Pardon me for not having done the usual this morning. I was prepping last night in order to conduct the very first interview for my Louis Armstrong biography, and today I spent six amazingly absorbing hours talking to George Avakian, who knew Armstrong from 1940 on and was his record producer in the mid-Fifties. Avakian, who was born in 1919, appears to remember everything that ever happened to him, and revels in sharing his memories with serious-minded interviewers who’ve done their homework. I had, and I filled up four cassettes with his detailed recollections of Armstrong, on and off the job. We’re not quite done yet, but I covered a lot of ground, and I expect to start writing the first draft of the prologue some time next week.
It isn’t easy to write a biography of a man you never met, even someone like Armstrong who left behind a substantial body of correspondence and reminiscence. By the time I started writing about H.L. Mencken, who died in 1956, everyone who had known him at all well was long gone, and I had to work from written source material alone. Though Armstrong died in 1971, there aren’t many people left who knew him well enough to speak with confidence about his character and personality, much less who collaborated with him closely enough to describe his working methods. Oral-history transcripts are precious, sometimes priceless, but the one thing you can’t do with them is ask the interviewees your own questions. When I turned on my tape recorder this morning, I felt as if magic casements were about to open, and when I turned it off late in the afternoon, I knew they had.
Anyway, my apologies for not posting my weekly Wall Street Journal drama-column teaser, which will go up shortly, along with today’s almanac entry. Now you know why, and I bet you don’t blame me one bit….