Not Even Bing’s: On Louis Armstrong

Not Even Bing’s: On Louis Armstrong

Terry Teachout’s new biography of Louis Armstrong is stuck in the discophile groove.


Reading Pops, Terry Teachout’s new biography of Louis Armstrong, I was reminded, over and over again, of the line about the Broadway show where you walk in humming the tunes. No sooner has the audience settled into their seats than Teachout begins revisiting hallowed moments in Armstrong’s career. Here is Armstrong’s inauspicious birth, on August 4, 1901, into the gritty depths of the New Orleans caste system, and here his musical mentorship with Joe "King" Oliver, a lifelong hero, and their groundbreaking recording of "Dippermouth Blues." A little later, there’s Armstrong’s partnership with Earl Hines, which widened the spectrum of jazz with "West End Blues" and "Weatherbird," and his recordings of cheesy pop numbers like "Sweethearts on Parade," which showed singers from Billie Holiday onward how to transmute tin-pan tunes into gold. And here, too, are familiar moments from the later career: the endless tours with the All Stars, no gig complete without "Rockin’ Chair" sung (and ritually mocked) with Jack Teagarden; the State Department tours; "Blueberry Hill," "Mack the Knife," "Hello, Dolly!"; and the charges, from the jazz establishment, of selling out, and from younger jazz giants, like Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, of being an Uncle Tom. As Gary Giddins has explained, they reconsidered the charge after Armstrong told a reporter that President Eisenhower was "two-face" and had "no guts" for acting indecisively when Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus barred black children from entering a white school.

The story is a familiar one, and not only because Pops, as Teachout admits, is "less a work of scholarship than an exercise in synthesis." (In other words, there’s little evidence of original research, and no new revelations about the life or the music.) Gary Giddins’s Satchmo, from 1988, remains the best appreciation of a musician whose genius as a trumpeter, improviser, singer and entertainer still defies comparison. Other biographies, most notably Laurence Bergreen’s Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life (1997), sleuthed much of the life story. More important, Armstrong told his own story, and in words more pungent than any scholar’s or critic’s, in Swing That Music (1936) and Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans (1954), as well as in less guarded private writings edited by musicologist Thomas Brothers for the collection In His Own Words (2006).

Pops also has a didactic bent, and with it far older precedents. Teachout has tailored Armstrong’s life story along lines that recall Horatio Alger, a parallel he notes early on, and The Pilgrim’s Progress, an analogy not explicitly drawn but implicit in the scene setting: "Faced with the terrible realities of the time and place into which he had been born, he did not repine, but returned love for hatred and sought salvation in work." I must have been humming a hymn. Stories repeated, embellished and reinflected in an "exercise in synthesis" may be pleasing or flattering to read, especially if they confirm one’s tastes or prejudices, but they amount to mythology, not history. Even if we accept the premise that Pops is not scholarship but journalism, it violates the first principle of that form: don’t give the reader secondhand news.

Some of the book’s shortcomings are indicative of a larger problem: the history of the vast and seemingly familiar cultural realms of American life in which Armstrong flourished–jazz, popular entertainment, celebrity–is only now slowly beginning to be written. It might seem late in the day to claim that jazz history is in its infancy, but one of the finest jazz historians, Lawrence Gushee, made the case with exemplary precision four years ago in his revelatory Pioneers of Jazz: The Story of the Creole Band. Most of what passes for jazz history has been written by record collectors, Gushee explains, and their writing is "spectacularly successful in avoiding what might be called esthetic or musical issues, not to speak of broader questions of social and economic history." Gushee also laments the "absence of African-Americans from the rosters of writers on jazz." He’s thinking specifically of their conspicuous nonpresence as authors of jazz history textbooks and, until recently, jazz biography, for in fact there is a large and distinguished body of critical writing about jazz by African-Americans such as Ralph Ellison, Albert Murray, Stanley Crouch, Amiri Baraka, Ishmael Reed, Hazel Carby and Robert O’Meally. None of these writers appear in Teachout’s bibliography. Not one of them, by the way, could be considered a marginal hothead: Murray’s Stomping the Blues (1976) has become an unavoidable (I would have thought) foundation for jazz hermeneutics.

Jazz history–or in Teachout’s case jazz biography that is not informed by the work of African-American critics, or refuses to engage with them–remains stuck in the discophile groove: it’s jazz connoisseurship that reduces jazz history to a disembodied series of the "greatest" solos by the "greatest" soloists. Armstrong, of course, should loom large in that story, however neat and smooth it might be, but he deserves just as central a role in jazz history that addresses larger–and messier–social and cultural issues. That history is being written by many younger scholars, black and white, but Teachout turns a deaf ear to it.

What exactly does Teachout hear? As if Armstrong’s performance with a symphony orchestra were the high point of his career, Teachout devotes his prologue to an account of a concert at New York City’s Lewisohn Stadium in July 1956 conducted by Leonard Bernstein, still in his 20s. Armstrong performed one number: W.C. Handy’s "St. Louis Blues." Compelled, as was already his habit, to educate the audience, Bernstein pontificated that Armstrong’s music was "honest and simple, even noble." Would Bernstein have been as condescending to any white soloist, whether it was Rubinstein or Dave Brubeck? Bernstein had certainly demonstrated a flair for jazz with compositions such as Fancy Free and the score for On the Waterfront, but it was jazz filtered through the symphonic elaborations of George Gershwin and Aaron Copland, and far from the undiluted idiom of Armstrong or even Duke Ellington. (Armstrong had changed the sound of the twentieth century while Bernstein was still in knee pants.) And who was Bernstein’s audience? Teachout says that concertgoers of a certain age remember taking the subway uptown to the stadium on the City College campus–that is to say, to Harlem. This was not a concert for the neighborhood. Armstrong was the only African-American onstage (the elderly Handy was in the audience, where he listened tearfully to Armstrong perform his song), and yet the concert sold out in a season when interest in the classics, even for the ticket holders taking the A train from downtown, was dwindling. The stadium and Bernstein, like American music in general, were in Armstrong’s debt.

Undaunted by the occasion, Armstrong, who had suffered far worse indignities, warmed up by blowing excerpts from Italian operas. He was playing to the house in a high-stakes cultural sparring match: Bernstein’s pearly elocution, which put the "high" in high art, was as much of a contrivance as Armstrong’s lowdown N’awlins antics, but Armstrong had all the best notes. His musical prowess was joined to a perpetually beaming persona, which to the audience’s delight upended concert-world formalities. Sizing up the situation with seasoned acuity, he told the audience that he "was gassed" to be there. At similar occasions he would talk about "wailing" with his wife or sing the praises of a laxative called Swiss Kriss. Some might call this "signifying," but Teachout just views this act as Armstrong being himself. He sees Armstrong’s personality mirrored in the lyrics of Johnny Mercer’s "Ac-cen-tu-ate the Positive" and frames the image with Louis Jordan’s remark that Armstrong was "always happy," though there is much evidence in the book to the contrary. Teachout goes on to validate Armstrong’s talents by citing eminent white artists like Philip Larkin, Herbert von Karajan, Kingsley Amis, Jean Renoir, Jackson Pollock, Tallulah Bankhead and Le Corbusier, along with grudging praise from Miles Davis. Teachout makes Davis pay mightily for dissing the master.

The bombshell comes near the end of the prologue, when Teachout quotes from the essay "Louis Armstrong + the Jewish Family, in New Orleans, La., the Year of 1907," published posthumously in In His Own Words. In this essay, written in 1969 when he was recovering from a life-threatening illness, and dedicated to his manager Joe Glaser, Armstrong recalled how the Karnofsky family helped him in his boyhood. But Teachout quotes instead an outpouring of rage from Armstrong against the black community, beginning with "Negroes never did stick together and they never will" and ending with "Believe it–the White Folks did everything that’s decent for me." That’s our Louis. Claiming that the meaning of the passage is "as clear as a high C," Teachout does not contextualize it, let alone test its validity. Neither does he square it with ac-cen-tu-at-ing the positive. Just in case there was any doubt, in the November 2009 issue of Commentary Teachout prepared readers of his book, which was published the following month, for his pinched reading of the essay: "The bluntness with which Armstrong expressed himself in this 1969 memoir was more than just the remembered resentment of an old man. On numerous other occasions, he made it clear that he believed poor people, regardless of their color, to be largely responsible for their own fate." Armstrong’s jeremiad reminds me of the dyspeptic letter that Arnold Schoenberg, exiled to Brentwood, California, wrote in 1938 complaining, perversely, that his fellow Jews had never shown any interest in his music. Show business is tough; everyone has bad days.

Generalist critics, apparently unaware of how derivative Pops is, have rhapsodized over it, though a number have faulted it for being overly intellectual, as if books on music were supposed to be written in tweets and emoticons. But that criticism is misplaced, not only because of Teachout’s sermonizing but also because of his cavalier approach to grounding claims. A phrase about Armstrong’s mother–"In fact she was almost certainly working as a prostitute"–sent me scurrying to the endnotes to discover the basis of this hedged claim, without success. Very often when similar hedged claims appear they are supported by a single reminiscence gleaned from a variety of published sources without any evidence of further verification.

The citation mechanism in the book is so awkward that it is hard to track Teachout’s sources, but his major debts are obvious enough. Although he claims that his is the first Armstrong biography written by a trained musician (Teachout played bass professionally for a decade), he is in no way the musical equal of the composer, conductor, horn player and copious writer Gunther Schuller. When discussing Armstrong’s music Teachout is greatly beholden to Schuller’s Early Jazz (1968) and The Swing Era (1989), which contain hundreds of transcriptions and analyses of recorded music. Teachout’s description of "West End Blues" appropriates Schuller’s idea that its opening trumpet solo employs a technique called "metrical modulation," usually associated with the music of Elliott Carter. In an endnote Teachout praises Schuller as the "first musician to notate [the solo] correctly," but on what basis is this true? The solo can be transcribed differently without recourse to "metrical modulation," an arcane late-modern device that Armstrong never encountered, and more in terms of the cross-rhythms that are the foundation of African-American music. Even though he transcribed the music, Schuller wrote that "these notes as played by Louis–not as they appear in notation–are as instructive a lesson in what constitutes swing as jazz has to offer." Caveat lector.

Hearing "West End Blues" through the notation, Teachout oddly withholds full approval; he says the performance is "not confiding but grand," whatever that distinction means. Fetishizing improvisation and parsing his praise in the usual discophile manner, he detects an air of "premeditated formality" in this holy grail of jazz solos and cites "considerable evidence, circumstantial and otherwise," of forethought on Armstrong’s part, as if intention and even systematic craft were an aesthetic failure. Does Teachout think that Armstrong’s other great performances were solely the product of instinct? His book provides ample evidence that Armstrong was thinking all the time, writing down his thoughts on a daily basis, listening to a wide range of music; all the more bizarre, then, that Teachout clings to notions of naïve spontaneity, however "noble."

For all his vast contribution to the understanding of jazz, Schuller had two unfortunate critical quirks that skewed his portrait of Armstrong, as Teachout points out. Schuller tended to chart the long career enjoyed by artists like Armstrong and Ellington as an exhilarating ascent and tragic decline, and like many jazz buffs of his generation he had a knee-jerk revulsion to anything commercial. Not surprisingly, he loved Armstrong the musician and bemoaned Armstrong the entertainer. In Satchmo, however, Gary Giddins showed how even a consummate jazz lover could admire the singer and the celebrity. Teachout takes Schuller to task for failing to appreciate Armstrong’s later work, and while Teachout’s account of the later years reprises Giddins’s celebratory gestures, it doesn’t examine the ever-evolving categories of seriousness and popularity that shaped the critical discourse around Armstrong’s music. What was at stake in the debate, and for whom did it matter?

By transcribing so much of the music from recordings without studying the written arrangements and parts, Schuller unintentionally reinforced the stereotype that jazz musicians played only by ear. This problem is perhaps more acute in the study of big band music than small groups, and most serious, as I have discovered in my own research, in relation to Ellington’s vast output, much of which was entirely written out with little room for improvisation. Because Ellington’s materials were not available until 1988, when they were sold to the Smithsonian, all previous discussions of Ellington’s music, Schuller’s included, had no real knowledge of how Ellington worked as a composer. Some critics, including Teachout in a 1996 Commentary article titled "(Over)praising Ellington," even questioned whether he composed at all. The mountain of manuscripts at the Smithsonian settles the matter. Yet jazz critics, dancing in the dark, routinely pass judgment and write history based solely on recordings. Teachout, while touting his own musical credentials, never shows any interest in what music was on the stand when Armstrong, who as he indicates was a good reader with broad musical tastes, performed and recorded. (Michael Cogswell’s Louis Armstrong: The Offstage Story of Satchmo, which illuminates Armstrong’s private side with a gallery of rare photos and documents and a wise commentary, reproduces a page from the written-out arrangements that Armstrong used with his big band.)

The pitfalls of focusing exclusively on recordings are evident in Teachout’s discussion of Armstrong’s year with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra. The orchestra, which played for white dancers at a club off Times Square, was the most important black band in New York during the 1920s, and its style established the foundation for swing. Teachout repeats the canard that the Henderson band was a bunch of uptight New Yorkers with little feeling for jazz and less for blues, and that Armstrong, fresh from his recordings with Joe Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, taught them how to swing. A more balanced and provocative account is found in Jeffrey Magee’s superb recent study of Henderson, The Uncrowned King of Swing, which Teachout cites without seeming to have absorbed. Magee writes that with the much-told tale of how Armstrong taught the Hendersonians to swing, "The Great Man narrative has taken hold: Armstrong emerges as an extraordinary artist transcending an ordinary musical context." Pops exhibits the problems with "great man" history from beginning to end. Teachout predictably contrasts Armstrong’s "blistering-hot chorus" with the "coy piece of pop chinoiserie," "Shanghai Shuffle," arranged by Don Redman, and he pays scant attention to the band’s other great trumpet soloist, Joe Smith, who, like Ellington’s Arthur Whetsol, played in a sweet introverted style similar and more than equal to that of Bix Beiderbecke, whom Teachout treats with awe.

Armstrong’s recordings with Henderson certainly leave a bewildering impression of stylistic contrasts. The band could be sweet one moment, sassy the next. Jazz aficionados have trained themselves to isolate Armstrong’s short and seemingly incongruous solos from their context. Magee analyzes these performances at great length from a different vantage point. Taking seriously Armstrong’s statement in Swing That Music that he learned a lot in his year with Henderson, Magee regards the relative brilliance of Armstrong’s solos not as evidence of an improvisational genius’s subversion of compositional rigidity but as the fruits of Redman’s skilled arrangements, themselves the fertile blending of two styles: one derived from Paul Whiteman, the other from Joe Oliver. Magee upturns the roles scripted for Whiteman and Oliver by jazz polemicists, with Whiteman representing "false jazz"–scored, diluted, commercial and white–and Oliver personifying the improvisatory and noncommercial qualities of "true" jazz. Magee also proposes a different way of assessing Armstrong’s stint with Henderson, one that steers clear of the term "jazz" altogether. He examines the backgrounds of the musicians, the media that disseminated their music, the venues in which they performed, their repertory and their stylistic range. Magee’s approach heightens our appreciation for all the musicians involved and allows us to listen with pleasure to Redman’s arrangements, which would serve as blueprints for big band scores for decades to come, as well as Armstrong’s star turns.

Teachout’s allergies to revisionist scholarship, even when he acknowledges it, is equally apparent in his discussion of Armstrong’s early life in New Orleans, a story greatly illuminated by Thomas Brothers in Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans (2006). That book begins with a far more telling vignette than the Lewisohn concert–Armstrong’s appearance with the Tuxedo Brass Band in 1921. Armstrong recalled the event fondly later in his life: "I felt just as proud as though I had been hired by John Philip Sousa." According to Brothers, the band–founded by two uptown (non-Creole) musicians, William Ridgley and Oscar Celestin–played "almost everywhere in the city of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana that a colored band could go," and its success allowed it to hire old-school Creole musicians, producing a band that was "integrated" in terms of New Orleans cultural racism but not Louisiana apartheid. Creole musicians often dismissed "uptown" players as "routine" (illiterate) or "ratty," so their collaboration marked an unusual show of respect. Teachout mentions this incident en passant, as evidence that as early as 1921 Armstrong’s reputation was established in his hometown, and notes that in 1968 Armstrong was still recalling his days with the band as a "thrilling pleasure." But he emphasizes Armstrong’s discomfort with the band’s rigidity rather than exploring the reasons for his abiding pleasure. Brothers, by contrast, asks an important historical question: why would the 20-year-old Armstrong have held a parade band in such high regard?

Brothers explains that by marching with the Tuxedo Brass Band, "Armstrong believed that he had solved, through his musical ability, the problem of trouble-free movement through a dangerous city." Movement around New Orleans, either by foot or streetcar, was determined by the precise hue of one’s complexion, delimited by laws that segregated seating in public transportation and by eruptions of racial violence, such as when Jim Jeffries ("The Great White Hope") was defeated by the African-American boxer Jack Johnson in a bout in Reno, Nevada, on July 4, 1910. Race riots broke out across the nation. During the melee in New Orleans, Brothers writes, "Armstrong remembered hiding in his house while gangs wandered through the neighborhood in search of random targets on whom to release their rage." Parades by black bands simultaneously asserted a freedom of movement and confirmed the map of racial oppression, as band members encountered hecklers and worse while crossing an exclusively white area known as the Irish Channel. With the Tuxedo Brass Band Armstrong could travel with relative safety through parts of New Orleans that would have been too dangerous for him to traverse alone. But the rough realities of parade music also point to an aesthetic contrast. Brothers notes that in the European tradition, music performed indoors is valued more than street music; the concert hall "imitates the contemplative atmosphere of church worship." Outdoors in New Orleans, there was no limit on the size (or racial makeup) of the audience, no charge for admission; the spirit was not contemplative but celebratory in a specifically African-American way. Parades, Brothers says, "brought the ecstatic behavior of the ring shout into the streets."

By surveying the social geography of New Orleans and analyzing the performance of parade music, Brothers manages to take preliminary soundings of an elusive quality: the meaning of music in Armstrong’s social climate and career. Music would be a means, at least wishfully, of evading racist violence, but it also conveyed the "spirituality, communality and politics" of the Sanctified Church. Teachout does note that the young Armstrong sang gospel songs in church, but he creates the impression that in his later music and life Armstrong slipped the grip of the Sanctified. When Teachout discusses the recording that has come to represent Armstrong’s highest achievement, "West End Blues," he evaluates it in terms of European music; he likens the opening solo to the bel canto cadenzas of Amelita Galli-Curci and Luisa Tetrazzini, and praises the "refulgent splendor" of Armstrong’s tone as "worlds away from [Joe] Oliver’s staid playing," as if Armstrong’s solo was a rebuke of his mentor. ("Refulgent" should warn us that history is not found in fancy adjectives, and that jazz history has to pay closer attention to its own forms before leaping to European parallels.) Italian opera was popular in New Orleans, but the wailing swan dive that launches "West End Blues"–a favorite gesture of Sidney Bechet, with whom Armstrong had recorded a few years before–and the bugle call upturn that follows it were common idioms of early jazz vocabulary. The new element, perhaps, was the headlong double-time tumble that follows them. These three contrasting gestures are little bundles of association out of which Armstrong wove a story that has nothing to do with Donizetti.

Teachout’s final debt is to Laurence Bergreen’s Louis Armstrong, even though he savaged it in a review for the New York Times, mainly because Bergreen was not an established jazz critic and did not stress the Horatio Alger plot that Teachout had envisioned for Armstrong’s life story as early as 1997. (Oddly, Teachout praised instead an odiously condescending psycho-biography by James Lincoln Collier.) In Pops, Teachout does not challenge Bergreen’s biographical work, but he does ignore some of Bergreen’s most telling vignettes. When Ralph Gleason asked Armstrong why he chose to live in Corona, Queens, rather than with other star entertainers in Beverly Hills, Armstrong explained: "Even though I’ve played with a lot of them–Danny Kaye, Sinatra–I don’t even know where they live. In fact I’ve never been invited to the home of a movie star, not even Bing’s." Teachout, always presenting Crosby, along with Bix Beiderbecke, Harry James, Bobby

Hackett and other white jazz stars, in the most positive light, does not mention this statement.

Like earlier biographers, Teachout offers plenty of anecdotes about Joe Glaser, Armstrong’s mob-connected manager, whose genius for publicity and repertory made the trumpeter rich and the manager several times richer. (To his credit, Teachout quotes Armstrong’s remark that Glaser, too, never invited him to his house.) Teachout does not improve upon the usual (minimal) understanding of the seamy economics of jazz. He mentions that Harry James died much wealthier than Armstrong, but he does not explain why a figure who was nationally famous for perhaps a decade could bank more money than a man who was an international star for nearly half a century, and arguably the most famous musician of the twentieth century. Was Glaser, himself financially obligated to organized crime overlords, the only one looking out for Armstrong’s interests? Was Armstrong, like some other great artists, simply incapable of understanding finances, or were black musicians, no matter how famous, victims of systematic exploitation by presenters, record labels, radio and TV networks, and publishers? And are things any different today? The next book on Armstrong needs to answer such questions.

If we have to play the party game of summing up a personality with a song title, a much better fit for Armstrong than "Ac-cen-tu-ate the Positive" might be "I Got a Right to Sing the Blues," which he recorded as a heroic anthem in 1933. The Arlen/Koehler title resonated with Armstrong, who grew up in poverty, but it also captured the way he made every performance, whether trumpeted or sung, a proclamation of the rights of the blues, of the uniquely African-American sound of his music, to stand proudly next to any other musical style, even that of the European concert hall. When Armstrong lifted his trumpet to his lips or began to sing, the demeaning comic persona, that shield against indignity, gave way to a wide, vibrant river of sound that lent a voice to millions of people, in America and beyond, who had been consigned to silence. Testifying, in every performance, to the depths of his musical idiom, Armstrong defied the prejudices of both classical musicians and, even more, jazz critics who believed that they could contain his work within their crude notions of stylistic progress, authenticity or moral rectitude.

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