The existence of Mozart was, to Saul Bellow, an affront to philosophical materialism. “At the heart of my confession, therefore, is the hunch that with beings such as Mozart we are forced to speculate about transcendence, and this makes us very uncomfortable,” Bellow wrote, “since ideas of transcendence are associated with crankiness or faddismeven downright instability and mental feebleness.”
In his new biography Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, Terry Teachout evinces no such discomfort when he declares, more pithily, that his subject “was not just a man but a miracle.”
Such high praise is common to any discussion of jazz’s pioneeringreally, its firstimprovisational soloist. Murray Horwitz, co-author of the book to the musical Ain’t Misbehavin’, called the cadenza with which Armstrong opens 1928’s “West End Blues” “maybe the most important 15 seconds in all of American music.” Clive Jamesperhaps the only living English-language critic who surpasses Teachout in his ability to write authoritatively across the humanitiescredits Armstrong with “having done … as much as anyone since Lincoln to change the history of the United States.”
So here we have nothing less than a history-altering, miraculous life that began in a Big Easy vice district and saw explosive changes in art and American society as a whole. All that’s missing is a memorial and education center on the National Mall.
But then, if you take the consensus of jazz scholarship at its word, Armstrong’s was a life that, academically speaking, needn’t have continued much past 1928, the terminus of his Chicago period and his seminal work with the Hot Five and Hot Seven bands. World renown and hit records may have followedindeed stretching into the rock era with 1964’s smash “Hello, Dolly!”but the meteoric innovation fizzled with the rise of swing and its commercial big bands.
Teachout’s rebuttal is hidden in plain view, right there in that one-word jab of a titlePops. (Armstrong informally referred to every guy as “Pops” and so earned the nickname himself. The gaping mouth inspired others like “Dipper” and “Satchmo”the latter, Teachout surmises, originally a British-inflected abbreviation of “Satchelmouth.”)
By implication, Teachout asks the word to bear more weight. He writes, “For jazz to reach its fullest expressive potential, as well as a truly popular audience, it would first need to find embodiment not in a composer, however gifted, but in a soloist of genius with a personality to match, a charismatic individual capable of meeting the untutored listener halfway.”
Armstrong, in a word, made jazz popular.
And he did so, Teachout maintains, by dint of the broadly appealing persona for which his admirer-detractors gave him grief. “[I]t was in 1936, not before, that he began turning up in the mainstream press on a more or less regular basis, and it was his films and radio appearances, not his public performances, that put him there.” Teachout calls Armstrong “a middlebrow”and does so with his nose pointed straight ahead.
With an absurdly foreshortened frame of historical reference, the Rev. Al Sharpton said in the wake of that other King of Pop’s death, “Michael Jackson made culture accept a person of color, way before Tiger Woods, way before Oprah Winfrey, way before Barack Obama. Michael did with music what they later did in sports, and in politics, and in television.”
Decades before Thriller, Louis Armstrong was co-starring and crooning with Bing Crosby and, in 1949, made the cover of Time, a recognition that, Teachout hastens to remind the reader, “carried far more weight in the forties than it does today.”
Yet by the Eisenhower years, the black intelligentsia, even fellow jazzers, were openly scorning Armstrong. A character in James Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blues” refers to Armstrong’s music as “old-time, down home crap.” Dizzy Gillespie called him a “plantation character.” Coleman Hawkins lamented that he was “playing just like he did when he was 20 years old; he isn’t going any place musically.” Billie Holiday stuck up for himwith the backside of her hand: “God bless Louis Armstrong! He Toms from the heart.”
The widemouthed grin, the handkerchief, the mugging, and all the other elements of his antic onstage presencethese had become all but unbearable to the wised-up likes of Miles Davis, who while admiring the musical accomplishments of his forebears nonetheless derided both Armstrong and Gillespie for “acting the clown.” But Teachout notes that Davis could safely lob such grenades from a position of relative comfort; Armstrong and his generation had done jazz’s heavy lifting, turning mongrel street music into respectable art.
Pops is no populist apologia, however. Teachout doesn’t wholly defend the scattershot mid-periodthere was the big band, Broadway, even a one-off recording with country singer Jimmie Rodgers (“Blue Yodel #9”)so much as notice how Armstrong’s trumpet unfailingly shone through its often mediocre surroundings.
At times, Teachout is given to a rather importunate sort of pleading. For instance, “No matter what he was given to record, he gave his best in return, and his alchemic ability to turn dross into gold was undiminished.” And “These pop sides are not to be sneered atnot all of them, anyway.” Of Armstrong’s decidedly “checkered” (the author’s word) film career, Teachout’s prose turns blushing red: “[H]e was a natural actor whose lively facial expressions were a cameraman’s dream. He had the purest, most potent kind of star quality: no sooner did he walk into a shot than the eyes of the audience went straight to him and stayed there.”
Teachout would have been justified in coming straight to the point: a nonstop career that spanned more than a half-century was bound to find itself on autopilot from time to time. Armstrong did not have the luxury of working in an industry where rock bands like U2 can spend years crafting an objet d’art otherwise known as a long-player.
Teachout’s adulatory mood is strained most by Armstrong’s dismissal of bebop, which emerged from the ashes of swing in the years following World War II. Had the innovator turned reactionary? He seemed “to go out of his way to look for chances to attack the boppers.” Teachout speculates that Armstrong resented their haughty anti-showmanship.
More than that, bebop must have violated a cardinal virtue instilled in Armstrong by his New Orleans mentor Joe “King” Oliver: “play the lead so people can know what you’re doing.”
Horn players like Armstrong, unlike pianists or guitarists, can’t avail themselves of chord voicings, and so they pride themselves on their ability to “spell out the changes” through artfully-chosen single notes.
Boppers such as Hawkins, Charlie Parker, and Thelonious Monk did not feel compelled to obey such ear-pleasing, smoothly-resolving conventions as the diatonic scale; where they heard “altered tones,” as today’s jazz phraseology has it, Armstrong heard “notes that don’t mean nothin’.”
Teachout is forced to conclude, somewhat ruefully, “Armstrong chose to offer his listeners music that they could enjoy without exertion.”
Armstrong may have been a miraclebut he was, at all times, also a man. The life, salted as it was with guns, gangsters, and “gage”Armstrong’s favorite slang term for potnot to mention nearly a handful of wives, has been told before, but Teachout tells it with verve and a careful eye. Recollections by peers and collaborators are checked and cross-checked. Teachout listened to hours of personal spoken recordings and found Armstrong to be a more introspective soul than he ever let on to his public.
In his provocative 2007 book A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can’t Win, author Shelby Steele contrasted Armstrong’s model of “bargaining” with whites with Miles Davis’s equally fabricated pose of “challenging” them. In Steele’s estimation, Armstrong’s bargain “required him to be cheerful and less than fully human.” (Obama’s “bargain,” meanwhile, requires that a black man be liberal.)
While Teachout contends that the “broad smile was no mere game face … it told the truth about the man who wore it,” in another way he confirms Steele’s view when he notes that “forty years of success had failed to make [Armstrong] confident of his ability to maneuver in the world of music without the help of a white manager …”
Armstrong, who of course endured hideous discrimination throughout his career, dating all the way back to the segregated Mississippi riverboats on which he performed in 1919, derived dignity not through political engagement but, rather, through an ethic of self-help and intense activity that, Teachout writes, made him critical of fellow blacks who succumbed to self-destruction. Accommodationwhich meant playing to segregated audiences as a matter of course, even during his later, victory-lap years with the All Stars bandwas the only option open to him; success in the white world was its own justification.
But one never gets the sense from Pops that Louis Armstrong could have ended up, like James Brown, a Nixon man. (Come to think of it, Armstrong died in 1971we know he didn’t end up a Nixon man.) Armstrong’s private feelings about race boiled over into the public for the first and last time in 1957, when, in an interview with a journalism student, he blasted President Dwight Eisenhower (“two-faced,” “no guts”) for failing to confront Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus over the infamous “Little Rock Nine,” in which an angry mob of segregationists denied a group of black students entry into a Little Rock high school.
Teachout helpfully recalls that, in Armstrong’s day, Americans were not used to hearing celebrities pop off about current affairs. But the public forgave Armstrong: “It was a crystal-clear sign of how white audiences had come to feel about him: they had been welcoming Satchmo into their homes via TV for the better part of a decade and in so doing had come to love him. That love may well have been his foremost contribution to the cause of racial justice, a contribution that no other black man in America, not even Martin Luther King, was capable of making in 1957.”
Yet he never marched. Of his decision not to take part in civil-rights demonstrations, Armstrong told the New York Times in 1965: “My life is music.” That was the only identity to which the man was bound.
Scott Galupo is a writer and musician living in Virginia.
The American Conservative welcomes letters to the editor.
Send letters to: [email protected]