The Magazine

Man with a Horn

Louis Armstrong, pioneer.

Nov 30, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 11 • By TED GIOIA
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The first time Louis Armstrong's name appeared in a newspaper, the article announced his arrest. On the last day of 1912 he celebrated New Year's Eve by firing shots from a .38 that belonged to one of his many "stepfathers." Two days later the New Orleans Times-Democrat reported that Louis Armstrong "discharged a revolver at Rampart and Perdido Streets" and as a result "was sent to the negro Waifs' Home." This forced institutionalization proved to be the turning point in Armstrong's life. He thrived in this disciplined environment, and soon was playing cornet with the school band. The youngster adapted so well that he was reluctant to leave when his father took custody of him in 1914. But the musical skills he had developed at the Waifs' Home held him in good stead, as he began performing to supplement the money he made hauling and shoveling coal.

Armstrong soon left manual labor behind, and began his slow ascent to the top of the jazz world. Teachout presents a colorful, well-researched account of Armstrong's rise from the riverboat band of Fate Marable to the New Orleans-based Tuxedo Brass Band, and then his move to Chicago, where he joined King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band, the finest hot jazz combo in America, circa 1923.

For all his prowess with a horn, Armstrong was often passive and all too pliant offstage, and thus susceptible to the exploitation of bandleaders, booking agents, and managers. He might never have achieved fame if his wife of the time, Lil Hardin, had not prodded him to promote himself as a bandleader. Give Lil Hardin her due: The recordings that resulted--known as the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens--are universally acknowledged as the most important and influential jazz performances of the 1920s.

Armstrong's work in the 1930s and early '40s, in contrast, has often been the subject of disagreement among the experts. Critics are quick to point out the lackluster arrangements, the pedestrian song selection, and less than impressive accompanists that mar the artist's middle years. Devotees at the shrine of Satchmo tend to focus, instead, on Armstrong's trumpet work, which was virtuosic and grandiloquent even when the settings were several steps below him. Teachout tends to be an Armstrong advocate; but even when he defends his subject, he supplements his views with lengthy quotations from dissenters. The result is a frank, spirited survey that tends to give the trumpeter the benefit of the doubt, but with all opinions presented.

Louis Armstrong is a lionized figure of American musical history nowadays. As a result, even jazz fans may not realize how frequently he was attacked and ridiculed--especially in the black community. Many of his peers were embarrassed by Satchmo's joyous, uninhibited stage demeanor. Dizzy Gillespie called him a "plantation character," and Billie Holiday declared that "he Toms from the heart." James Baldwin referred to Armstrong's "old-time down home crap" in a 1957 story.

Yet Armstrong's reputation for keeping outside of politics gave him all the more clout when he jumped into the fray. His public comments in support of the Little Rock Nine, after Arkansas governor Orval Faubus ordered the National Guard to prevent them from attending a white high school, grabbed the public's attention. Teachout tells how every major newspaper, as well as CBS and NBC, covered the story, and makes clear that even members of the Eisenhower administration were paying attention. When the president decided to step in, Armstrong sent Ike a congratulatory telegram. (In typical fashion he refers to the commander in chief as "Daddy.")

Teachout is blessed with that greatest rarity in celebrity biographies: a happy ending. Armstrong enjoyed his two biggest hits--"Hello Dolly" and "What a Wonderful World"--in the last years of his life. Even his harshest critics became fans, with the once-adversarial Dizzy Gillespie showing up at Armstrong's 70th birthday celebration at the Newport Jazz Festival. "I began to recognize," Gillespie later wrote, "what I had considered Pops' grinning in the face of racism as his absolute refusal to let anything, even anger about racism, steal the joy from his life."

That joie de vivre will remain Armstrong's lasting legacy. Other trumpeters have come along who hit higher notes or played faster tempos. Another New Orleans native, Wynton Marsalis, would even show that a jazz trumpeter could conquer the world of classical music and win a Pulitzer Prize. But no horn player has left us such an uplifting body of work. And now, finally--almost four decades after Armstrong's death in the summer of 1971--we have a biography that does justice to the man and his music.

Ted Gioia is the author of The History of Jazz and, most recently, The Birth (and Death) of the Cool.