Interviews » Biographers

Louis Armstrong biographer Terry Teachout

 

Terry Teachout

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“I suppose you could say that the seeds of my next book, a full-length biography of Louis Armstrong, were planted three years ago, when I was writing an essay for the New York Times about Armstrong’s centenary in which I called him “jazz’’s most eminent Victorian,” Terry Teachout wrote in his August 17, 2004 Arts Journal blog.

Three years after the Times piece was published, he took a tour of the Louis Armstrong House in Queens and came away with the enthusiasm required of such an endeavor. “…As I lay in bed in a hotel room not far from Washington’s Union Station, mulling over a lecture about [H.L.] Mencken that I’d just delivered,” Teachout wrote, “an idea hit me from out of nowhere like an arrow in the middle of my forehead:  I should write a biography of Louis. It really did come to me just like that — and the more I thought about it, the better it sounded. Like Mencken, Armstrong was a quintessentially American figure. Like Mencken, none of Armstrong’s previous biographers had managed to get him on paper in all his fascinating complexity.”

As drama critic of the Wall Street Journal, music critic of Commentary, contributor to the Washington Post — for whom he writes “Second City,”  a column about the arts in New York City — and author of All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine, and The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken, Teachout’s efforts on the Armstrong biography are being closely followed and, in many quarters, eagerly anticipated.

In a June 27, 2005 interview with Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita, Teachout talks about Armstrong’s world, and why he decided to write a new biography of arguably the most prominent and influential American musician of the twentieth century.

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“I never tried to prove nothing, just always wanted to give a good show. My life has been my music; it’s always come first, but the music ain’t worth nothing if you can’t lay it on the public. The main thing is to live for that audience, ’cause what you’re there for is to please the people.”

– Louis Armstrong

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Dream A Little Dream Of Me

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JJM  What do you think America knows about Louis Armstrong thirty-four years after his death?

TT  There’s more general awareness of Armstrong than you might expect, probably because of the Ken Burns documentary on jazz, and also because all of his most important recordings have remained available. But our collective sense of Armstrong as a character and as a personality doesn’t get much below the surface — not that his surface isn’t a beautiful and wonderful thing, but there’s more to him.

JJM  In 1944, Leonard Feather wrote, “Americans, unknowingly, live part of every day in the house that ‘Satch’ built.” Can this still be said?

TT  Yes, it is still true, although today, people are influenced by people who were influenced by Louis, rather than, for the most part, being influenced by him first-hand. To an extent that most people just don’t get, Armstrong created the way that jazz sounds. He didn’t invent jazz, of course, but he set the parameters within which it operates, and had an influence on every other kind of American popular music too. The house that we live in, the house that Louis built, is a rhythmic house. Our idea of what it means to swing is, to a great extent, his doing.

JJM  What was your own first encounter with his music?

TT  When I was a little boy, in what was probably 1964 or 1965, my mother called to me from the room in which she was watching TV, and said, “Come in here. I want you to see something on the television.” I went in there and saw Armstrong singing “Hello Dolly!” on the Ed Sullivan Show. She told me that she wanted me to see this man and remember him, because someday I’d be glad I did. And so I was.

JJM  What was your impression of him?

TT  Like everyone else who saw Louis for the first time, I was absolutely charmed. You could warm your hands on him. That charm overleaps every kind of boundary imaginable — age, background experience, ethnic makeup — whatever it may have been, Louis spoke to us all from the heart. It is why he was so extraordinarily effective as a cultural ambassador for the United States during the fifties and sixties, when he performed so widely in Africa and Europe.

JJM Concerning your contemplation of writing Armstrong’s biography, you wrote an entry in your August 17, 2004 Arts Journal blog, “…as I lay in bed in a hotel room not far from Washington’s Union Station, mulling over a lecture about Mencken that I’d just delivered, an idea hit me from out of nowhere like an arrow in the middle of my forehead: I should write a biography of Louis. It really did come to me just like that — and the more I thought about it, the better it sounded. Like Mencken, Armstrong was a quintessentially American figure. Like Mencken, none of Armstrong’s previous biographers had managed to get him on paper in all his fascinating complexity.” Why do you think you can accomplish what you say previous biographers have not?

TT  Because I have access to more source material. That isn’t a question of immodesty, it’s just a matter of my having showed up when I did. Even the most recent biographer, Lawrence Bergreen, didn’t have access to the home-recorded tapes that Armstrong made throughout the second half of his life. Not long after World War II, he acquired two reel-to-reel tape recorders so that he could tape his record collection and listen to it while he was out on the road over three hundred nights a year. But, like most people of that time who got their hands on a tape recorder, he became fascinated with it and started using it for fun. He recorded all kinds of things: conversations after the gig with whoever happened to come into his dressing room, or monologues of his own in which he’d talk about his experiences. There are some amazing tapes in which he talks about and plays along with old records of his that are playing in the background. There’s one tape they love to play for you at the Armstrong Archive in which you can hear Armstrong and Stepin Fetchit backstage at a gig somewhere, obviously getting high, and swapping stories. There are approximately six-hundred-fifty reels of this material.

JJM  Do they have an interest in commercializing any of it?

TT  They do, and a commercial CD of selected excerpts is in the works. The reason why I’m the first biographer to have access to it is because the tapes were stored in the attic of the Armstrong house, in which Louis’ fourth wife, Lucille, lived after his death. The existence of these tapes has been known about for quite some time, but it was thought that the condition in which they had been stored might make them unplayable, and they would, at best, require extensive conservation work. In fact, they were all playable and have all been transferred to compact disc and indexed. By a fortunate accident of timing, I’m the first person writing an Armstrong biography able to work with this material.

JJM  You would think it makes sense to have a companion disc or two or twelve to accompany the publication of your book…

TT  I’ve actually talked about this with various people, and most want to do it, but ultimately questions like this have to be resolved by the Armstrong estate, which is properly vigilant in looking out for Louis’s posthumous interests. Suffice it to say that for me to be able to listen to these tapes and make use of them is of incalculable importance in writing about him. I don’t think this is the only advantage I have in writing about Armstrong as a biographer, but it’s the most obvious one. In addition to these tapes, serious academic research about jazz has become a kind of cottage industry in the last decade-and-a-half or so, and I’m able to build on the research of some really remarkable scholars who have been working with primary source material that no previous Armstrong biographer has been able to get his hands on. I’m coming along at the right time.

JJM Whose work among those scholars do you find most dependable?

TT  Thomas Brothers. He’s about to publish a book, and I can’t wait to get my hands on the manuscript, which is an account of Armstrong’s youth in New Orleans based entirely on primary source material, most of which has not been tapped by any previous scholar. Before that, Brothers published the first anthology of Armstrong’s own writings.

You asked earlier about what it is that people know about Armstrong, and I think what we don’t know is that he was quite a serious writer. He wrote two autobiographies, one of which was written without a ghost writer — only the grammar was edited. Additionally, there are at least one thousand surviving letters written by Armstrong, most of them typewritten. And there are numerous unpublished autobiographical manuscripts, all of which are held by the Armstrong Archives or at the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University.

Armstrong bought a typewriter right around the time he came up to Chicago from New Orleans. He used to say that typing was his hobby. It was, of course, much more than that, because he was a very self-aware and introspective man, and I think he understood more than most artists do who and what he was, what he meant, the significance of his experiences, and insofar as it was possible, he wanted to put them down in his own words. This is why he is such an unusual person to write about, because there is no other indisputably major figure in jazz who left behind that large a body of writings. While Duke Ellington wrote a memoir, it is a very careful and guarded one, written with the assistance of a ghostwriter. After that, it starts to get very thin on the ground. But Louis left behind enough writings, really, to fill two good-sized volumes if they were ultimately collected, as someday they should be.

JJM  He clearly felt he had a lot to say…

TT  I think he felt that he not only had a lot to say, but felt that his life had meaning above and beyond the importance of his music. He was raised around the time of Booker T. Washington, and came from nothing, nowhere. He grew up in black Storyville — the prostitution district in New Orleans — where his mother was a part-time whore, and his father deserted the family within weeks of his birth. He was a man who came from the gutter yet became world famous, and he thought deeply about what it was about himself that made this possible. He knew it was more than just his musical genius, it was also a function of his character and integrity, and I think he felt he had a lesson to teach to the rest of us about his own experience. That is a big part of what I want to write about in this book. It is a book about Armstrong as a musician — we’re interested in him because he was a musician, and so that’s the center of the book — but he’s also significant as a personality and an exemplary figure, which will also be a major theme of my book.

JJM  In a 2001 New York Timespiece on Armstrong titled “Louis Armstrong, Eminent Victorian,” you wrote, “To be sure, he smoked marijuana every day and cheated happily on all four of his wives, but when it came to poverty, he was a perfect Victorian, certain that work was the only path to freedom and that those unwilling to follow it earned their dire fate.” ‘The Negroes always wanted pity,’ he recalled in his 1969 reminiscence of life in New Orleans. ‘They did that in place of going to work.they were in an alley or in the street corner shooting dice for nickels and dimes, etc. (mere pittances) trying to win the little money from his Soul Brothers who might be gambling off the money [they] should take home to feed their starving children or pay their small rents or very important needs, etc.’ The note of anger — of contempt — is unmistakable.”  Is this the sort of theme that readers of the biography can expect?

TT  It’s a part of it, yes. The more of Armstrong’s own writing that I read, the more certain I am of the accuracy of this interpretation. You can’t read his own writings and be left in any doubt that this is how he felt. But it’s not just a book about Armstrong as a self-made man. It’s also, as I’ve said, a book about Armstrong as a musician, and about Armstrong as a delighted soul who truly loved his life and tried to live every part of it as deeply as he could. He was a funny, wholly engaging man. You’ll go a long time before running into anybody in person or in print who has anything bad to say about Louis Armstrong. Everybody who knew him pretty much loved him — and yet he wasn’t dull. Have you ever noticed how most really nice people are either dull or timid? Well, Armstrong wasn’t. He was a very strong and vivid personality who also happened to be a very nice guy, which makes him interesting to write about.

JJM The biographer Lawrence Bergreen referred to Armstrong’s childhood as “wretched.” Would you agree with that?

TT  Yes, but I’d immediately add that he didn’t think so. Very few people think their own childhood is wretched while they’re living it, and during his entire life, Armstrong looked back with tremendous nostalgia on the New Orleans of his youth. He knew all the reasons why his childhood was difficult — that he was a black man in the middle of a world dominated by whites — but he didn’t let that stop him from getting all the pleasure and delight possible out of difficult circumstances. That he took such pleasure in everything he did and saw is an aspect of him I find endlessly interesting. If I can get that on paper, then I’m really getting somewhere, because if you don’t sense that aspect of Louis, you’re just not getting him.

He’s not hard to write about, and not hard to understand. Once you know the circumstances of his birth, the nature of his relationship with his parents, the time and place in which he lived — and then add in the fact that he also just happened to be a genius — you’ve come a long way toward understanding him. The rest is anecdote and narrative, trying to tell the story of what really happened to him from day to day. But he’s not the sort of person you are going to be disillusioned by the more you find out about him, because he had no truly dark secrets — no “figure in the carpet,” as Henry James put it. Armstrong is what he seems to be. For that reason, I think the job of an Armstrong biographer is to show what he seemed to be, and then interpret it and put it in the context of his time and place.