Buy F&SF • Read F&SF • Contact F&SF • Advertise In F&SF • Blog • Forum

July 1999
 
Book Reviews
Charles de Lint
Elizabeth Hand
Michelle West
James Sallis
Chris Moriarty
 
Columns
Curiosities
Plumage from Pegasus
Off On a Tangent: F&SF Style
 
Film
Kathi Maio
Lucius Shepard
 
Science
Gregory Benford
Pat Murphy & Paul Doherty
 
Coming Attractions
F&SF Bibliography: 1949-1999
Index of Title, Month and Page sorted by Author

Current Issue • Departments • Bibliography

Plumage from Pegasus
by Paul Di Filippo

And I Think To Myself, What A Wonderful World

"I believe The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction appeals to me because in it one finds refuge and release from everyday life. We are all little children at heart and find comfort in a dream world, and these episodes in the magazine encourage our building castles in space."
--Louis Armstrong, rear-cover endorsement, F&SF, circa 1964.

From backstage at the Newport Jazztopian Festival of 1965, Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong, editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Jazztopian Fiction, heard the ecstatic roar of the crowd and smiled. The band now departing the stage--The Amazing Herd, under the charismatic leadership of editor Woody Herman--was going to be a hard act to follow. That little cat on drums, Ray Palmer, was a pint-sized dynamo. But Satchmo continued to grin broadly, confidence flowing almost visibly from his bulky suited form. The lineup he was going to bring onstage was one of the strongest he had ever fronted, even going way back to the early glory days of the Hot Five. Armstrong was certain that his band would wow the crowd today, just as the magazine he headed wowed its readers monthly.

An arm fell around Satchmo's shoulder, and he turned to face the festival's organizer, George Wein.

"Any butterflies, Dippermouth?" joshed Wein, using Armstrong's oldest nickname.

"No, sir," growled Armstrong in his famous rumble. "We're fixin' to turn Newport Harbor into steam. Serve up some fine music and cooked lobster all at once."

Wein released Armstrong and his face grew serious. "Who'd have thought we'd ever find ourselves doing what we love again, huh, Louis? During all those bad years, the whole Noteless Decade, it seemed impossible that our music would ever flourish again."

"Don't forget the fiction, too, George. We can't neglect the other half of the Jazztopian program. Only solidarity got us through the hard times and brought us to where we are today."

"True, true. But you're more heavily into the written stuff than me. The music's always been my first concern."

"You got to keep the lesson of the camps in mind though, George. If we don't hang together, we hang separately."

Wein shook his head ruefully. "The camps. Nothing seems hard after them, does it?"

"No, sir, it sure don't."

And Armstrong cast his mind back some twenty-odd years to that convulsive time--so horrible while ongoing, yet a blessing in retrospect.

In early 1942, during the grimmest days of the Second World War, when the Allied cause looked doomed, the worst possible thing that could have happened to the USA--not excluding the previous year's massacre at Pearl Harbor--had occured: President Roosevelt was assassinated by a lone gunman. The assassin, who died almost immediately under return fire from the Secret Service, was quickly identified, his prints on file from a series of minor robbery and vagrancy arrests. One William Burroughs, dope fiend, petty thief, wastrel, and, incongruously, black-sheep scion of an industrial dynasty. On the assassin's body and in his tawdry apartment had been found extensive scribblings. Burrough's writings spoke of a vast conspiracy involving jazz men, hobos, pulp writers, and other mysterious lowlife figures, a conspiracy bent on subverting all authority from the highest levels on down. Some held that these manuscripts were plainly the hallucinatory work of a madman; others that they were a viable blueprint for an actual attempt by anarchists to overthrow the country.

The government of the United States, faced with attack from abroad, could not take a chance on subversion from within. Less than a week after Roosevelt's death, pursuant to special orders from President Truman, the nationwide roundup of all the suspicious types delineated in Burroughs's manuscripts had begun. By the thousands, musicians, writers, artists, and tramps were swiftly corralled and sent to the same detention camps that already held--much to the surprise of the uninformed newcomers--innocent, law-abiding Japanese-Americans.

Armstrong had been in the studio, cutting a record with Bing Crosby, when their arrest came down. He and Bing hadn't been allowed even to pack or call their families before being hustled onto a westbound train. (Apparently, Armstrong's trip to Europe in 1933 rendered him particularly suspect.) Armstrong hadn't felt this crummy since he was sent to the Colored Waif's School at age 12. Arriving at an Arizona camp exploding with construction by WPA crews in order to hold the new influx of prisoners, Satchmo resigned himself to a few weeks of being held hostage to the nation's fears. Surely this whole mess would soon be straightened out.

After the first six months of confinement, he realized his sanguine expectations might be due for revision. But even then no one quite believed that their internment could possibly last some ten years.

Life in the camp sorted itself out after an initial period into something quite different from what the authorities had intended. The prisoners were allowed by a manpower-short Federal government to manage their own affairs with minimal supervision, and soon the camp was humming with organized activities. By cooping up so many creative, talented people, the government had inadvertently created a hothouse environment where ideas and enthusiasms bred like bacteria. "The swing tanks" was what the camps eventually came to be called by their inmates, and by the few citizens on the outside of the fences who heard dribs and drabs of whispered leaked information.

Acquiring musical instruments through bribery or Red Cross charity, the musicians among the prisoners swiftly fell into both new and old groupings prone to jamming nearly all their waking hours. By similar licit or illicit means the writers incarcerated in the swing tanks glommed onto typewriters and mimeographs and continued their interrupted work, mainly in the speculative and noir genres. And painters likewise with their tools.

But neither the musicians nor the writers nor the painters any longer maintained suspicious barriers between their clans. Forced to mingle by proximity, they found stimulation, enlightenment, and inspiration in the media different from their own. Many laid down their pens and took up trumpets, and vice versa. And from the assorted tramps, bums, addicts, and hobos came an underclass perspective on national affairs that many of the middle-class artists might never have otherwise encountered.

Thus, in parallel with their secret Manhattan Project elsewhere, the Feds had accidentally built in the swing tanks a system for high-gear cultural cross- pollination.

As best as Satchmo now recalled, it was during the third year of their imprisonment that someone coined the term "jazztopia" for the ideal state toward which all of the prisoners were striving with their art. Maybe Duke Ellington had come up with the term, maybe Dave Brubeck. It could have fallen from the lips of Woody Guthrie or Cyril Kornbluth. Whoever the originator, the term spread like wildfire. Within weeks, there appeared "The Jazztopian Manifesto," penned by a team consisting of Henry Kuttner, Thelonius Monk, Mezz Mezzrow, Fred Pohl, and Billie Holiday. Signed by nearly every inmate of the swing tanks, the proclamation became the Jazztopian Declaration of Independence.

Outside the swing tanks, the global war had stalemated. Truman was not the strategist Roosevelt had been (although historians later attributed much of the military inertia to a national lassitude stemming from a dearth of entertainers other than a few goodie-goodie quislings such as Kate Smith, Bob Hope and L. Ron Hubbard). In the elections of 1948, the electorate replaced Truman with Eisenhower, popular ex-general invalided out of active service after the failure of D-Day. Eisenhower pressed the scientists of the Manhattan Project for a breakthrough (one of the key figures of the Project, Richard Feynman, had been sent to the swing tanks for his bongo-playing, leaving the Project fumbling), and success finally came in 1951, bringing a decisive end to the war. But at his moment of triumph, Eisenhower was swept up in scandal, caught having an affair with his secretary, Kay Tarrant. Outraged, the voters in 1952 carried Adlai Stevenson into the Oval Office. Liberal Stevenson immediately used his mandate and the new peacetime conditions to dissolve the swing tanks.

Out into the general populace burst the Jazztopians, burning to bring their optimistic, speculative visions in words and music to the rest of the nation. They infected the country like a virus never before encountered by the body politic's immune system.

The 1950s, "The Swinging Fifties," were the biggest rennaisance in the nation's history. The domestic economy soared, global reconstruction got underway, and the soundtrack was Jazztopian music. Jazztopian speculative literature, marching forward arm-in-arm with the music, blossomed. Scores of magazines were born or reborn, the masthead of each boasting a musician as the nominal (sometimes actual) editor. There was Astounding with Guy Lombardo; Unknown with Charlie Parker; Galaxy with Sun Ra; Planet Stories with Benny Goodman; Infinity with Glenn Miller; and of course, The Magazine of Fantasy and Jazztopian Fiction, helmed by Louis Armstrong.

Open-air festivals became the favored tribal gatherings of the Jazztopians and their enormous flock of fans, replacing stuffy literary gatherings and smoky non-literate night-clubs. And the Newport gathering was perhaps the most prestigious.

Satchmo's reverie ended as his bandmates surged past him, heading for the stage. Each one, youngster and old friend, gave him a high five as they bustled by him. Armstrong let them take their positions. He made sure he had his big white handkerchief ready. When he heard the band start to vamp to "Jeepers Creepers," he strolled onstage.

The crowd went wild. Satchmo held his hands up for quiet, surveying the spectators, noting the various booths set up to sell Jazztopian literature and art. When the fans finally settled down, Armstrong picked up his trumpet.

"Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. I suspect that the President and Jackie can hear you all the way 'cross the bay at Hammersmith Farm!"

The crowd roared again at the mention of the ever-popular second-term President. When they quieted once more, Satchmo said, "Let me introduce the F&JF band first. On drums, Mister Eddie Ferman! On bass, Mister Chip Delany! On sax, Mister Roger Zelazny! On vibes, Mister Gary Burton! On keyboards, Mister Chick Corea! On clarinet, Mister Barry Malzberg! And for our first tune, we're gonna hear an old favorite--

"'Hello, Hugo!'"

Satchmo put embouchure to lips and began to play.

For a sixty-five year old editor, he could still blow one mean horn!

To contact us, send an email to Fantasy & Science Fiction.
If you find any errors, typos or anything else worth mentioning, please send it to sitemaster@fandsf.com.

Copyright © 1998–2014 Fantasy & Science Fiction All Rights Reserved Worldwide

Hosted by:
SF Site spot art