- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 17, 2009



By Terry Teachout

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $30, 475 pages, illus.

Reviewed by William F. Gavin

Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis once paid Louis Armstrong a musician’s supreme compliment. “Pops,” he said, using one of Armstrong’s nicknames, “was bad.” In that sense of the word, Terry Teachout’s well-written and well-documented biography is bad. Mr. Teachout, drama critic of the Wall Street Journal, describes his book as “the first fully sourced biography of Armstrong written by an author who is also a trained musician … ‘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.”

But “Pops” is more than a synthesis. It is a serious attempt to set straight the tangled story of Armstrong’s career and to ascertain his rightful place in American popular culture. The author examines claims and counterclaims made about Armstrong’s deservedly high status as a trumpet player and singer and makes hard judgments, some of them going against the grain of received critical opinion.

Unlike many other jazz artists, Louis (pronounced “Lewis” not “Louie”) Armstrong left a superabundance of casual jottings, journals, tapes and letters, not to mention published memoirs, so there are few mysteries about the facts of his life (although research shows he was not born on the Fourth of July, as he always claimed). Yet, almost 40 years after his death, there are still two competing narratives seeking to explain the phenomenon of his rise from abysmal poverty in turn-of-the-century New Orleans to wealth, fame and respect.

The first narrative might be called “The Glorious Rise and Long Decline of Pops,” and goes something like this: Between 1925 and 1928, Armstrong made a series of recordings with groups called the Hot Five and the Hot Seven. Some of these, chief among them “West End Blues,” were extraordinary and ultimately became canonical in jazz. His trumpet playing was a revelation and, indeed, a revolution, an audacious breaking away from the New Orleans collaborative, contrapuntal jazz style in which he had grown up. Before Armstrong made his breakthrough, there had been other jazz virtuosos (e.g., soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet), but his achievement shook the jazz world to its foundations. No one had ever played quite this way before.

Mr. Teachout refers to the “propulsive momentum” of Armstrong’s playing and “the refulgent splendor in his tone.” He quotes Artie Shaw: “I heard this cascade of notes coming out of a trumpet. No one had ever done that before.” Pianist Teddy Wilson, summing up Armstrong’s style, said: “… [he]… had this high development of balance. Lyricism. Delicacy. Emotional outburst. Rhythm. Complete mastery of his horn.”

If all this were not enough, Armstrong was also a uniquely gifted singer, with an unmistakable gravelly voiced style, who left his imprint on popular singing for decades to come.

But according to the “Rise and Decline” narrative, he rarely reached such artistic heights again. He became an onstage clown, mugging and grinning, wiping away sweat with his ever-present white handkerchief, Uncle-Tomming as hard as he could. Armstrong had sold out, taken the easy path, led by his evil manager, gangster Joe Glaser. He could still hit any number of high C’s to excite musically ignorant crowds, but, as jazz people would put it, Pops was no longer saying anything with his horn. Jazz had moved on. He was guilty of PWU (Playing While Unfashionable), an unforgivable crime to some critics.

But there is another narrative, less harsh in its judgments, one that Mr. Teachout embraces. According to this view, Armstrong’s post-Hot Five career, far from being a gradual decline into irrelevance, continued to demonstrate his artistry in flashes of artistic lightning that could still stun listeners.

His admitted decline in the 1930s occurred because he fronted big bands consisting of incompetent musicians playing bad arrangements. Did he mug and grin, playing to the white crowd like a faithful old retainer? Well, yes, in fact he did, says Mr. Teachout, but that was because he saw himself not just as a musician or a singer, but also as an all-around entertainer, in the old flamboyant style. He believed it was his job to please an audience by any means, a view not shared by a younger generation of black musicians, especially beboppers like Miles Davis.

As to the influence of Joe Glaser, Mr. Teachout agrees he was a petty crook and made a lot of money managing Armstrong. But he saved him from exploitation or worse by other gangsters and gave him the economic security he needed from the 1930s onward. I believe Mr. Teachout’s view is the correct one. Armstrong, like any artist, had his bad moments, but he always took his music seriously and used his gifts not only to please audiences, but also to stretch his talents to the limit.

He appears to have been understood too quickly by those who confused his ebullient, upbeat stage persona with the real man. It wasn’t that Armstrong faked the persona. He was basically the same openhearted, generous person he appeared to be in his performances.

But he could also be shrewd, at times cunning, when it came to protecting his musical interests, and he was no one’s fool. His reaction to pervasive racial discrimination was one of passive resistance, although he uncharacteristically publicly criticized President Eisenhower for not doing enough about civil rights.

His pleasures were simple. If Duke Ellington was champagne and caviar, Armstrong was New Orleans red beans and rice. He smoked copious amounts of marijuana, liked the ladies and was happiest playing his horn.

Armstrong summed up his life this way: “It’s been hard … work, man. Feel like I spent 20,000 years on planes and railroads, like I blowed my chops off…. I never tried to prove nothing, just wanted to give a good show.” Terry Teachout makes a strong case that all the effort was not in vain.

William F. Gavin is a writer living in McLean.

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