A Life of Louis Armstrong
by Terry Teachout
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,
496 pp., $30
Louis Armstrong (1901-1971) enjoyed a charmed and charming life. His recordings from the 1920s changed the course of jazz, setting in place a heroic conception of the soloist that continues to reverberate in the music today. And his artistry was matched by immense popularity--not always a given in the jazz world, which views hit records with suspicion. In 1964 Armstrong even knocked the Beatles off the top perch in the Billboard chart with "Hello Dolly," and at age 63 became the oldest musician ever to record a number-one hit.
Yet Armstrong has not been served well by his chroniclers. Robert Goffin wrote the first Armstrong biography, Horn of Plenty, back in 1947, but this Belgian lawyer was caught up in his strange personal vision of jazz musicians as "noble savages." He depicted the trumpeter in the light of his "Deep Congo" ancestry--which, Goffin assures us, accounts for the artist's docility and mental acumen. James Lincoln Collier's 1983 study Louis Armstrong: An American Genius was more thorough and detailed, but hardly more staid. He categorized much of Armstrong's repertoire as " 'good darky' tunes out of the coon-song tradition" and adopted a polemical, revisionist stance that spurred sharp disagreement from other scholars.
In recent years, admirers have often relied on Laurence Bergreen's flawed Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life from 1997, which suffers from the author's limited knowledge of jazz. Bergreen even repeats colorful rumors about Buddy Bolden, the supposed father of jazz, with apparently no realization that New Orleans scholars had disproved these tales back in the 1970s. Sad to say, readers might be better served by Armstrong's own memoir, Satchmo (1954), even though it only covers his life up to 1922.
Given this history, readers have been justifiably excited in anticipation of Terry Teachout's in-depth biography. Teachout is an astute critic who knows jazz deeply--and has even played it as a bassist--but is largely immune to the increasingly inward-focused attitudes that hinder the effectiveness of so many contemporary critics. He has previous biographies of H. L. Mencken and George Balanchine to his credit, and has written strong, supple criticism of dance, theater, and cinema. In short, Teachout seems perfectly suited to tackle this seminal figure whose career rarely stayed within the usual boundaries of jazz.
Teachout captures this broader context with great skill. His rich cast of characters includes not only musicians and record industry figures, but criminals and monarchs, TV personalities and movie stars. We follow Armstrong at a 1932 performance with King George V in attendance, tossing off the intro "This one's for you, Rex"--then playing (unthinkingly?) "I'll Be Glad When You're Dead, You Rascal, You!" Elsewhere, we get a detailed look--the best I have read anywhere--of Armstrong's dealings with the Mob. This artist first made his reputation in Al Capone's Chicago, and even at the end of his life, his financial situation was affected by underworld influences. At other points we encounter Sammy Davis Jr., Johnny Cash, Leonard Bernstein, Bing Crosby, and Pope Pius XII, among other names worth dropping. My favorite anecdote tells of Herbert von Karajan berating the Vienna Philharmonic because its players can't maintain a tempo as well as Armstrong's band.
Teachout delivers a taut and well-paced work that is astute in its critical judgments and gripping in its chronicle of the trumpeter's life and times. Yet Armstrong helped his biographers considerably by presenting them with such a storybook rags-to-riches tale. Indeed, one could hardly imagine a less auspicious beginning for an illustrious career. The surviving baptismal certificate categorized the future jazz legend as a "niger, illegitimus," the son of a 15-year-old Mary Ann Albert and Willie Armstrong, who (in the words of his son) "left us the day we were born." The baby, delivered in a wooden shack on the edge of New Orleans's red light district, was soon handed off to his grandmother while Mary Ann earned a living on her own, most likely as a prostitute.
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.