Magazine | December 31, 2009, Issue

‘In the Cause of Happiness’

Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, by Terry Teachout (Houghton Mifflin, 496 pp., $30)

Permit a reviewer to begin with a personal note: One of the best biographies I have ever read is a biography of Louis Armstrong by Laurence Bergreen. It was published in 1997, and does justice to that “extravagant life,” as the subtitle has it. You can smell New Orleans at the beginning of the 20th century. You can taste the red beans and rice, and hear the music wafting from the Dixie Belle (a riverboat). I did not expect to read another biography of Armstrong. But when Terry Teachout writes something, you read it. And you are richly rewarded for the experience.

Teachout is the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal and the music critic of Commentary. He has written biographies of George Balanchine and H. L. Mencken. He is a literary critic of a high order. He can write about almost any subject, with authority and nuance. And he does it all in an amazingly smooth, curdless prose. He is especially equipped for a biography of Armstrong. Teachout once made his living as a jazz musician. He knows history, he knows America — and, indispensably, he is absolutely sensible on matters of race. Pops couldn’t miss. It doesn’t.

I have spoken, borrowing Bergreen’s phrase, of an “extravagant life.” Ralph Ellison once wrote to a friend, “Shakespeare invented Caliban. Who the hell dreamed up Louis?” Remind yourself of the basic and familiar facts. He was born on the Fourth of July, 1900. (Actually, that is not so much a fact as a legend.) He grew up in Storyville, the red-light district of New Orleans. He landed in the Colored Waif’s Home for Boys — a very lucky break. He came under the wing of the jazzman Joe “King” Oliver. He went up to Chicago, then over to Harlem, and its Renaissance. Then he went all around the world, garnering huge fame and approbation. All the while, there were marriages, mistresses, mobsters — extravagance.

When Armstrong died in 1971, a British publisher asked Philip Larkin about the advisability of commissioning an Armstrong biography. The poet replied, “It is already accepted — or if it isn’t, it soon will be — that Louis Armstrong was an enormously important cultural figure in our century, more important than Picasso in my opinion, but certainly quite comparable.”

Every ounce of Armstrong’s gaudy, tumultuous life went into his music-making. He once said, “I seen everything from a child, comin’ up. Nothin’ happen I ain’t never seen before.” And his influence on jazz was pretty much incalculable. The story goes that another trumpeter, Bunny Berigan, was asked what a dance-band musician should bring on the road with him. The answer: “A toothbrush and a photograph of Louis Armstrong.”

He was an incredibly hard worker, Armstrong, a point that Teachout brings out unmistakably: He worked for everything. He seemed addicted to work, actually, needing it for life. Politically, he was a conservative, at least of some type: He was a by-your-bootstraps man, maybe a (Booker T.) Washingtonian. He knew the hard knocks of life as well as anybody, but he had little patience for excuses. And he was a man of outstanding peculiarities. In addition to work, he was addicted to marijuana (which seems incongruous) and to laxatives. He evangelized for those substances, particularly the latter, and this embarrassed some of those closest to him.

It was said, of course, that Armstrong “sold out”: that he abandoned true jazz and went commercial and vanilla — from “West End Blues” to “Hello, Dolly!” Truth is, he was superb at everything he did, a total musician. I have long liked something that Irving Kolodin, the classical-music critic, said about some Armstrong gimmick: “It’s mad, it’s meaningless, it’s hokum of the first order, but the effect is electrifying.” The new wave of jazz musicians, the beboppers, despised Armstrong, at least some of the time, and he despised them back, at least some of the time. He spoke of “the whole modern malice,” a brilliant phrase. And he suggested that the new crowd snowed audiences — and, even more, critics — with a pretense to sophistication.

They called him an Uncle Tom, did the moderns, struttin’ and grinnin’ for the white folks. He could seem that way, but he wasn’t. He was a pure soul — for all his whoring and carrying on — and completely authentic. He had no racial prejudice and no racial shame. He was an integrationist pioneer, a fact frequently overlooked. One of the best things Teachout does in this book is defend Armstrong’s racial honor, conclusively.

No one could talk about Armstrong, his life and thoughts, better than Armstrong himself, and Teachout lets him speak for himself, all through. What a great voice. Do you recall what he said about Al Capone? “A nice little cute fat boy — young — like some professor who had just come out of college to teach or something.” And here is Armstrong on relating life to music: “When I play maybe ‘Back o’ Town Blues,’ I’m thinking about one of the old, low-down moments — when maybe your woman didn’t treat you right. That’s a hell of a moment when a woman tell you, ‘I got another mule in my stall.’” He was always writing, constantly writing, having acquired his first typewriter in 1922. He wrote articles, books, letters, sketches, pensées. I believe he knew he had important things to say and could say them unusually well.

One of my favorite Armstrong qualities is his ecumenism, his appreciation of every kind of person and every kind of music. (Leave the beboppers aside for a second.) All the cool cats disparaged Guy Lombardo as the king of the syrupy and safe. But not Armstrong: He knew the worth of that man and his band, and he talked about it. Then there is the question of the mediocre musicians with whom Armstrong had to work. (And, truthfully, sometimes he chose and preferred to work with them.) Armstrong once told a story that relates to this question. When he was a kid in New Orleans, he attended a church — a rip-roarin’, singin’, Jesus-praisin’ church. One Sunday, the regular preacher did not show up, and his substitute was a pale imitation. But one woman in the congregation seemed to enjoy him as much as the regular preacher. Asked about this after the service, she said, “Well, when our pastor preach, I can look right through him and see Jesus. And when I hear a preacher who’s not as good as ours — I just look over his shoulder and see Jesus just the same.”

Care for another story? With Armstrong, they are endless, and they are a big part of what makes him a biographer’s, and a reader’s, delight. One night, Armstrong was playing in the South — Knoxville — and someone passing the auditorium threw a dynamite stick at it. After the explosion, Armstrong said to the frightened audience, “That’s all right. It’s just the phone.” That is sangfroid, that is presence of mind — that is leadership — and it reveals something of Armstrong’s character.

Terry Teachout has done astoundingly well with his subject, with his task. His book is “meticulously researched,” to use the cliché. He always knows how to illustrate a point. He intersperses biography and history with musical analyses, and these are interesting, informed, and persuasive. They are also not too long or numerous. His organization, which is not strictly chronological, is very shrewd. You would never notice it, for it is seamless. The only reason I noticed it is that I was looking for it, as a reviewer. Teachout plumbs Armstrong, giving us the man in full (another cliché, I’m afraid). He has also given us a fantastic read.

It could be that Armstrong’s greatest gift was happiness: to be happy himself and to spread happiness to others. He said that, when he mounted a stage, it was “in the cause of happiness.” He had plenty of troubles and sorrows, but he stood against bitterness and resentment. I’m reminded of another jazzman, Eubie Blake, and his recipe for life: “Be grateful for luck. Pay the thunder no mind — listen to the birds. And don’t hate nobody.” At the end of his book, Teachout tells us that Richard Brookhiser, when battling cancer years ago, was unable to listen to anything other than the Goldberg Variations and Louis Armstrong. Brookhiser has explained: “Bach said everything is in its place, Armstrong said the sun comes shining through.”

Reading Teachout’s book had the effect of making me love Louis Armstrong all over again. I also thought a bit about fame. At one time, Armstrong was one of the most famous people in the world: any nationality, any field. And earlier, I spoke of the “familiar facts” of Armstrong’s life. But are they so familiar now? The world forgets with astonishing speed. I run into young conservatives all the time who are unclear on who William F. Buckley Jr. was. A few years ago, a very bright, very mature student at a top-rated law school thanked me for introducing him to the name Solzhenitsyn. He had never heard of him. I expressed incredulity. He said he doubted his classmates would have heard of him either. I was still incredulous. He later polled his friends — and only one, a Russian, knew the name. And that young man thought that Solzhenitsyn had been a prominent Communist.

Teachout’s book may help extend the Armstrong legacy. In any case, I do not expect to read another biography of Pops (Satchmo, Papa Dip, Gate, the Reverend Satchelmouth, etc.). Unless maybe Mark Steyn writes one.

 

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