A Life of Louis Armstrong
By Terry Teachout
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 475 pp. $30
Reviewed by Frank Wilson
There probably is no such thing as a definitive biography of anyone, but Terry Teachout’s Pops is likely to remain indispensable to any and all seeking to understand trumpeter extraordinaire Louis Armstrong. Teachout looks at the jazzman through the lens of his art, which provides the clearest view of the man, for if anyone ever lived by his art it was Armstrong. He may have been “deserted by his father when he was born, raised by a part-time prostitute, and sentenced at the age of eleven to the Colored Waif’s Home, an orphanage-like reform school,” but he ended up lying in state at the Seventh Avenue Armory on Park Avenue, where 25,000 people filed past his coffin.
The thread running through this “epic journey from squalor to immortality” is the music — and the marvel of Teachout’s book is the way in which his descriptions of that music illuminate the life. Here’s what he has to say about Armstrong’s 1933 recording of Harold Arlen’s “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues”:
… Armstrong, in a departure from his customary practice on ballads, dispenses almost entirely with Arlen’s melody, substituting instead a series of rhythmically free phrases that lead upward to a high B-flat. Four times he falls off from that shining note — and then comes the fifth fall, at the bottom of which he changes course and swoops gracefully upward to a full-throated D … Armstrong seems to have broken through to a realm of abstract lyricism that transcends ordinary human emotion. Only then does he condescend to ease back into the vicinity of the tune, returning the bedazzled listener to the everyday world.
Taken together, those free phrases, graceful swoops, and easeful return to the everyday world encapsulate both performance and performer. As Teachout — the drama critic for the Wall Street Journal — amply demonstrates, Louis Armstrong was a good deal more sophisticated, both musically and otherwise, than he was wont to let on. He first learned to read music in the Colored Waif’s Home, where he played cornet in the band (he started out as a cornetist). As he later said: “I played all classical music when I was in the orphanage. … That instills the soul in you. You know? Liszt, Bach, Rachmaninoff, Gustav Mahler, and Haydn.”
He was also — from his earliest years, apparently — both a fan of and influenced by opera. He bought his first record player when he was in his teens and said later that “most of my records were the Original Dixieland Jazz Band … I had Caruso, too, and Henry Burr, Galli-Curci, Tettrazzini — they were all my favorites. Then there was the Irish tenor, McCormack — beautiful phrasing.” As Teachout notes, it is no accident that the trumpet solo concluding that ’33 recording of “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues” sounds “for all the world like a lordly turn-of-the-century tenor.”
Armstrong was also very much the writer, describing himself as “a two-fingered blip on my portable typewriter.” Over the years, “in between playing three hundred shows a year, he turned out two memoirs, several autobiographical manuscripts, dozens of magazine and newspaper articles, and thousands of personal letters to friends and fans.” He could certainly turn a phrase. In what Teachout calls “an apostrophe to ‘Mary Warner’” that Armstrong taped, the lifelong marijuana-user explained why he gave up rolling joints in the open: “At first you was a mis-do-meaner … But as the years rolled by you lost your misdo and got meaner and meaner, jailhousely speaking.”
Teachout is unabashedly a fan, but by no means uncritical. Writing of Armstrong’s early vocal recordings, Teachout says that “nowhere in his records of the period, or for long afterward, is it possible to hear arrangements comparable in craftsmanship to the ones that can be heard on the contemporary recordings of [Fletcher] Henderson Duke Ellington, Paul Whiteman, or the Casa Loma Orchestra, to name four big bands that aspired to an ensemble polish that Armstrong’s groups never achieved.”
On the other hand, he has no patience with those, starting with producer John Hammond — nicely described as “a coupon-clipping Ivy League dilettante” — who thought that Armstrong was “too popular to be good.” What they failed to see, Teachout is at pains to make clear, is that in addition to being a musician of unsurpassed originality, Louis Armstrong was also a great natural entertainer. Pleasing audiences had made that “epic journey from squalor to immortality” both easier and pleasanter.
As Armstrong put it himself, in a letter to a friend written not long before his death on July 6, 1971: “My whole life has been happiness. Through all of the misfortunes, etc, I did not plan anything. Life was there for me and I accepted it. And life, what ever came out, has been beautiful to me, and I love everybody.”
Frank Wilson is a retired Inquirer book editor. Visit his blog, Books, Inq. - The Epilogue. E-mail him at email@example.com.