The more time you spend looking at Louis Armstrong on film and listening to him on record, the more you come to a single realization: Armstrong has done more than any other performer to shape America's collective personality. Virtually every entertainer from the late 1930s onward was influenced by Armstrong's folksy sense of humor, relaxed demeanor and high artistic standards. In turn, all of those virtues rubbed off on Americans consuming that entertainment. We experience Armstrong today, and without hesitation we recognize something familiar in ourselves. So much of who we are as a people and what we aspire to be seems to originate with Armstrong. [Photo by John Loengard in 1965 for Life]
Keep in mind, Armstrong was an artist of the highest order who was virtually scandal-free throughout his career. He worked hard, was humble and gracefully aggressive, and had a cozy sense of humor that everyone understood and appreciated. There are plenty of actors and musicians whose fame, lifestyles and fortunes make people wish they were them, if only for a day. With Armstrong, you don't wish to be him. You simply want to be like him, which is a much more do-able goal. [Photo of Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong in 1958 by Nat Farbman for Life]
In Part 5 of my five-part interview series with Terry Teachout, the Wall Street Journal's drama critic and author of Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong talks about his mission when writing the Armstrong biography, the great biographies Terry had in mind when working on Pops, and what surprised him most about Armstrong:
JazzWax: Was Louis Armstrong's passion for writing more than just the mere act of communication?
Terry Teachout: I think so. Through writing, he was able to put his life in perspective. If you had gone from absolute poverty to being one of the most famous people in the world, you would want to understand why it happened and what it is about you that caused it to happen. That’s the real subject of Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans, his autobiography. He clearly sees himself as the product of hard work and deferred gratification, and his experience teaches lessons that others can learn from.
JW: Yet he was never evangelical about his experience nor did he lecture others on what they should do with their lives.
TT: No never. While he's a Horatio Alger figure, he never would have gotten up in a pulpit and preached a sermon about it. He’s completely unselfconscious about himself and his achievements. He knew he was a genius but never called himself one. He knew he was remarkable and simply thought his experiences might be useful for other people to know about. So he wrote about those experiences in Satchmo. But his writing style is never preachy. I think this is why he wrote as much as he did. It was more of an attempt at self-understanding. [Photo by Herb Snitzer]
JW: Was your ambition with Pops to do justice to Armstrong's magnificent life story?
TT: Yes, partly. I wanted to write a book that was pleasurable to read for its own sake, most particularly because I feel that Armstrong was a great artist and a major figure in art and culture.
JW: Yet few biographies treat jazz musicians as serious artists.
TT: I agree. I wanted to write the same kind of book about Armstrong that one might write about Igor Stravinsky or Frank Lloyd Wright. We just assume that books about high-culture figures will be written in an artful way and to a high standard of scholarship. The expectation with such works is that they will mirror the artistic qualities of the person about whom they’re written.
JW: Did you have specific biographies in mind when writing Pops?
TT: Actually I had three. The first two were W. Jackson Bate's biography of Samuel Johnson and David Cairns' two-volume biography of Hector Berlioz. Both are works of artistic quality written about great culture figures. The third was Richard Sudhalter's biography of Bix Beiderbecke, Bix: Man and Legend. When you’re writing about a great artist, you want your biography to be worthy of that artist.
JW: Your previous biographies of H.L. Mencken and George Balanchine were about artists who were quite different than Armstrong.
TT: It’s very difficult to write about a musician or a composer because you are talking about a subject that does not exist or express itself in the realm of words. So you have to translate it for the reader.
JW: Is this part of the reason why you chose to include more than 50 pages of source notes?
TT: With the source notes, I decided to remove the scaffolding from around this book before it was published. I wanted to get all that stuff out of the way so readers would be clear to read the narrative without interruption.
JW: What will one find in the notes?
TT: If you read them, you’ll come away knowing how critics and journalists reported on Armstromg. You’ll see the first time he was mentioned in Time, The New York Times and in Walter Winchell’s [pictured] column. You'll see how critical opinion of Armstrong started to shift toward greatness. I try to talk in an intelligible but analytical way about how Armstrong's music works. I tried to place him in the larger history of our culture. But I tried to do all this within a narrative biography that flows smoothly from year to year, event to event.
JW: Footnotes certainly can get in the way of a good read, especially when they're extensive.
TT: I didn't want the reader to feel I was pausing along the way to give a lecture on one thing of another. I wanted the book to have a narrative sweep of, say, William Manchester’s books on Winston Churchill. I wanted readers of Pops to come away knowing many different kinds of things about Armstrong. While there are some Armstrong scholars who will know mostly everything in this book, most readers will be surprised by its contents. It cuts a wide swath.
JW: The fact-checking alone must have been labor-intensive.
TT: There are no factual assertions made in this book that weren't traced to their original source. It’s the most factually accurate book written about Armstrong. In addition, every word of the manuscript was read by two people who know the Armstrong story and literature well—Dan Morgenstern [pictured] of the Rutgers Institute of Jazz Studies and Armstrong's producer at Columbia Records George Avakian.
JW: What was their input?
TT: Both Dan and George commented on it extensively, and their input was enormously valuable. The manuscript also was read by Michael Cogswell, director of the Louis Armstrong Home and Archive. But I wanted all of the scholarship to be invisible. When you read Pops, you’re hopefully reading a good story that has the advantage of being true.
JW: At the end of the process, what surprised you most about Armstrong's personality?
TT: Probably that Louis had a very bad temper. He’d blow up without warning and inexplicably. And as fast as the anger came on, it would disappear the next day. He was sensitive and suspicious about being used, and he was particularly sharp in his anger if he felt that was happening. Armstrong was temperamental, but not like a movie star. When he got mad, there was a perfectly good reason for it. Either he wasn’t treated properly or a member of his band wasn’t performing up to snuff. For example, he’d blow up at musicians for drinking on the bandstand. One person who knew Armstrong well, a member of his All-Stars, told me that when Louis went after you, he knew where to put the knife.
JW: What else surprised you?
TT: That while his anger blew in and out, he held grudges against those who delivered deeper slights. Besides his long-running feud with Dizzy Gillespie, Armstrong held grudges against pianist Earl Hines and drummer Zutty Singleton.
JW: Is there a photo of Armstrong that sums him up for you?
TT: There’s a photo taken by Eddie Adams about a year before Armstrong died. Louis looks like he has the weight of the world on his shoulders. When I ran across that image, I immediately thought of something Joe Darensbourg, a member of Louis' All-Stars in the 1960s, said to me. Joe said sometimes you’d go backstage and see Armstrong sitting there turning over his trumpet and looking sad. You couldn't see into why he felt that way. Then he’d go on stage and become Louis again.
JW: What does that image tell you about Armstrong?
TT: It points to some of the psychological complexity of the man. After all, there’s no such thing as a simple genius, you know? Everyone loved Louis Armstrong. Yet he’s not boring. Explain how that can be, and you’ve explained Louis Armstrong.
JW: Do you think Armstrong would have enjoyed Pops?
TT: I can’t say. I hope so. He might have been a little surprised at reading a book about him that had so many source notes [laughs]. He certainly would have appreciated the book’s candor. He made clear in his own statements that he always aimed to be open and honest. I think he would have appreciated the fact that I was frank about his private life, about his love life, about his feuds and grudges. And about his art.
JazzWax tracks: After you collect the essential Louis Armstrong recordings, there are a handful of offbeat albums to explore. There are two that I'm particularly fond of. The first is The Real Ambassadors, a soundtrack to a show developed by Dave and Iola Brubeck that was recorded in 1961. The show was performed just once at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1962. The album features Armstrong, Carmen McRae, Dave Brubeck, Lambert Hendricks & Ross, and others. It's a fabulous coronation of Armstrong as the global face of America. Among the standouts: Armstrong and McRae singing The Duke and Armstrong singing a North African bossa nova called Nomad. You'll find the album here.
The second offbeat album is Louis Armstrong and His Friends. Recorded in 1970, this CD isn't for everyone. Some find it odd. I like the record because it places Armstrong in unusual musical settings, forcing him to bring life to songs that are tough fits. Included here are Everybody's Talkin', Give Peace a Chance and We Shall Overcome. My absolute favorite track is The Creator Has a Master Plan, Pharoah Sanders' sequel to John Coltrane's A Love Supreme on which Armstrong is teamed with vocalist Leon Thomas. Best of all, there are two alternate takes of this track. The album is at iTunes or here.
JazzWax pages: Terry Teachout's Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) is available online here. For a fine taste of Terry's writings on artists and musicians, A Terry Teachout Reader is a must. His essay on the late singer Nancy LaMott will bring tears to your eyes.
JazzWax clip: Here's a clip from The Real Ambassadors (1961). It's Everybody's Coming (the vocal version of Everybody's Jumpin' from the Dave Brubeck Quartet album Time Out)...
Here's my favorite track from Louis Armstrong and His Friends (1970), The Creator Has a Master Plan. The combination of Armstrong's New Orleans growl and Leon Thomas' African yodeling is pure genius...