001 the city of New Orleans renamed its airport as Louis Armstrong International Airport... Armstrong is credited with influencing trumpeters as diverse as Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Wynton Marsalis.

That short bio just skims the surface of the life of the one who became known as The Ambassador of Jazz. But his popularity with the general public came from his singing of American Standards and other popular songs on early television and appearing many, many times on all of the popular variety shows of that era. And he had many motion picture credits, often small parts in romantic comedies from the 40s up almost the time of his death in 1971.

A solid, more detailed biography is available in Wikipedia:

But you can read that later. Now you need to hear some great music by this master or jazz, standards and pop.

Here is, first, a Playlist of 20 of Lewis' greatest recordings that you can just listen to. You can also open another tab on your browser and go about your business on the internet. You will see how versatile Satchmo was: playing jazz, pop and ballads on the trumpet, and occasionally on the cornet; singing in that inimitatable gravelly voice of his; and adapting to the music of the day without giving up one ounce of his personal touch on the music as only he could play and sing it.

Get a playlist! Standalone player Get Ringtones

I have also provided an old grainy video clip, for those of you who are too young to have a good mind's eye of what Lewis looked like when he performed: his signature, ever present white handkerchief, his eyes which went from sleepy to wide open astonishment as he sang, and the glory of music that shone from him every time he stepped on a stage, whether at a bar on Bourbon Street or on the Ed Sullivan Show.

This song that became one of his sigaiture songs late in his career because it captured the hearts of the American people.

Let us salute Louie Armstrong, legend of American music.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Commandment Seven: You Shall Not Commit Adultery


Now that the holidays are behind us we can return to the completion of our series on the Exodus and the Ten Commandments. The previous essays in this series can be accessed through the links in the left hand column of this page.

As with the other Commandments please remember that they are intended to apply to practicing Jews and Christians. Those who would apply them to others who have not chosen to follow them abuse the original intention of the Commandments.

The Seventh Commandment is another terse statement of prohibition:
(Exo 20:14 NRSV) You shall not commit adultery. It is concerned with the physical act of adultery.

The first things I would like you to understand about this Commandment is that it is more narrowly conceived than most moderns realize. And it is difficult for us to understand its original meaning because the rules of the society then were so utterly different than our rules.

Likewise, we need to resist the temptation to read back into the original Commandment our understanding of what it means. To do so is to indulge ourselves in anachronistic thinking that perverts the original meaning.

There are responsible modern interpretations of the Commandment which we will discuss, and they are far different than the ancient interpretations. We must rigorously, however, not confuse the two.

First, let us look at the original application of the Commandment in ancient Israel.

One thing we need to understand before we can intelligently discuss this Commandment is that it was designed primarily to protect the stability of the family, the community and the nation. Issues of marital disloyalty struck at the very fabric of Israelite society.

Maintaining the family as the core of social order was considered so vital to the nation that adultery was punishable by death in the Covenant Code which applied the Commandments to the ancient Israelite society.

Adultery, as described in the Bible, applies to both men and women. It applies only to married persons, and to those who are betrothed to be married.

There is, however, a distinct "double standard" expressed in how this commandment was interpreted, since married men could commit adultery only with married women, while a married woman was said to have committed adultery if she had sex with any man.

Consensual adult sexual activity between unmarried persons was not expressly prohibited in those times, although many specific sexual acts are prohibited in later elaborations and applications of Torah.

For instance, the entire 18th chapter of Leviticus deals with prohibitions against several specific forms of incest, and includes many other sexual prohibitions, such as having sex during a woman's menstruation period, having intercourse with a relative's wife, homosexual sex between men, and sex with animals.

Men, however, are nowhere forbidden to have sex with prostitutes, and, consensual sex between a man, married or not, and an unmarried woman who was not a prostitute was not prohibited, provided the man then married that woman. Remember, a man then could have many wives.

If there was sexual intercourse between a man and an unmarried woman, whether or not the man was married, he was expected to marry the woman, but he was not punished for having sex with her before marriage.

In fact, it is clear that even the rape of a woman by a man was not specifically condemned, although it was frowned upon. But it was not condemned, provided the man married the women he raped.

The Bible story of the rape of Tamar is a story of the frustration of a raped girl and the revenge she and her brother took for the rape, when the King David, the girl's own father, did nothing about it.

The story tells of David's oldest son, Amnon, who raped his half-sister, Tamar, who begged him to marry her to take away the stigma. [There was no law against the marriage of siblings at that time.] But Amnon drove Tamar away, and while David felt disgraced and was saddened upon learning of the rape, he did nothing. Tamar then went to her full brother, Absalom, who had Amnon killed.

Clearly the biblical redactors saw this act of revenge as a form of justice or the story would not have survived in the Bible.

In a similar way, the Seventh Commandment was not a prohibition against polygamy, that is, a man having multiple wives, which was common practice in Old Testament times. Interestingly, polyandry, a woman having multiple husbands, was prohibited. This is simply a further example of the rampant double standard in those times.

Such ideas regarding the status and treatment of women are, of course, totally foreign to us; and they should be repugnant to thinking men and women today.

This double standard stemmed from the patriarchal nature of the society then. And while our society still has a long way to go in recognizing and enforcing equal rights for women, it has come a long way from the patriarchal society of ancient Israel.

Women had almost no rights in those times. Wives were considered the property of their husbands. They were chattel. If a woman were raped, for example, it was considered a big deal only because the rapist "used" another man's property without proper payment! But, if the rapist married the woman and paid an appropriate sum to the father of the woman, then the offended "owner" was compensated for his loss. The violation of the woman's very being was not an issue. That should be appalling to our ears today.

Let us now look at modern interpretations of the Commandment.

From this point in this essay the discussion focuses on modern Christian interpretation of the Commandment.

[It would be helpful if a Jewish reader of this series would, in comments here or in a separate post, give a brief explanation of modern Jewish interpretation of the Commandment.]

Modern Christian interpretation is based upon statements made by the founder of the Christian faith, Jesus of Nazareth.

I invite us now to focus on the very sharp contrast between the Seventh Commandment as interpreted in ancient Israel and Jesus' interpretation of it. Jesus says, (Mat 5:27-28, NRSV) "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart."

Jesus is not saying that the prohibition against adultery is not applicable. It is. Jesus is against physical adultery. But Jesus is also saying that our understanding of adultery as simply a physical act is too narrow.

In its most obvious form, adultery is a physical act. But Jesus raises the stakes for all Christians smug enough to look down on those who have succumbed to physical adultery, by telling us that lusting after a woman is also committing adultery.

The only difference between President Jimmy Carter's admission of looking at a woman other than his wife with lust in his heart and the vast majority of men in this world is that he admitted it. And he knew it was a sin. Carter knew he had sinned and wanted to use his sin as an example of what other men also do but never admit they do it.

It never occurs to most Christian men that they are, in fact, sinning by lusting after women who are not their wives. Rather most would deny it to be a sin at all, saying that "it is only natural" and that "all men do it." The fact that neither of those excuses address an issue that Jesus clearly says is a sin does not cross their minds.

But Jesus has raised the bar. Just as he included angry thoughts in the prohibition against murder, so too here he includes lust filled thoughts in the prohibition against adultery. He tells us that what goes on in our hearts and minds is every bit as important as what we actually do.

Jesus here, as in all of his teachings, is interested in our motives, our inner-most intentions, our thoughts, our desires - many of which we shamefully hide from the rest of the world. But we do not hide those things from him. An ancient prayer describes God as the one "from whom no secrets are hid." Well, the Christ, Jesus, is the one from whom no secrets are hid.

Knowing this, it seems to me that Christians need to take a step back from the false pride in which we so often indulge. Such pride only layers one sin upon another. It comes from thinking that we are righteous because we do not actually do things which are clearly against God's commands.

Worse, it can come from thinking that we have gotten away with cheating because nobody has caught us in the act. Pride like that is a terrible sin. When we think that we are better than those who have been caught, or those who have recognized and confessed their sin, we fool only ourselves. We do not fool God.

Our faith teaches us that those who have sinned, be it adultery or some other sin, and have recognized that sin and sincerely confessed it, intending not to commit such a sin again, are far better in God's eyes than are those who sin, either in their hearts or by their actions, and have no intention of ever admitting that sin. God considers those who have confessed their sin to God, and have asked for forgiveness, to be righteous.

Yes, Jesus condemns physical adultery; but he has chosen to use the prohibition against adultery to call us to a higher standard which includes examining our own lusts and desires.

And he has introduced compassion for sinners along with self examination into the equation when addressing the sin of adultery.

When the people wanted to stone the woman who was found in adultery,to kill her, he did not condone her sin. Nor did he condemn her. His focus was not on her sin; rather, it was on those who would kill her: "Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone," was his response to what they proposed to do.

He knew their hearts, and He knew that none was without sin. He also knew that there is no hierarchy of sins. Sin is sin. And yet we so often consider our own sin small and another's sin large. But Jesus did not say "those who are without the sin of adultery." He said "those who are without sin," for he knew that all sin makes us unrighteous in the eyes of God.

In summary, while it is not valid to take anachronistically the interpretation of ancient Israel of the Seventh Commandment and apply that to our own lives, there are some things that we do know about applying it to modern practicing Christians.

Adultery is still a sin and when we commit it we violate God's law. But Christians also believe that through the love of God in Christ, we can take our sins to him and that he has covered those sins with his love. We can be forgiven.

By the same token, however, Christians are not given license to go right on sinning and confessing, sinning and confessing, over and over again. Confession is not a game. Jesus knows our hearts and our true intentions, and when we abuse the grace of forgiveness he knows it. He knows when we are walking in darkness, away from the light of God.

And we have learned that Jesus has raised the bar, changing the meaning of adultery from simply a physical act to a sin of the heart as well.

Whatever loopholes we might think there were before, since Jesus there are no loopholes for Christians. And because Jesus looks at the habits of the heart, he knows that none of us is without sin, be it adultery or pride or a host of other sinful intentions.

We are human and the truth is that, try as we may, we simply cannot not sin. But the good news is clear as well. God, through Jesus, has provided an answer to our sin. We can never be wholly righteous, but Christ is. And through his righteousness, when we confess our sins, seek forgiveness and mend our ways, we are made right with God.

If you are a Christian, your task is to constantly monitor not only your personal behavior but also your thoughts and intentions, doing your best to conform them to the instructions of God. And, when you do not, your task is to turn in confession and repentance to the one who can and will cover your sin with his love.

God bless.