Writing on theater for the Wall Street Journal and on music for Commentary, Terry Teachout is my favorite working critic. He is also a gifted writer. When I learned that his new biography of Louis Armstrong was to be published today, I invited him to write about it for us. Commentary has posted Teachout’s essay on “Armstrong and the Jews” in its November issue. Teachout has graciously obliged us with his thoughts on why the book might be of interest to our readers:
Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, my latest book, is the story of a genius–a great man who, unlike many geniuses, was also a good man.
America has never produced a more significant artist than Louis Armstrong. I rank him alongside Aaron Copland and Robert Frost and Frank Lloyd Wright. But unlike those men, Satchmo was also a great entertainer whose music was and is loved by ordinary people all over the world. In 1964 he actually knocked the Beatles off the top of the pop charts with his recording of “Hello, Dolly!” Aaron Copland never did that!
When Armstrong started making records in 1923, jazz was still a collective art in which improvised solos took a back seat to group ensemble work. He changed that. The boldness and daring of his trumpet playing immediately caught the ears of his fellow jazz musicians–and so did his gravel-voiced singing. He was as influential a singer as he was an instrumentalist, the first and only musician of whom such a thing can be said.
Indeed, it seemed at times that nothing was beyond him. He really did perform with everyone from Leonard Bernstein to Johnny Cash. He really did end his shows (some of them, anyway) by playing 250 or more high Cs, capped with a high F. He wrote the finest of all jazz autobiographies–without a collaborator. The ranks of his admirers included Tallulah Bankhead, Jackson Pollock, and Jean Renoir.
No less memorable, though, was the irresistible warmth of Armstrong’s personality. When you heard him for the first time, you felt as though you knew and liked him–not just as a musician, but also as a man. Nor was this impression deceptive. To be sure, Armstrong could be moody and profane off stage, but for the most part he was the living embodiment of Johnny Mercer’s admonition in “Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive”: You’ve got to spread joy up to the maximum/Keep gloom down to the minimum. As much as anything else, this was what made him a star, and the fact that he became a full-fledged star in turn played a crucial role in popularizing jazz.
Most people know me as the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, but I’m also a trained musician–the first one, in fact, ever to write a fully sourced Armstrong biography. I started out as a professional jazz musician, a bass player, before becoming a full-time writer. That experience has helped me to understand Armstrong’s music, and the world in which he lived and worked, from the inside out.
In addition, I’m the first Armstrong biographer to have had access to 650 reel-to-reel tapes that he made during the last quarter-century of his life, many of which contain astonishingly candid recordings of his private after-hours conversations. These tapes, which until recently were inaccessible to scholars, show that Armstrong’s personality was tougher and more sharp-edged than his fans suspected.
He definitely knew how to hold a grudge, and though he was essentially apolitical, he was also a staunch believer in the hard gospel of self-help and individual responsibility. Not only do the Armstrong tapes shine a strong light on his character, but they also make it possible for us to know the full stories of such key events in his life as his 1931 run-in with the gangsters of Chicago.
The existence of these tapes is a big part of what made me want to write an Armstrong biography, and what I learned from them has helped to make Pops the most factually reliable account of Louis Armstrong’s life and work ever to be written.
The video below of Armstrong singing and playing “Basin Street Blues” in an ensemble setting before a German audience in 1959 may awaken memories of the qualities that made Armstrong a star in the firmament of American popular music. The publication of Teachout’s biography of Armstrong is a signal event for the devotees of this music. One more note: the Amazon link above will take you to Teachout’s designation of Top 10 Louis Armstrong Recordings.