“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 Armstrongs 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.
“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
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.
JJM Krin Gabbard, author of Jammin’ at the Margins: Jazz and American Cinema wrote, “While the biographers may disagree about Armstrong’s psychology, the disputes about his performance career have been even more dramatic. For some, the trumpeter achieved greatness with his 1920s recordings and then spent the rest of his life squandering his prodigious talent and thriving on show biz life. For others, he was a consummate artist who played and sang with wit and intelligence throughout his life. Still other critics have called into question the distinction between artist and entertainer, arguing that Armstrong’s life and work stand as a strong counterargument to the empowering of serious “art” over mere “entertainment.” Where do you fall on interpreting Armstrong’s career?
TT Krin has laid things out very accurately here. This is the great quest in Armstrong criticism and scholarship. I’m trying to take a nuanced view of it, though. I don’t come down on either side of this debate. I don’t think there’s a formula by which you can understand when Armstrong was good and when he wasn’t good. Remember that a lot of people who’ve written about him have failed to understand the effects of some of his physical problems. For example, Armstrong had lip problems which stemmed from his being an essentially self-taught player, and they caused his playing technique to disintegrate in the early thirties — he actually stopped playing for something like a year-and-a-half. The Armstrong you hear in 1928 is simply not the same player you hear in 1938. Now, the question of whether or not one is better or worse than the other is a different matter. While I think Armstrong is at his greatest in the early recordings all the way through, oh,1938, that doesn’t mean I think his later work is to be despised, because some of his most beautiful recordings were made near the end of his life. I don’t hold with these theories that say he was always better at one time as opposed to another. You have to take every moment of his life and judge it freshly rather than apply some existing yardstick to it. I will say, however, that though he himself didn’t belabor the point, it’s clear from some of his writings that Louis Armstrong knew he was an artist. He certainly understood that he made his living as an entertainer, but there was no question in his mind that he was an artist. He was, however, an artist who really liked to be cheered by large audiences and who shall blame him? I know very few artists who don’t feel that way.
JJM You mentioned that he hurt his lip. Some would say that had an impact on his decision to become less of a trumpeter and more of a personality…
TT I think it simply strengthened the direction in which he was already starting to head. But remember, he was also a man who was growing older. The Armstrong that we think of first when we think of Louis Armstrong is the Armstrong of 1928, a young man in his late twenties, with all the energy and excitement of youth. As he grew older, he came to seek a simpler style, the way most great artists do. The technical problems he was beginning to have as a result of his lip damage reinforced him in that decision. As so often we cut our coat to fit our cloth, sometimes what at first appear to be bad things that happen to us in life end up being good for our art, and that may have been true of Louis.
JJM In a 2001 piece in Commentary called “Crosby Major, Crosby Minor,” an otherwise favorable review of Gary Giddins’s biography of Bing Crosby, A Pocketful of Dreams, you wrote, “Giddins is not himself a musician, trained or otherwise: for all his evident appreciation of Crosby’s singing, he lacks the technical knowledge needed to fully explain what he is hearing. And though his discussion of the posthumous decline in Crosby’s reputation is plausible as far as it goes, he is similarly unable to supply a completely adequate musical explanation for why ‘the most influential and successful popular performer in the first half of the twentieth century should have faded into semi-obscurity a mere quarter-century after his death.'” You have also characterized the writings of Stanley Crouch and Albert Murray — on Ellington, specifically — as “amateur appraisals.” What experiences within your own musical background give you the technical qualifications that, in your judgement, are necessary to fully explain to readers what you are hearing in an Armstrong piece?
TT Well, to put it as simply as possible, I have an academic degree in music and, during the seventies and eighties, performed as a professional musician in many different capacities. I was a professional jazz bassist and played in every kind of setting — from a crappy little Dixieland barroom gig to big bands. I play several instruments and have also worked professionally as a classical musician. I know music as a performer from the bottom up. This doesn’t mean that I necessarily feel things about music more accurately than what Gary feels or what Albert Murray feels, but it does mean that I have a kind of equipment that allows me to understand why certain things happen, and to explain them in a way a person without musical training can’t always do. And if you’re writing what I hope will be a highly serious primary-source biography of the greatest jazz musician of the twentieth century, I think perhaps you ought to have a musical background in order to best understand what he went through musically.
Going back for a second to the question of what happened to Armstrong when his lip started to deteriorate: if you don’t know that this was happening, and don’t know the effect it would have had on his playing, and if you can’t explain it in a way that translates the technical knowledge into something that makes sense to the reader, then you’re not telling the whole story. You have a better chance of being able to do this if you’re a musician. Put it this way: I speak the language of music, therefore the hard part for me is to translate that discourse into the language of words. And it can be done. But if you don’t speak the language of music to start with, then you’re going to be fumbling around in a world you don’t fully understand.
Here’s an example. It’s important to have a musical background in order to effectively describe what it is about the opening cadenza of Armstrong’s “West End Blues,” his most famous record, that makes it such a radical departure from previous practice. You may feel that it is, you may intuit it if you are a non-musician, but you’re going to find it much harder to actually explain what is taking place in that amazing cadenza. It’s like trying to write about poetry without knowing anything about metrics. While the most important part of poetry is the effect that it makes, if a critic is going to write about it analytically, he really needs to know about all the technical tools the poet uses in order to create that effect. Ultimately, meaning is the most important thing — I don’t question that for a moment — and this is why untrained writers can write meaningfully about music. It impacts them the same way it impacts on me. The difference is that I may be able to understand it in a more sophisticated way because I am a musician, and that makes it easier for me to explain what’s happening in a way non-musicians will understand.
JJM It is safe to say that you have a lot of confidence in your background, and that you feel it gives you the experience essential to communicate these musical challenges that Armstrong faced
TT Well, that’s what I do! It’s what I’ve been doing as a writer for the whole of my writing life. I was a musician before I was a writer. As far as I’m concerned, that’s not the hard part. The hardest part of writing a biography is to bring the life to life, to make the subject’s character and personality vivid, to understand him, and to convey this understanding to the reader. That’s a whole different matter. Any biography of an artist is two books: it’s a book about the art, and it’s a book about the life. And, of course, about the relationship between the two. Most of the people who have written about Armstrong wrote one or the other of those two books. I want to write them both, and to integrate them completely.
JJM I read somewhere that it took you ten years or so to write the Mencken biography. What is your timetable on this?
TT The Mencken book was a different matter because I’d never written a biography before. I was building the boat as I was sailing it. I’ve now written both a long biography of Mencken and a short biography of George Balanchine, and I think I understand where a lot of the waste motion was in those ten years. I’ve already written and delivered to Harcourt the first two of what I expect to be ten chapters of the Armstrong book. The first chapter is quite long, and starts in the middle of the story — in 1956 — when Louis made his debut with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. I’ve also written the first narrative chapter, which takes him up to his first trip on the Mississippi riverboats. I’m having a good time, too. It wasn’t always fun to write about Mencken because parts of his life would make you cringe. There’s nothing about Louis that makes you cringe.
I think it’s reasonable to expect that I’ll wrap up the writing in about two years — that is, if everything goes well and I don’t suddenly drive into a pothole. It also helps that, with the exception of New Orleans, all of the major archival material is in or near New York, so I won’t have a lot of traveling to do. And, while Armstrong wrote a lot, he didn’t write nearly as much as Mencken, who left behind one-hundred-thousand personal letters. I spent the first three years working on the Mencken book doing basically nothing but sitting and reading.
JJM It is an interesting segue from Mencken to Armstrong. They are both such classic American lives, and shared a very basic thing in common — that being their relationship with the English language. For instance, Armstrong used words and phrases in ways that are still part of the vernacular. Words like “cat”, “chick,” “dig,” “hip,” and “jive” are all used differently now than before Armstrong’s time — and they are used that way because of Armstrong. Has anyone ever had such a long-lasting impact on the language as Armstrong?
TT Oh, yes. Mencken would have told you, for instance, that Walter Winchell had a similar affect on the language, and right around the same time as Armstrong. It’s interesting that Mencken, who knew nothing about jazz, has nothing to say about Armstrong’s impact on the American language — but that may be because when Mencken was writing, Armstrong’s use of the language wasn’t all that well understood outside the jazz community.
Armstrong wrote like a writer. He loved language, and was fascinated by it. Something very interesting about his writing that I have just come to understand is that whenever he wrote about what he did as a musician, he never talked about it in technical terms. Never. Clearly, he’d internalized the technical side of it and didn’t have to think about it anymore. Instead, he understood his music as another kind of language that came out of him, in which he told his story and “wrote” about his own emotions and experiences. All of this comes out in his writing, which is another reason why Armstrong is such a great subject for a biographer: he told you in his own language so much of what you need to know.
JJM And it makes you want to read more all the time. In preparing for this interview, I revisited Satchmo and was reminded how difficult it is to put it down
TT Satchmo is, without question, the best of all jazz autobiographies, and in a way it’s not even primarily about the music. Instead, it’s about the subtitle, “My Life in New Orleans” — about what it felt like for a black boy in black Storyville to grow up in this fascinating, violent, complex, difficult town, and make a life for himself. It’s not just a classic jazz autobiography, but a classic American autobiography.
I like what you said a moment ago about relating Mencken and Armstrong. I think of my Mencken book, my Balanchine book, and the Armstrong book I’m now in the process of writing, as different panels in a trilogy of American lives. They are all characteristic American figures — even Balanchine, who emigrated to the United States in adulthood. In their lives and in their work, they exemplify important aspects of the American temperament.
JJM Making these connections is important to a writer, I am sure. It is one thing to do a biography of someone like Mencken and the next time around, for the sake of discussion, write about a contemporary political figure or athlete who in no way connects with Mencken. However, working on these biographies of somewhat interconnecting personalities must provide you with an intellectual inspiration I am sure you hope comes out in your writing.
TT Yes. I guess you could call me an intellectual, although I don’t write just for intellectuals, or in a sense even for intellectuals. I just write for people, for folks, and while this Armstrong book — like the Mencken book before it — will be the product of a lot of scholarly inquiry and knowledge and thinking, I want the end product to be something that my mother can read. I want to explain Louis to her in the light of all of the technical things that I know about him, but I want that technical superstructure to be completely disassembled, packed and put away. In the end, the book should be a story, the story of a remarkable man, totally accessible to the reader who is not a musician, scholar or intellectual, but who simply wants to learn about him.
JJM Bing Crosby said Armstrong was “The beginning and end of music.” What about music ended with Armstrong’s death?
TT Louis’s later years as a working musician, and his death, coincided with the moment when jazz — which had previously been an essentially popular music and essentially a commercial music — turned away from its origins to become a self-conscious art music. When I say that, I mean nothing pejorative by it, or to make any kind of value judgment in either direction — I’m simply describing what happened. As a musician, I find post-Armstrong jazz to be profoundly rewarding, but it’s not as accessible to the general public as the jazz being recorded and performed during Armstrong’s time. By definition, an art music speaks to a smaller potential audience than a popular music. Now, the greatness of Louis is that he was an artist who created a popular music that was artistically serious, but at the same time totally accessible to people who didn’t know the difference between a quarter note and a quarter rest.
JJM So much of jazz has changed, and as with any art, opinions are varied — in this case whether it is better or different or worse since the time of Armstrong.
TT And “different” and “worse” are not the same thing.
JJM True. It has been said that jazz truly changed when much of the romance was taken out of it
TT Well, it’s there to be found, so long as you look for it. Yes, Louis died at a moment when jazz was moving into a period of comparative inaccessibility, but I would say there is a great deal of romance in many different kinds of jazz today, and in vocal jazz in particular. I believe Armstrong might have liked some of the directions in which jazz has been moving in recent years. They would have made sense to him. I also think, contrary to widespread belief, that Louis had musical potentials which he did not fully realize in his own work because of his desire to be accessible. There are certain recordings that suggest as much: “Beau Koo Jack,” “Weather Bird,” “Jodie Man.” I’ll tell you something else surprising: I think it would have been perfectly possible for him to assimilate bebop into his music in a way he chose not to do, given how important it was to him to please a mass audience. Again, this is not a good thing or a bad thing, it’s simply a decision that he made as a player and as an artist, which makes it an interesting thing.
JJM He was so popular that it would have been difficult for him to do some of the things that a Miles Davis or a John Coltrane did, but, whether he wanted to do what they did or not, his earlier work unquestionably opened the door for them — and for other black artists — to become more adventurous.
TT It wouldn’t have occurred to him to do what Miles and Coltrane did
JJM Yes, but those guys were able to do it because Armstrong broke down so many barriers, whether they were racial, artistic
TT That’s right, and they knew as much, although it took some of them a while to understand it. Dizzy Gillespie, for instance, said some extraordinarily uncharitable and foolish things about Armstrong in the forties, though he lived long enough to take them back, and to understand more completely what Armstrong’s achievement had been. Miles was also very understanding of him. They confused, to a great extent, the public persona of Armstrong with the musician. A black musician coming up in the forties would naturally have been less comfortable with what you might call the “minstrel side” of Armstrong. But, as Billie Holiday said, “God bless Louis. Even if he ‘Toms,’ he ‘Toms’ from the heart.”
JJM Regarding this aspect of Armstrong, Alfred Appel, author of Jazz Modernism, wrote, “Armstrong’s greatness as a man and an artist is predicated on the way he slipped the yoke or prison of show-business negritude and the cult of the primitive, which are often discussed loosely as one and the same when in truth they are quite distinctive.”
TT Armstrong did not consider himself bound by anything — he made music the way he wanted to make it. Period. When he dealt in stereotypes, he purified them by his love and energy and sincerity until they simply didn’t have any meaning anymore. He appeared in certain films — this is something that Krin Gabbard has written about extensively — in which he is put into horribly stereotypical situations that would make our skin crawl today. Yet it didn’t faze him a bit to be standing there in front of the camera, wearing a leopard skin and playing “Shine,” because it was what he wanted to do. Just like he had the time of his life being the King of the Zulus in the Mardi Gras parade. He was a man who was at one and the same time both self-aware and unselfconscious. There aren’t many people like that.
JJM What is the biggest obstacle his legacy needs to overcome in order for his contributions to be appreciated by Americans born more than fifty years after the time of his greatest artistic achievements?
TT They have to listen to the right records. If you read in a book that Louis Armstrong was a very important man, and then put on his 1923 recording “Dippermouth Blues” with King Oliver, you’re just not going to get it. The music will sound hopelessly old-fashioned, and you won’t understand why what you are hearing is so important. I hope that by writing a biography that clarifies his personality, puts his career in its proper historical context, and points readers to his greatest and most accessible achievements, that I can help in this process. One of the ways I can do that is to tell them what to listen to first. I can’t tell you how many people I know who have put on “West End Blues” or “Weather Bird,” or a great vocal masterpiece like “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues,” and gotten his greatness immediately. It’s like a bolt of lightning hitting them in the forehead.
It also helps to have seen Louis. A friend of mine asked me recently why he was able to extend his career and become more popular, more successful, and more famous at a time when most of his contemporaries were fading out, and I said the answer is TV. Louis started the All-Stars in 1948, which was the same year that network television began, and all of a sudden you could turn on that little box and see him. He was so completely photogenic. He leaped across the airwaves, and when you saw him, you felt that you knew him — indeed, you might have even loved him even though you yourself were still trapped in the bonds of race prejudice. It was impossible not to respond to him.
If you’ve only heard Louis, you know the best of him, but in order to fully appreciate him, I think you probably need to see him. That is why people should be encouraged to view the very good DVD documentary of Armstrong that was based on Gary Giddins’s book Satchmo, for example, which shows him in live performance. Or they can watch him in a Hollywood movie like High Society, in which he is incredibly vivid. Armstrong didn’t get much of a chance to act in film, and that was one of his great missed opportunities. He was given speaking roles in a couple of films, and as you watch them, you realize that, had he been white, he could have had — and should have had — a parallel career as an actor. I don’t mean a Hoagy Carmichael walk-on cameo actor, either. I don’t know that he would have wanted it, but Louis had so much on-screen charisma that he probably could have had the same kind of second career in films that Frank Sinatra had.
JJM Yes, this was an era when having any black person in any role in any film was a big deal
TT Oh, it was huge, and it was understood by the black community to be huge — not only that Louis was in film, but that he was on radio as well. He was actually the first black person to host a show of his own on commercial radio, which was a very big thing. Then, after 1948, he was all over television, appearing on Ed Sullivan a couple of times every year. A major turning point in the last part of his career was his appearance in High Society, in which he shares the screen with Sinatra and Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly. And you know what? He’s the best thing up there.
JJM In a 1970 edition of Down Beat dedicated to Armstrong, Dan Morgenstern wrote, “For more than half a century, this dedicated and beautiful man has been spreading joy on earth. Steadfastly, he has affirmed the eternal verities of love, beauty and goodness — as an artist and as a man. He is one of the few glories of our age. Long ago, Louis dedicated his life and art to a noble purpose. ‘It’s happiness to me to see people happy,’ he has said, and he has turned millions on with his smile, his voice, and his horn.” That is such a compassionate and endearing statement, and one most everyone who knows Armstrong’s work and life in any way would agree with. Do you ever worry that your work may jeopardize this image people have of Armstrong?
TT No. I see what you’re getting at, but, for one thing, there are no skeletons in Armstrong’s closet. My book won’t tell you anything about him that will make you shudder and draw back, because there’s nothing of that kind to tell. And as far as filling in the kinds of details that make a person more real and less idealized, I think that with certain kinds of great men, the more you know about what they were really like, the greater they seem. That’s Louis. When you read this book, you will find things out about him that will make him seem more real, and not all of them will be flattering — that’s in the nature of biography — but my hope is that the overall effect of the book will be to inspire the reader to shake his head and say, “Oh, boy, that Morgenstern he got it right.”
Always remember — Louis Armstrong never bother about what the other fellow is playing, etc. A musician’s a musician with me. Yea — I am just like the Sister in our Church in N.O., my home town. One Sunday our pastor whom we all loved happened to take a Sunday off and sent in another preacher who wasn’t near as good. The whole congregation “frowned on him” — except one Sister. She seemed to enjoy the other pastor the same as she did our pastor. This aroused the Congregation’s curiosity so much — until when Church service was over they all rushed over to this one Sister and asked her why did she enjoy the substitute preacher the same as our regular one? She said, “Well, when our pastor preach, I can look right through him and see Jesus. And when I hear a preacher who’s not as good as ours — I just look over his shoulder and see Jesus just the same.” That applies to me all through my life in music ever since I left New Orleans. I’ve been just like that Sister in our Church. I have played with quite a few musicians who weren’t so good. But as long as they could hold their instruments correct, and display their willingness to play as best they could, I would look over their shoulders and see Joe Oliver and several other great masters from my home town. So I shall now close and be just like the little boy who sat on a block of ice — My Tale is Told. Tell all the Fans and All musicians, I love Em Madly.
Swiss Krissly Yours
Louis Armstrong Satchmo
(from “Scanning the History of Jazz,” 1960)
About Terry Teachout
JJM Who was your childhood hero?
TT I didn’t think in terms of heroes as a child, or at least I don’t remember thinking that way. Nor do I remember why I didn’t. I guess my mind simply didn’t work in those terms — which isn’t really an answer, is it? Not until high school did I run across anyone with whom I felt that kind of intimate identification, and then it was Samuel Johnson, Boswell’s Dr. Johnson. At first I was fascinated by the way he talked in Boswell’s Life, but as I learned more about him I came to understand that he was infinitely more than just a great talker. Dr. Johnson went to battle each day with crippling handicaps, some physical and others psychological, in his never-ending struggle to be as good a man as he could possibly be. Some days he won, others he lost, but he never gave up. I was stunned by that aspect of his courage — the everydayness of it. He’s been my personal hero ever since then, and still is.
Needless to say — at least I hope it’s needless — I think Louis Armstrong would make a pretty damn good hero, too.
Terry Teachout (born 1956, Cape Girardeau, MO) is a critic, biographer and blogger. He is the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal, the music critic of Commentary, and a contributor to the Washington Post, for which he writes “Second City,” a monthly column about the arts in New York City. He blogs at About Last Night and has written about the arts for many other magazines and newspapers, including the New York Times, National Review, and Crisis. He is currently at work on a biography of Louis Armstrong.
Teachout is the author of All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine (2004, Harcourt), A Terry Teachout Reader (2004, Yale University Press), The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken (2002, HarperCollins), and City Limits: Memories of a Small-Town Boy (1991, Poseidon Press), and the editor of Beyond the Boom: New Voices on American Life, Culture, and Politics (1990, Poseidon, introduction by Tom Wolfe) and Ghosts on the Roof: Selected Journalism of Whittaker Chambers, 1931-1959 (1989, Regnery Gateway). He has contributed to The Oxford Companion to Jazz (2000, Oxford University Press). He has written liner notes for CDs by Karrin Allyson, Gene Bertoncini, Chanticleer, Jim Ferguson, Diana Krall, the Lascivious Biddies, Joe Mooney, Marian McPartland, Mike Metheny, Maria Schneider, Kendra Shank, and Luciana Souza.
Teachout attended St. Johns College in Annapolis, MD; William Jewell College in Liberty, MO, where he received his B.S. in music journalism; and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He lived in Kansas City from 1975 to 1983, working as a jazz bassist and a music critic for the Kansas City Star. He moved to New York City in 1985, working as an editor at Harper’s Magazine (1985-87) and an editorial writer for the New York Daily News (1987-93) and as the News‘ classical music and dance critic (1993-2000). In 2004 he was appointed by President Bush to the National Council on the Arts, the civilian review panel of the National Endowment for the Arts. A political conservative with wide-ranging cultural interests and sympathies, he maintains cordial relationships with artists, critics, and bloggers from all parts of the political spectrum.
Biography from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Louis Armstrong products at Amazon.com
Terry Teachout products at Amazon.com
This interview took place on June 27, 2005
If you enjoyed this interview, you may want to read our interview with jazz historian and Living with Jazz author Dan Morgenstern.