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February 17, 2009

TT: The end of the beginning of the end

I spent most of the weekend going through the copyedited manuscript of Pops, my Louis Armstrong biography, a three-inch stack of paper that was bristling with queries. Most were easy enough to fix--I'd inadvertently left a half-dozen books out of my bibliography, for instance--but Barbara Wood, my copyeditor, also spotted a not-inconsiderable number of bigger blunders, including a couple of knotty chronological snarls that proved somewhat more difficult to untangle. Such close reading can make all the difference in the world for a too-busy author, and by the time I'd finished working my way through the manuscript, I was immeasurably relieved to know that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, my publishers, had put me in such good editorial hands.

LislSteiner-LouisArmstrong1957.jpgIn addition to responding to Barbara's queries, I made sixty-six inserts of various kinds, many short and to the point but a few quite substantial. Most were based on new source material discovered by myself and other Armstrong scholars after I sent in the manuscript last November. Among other interesting things, Ricky Riccardi, the best of all possible Armstrong bloggers, sent me a CD containing a 1956 Voice of America broadcast in which Armstrong played and talked about forty-nine records by himself, Sidney Bechet, Bix Beiderbecke, Bing Crosby, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Bunk Johnson, Joe Oliver, and Jack Teagarden. Some of his remarks were so revealing that I felt I had to make room for them, so I did.

The most significant cache of source material to come to my attention in recent weeks was a thick envelope sent to me by Steven Lasker, a California-based reissue producer and jazz scholar. Much to my amazement and delight, Steven presented me with photocopies of the surviving court papers relating to Armstrong's 1930 arrest in Los Angeles for possession of marijuana, plus a wad of hitherto-unknown newspaper clippings documenting numerous other aspects of Armstrong's nine-month stay in California. As a result of his just-in-timely generosity, I completely rewrote the opening section of the sixth chapter of Pops, and the revised version, thanks entirely to Steven, will be the first fully accurate account of Satchmo's brush with the law to see print.

As for Barbara, I've recognized her contribution to my book by inserting in the acknowledgments a heartfelt reference to "Barbara Wood, the copyeditor of my dreams." Copyeditors, alas, are not fact checkers, a duty that rests on the sagging shoulders of the author, and I was horrified to discover that two potentially embarrassing errors, both of them entirely my fault, had made it all the way to the copyedited manuscript. It turned out that I'd misspelled the last name of Humphrey Lyttelton, the British jazz trumpeter and radio broadcaster, and in the appendix, a list of thirty key recordings by Louis Armstrong, I mistakenly said that "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues," my all-time favorite Armstrong record, was cut in 1932 instead of 1933. Yes, I knew better. No, I don't know what I was thinking.

Now that everything is fixed, I'm reading through the book one last time with an eye to continuity and emphasis, and I've also decided to make one last change in the title. After a month-long flirtation with the definite article, I've opted for modesty and made it Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong. Come Monday I'll box up the manuscript and ship it off to Boston.

I'll be reading the page proofs of Pops a few weeks from now, at which point I can make any further corrections--so long as they're small--that occur to me between now and then. But the contents of the book are now more or less locked in: the version of Pops that I send to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on Monday is for all intents and purposes the one that will see print this fall. The text is written and edited, the photographs chosen, the title set in stone. All that remains is to design the cover and typography and make the index (a painstaking chore that will be done, thank God, by someone else, though I'll check and correct it).

This hat, in other words, is almost finished, though I don't feel quite done with it yet. No wonder! I've been juggling Pops, The Letter, and my day-to-day duties as a drama critic for so long that I've forgotten what it feels like to be doing just one thing at a time, much less to take a week off and do nothing at all.

On the other hand, I probably wouldn't know what to do with myself if I were to take more than a day or two off from my regular routine. As Louis Armstrong said on the Voice of America in 1956:

I figure why should I go out on a vacation, some woods, some place there with a whole lot of people don't even speak my language? I mean, if I go out there they gonna call on me to play now, so I just play every night and stay in shape and make a little loot to boot, and I'm happier.

Needless to say, I went out of my way to shoehorn that quote into Pops, smiling wryly as I did so. I don't have all that much in common with Satchmo, but I find it both amusing and comforting to reflect on that point of contact between our otherwise dissimilar lives.

Posted February 17, 2009 12:00 AM

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