Monday, November 23, 2009
The Voice That Helped Remake Culture
Louis Armstrong, a k a Satchmo, a k a Pops, was to music what Picasso was to painting, what Joyce was to fiction: an innovator who changed the face of his art form, a fecund and endlessly inventive pioneer whose discovery of his own voice helped remake 20th-century culture.
His determination to entertain and the mass popularity he eventually achieved, coupled with his gregarious, open-hearted personality, would obscure the magnitude of his achievement and win him the disdain of many intellectuals and younger colleagues, who dismissed much of what he did after 1929 as middlebrow slumming, and who even mocked him as a kind of Uncle Tom.
With “Pops,” his eloquent and important new biography of Armstrong, the critic and cultural historian Terry Teachout restores this jazzman to his deserved place in the pantheon of American artists, building upon Gary Giddins’s excellent 1988 study, “Satchmo: The Genius of Louis Armstrong,” and offering a stern rebuttal of James Lincoln Collier’s patronizing 1983 book, “Louis Armstrong: An American Genius.”
Mr. Teachout, the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal and the chief culture critic of Commentary magazine, writes with a deep appreciation of Armstrong’s artistic achievements, while situating his work and his life in a larger historical context. He draws on Armstrong’s wonderfully vivid writings and hours of tapes in which the musician recorded his thoughts and conversations with friends, and in doing so, creates an emotionally detailed portrait of Satchmo as a quick, funny, generous, observant and sometimes surprisingly acerbic man: a charismatic musician who, like a Method actor, channeled his vast life experience into his work, displaying a stunning, almost Shakespearean range that encompassed the jubilant and the melancholy, the playful and the sorrowful.
At the same time, Mr. Teachout reminds us of Armstrong’s gifts: “the combination of hurtling momentum and expansive lyricism that propelled his playing and singing alike,” his revolutionary sense of rhythm, his “dazzling virtuosity and sensational brilliance of tone,” in another trumpeter’s words, which left listeners feeling as though they’d been staring into the sun. The author — who worked as a jazz bassist before becoming a full-time writer — also uses his firsthand knowledge of music to convey the magic of such Armstrong masterworks as “St. Louis Blues,” “Potato Head Blues,” “West End Blues” and “Star Dust.”
During his lifetime Armstrong performed with virtually everyone, from early jazz pioneers like Sidney Bechet, Joe Oliver, Bix Beiderbecke, Johnny Dodds and Kid Ory, on through more recent masters like Leonard Bernstein and Johnny Cash. His freewheeling incandescence as both an instrumentalist and vocalist would influence not just every trumpet player to come but also countless composers, bandleaders and singers as varied as Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday.
“Even before his face became known to the readers of newspapers and illustrated magazines — and, later, to filmgoers and TV viewers,” Mr. Teachout writes, “Armstrong was the first jazz musician whose voice was heard by large numbers of people. In this way he emerged from behind the anonymity of the recording process and impressed his personality on all who heard him, even those who found most instrumental jazz to be unapproachably abstract. It was the secret of his appeal, and he knew it. So did the many singing instrumentalists who followed in his footsteps, hoping to lure some of the same listeners who smiled at the sound of his gritty tenor voice, which deepened as he grew older but was always as recognizable as a fingerprint.”
Although Armstrong’s life story has been told many times before, Mr. Teachout does a nimble job of reconjuring the trajectory of Armstrong’s experience, which coincided with — or was in the vanguard of — so many formative events in 20th-century Afro-American history, from the Great Migration that brought many Southern blacks North to cities like Chicago to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and ’30s. He recounts the travails of touring that Armstrong experienced in a still segregated South, to his acclamation in Europe in the ’30s and ’40s and the mainstream American success he finally achieved in the ’50s.
The reader gets a dramatic snapshot in this volume of Armstrong’s life on the mean streets of New Orleans, where he grew up, the illegitimate son of a 15-year-old country girl, among gamblers, church people, prostitutes and hustlers; his adventures in gangland Chicago and Jazz Age New York; the rapid metamorphosis of this shy, “little frog-mouthed boy who played the cornet” into the most influential soloist in jazz; and the long, hard years on the road, crisscrossing the United States dozens of time, playing so many one-nighters that he often came off the stage, in his own words, “too tired to raise an eyelash.”
In addition, Mr. Teachout does a fluent job of explicating Armstrong’s apprenticeship under Joe Oliver and Fletcher Henderson; his seminal work with the Hot Five; and the key business roles played by his wife Lil and his mobbed-up manager, the former boxing promoter Joe Glaser, in shaping his career.
As Mr. Teachout astutely points out, Armstrong’s trumpet playing, like his singing and copious writings (including two published memoirs and countless letters, which he pecked out on a typewriter he brought with him on the road), was the means for Armstrong to reflect on all that he had witnessed. “I seen everythin’ from a child comin’ up,” he said once. “Nothin’ happen I ain’t never seen before.”
“When I blow I think of times and things from outa the past that gives me an image of the tune. Like moving pictures passing in front of my eyes. A town, a chick somewhere back down the line, an old man with no name you seen once in a place you don’t remember.” This belief in music as a deeply felt and personal expression is one reason Armstrong avoided using musical terminology when speaking about his work and it’s one reason he said that he disliked bop (like other cooler, more modern forms of jazz), complaining that it “doesn’t come from the heart,” that it’s “all just flash.”
Boppers and avatars of the cool, in turn, rejected Armstrong’s desire to entertain the audience — to mug and clown on stage. And yet even Miles Davis, who in rejecting Satchmo’s crowd-pleasing ways went so far as to turn his back on the audience, acknowledged that the history of jazz radiated out from Louis Armstrong: “You can’t play nothing on trumpet,” Davis said, “that doesn’t come from him.”
Posted by Chris Mansel at 8:31 PM