Channeling Satchmo

Are you Errol?” the man sitting at a table next to the sidewalk side of Café Du Monde asked me. With him were three Vietnamese  documentary filmmakers. “Yes,” I answered. “How could you tell?”

“You looked like you were looking for someone,” he answered.

Indeed I was. In fact, I was looking for a man with three Vietnamese documentary filmmakers. Because of the afternoon rain, umbrellas had obscured my view, but soon I was seated at their table where, given the weather, a café au lait was especially welcome.

 A rainy day in the French Quarter can be a poetic experience, especially as seen from the very spot where we were seated, with Jackson Square and the cathedral in the background, and where mules pulling carriages clip-clop in the suddenly mirrored street. All that was missing was the sound of a steamboat calliope, I told the four. They nodded in appreciation.

For the three Vietnamese – two men and a woman, all in their late 20s – New Orleans was like nothing they had ever seen. They were in town through the efforts of the man who had spotted me. He was an official with the U.S. State Department. His job was to escort foreign television crews throughout the nation. This group was from a Vietnamese station that specialized in environmental issues, so they had been studying the American wetlands. That night they were going to have dinner with a local fisherman, a Vietnam native, but they also seemed eager to learn more about the city.

I told them about the history and the heritage. Both their country and this city share French roots. Not talked about is what most Americans think about when the word “Vietnam” is first mentioned. Earlier the State Department guide had told me that, for Vietnamese in their 20s, the war doesn’t resonate; they were born since the fighting stopped. He also advised that when the disturbance is referred to in Vietnam it’s called “The American War.”

Instead we talked about jazz. I tried to explain the city’s contribution. The state department guy mentioned Louis Armstrong. To my surprise none of the three was familiar with him. There was no connection when the guide mentioned the name “Satchmo” or when he performed a few gravelly voiced bars of “Hello Dolly.”

Another point of reference came to mind, but I didn’t know if it would be awkward for me to use it. Nevertheless I didn’t want them to leave New Orleans without having some awareness of Armstrong, so I went ahead: “Have you seen,” I asked, “Good Morning Vietnam?”

The state department guy quickly realized which way I was going. “Remember the scene with the bombing and mayhem in the background? The song that was playing, ‘It’s A Wonderful World,’ that was Louis Armstrong.”

For what was one of the most brilliant bits of movie-making ever, Armstrong’s upbeat song was used in counterpoint to scenes of daily life and destruction as the war raged. I hoped that the three understood that music by a man who grew up not far from where we were sitting was used in a famous scene that encapsulated “The American War.”

I am not sure if they cared or needed to. Their world is totally different. Fortunately they would be in town for the French Quarter Festival.

Maybe there they would discover a truly wonderful world.

For having visited with them the woman in the group dug into her purse and handed me a silk tie made right outside of Hanoi. I was honored. We parted graciously. They had a city to explore.

Nothing will ever remove first memories of Vietnam from my mind. Driving home I thought about people I knew who never made it back from the war. Nevertheless, there’s something encouraging about a world where the new battle is over preserving wetlands rather than hiding in them.

One day soon the documentary that the three made will be showing in their nation. I would be pleased if somewhere in Hanoi someone watching the local scenes says, “New Orleans – yes, Satchmo.”

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