Greatness always finds itself under siege. It can't be helped. Sooner or later an impatient rival comes along who wants the attention and adulation afforded the top dog. In the late 1940s, this natural course of events pitted Dizzy Gillespie against Louis Armstrong. Since his days in Cab Calloway's band, Gillespie worked hard to stand out, and when recognition wasn't forthcoming in 1941, he kept raising the ante until a violent confrontation erupted with Calloway. Fortunately bassist Milt Hinton stepped in, but not before Calloway was accidentally cut on his leg by Gillespie's knife. By the late 1940s, Gillespie was pushing Armstrong's buttons for virtually the same reasons.
In Part 3 of my interview with Terry Teachout, author of Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, the Wall Street Journal drama critic and arts essayist talks about the mounting friction between Gillespie and Armstrong, how Armstrong was able to adapt so easily to the movie and TV camera, Armstrong's admiration for Barbra Streisand, and the likely reason why Armstrong never had children:
JazzWax: What motivated Dizzy Gillespie's barbed comments about Louis Armstrong?
Terry Teachout: I suspect behind Gillespie’s response was the desire of a younger giant to overcome his father figure. But I don’t get into that in the book. There also was a much greater racial self-consciousness on the part of the black bebop players of Gillespie’s generation. They were all filled with a desire to present themselves as serious artists. When Miles Davis began recording as a leader, he also wanted to present himself as an artist who was more serious in demeanor, who didn't feel any need to pander to white audiences, as Davis would have said. [Photo of Miles Davis by Herb Snitzer]
JW: Gillespie and Armstrong played together just once as far as I can tell, on TV.
TT: Yes, singing and playing Umbrella Man. It was part of the Timex All-Star Jazz Show on NBC in 1959. The joint-appearance was preplanned but not rehearsed. There was no question that Gillespie knew Armstrong was going to come out and join him on that number. By then, Gillespie was no longer taking pot shots at Armstrong in public. And Armstrong very much admired Gillespie as a player. Everything had been made up by then between them.
JW: Yet it appears there’s a touch of competitiveness and slight unease between them.
TT: This scene featured two great jazz musicians on stage in front of a live camera, and they both played the same instrument, so it’s natural that they were going to engage in some form of one-upmanship.
JW: And yet it's their only joint appearance.
TT: As far as I know, it’s the only time that Armstrong and Gillespie performed together in public. And it is one of the very few times that Armstrong performed with a bebop musician in a mainstream setting, other than the ones he made with Oscar Peterson’s trio on the records producer Norman Granz wanted him to make. It's a shame. When you hear Louis and Dizzy play together, you wish there were albums of their collaboration.
JW: Louis’ understanding of the camera is always remarkable. His natural skill seems to pre-date film.
TT: [Laughs] Well there’s just no way to know where that came from. That ability was present from his first feature film in 1936, Pennies from Heaven with Bing Crosby. You realize immediately that the camera loves him and that he’s completely unselfconscious and relaxed in front of it.
JW: You also notice that his stage presence is seemingly effortless, like his playing.
TT: Armstrong was quite clearly a natural actor. He does a few movies, not many, in which he has a fair number of lines to read. And you can see immediately that if he had been white, or if performance was something he had wanted to do, that he might well have had a parallel career as an actor, similar to the one enjoyed by Frank Sinatra. And for the same reason: Armstrong was a natural actor.
JW: Is acting easier for singers?
TT: I think it comes more naturally. Jazz instrumentalists who don’t sing rarely make the leap to acting. Yet singers of all kinds have found playing roles or even themselves fairly easy. They’re able to tap into their storytelling skills. Armstrong had it from the beginning. Unfortunately that talent wasn’t fully realized in his career. When you see Armstrong in Cabin in the Sky , Glory Alley  or A Man Called Adam , you realize that film acting was a missed opportunity for him and that Armstrong could have been an actor.
JW: This is evident in Hello Dolly as well. How did Armstrong get along with Barbra Streisand?
TT: Interestingly, he was a great admirer of hers. He talked about her in a late interview in 1968 with the BBC, just before he filmed the movie. The BBC radio segment was a feature that the network still airs called Desert Island Discs. The show dates back to 1942, and guests are invited on to pick eight records they’d take if they were banished to a desert island.
JW: What did Armstrong say?
TT: Among the eight was Barbra Streisand’s People. Armstrong admired her enormously and I think quite sincerely. He didn’t make public statements that weren’t sincere. He praised her in his interview as "Madame Streisand," going on to say, "She's trying to outsing everybody this year."
JW: The short scene they filmed together of the title track is quite something.
TT: That scene was shot very quickly. It has been said it was shot in a single take and definitely in a single day. There was a great deal of strife on the set of the movie.
JW: How so?
TT: Streisand and Walter Matthau hated each other. In fact, she didn’t seem to get along with anyone associated with that film as far as I know. But when you look at that scene, you realize that Louis and Streisand went together well no matter what you think of her, and I’m not a great fan of hers, as you know. The opportunity to follow up didn’t exist, however, because Armstrong became ill shortly after the scene was put in the can.
JW: There’s also a fabulous clip on the web with Armstrong sandwiched by Caterina Valente and Danny Kaye in 1966.
TT: Armstrong was fabulous on duets. This is one of the many things he has in common with Bing Crosby, whom he loved. They were both good at interacting with another performer and making that performer look good without submerging their own style. At the end of my book, I have an appendix of 30 particularly interesting recordings by Armstrong. One was the recording he made of You Rascal You with Louis Jordan. And of course he and Jack Teagarden sang Rockin’ Chair numerous times on stage and it always sounded fresh.
JW: After living with Armstrong as a subject for so long, what lesson did you learn about yourself?
TT: I think Louis reinforced in me something that was already there. That is, the belief that it ought to be possible to say whatever you have to say in a way that is fully accessible to the widest possible audience without diminishing its seriousness. I think that’s a lesson Armstrong can teach any artist or writer.
JW: What’s the magic in that lesson?
TT: Armstrong played to a wide audience, so he's obviously a popular entertainer. But he always did this without compromising his essential artistic seriousness. Though I write as a critic and journalist about subjects that are quite complex, I try to write in a serious way that is also intelligible. I tried to write Pops that way.
JW: Did Louis Armstrong have children?
TT: No. He wanted to. At one point he thought he had an illegitimate child, but that turned out not to be true.
JW: Was this a conscious decision on the part of Armstrong and his third wife Lucille?
TT: I think he was sterile. I have source note about this in my book. Armstrong smoked marijuana every day of his adult life. My guess is, and it’s just a guess, that Louis was sterile due to a depressed sperm count as a result of his marijuana smoking. But he wanted to have children and loved them and they loved him. He looked after Clarence Armstrong, his nephew who was mentally ill, for all of his adult life. [Photo of Louis Armstrong by Herb Snitzer]
Tomorrow, Terry talks about the challenges he faced writing a biography of Louis Armstrong, the surprises he found in Armstrong's record library, why Armstrong carried two reel-to-reel tape recorders with him on the road, and the puzzling choice of Armstrong's favorite bandleader.
JazzWax tracks: Many readers relatively new to Armstrong have been asking me for a simple CD collection with a wide range of older and newer tracks. Well, for $9.99, you can download an album with 23 of Armstrong's most wonderful tracks. If you don't dig Pops after this set, it ain't never gonna happen. The recordings range from the humid Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans and A Kiss to Build a Dream On to Hello Dolly, Blueberry Hill and the irrepressible Basin Street Blues. The album I'm referring to is Louis Armstrong: The Definitive Collection and you'll find it here as a CD or download.
JazzWax pages: Terry Teachout's Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) is available online here.
JazzWax note: According to Pops, when Louis Armstrong appeared on the BBC's Desert Island Discs in 1968, he chose eight singles. There were three of his own (Blueberry Hill, Mack the Knife and What a Wonderful World); his duet with Ella Fitzgerald of Bess You Is My Woman Now; one 78-rpm each by Guy Lombardo, Jack Teagarden and Bobby Hackett; and Barbra Streisand's People.
JazzWax clips: Below I have assembled the three clips mentioned above in my post:
Here's Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong performing Umbrella Man in 1959. It's from a Japanese TV show. Interestingly, the only English phrase used is "sense of humor." This one is far better than any other Umbrella Man clips at YouTube. If you don't understand Japanese, slide the bar to 00:30...
Here's Armstrong with Caterina Valente and Danny Kaye in 1966 singing a medley of songs that Armstrong made famous. By the way, that's Paul Weston's orchestra and arrangement behind them...
Here's Armstrong and Barbra Streisand singing Hello Dolly...