Congratulations on the completion of the book on Mr. B. And when can we expect the Armstrong opus?
I suppose you could say that the seeds of my next book, a full-length biography of Louis Armstrong, were planted three years ago, when I was writing an essay for the New York Times about Armstrong’s centenary in which I called him “jazz’s most eminent Victorian.” (The Teachout Reader contains a longer version of this piece.) Struck by the way in which Armstrong’s autobiographical writings point up the intensity of his work ethic, I’d thought it might be worth paying a visit to his home in Queens, which at that time was not yet open to the public. So I arranged for Michael Cogswell, who runs the Louis Armstrong Archives, where Armstrong’s papers and personal effects are preserved, to give me a private tour of the Armstrong house (it’s good to write for the Times, even as a freelancer). That tour inspired these words:
In a review of Louis Armstrong, in His Own Words and The Louis Armstrong Companion, Brian Harker, an assistant professor of music at Brigham Young University, remarked that Armstrong was “a product of turn-of-the-century African American ideology, especially that of Booker T. Washington. Like Washington, Armstrong was an accommodationist, determined to play–and win–by the rules of the white majority.” This is true as far as it goes, but it overlooks the fact that most jazz musicians, black and white alike, come from middle-class backgrounds, while most of those who are born poor strive mightily–and, more often than not, successfully–to join the ranks of the middle class.
Anyone who doubts that Armstrong filled the latter bill need only visit his home, located some seven blocks from Shea Stadium in a shabby but respectable part of Queens. It is a modest three-story frame house whose elaborate interior is uncannily reminiscent of Graceland, Elvis Presley’s gaudy Memphis mansion. From the Jetsons-style kitchen-of-the-future to the silver wallpaper and golden faucets of the master bathroom, the Armstrong house looks exactly like what it is: the residence of a poor southern boy who grew up and made good.
Unlike Graceland, though, it is neither oppressive nor embarrassing. As one stands in Armstrong’s smallish study (whose decorations include, among other things, a portrait of the trumpeter painted by Tony Bennett), it is impossible not to be touched to the heart by the aspiration that is visible wherever you look. This, you sense, was the home of a working man, one bursting with a pride that came not from what he had but from what he did. The American dream has had no more loyal exemplar. “I never want to be anything more than I am, what I don’t have I don’t need,” he wrote. “My home with Lucille [his fourth wife] is good, but you don’t see me in no big estates and yachts, that ain’t gonna play your horn for you. When the guys come from taking a walk around the estate they ain’t got no breath to blow that horn.”
As he drove me from the house to Queens College, where the Armstrong Archives are located, Cogswell asked casually if I’d thought of writing an Armstrong biography. I told him that I’d only just put a Mencken biography to bed after ten years of struggle, and that the thought of doing the whole thing all over again was too horrific to contemplate. I suppose I must have meant what I said, but it’s no less true that I’d been stirred–perhaps more deeply than I knew–by my first sight of the Armstrong house, which brought tears to my eyes. The wheels were already starting to turn.
A year later, I gave an interview to Publishers Weekly on the occasion of the publication of The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken. It contained the following paragraph:
Teachout isn’t sure which of several book ideas might come to fruition. “I don’t contemplate writing another biography, though I’m really glad I did this one. I’m a scholar manqué, like a lot of journalists, and to do a fully annotated book based on primary source material was my chance to be a full professor without having to put up with all the nonsense. I’m not sure I need to do it again.”
Truth to tell, I was sure I didn’t. Or so I thought. But a couple of months later, as I lay in bed in a hotel room not far from Washington’s Union Station, mulling over a lecture about Mencken that I’d just delivered, an idea hit me from out of nowhere like an arrow in the middle of my forehead: I should write a biography of Louis. It really did come to me just like that—and the more I thought about it, the better it sounded. Like Mencken, Armstrong was a quintessentially American figure. Like Mencken, none of Armstrong’s previous biographers had managed to get him on paper in all his fascinating complexity. Like Mencken, he was a packrat who saved everything, and most of what he saved, like his home in Queens, has been preserved and impeccably organized for the use of researchers. And having written my first biography, I’d learned enough along the way to have an easier time with the next one—right?
By the time I got back from Washington, I’d talked myself into writing another biography. Shortly thereafter, to my amazement, Glen Hartley and Lynn Chu, my agents, talked me into writing two—and it didn’t take much talking, either. Glen and Lynn wanted me to build on the success of The Skeptic by bringing out a fairly short book as soon as possible. I mentioned that I was interested in writing a brief life, and when Lynn suggested over a celebratory dinner that George Balanchine might be a good subject, I agreed on the spot. It had never before occurred to me to write a book about Balanchine, but no sooner were the words out of Lynn’s mouth than I fell in love with her idea: first Mr. B, then Satchmo.
That dinner was a year and a half ago. Last Friday, with All in the Dances ready for the printer, I rented a car and headed for Queens, accompanied by Stephanie Steward, my research assistant. We’d been planning for weeks to spend a day visiting the Armstrong house and archive’an orientation tour for Steph, so to speak. The house was opened to the public as a museum last October, but as I turned the corner onto what is now Louis Armstrong Place for the first time in three years, I saw that nothing much had changed but the street sign. The block was still shabby but respectable, a textbook example of a working-class neighborhood, and except for the garage, which has been turned into a reception center and museum shop, the house looks the way it did in 2001: the same gaudy wallpaper, the same gold faucets, the same touchingly elaborate furnishings, right down to Tony Bennett’s oil painting of Armstrong. Steph’s eyes were as big as hubcaps. As for me, I felt like laughing and crying at the same time.
When the tour was over, I said to Steph, “I know how I want to start the book.”
“Just like this. Coming to Louis’ house and taking a tour.”
She thought about it for a moment, then nodded. “Awesome,” she said.
We’ll see whether my idea holds up over three or four years’ worth of research and writing. But even if I should change my mind later on, it won’t matter. The important part is that I’m off and running. As of last Friday, I’m officially at work on my next book.