[17 December 2009]
When Louis Armstrong died in 1971 his reputation rested on an uneasy axis of critical and popular opinions, a plurality of beliefs that reflected the wide arc of his career, from the early artistic innovator of the ‘20s to the recorder of popular but bland ballads of the ‘50s and ‘60s, from the man who spoke out against public school segregation and Dwight D. Eisenhower to the man who spoke of his white manager Joe Glaser in terms that were uncomfortably reminiscent of a servant to his master.
The first biographies and career portraits that were written about Armstrong, even before his death, tended to focus on the controversies and the agenda that the author wanted to push in defining Armstrong’s legacy, whether it was to reevaluate his later recordings or criticize his sometimes awkward political stances. Many writers attempted to rescue him from the “Uncle Tom” accusations of Dizzy Gillespie and other jazz artists of the ‘40s and ‘50s – to make him “hip” again.
Today, many of those controversies have cooled down to the point of being negligible, more due to the disinteresting distance of time than anything else. With Pops Terry Teachout delivers an entertaining yet factually rigid biography of the jazz trumpeter and American musical icon, putting the past controversies in perspective, and codifying his life into a fairly straight-forward whole that gives equal attention to each stage of his career.
In the afterword Teachout says straight out that “Pops is less a work of scholarship than an exercise in synthesis, a narrative biography based in large part on the research of those academic scholars and other investigators who in recent years have unearthed a wealth of hitherto unknown information about Armstrong.”
It’s as solid as such an approach might hope to be and enjoyably done if conservative in its aims. Teachout doesn’t advance any startling theories or employ any of the atmospheric or structurally experimental techniques that has elevated pop music biographies by authors like Peter Guralnick and Nick Tosches, something that might come of a relief depending on what you think a biography should be.
As far as unearthing new research, Teachout most notably uses the reel-to-reel tapes available from the Louis Armstrong Collection at Queens College in New York, consisting of hundreds of hours of recorded material that Armstrong taped privately, with a recorder that he dragged around with him on tours. This material helps shed light on some of the darker aspects of his character. Though he steadfastly radiated a sunny disposition, Teachout reveals that Armstrong also knew how to hold a grudge against musicians who had slighted him and could be as crass and haughty as any self-important celebrity.
The tapes also show Armstrong at his quirkily unapologetic best, talking about and listening to his favorite music. Teachout says that he was “middlebrow” in taste, reveling in the syrupy styling of Guy Lombardo, which sat uncomfortably with jazz enthusiasts who couldn’t fathom how the innovator could stomach such pap.
Growing up in New Orleans he developed his own wide-ranging interests early, driven by his love of clear melody, outside of the influence of urbane northerners. He disdained the attitudes of the “prima donna” New Yorkers, which came to a particular head during his verbal battles with the be-bop contingent in the late ‘40s and ‘50s when he wrote an angry screed to Down Beat magazine saying, “you get all them weird chords which don’t mean nothing.” If at a certain point Armstrong seemed to grow largely disinterested in the experimental edges of jazz, his frustration with the New York hoi polloi seemed to push him forward during the ‘20s, as when after playing with Fletcher Henderson’s band (who he called “big head motherfuckers”) he returned to Chicago and recorded his celebrated records with his Hot Five group.
In describing his popular, crowd-pleasing instincts Teachout builds on the writings of Gary Giddens, who wrote about, as Teachout quotes him, that Armstrong was “an artist who happened to be an entertainer, an entertainer who happened to be an artists – as much an original in one role as the other.” Teachout tracks Armstrong’s work in film, television, and radio as much as his recordings and concert appearances.
But Teachout is strongest in describing the music (he is an arts columnist for the Wall Street Journal and a former professional jazz musician himself), writing in a clear and technically accessible manner about Armstrong’s key recordings, how the different musicians worked together and what makes the music great, or not so great in the case of lesser players. For these descriptions alone, Pops, is a worthwhile introduction to and explicator of Armstrong’s genius.
The stickiest portions involve Armstrong’s dealing with race. Teachout twice emphasizes how Armstrong spoke out against Eisenhower and school segregation. He also goes out of his way to emphasize the moments when Armstrong bristled against the widespread open prejudices of his time, putting to rest any lingering “Uncle Tom” accusations that have been leveled at him. He does a good job of placing Armstrong within the context of his era, the specificities of his situation, and his fierce desire to survive and succeed— growing up in dire poverty in the South and coming up with a group of jazz men who mostly receded into obscurity as quickly as they rose to fame in the ‘20s.
Still, there are many moments difficult to explain away, from his relations with his managers and his style of entertaining white audiences to the uncomfortable comments made towards the end of his life towards “the poor lazy”, writing, “The Negroes always wanted pity.” (Reminiscent of similar comments recently made by Bill Cosby.) Teachout doesn’t shy away from this information, but he never seems sure what to make of it either, in the end letting Armstrong’s contradictions lie in unexplainable heart of every person.
Like another prototypically famous American Louis Armstrong seemed to say, “I am large, I contain multitudes” and didn’t seem too worried about the inherent contradictions that bothered everyone else. In Pops Teachout tries to make the case for Armstrong as unapologetic conveyor of happiness, he opens with a quote from Constantin Brancusi saying, “It is pure joy I am giving to you.”
But the book’s strongest and most interesting moments lie in teasing out his complexities: the shy leader, the experimental entertainer who loved a clear melody, the black man who broke barriers but who sometimes worked within racist institutions to succeed. It is here where the dramatic tension lies, within America and within Armstrong, and which propelled his genius to such heights. In letting his actions play without an overt amount of commentary, Teachout makes the most useful contribution to studies on Armstrong’s life, as precise and invigorating as one of Satchmo’s solos.