The first thing—always—was the smile. Immediate-upon-recognition, and wholly spontaneous. Bona fide. Beatific. And big? I’m talking little-kid-on-Christmas joyful, light-up-the-world big. Generous, in a way that would always be entirely beyond your deserving. The glittering, shining, profoundly happy eyes as they dug you—dug the literal sight of you. Somehow, miraculously, these same eyes beamed directly into those of Art Tatum, King Pleasure, Louis Jordan … and Louis Armstrong. And now you could feel the zest and energy of those exchanges flashing your way. Incredible.
Then the gesture would come: the arms thrown wide open to welcome you home. It was an indication that revealed an invitation—to embrace, and to admire. Because, head to toe, he would be clean in a way he’d been practicing since well before you were ever born. Here, my friends, was a self-made man. Here was a man who started out just another kid among 15 in one family. Except he wasn’t “just” anything. He was the seventh son. As such, he would choose his own fate, standing out for the rest of his life.