When Louis Armstrong recorded “What a Wonderful World” in 1967, America was in upheaval. The Vietnam War was in full swing, and Martin Luther King Jr. was leading a battle for civil rights. The Summer of Love converged on San Francisco, and artists like Joni Mitchell and The Doors provided the soundtrack to a movement opposing the government, the ongoing war, and the consumerist values of the times. Deep unrest spanning race, class, and political lines was an everyday reality of American life.
In Pops’s time there were clearer boundaries. In fact, at the time that he recorded the song, he was living in a humble house in Corona, Queens, away from the hoopla of show business. It was his zone.
These days, that’s much harder to do. We bring it all home with us in our pocket. We are constantly being presented with lifestyles to adopt, ways to feel, and what to think. It is no longer easy to differentiate the energy we emit from the energy we take in. It takes an act of will to disconnect from it all and trek into the social wilderness.
I have been contemplating the role of music in times of uncertainty, and I’ve come to realize that music can help us to clarify, to ascertain, and to assert our humanity while making genuine connections.
When I was in my early 20s, I joined the late trumpeter Roy Hargrove’s three touring bands for a few years and ventured around the world. Playing side by side with him was a revelation. He brought every facet of himself—from playing in church, to listening to his father’s record collection, to sitting under jazz greats or architecting neo-soul into his music—proving night after night that his humanity transcended all labels. In the tradition of jazz bandleaders like Betty Carter and Art Blakey, you learn from the elders on the bandstand in real time. But it took years, after I had left his bands, to fully appreciate the depth of this truth: Roy could exist exactly as he was—as a southern black male—yet still be appreciated and fiercely celebrated all over the world by people who were supposedly different from him.
Armstrong, Hargrove, and other artists throughout history have affirmed our shared humanity through their work and helped us cope with reality. “Music washes away the dust of everyday life,” Art Blakey said. The soundtrack through our nation’s history—from slave songs to gospel anthems, from negro spirituals to Native American chants, from the songs of early Americans in the coal mines to the Tejano songs that originated near our border—has been the balm that heals our wounds and the time capsule that carries the wisdom of each generation forward, allowing us to know where we come from and plot the course to where we are going.
For ages music has formed these bonds, even connecting us with our divine origin. For example, in Sufism, the whirling dervish is a form of ancient dance meditation meant to detach oneself from the ego in order to connect to God. Music is used as a focal point as you spin in circles, imitating the motion of the solar system, shedding your personal desires while reinforcing the ultimate perspective, reuniting with the Creator. I recall being deeply moved, while on tour in Istanbul, by the meditative, reflective quality of Islam’s call to prayer. The call was reminiscent of the sounds I heard growing up in my church. It reinforced my belief that we are all looking for the same things out of life and music has always been a tool we’ve used to explore it.
That’s why I wanted to make my own version of “What A Wonderful World.” I wanted to elicit deeper meaning from the lyrics, which speak of the cycle of life and nature’s divine rhyme. These words put into perspective how temporary our challenges are when measured up against the infinite expanse of the universe and time. This version is a prayer that encourages us to contemplate and celebrate the beauty and grandeur of the celestial orb on which we live.
We can embody the highest ideals and deepest love of our Creator by slowing down and listening to the voice of reason that lies beyond the noise. Find your zone, just like Pops did.
Close your eyes, take a few minutes of stillness, and listen. And after the song is over, I encourage you to consider a few things: Remember that “this too shall pass.” Everything has a season. Vent and process your emotions. Take a moment to approach things from a purely emotional place, but don’t be too consumed by these emotions either. Don’t stop.
It’s also important to have gratitude for the people in your life who love and care for you. Call up your soul family and express how much they mean to you. The smallest gesture can go a long way. Lean on one another; it’s okay to feel vulnerable.
Engage in the arts. Go see a play, an art exhibit, a concert. Creative expression taps into a sacred space.
Pray. Seek truth. Truth is not something you just believe in, but a standard by which to live your life. Practice unconditional love. Put more generosity into the world. Go to a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter for five minutes out of your day. Visit someone in the hospital. Or simply tell someone that they matter and that you appreciate them. Listen to someone. Make someone feel your love.
Move your body. Blast your stereo and dance until you feel a little better or maybe until you exhaust yourself. Like the legendary musician and civil-rights activist James Brown once said, “Get up offa that thang.” Get involved in your community. Seek clarity and become informed on your cause, no matter how long it takes. When you’re ready, move forward with a solid plan. Build teams.
Always be listening with an open mind. Attempt to have constructive conversations in person with those who may live or think differently from you, not while hiding on social media. Lastly, remember that in order to bring peace into the world, we must begin with ourselves first. Restore your peace.