Given Louis Armstrong's jolly nature, it's somewhat fitting that his last known recording would be a narration of The Night Before Christmas. The recording was made at his home in Queens, N.Y., on February 26, 1971. Louis would die five months later. Throughout his life, Armstrong understood the misery of his origins, the heights of his fame and his enormous good fortune along the way. But Armstrong wasn't a big believer in happenstance. He knew that everything he had achieved came through hard work, sacrifice and sweat. Armstrong had little patience for defeatism or blame. "My whole life, my whole soul, my whole spirit is to blooow that hooorn," Armstrong told his doctor. [Photo of Louis Armstrong in 1954 by Eliot Elisofon for Life]
In Part 4 of my interview with Terry Teachout, the Wall Street Journal drama critic and author of Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, talks about the challenges he faced writing the biography, Armstrong's puzzling affinity for one specific bandleader, what Armstrong did with his two portable tape recorders, and a few interesting LPs that Terry found in Armstrong's record collection:
JazzWax: Writing a biography of Armstrong must have been daunting. What were your ambitions for Pops?
Terry Teachout: I wanted to write a biography that was perfectly serious and would tell musicians things that perhaps they didn’t know. I also wanted it to engage with Armstrong's music on a level befitting its complexity and seriousness but which would be completely intelligible to a reader who was not a musician. I wanted to write a book that would make sense to everybody. If you’re writing about someone like Armstrong, for whom sophistication and simplicity are central to his career, this is the least you could do for him. [Photo by John Loengard in 1965 for Life]
JW: What was your biggest challenge?
TT: I knew going in that I needed to make Armstrong's music intelligible through words. I also had to absorb and translate the vast volume of Armstrong-related material that has been published in the last quarter century. Jazz as a scholarly field is really quite young.
JW: How so?
TT: Serious jazz scholarship of a kind comparable to what we take for granted in the other arts really has only been around for about only 30 years or so. There is monographic literature on Armstrong. There are books about his younger years. Armstrong scholar Ricky Riccardi is about to publish a book on his later years. There are papers on Armstrong and opera, about Armstrong’s private tapes, and quite a bit of other literature.
JW: But what were you trying to do in Pops that's different from everything that's out there?
TT: I wanted to take all of the material and synthesize it into a clear, straightforward narrative that embodies everything we now know up to this moment about Armstrong without being clumsy, top-heavy or excessively detailed. If after you read my book and want more, you can turn to my source notes in the back. There are 22,000 words of source notes. There, you can pursue the things that I write about Armstrong in a more detailed way.
JW: How did you absorb all of that material?
TT: [Laughs] You work really hard. You think a lot. I believe the secret of writing a good biography of an artist is to know as much about as many different things as possible. What this book tries to do is place Armstrong in the wider context of art and culture in the 20th century, not just jazz or music.
JW: And his experiences with art and culture?
TT: Yes. After all, Armstrong is not just a man who played jazz trumpet in nightclubs. He also had a major success on Broadway, made movies and TV appearances throughout his life, he loved opera and he knew more about modern jazz than most people realize. I discovered this when going through his record library.
JW: What was the most surprising record in there?
TT: One by Stan Kenton. Actually, I take that back. The biggest surprise wasn’t music. It was a copy of the First Drama Quartet’s performance of George Bernard Shaw’s Don Juan in Hell. He also had Orson Welles’ recording of Julius Caesar. And these records weren’t just gifts he shoved onto the shelf. They seemed to have been played. He also had albums by Gerry Mulligan, George Shearing and other jazz artists.
JW: When did he have time to listen to all these records?
TT: Louis spent 300 nights of the year on the road. So he taped his record library and traveled with two reel-to-reel player-recorders. These are the recorders on which he made his private conversations.
JW: Tape recorders for listening and taping conversations?
TT: Bing Crosby and Louis were among the first Americans to own commercial tape recorders. For Louis, they weren't just for music listening and to capture backstage chats with friends. He recorded his performances and studied them. Armstrong was a more self-aware, introspective artist than most people realize.
JW: Why does Louis bother to listen to his performances?
TT: From 1947 on, he does this to perfect them. But Louis also used the tape recorders for fun. He taped mock radio shows with friends. He’d sit around and record taped letters that he’d send to friends. He made amazing tapes on which he plays along with tape recordings of his own and of other musicians. But the primary purpose for lugging them around was to study his own playing and to listen to his music library every night. This collection included his own recordings and those of Guy Lombardo.
JW: Guy Lombardo?
TT: Lombardo [pictured] was his favorite bandleader. He loved Lombardo because Lombardo loved melody. There’s something fundamentally simple about Armstrong’s interest in music. He loved all kinds of music, from Italian opera to some Thelonious Monk, he said in passing. What Armstrong loved most of all, though, was melody. You can hear this in his playing and his singing.
JW: Lombardo seems a bit straight even for Armstrong.
TT: And yet Lombardo appealed to him as he appealed to lots of black listeners in the 1930s. Lombardo played beautiful, straightforward, simple arrangements that were entirely about the melody.
JW: What does this say about Armstrong?
TT: Armstrong had a sentimental streak, and Lombardo [pictured] appealed to it. Armstrong wasn’t joking when he said that Lombardo was his “inspirator.” He really meant it. He even sat in with Lombardo’s band and praised him on every occasion.
JW: So Armstrong's ear needed a steady diet of melody to remind him what pleased the mass market?
TT: Anyone who truly wants to understand Louis Armstrong, who was not a simple person, has to understand this aspect of him as much as his innovative genius as a soloist. He’s a very American figure in that way, a Walt Whitman-like figure.
JW: That's brilliant. An everyman poet who understands the essence and aspirations of the masses.
TT: Armstrong speaks to all men in all conditions because he is so completely open to such a wide range of human experience. Remember what the Roman dramatist Terence wrote in The Self-Tormentor, “I am a man and nothing human is alien to me.” Nothing was alien to Louis Armstrong, which is part of why he is so great and so culture-transforming. Armstrong takes everything that comes to him through the ear and eye, and turns those experiences into music.
JW: And yet he never makes anything hard to understand.
TT: That aspect also fascinated me. Neither in public nor in private does Armstrong ever talk about music in a technical way. Of course, he might have done so in a rehearsal as a band was reading down an arrangement. But overall, he always talks about music in metaphorical language.
JW: In what way?
TT: Armstrong always described his own playing and performances in terms of what he recalled from his past. He saw his playing as a way to paint pictures. He talks about being on the bandstand and thinking about things that happened to him in his life. Duke Ellington was the same way. In my experience, this is not how musicians generally refer to what they do and how they do it.
JW: What's more, Armstrong seems to be all in, never holding back.
TT: He was most concerned about being communicative. He was not inward turned at all, though he certainly was introspective. Armstrong is the only great jazz musician who also was a first-rate and highly personal writer. He wrote two autobiographies. The first was ghosted, but the second was unassisted. And that second one, Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans, is pretty much exactly what he wrote. [Photo by Lisl Steiner, 1957]
JW: But his writings weren’t confined to two books.
TT: There are hundreds of surviving Armstrong letters and maybe even thousands. He wrote many articles drawn from the letters he wrote. He had a personal prose style that sounded like Armstrong talking. His writing style truly is remarkable.
JW: Why did he write so often?
TT: I think he was interested in writing to understand the meaning of his own experience. Remember this is a man who was born in the poorest part of New Orleans, to a father who abandoned him the day he was born. His mother was a prostitute. Louis should have ended up in prison. Instead, he went on to become the most famous jazz musician in the world. He pulled himself out of his surroundings to become a culture-transforming genius. And he was well aware of that accomplishment and expected the same of others.
Tomorrow, in the final part of my interview series, Terry talks about the scholarly models for his Armstrong biography, what surprised him most about the trumpeter, and Armstrong's temper.
JazzWax tracks: Louis Armstrong's duets with singers should not be missed. The fabulous exchanges are always lively, colorful and relentlessly upbeat. A nifty collection can be found at iTunes. It's called Armstrong Sings With... and features 20 tracks with Ella Fitzgerald, the Mills Brothers, Jack Teagarden, Billie Holiday and others. Best of all, the sound quality is superb. As for Armstrong's narration of The Night Before Christmas, it's available as a download here.
JazzWax pages: Terry Teachout's Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) is available online here. Terry also is author of two other superb biographies, All In the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine and The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken.
JazzWax clip: For those not old enough to have seen Louis Armstrong live, this clip at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival (from Jazz on a Summer's Day) is about as good as it gets, including his Rockin' Chair duet with Jack Teagarden...