Terry Teachout, Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong (Houghton Mifflin, 474 pages, $30)
A good biography of a musician makes the reader want to listen. Alexander Wheelock Thayer triggered that compulsion with his life of Beethoven, Marion Hildesheimer with Mozart, Richard Sudhalter with Bix Beiderbecke. Terry Teachout’s Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong can be a workout; all that getting up and down. Reading it, I repeatedly set aside the book to go to the shelves and exhume Armstrong recordings. Teachout evokes the essence of the artist. Here he is on the musicology and genealogy of “Muggles” by Armstrong and his Hot Five (1928):
It is because of Armstrong’s climactic two-chorus explosion that “Muggles” belongs to the ages. He charges in on (clarinetist Jimmy) Strong’s heels with a two-bar break in which he doubles the tempo, proceeding directly to the most memorable of his many fantasias on one note, a chorus in which he rocks back and forth between a B-flat below middle C and the same note an octave higher, screwing up the tension to a pitch reminiscent of the last chorus of “West End Blues,” then releasing it with a dark-blue phrase borrowed from Joe Oliver’s solo on the Creole Jazz Band’s 1923 recording of ‘Jazzin’ Babies Blues.”
Teachout’s discussion of “Stardust.” (1931) is another instance of his ability to hook readers. Few could resist playing the recording as they read the author’s transcription of Armstrong’s vocal invention. Armstrong would have been as enchanted by that effect as Hoagy Carmichael was with the singer’s interpretation.
…Armstrong’s vocal is a paraphrase of Carmichael’s tune and Parish’s lyric, whose words he reshapes with a desentimentalizing freedom that delighted the composer: SometimesIwonderwhyIspendsuchlonely night (oh, baby, lonely nighnnmmmm) / Dreaming of a song (melody, memory) / And I am once again with you. Even for him it was a daringly imaginative transformation, much more so than the instrumental portion of the record, in which he mostly stays within earshot of the tune.
Teachout emphasizes in a hundred small and large ways that Armstrong accomplished his goal of making people happy, did it spectacularly, while producing music that set artistic standards influencing American music to this day. His genius remade jazz from a collective folk form into a soloist’s art and touched all areas of serious music. There is a bit of the influence of Armstrong in every aspect of popular culture, from three-chord rock and roll to no-chord free jazz, to the language and attitudes of fiction and the way certain actors move and speak on stage and screen. Great popular singers — Billie Holiday, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald — would not have had their styles without Armstrong’s example. Armstrong and the quintessential bebop trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie feuded over styles, but ultimately became good friends. Gillespie summed up the pervasiveness of Armstrong’s sway: “No him, no me.”
As I wrote in selecting Pops as a Doug’s Pick (center column), “Teachout combines with the advantage of unique access to Armstrong’s archives deep musical understanding and the gift of writing clearly about complex matters.” Those matters concern not only the workings of music but also of racism, politics and the Byzantine power economics of show business. Was Armstrong’s longtime manager Joe Glaser an exploiter who had moorings in organized crime? Yes. Was he good for Armstrong? Yes. Teachout shows that the dependent psychological makeup formed by his background and reinforced by the advice of his mentor Joe Oliver, ordained that Armstrong have Glaser or a white man like him take care of business. He also makes clear that Armstrong knew about the outsized share of his money that Glaser was taking and accepted it as the price of the freedom to concentrate on his music and “always give a good show.”
Was Armstrong as some blacks charged, a kowtowing Uncle Tom? No. He was a black man who grew up in a city where segregation could be vicious, and he was conditioned accordingly. Teachout presents evidence of outrageous incidents demonstrating that Armstrong’s fame and visibility gave him no immunization against racist humiliation in the south or the north. One of his most demeaning mistreatments, when he was at his peak of renown, was not in Mississippi or Alabama, but when he was denied the use of a restroom in Connecticut. In 1957 when the chips were down for his people during the civil rights struggles in the south, he attacked President Eisenhower as “two-faced” and gutless for not enforcing the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. For good measure, he bestowed on Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus a scatological title. His angry outburst made headlines. Within days, Eisenhower ordered Federal troops into Little Rock to escort nine black children into the school. Teachout is persuasive in suggesting that, despite a lack of administration acknowledgement, pressure from news coverage of Armstrong’s outspokenness played a role in forcing the Federal government to act.
Through the access he was allowed, Teachout went more deeply into Armstrong’s archives than was possible for previous scholars. A result of his research is that many of the most fascinating parts of Armstrong’s saga come from his own writings and from hundreds of hours of reel-to-reel tape recordings. He was a constant writer and a tireless recordist of his thoughts, his household activities, his wife, his band members, his friends. He taped himself at home playing along with his classic recordings of the 1920s and ’30s. Teachout works material from the tapes into the fabric of the book, adding new detail to one of the most unlikely of all rags-to-riches stories. He does not gloss over Armstrong’s faults and foibles; a lifelong affair with marijuana, a string of troubled early marriages, a short temper. He balances the downsides with accounts of a mostly happy and faithful final marriage, a trail of generosity to friends and neighbors, reluctance to retain anger or hold many grudges, a keenly inquiring mind and the love of laughter.
As for Armstrong’s beginnings in the rawest part of the underbelly of New Orleans, his introduction to music, the bloom of his genius and the globe-spanning arc of his life, Teachout tells the familiar and unfamiliar aspects of the story with the clarity and flow he brings to all of his writing.
In the eulogy at Armstrong’s funeral in 1971, his friend Fred Robbins said, “he was truly the only one of his kind, a titanic figure in his and our time, a veritable Picasso. A Stravinsky. A Casals. A Louis Armstrong.” Pops: A Life Of Louis Armstrong is persuasive and entertaining in support of that truth.
To see and hear the recent one-hour Brian Lamb interview of Terry Teachout on C-Span’s Q&A, go to this archive video. Be patient; it loads slowly and has a false start, but once it gets underway it is proof that conversation on television can be illuminating. “Talking heads” needn’t be a pejorative.