Louis Armstrong is slowly slipping into obscurity. Sadly, his music is heard less and less on the radio, and fewer and fewer people know or care much about his sound or his contribution to jazz and America's personality. Like Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong's oxidation is a direct result of his parodying singing style and stage presence. By today's standards, both are far removed from what we now define as entertainment, and both feed into stereotypes that blacks and whites find uncomfortable and embarrassing. Which is terribly sad, since America's greatest jazz musician still has much to teach us about music and ourselves. [Photo by Philippe Halsman for Life]
Fortunately Terry Teachout [pictured] has done a Herculean job of halting Armstrong's fading process. With any luck, Terry's new restorative biography Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong will trigger renewed interest in the trumpet great and win back some of the respect he deserves. While I, too, have grappled with Armstrong's entertainment value in a past post, it's clear to me now that Pops must be viewed archeologically, like a time capsule from another era in American musical history, not as a modern figure.
In Part 2 of my interview series with Terry, the biographer and blogger talks about why Armstrong is America's most famous jazz musician, Armstrong's only quasi-bebop recording, and why Dizzy Gillespie felt compelled to criticize Armstrong publicly:
JazzWax: How did Louis Armstrong get his nickname "Pops?"
Terry Teachout: Like many celebrities who are in the public eye and meet a lot of people, Louis had trouble remembering names. So he got into the habit of calling everyone "Pops," as a term of endearment. Well, they started calling him Pops back. By the 1940s and certainly by the 1950s, Pops was the accepted nickname for Louis among those who knew him. As for the title of my book, Pops has a double meaning—it’s Armstrong's nickname and he's the father figure of jazz.
JW: One of my favorite quotes on Armstrong comes from a fan: “He looks so happy, and I feel happy watching him.”
TT: Armstrong made people glad. He radiates warmth, and there's nothing false about that warmth. Armstrong was a good person, not an insipid or dull person. He was genuinely a good person, but one with a strong personality. And you feel that aspect of Louis every time you see him on film or hear him on record. And that’s why he’s the most famous figure in jazz history and Coleman Hawkins or Bix Beiderbecke aren't. [Photo of Louis Armstrong in 1965 by John Loengard for Life]
JW: That’s a fascinating concept.
TT: Armstrong is as musically important as everyone thinks he is. But musical importance was not, in and of itself, what made him famous. It was Armstrong's personality that made him famous and influential. Sidney Bechet, who was a few years older than Armstrong and chronologically the first great jazz soloist, was arguably as gifted in every way as Armstrong. But Bechet had a narrow, distrustful, inward-turned personality, and no one wanted to be like that. By contrast, if you saw Armstrong on stage, you wanted to play like him because you wanted to be like him. [Photo of Sidney Bechet by William P. Gottlieb]
JW: When did musicians start to become uneasy with Armstrong’s act?
TT: In the late 1940s a younger generation of musicians emerged that viewed Armstrong as an impediment to what they were trying to achieve.
JW: In that regard, was bebop something of an insurrection against Armstrong and what he stood for?
TT: Not quite. Technically, bebop emerged gradually starting around 1941. It was a new expression on the part of younger musicians who felt that the language of swing had run its course. Where Armstrong comes in regarding that generation’s reaction isn’t until later in the decade, when bebop becomes established as the predominant form of small-group jazz. By then, Armstrong was a public symbol of something they wanted to get away from as jazz musicians.
JW: Why the turn against Armstrong publicly?
TT: Young musicians wanted to be taken more seriously as artists. I think Miles Davis is the best example of this. Coincidentally, Armstrong and Davis were on the same record label—Columbia—at precisely the same moment in the 1950s when important things were happening in their careers. Davis talks in his own autobiography about his attitude toward Armstrong. He admired Armstrong enormously as a musician but didn’t want to offer himself up as an entertainer the way Armstrong did. To Davis and his generation of musicians, the music mattered more than trying to win over audiences with an entertaining personality.
JW: And yet Gillespie, as bebop’s pioneer, was a spectacular entertainer.
TT: Davis talks about Dizzy the same way. Davis felt that great jazz musicians no longer had to act like performers. That explains the attitude of the bebop generation toward Armstrong. Of course, they respected him as a musician. They couldn’t help it. They just didn’t want to be entertainers. Except Dizzy, of course.
JW: Why was there so little interaction between Armstrong and bop musicians on recordings?
TT: There are recordings made in the mid-1940s in which you can hear Armstrong’s playing taking on certain aspects of bop. For example, Snafu, made with the Esquire All-Stars in 1946, features a bebop unison line written by Leonard Feather. On the date you had Armstrong, Jimmy Hamilton (clarinet), Johnny Hodges (alto saxophone), Don Byas (tenor saxophone), Billy Strayhorn (piano), Remo Palmieri (guitar), Chubby Jackson (bass) and Sonny Greer (drums).
JW: And what happened?
TT: Armstrong plays the first solo. It sounds like Armstrong, but you can hear him taking in new ideas and thinking about how he might want to play going forward at the very moment he is leaving one part of his career behind.
JW: So in essence, at that moment Armstrong decides to reject bop?
TT: You can hear on Snafu that if Louis wanted to go in bop's direction, like Coleman Hawkins did, that path was open to him. But Louis didn’t want to do that. I think he sensed that bop, in its complexity, would not be as entertaining to audiences as the music he had pioneered. Also, giving up the entertainer side of his personality was an impossibility. But Armstrong’s rejection of bop had nothing to do with playing it safe. He was just comfortable with who he was, and he knew that there would always be an audience for his pure approach to jazz.
JW: But Armstrong’s decision wasn’t passive. He attacked bebop publicly in the late 1940s.
TT: In interviews given after World War II, in response to mounting criticism from Gillespie and other bebop musicians, Armstrong attacked bop as being too complicated for audiences. Armstrong was afraid that if jazz moved in bop’s direction, it would become disconnected from its popular audience. He famously wound up calling bop “this modern malice.”
JW: Yet he could appreciate the musicianship.
TT: Absolutely. He respected Gillespie enormously as a musician.
JW: What was the origin of the Armstrong-Gillespie feud?
TT: You can nail the date precisely. The friction started with the Time magazine cover story on Armstrong in February 1949. In an interview for the Armstrong profile, Gillespie was condescending toward Armstrong. We don't know whether the motive for Gillespie's tone was Armstrong's stage style or the fact that Time was profiling Armstrong and not him. Or a combination of the two. In either case, Gillespie said Armstrong had been a great player in his time but that he was essentially an unschooled player who simply played from the heart. Gillespie went on to say that the difference between Armstrong and bop players was that “we study.”
JW: How did Armstrong take it?
TT: He was still fuming about that quote as late as the 1960s. We know this because of the Life magazine interview in 1966. He doesn’t use Gillespie’s name but he refers directly back to it by saying, that he didn’t have to study or learn the basics, and yet those bebop players did. The implication was clear: that to be considered exceptional wasn't a matter of studying but of being passionate and genuine.
JW: Was he referring to Gillespie?
TT: There’s no possible question that he was talking about the Gillespie interview of 1949.
JW: What happened after the Time interview in 1949?
TT: Gillespie starts taking shots at Armstrong in public, mostly commenting on Armstrong’s demeanor as an performer. He referred to him as a plantation character. Which is funny coming from Gillespie, who was as much of an entertainer as Armstrong but in a different way. But in all fairness, you can see what was motivating Gillespie: a desire for greater recognition and a desire to be taken seriously as an artist. Unfortunately, Gillespie did that at Armstrong's expense, and Louis didn’t like it nor did he forget it.
Tomorrow, Terry talks about the only time Armstrong and Gillespie played together on TV, Armstrong's innate understanding of the camera and how to win over audiences, the Barbra Streisand album Armstrong said he would take with him to a desert island, and Armstrong's singular skill as a duet singer.
JazzWax tracks: Louis Armstrong's near-flirtation with bebop on Snafu (1946) can be found at iTunes or here on Louis Armstrong: The Complete RCA Recordings. Another fine box is Mosaic's The Complete Louis Armstrong Decca Sessions (1935-46) here.
JazzWax pages: Terry Teachout's Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) includes a list of 30 key Louis Armstrong recordings and more than 50 pages of source notes. The book is available online here.
JazzWax clip: Here's Louis Armstrong playing Snafu in 1946 with the Esquire All-Stars. Move the bar to 4:35 to hear Snafu...