Thursday, December 3, 2009


A Life of Louis Armstrong
Terry Teachout

Was Louis Armstrong a sellout; an obsequious, fawning Uncle Tom; old fashioned and out of date; unschooled, only able to play by ear, repeating well worn memorized licks? Terry Teachout, Wall Street Journal drama critic and Biographer of George Balanchine and H.L. Mencken, doesn't think so. In Pops Teachout addresses these misperceptions and their sources.

I can do something in this review that Teachout could not do in the book. You will find a few examples of video, courtesy of YouTube, embedded in the post to illustrate some of the points made in Pops.

Starting in the late 1940s, according to Teachout, jazz musicians and critics began to see Louis Armstrong as old fashioned and outdated, as an entertainer but not a serious jazz musician. This is an extraordinary way to think about the man who had almost singlehandedly turned jazz into America's popular music.

When he came to Chicago to join Joe Oliver's band in 1922 he came equipped with a sophisticated musical education. Starting at the Colored Waif’s Home for Boys, Louis had learned to play from written scores, under the tutelage of band director Peter Davis, taken Joe Oliver's place in Kid Ory's band and sight read the complex cornet parts in Fate Marable's riverboat band, performing all up and down the Mississippi. Oliver kept his new second cornetist on a short leash, allowing him few solos and holding mostly to ensemble parts.

Within two years, pushed by his second wife, Lil Hardin, the pianist in Joe Oliver's band, Armstrong left King Oliver and went to work for Fletcher Henderson in New York. One year after that, Armstrong was back in Chicago, billed as "the world's greatest jazz cornetist, and began making a series of recordings, the "Hot Five" and "Hot Seven" sides, which defined jazz for the next decade.

In 1929 Armstrong began leading his own big band. Big band jazz would be the music of the 1930s and Armstrong was in the thick of it. He also became a movie star, appearing in his first film, Ex Flame in 1931. Armstrong would appear in one or two films a year, usually playing the part of a bandleader, which allowed him to sing and play his trumpet in each film. Often Armstrongs part would be written into a film only for this purpose.

By 1947 small group ensembles, playing bebop were becoming the next big thing. Louis Armstrong was still leading his expensive big band, which was more and more difficult to book. His frequent cameo appearances on film made him appear to be a grinning, gravel voiced singer and comedian, Stepin Fetchit with a trumpet. Younger jazz musicians were beginning to think of themselves as artists rather than entertainers and Armstrong was out of step with them. As the '40s turn over into the '50s the civil rights movement begins to build up steam and Armstrong's smiling face, now on television regularly, was seen as an embarrassment by militant black Americans. Worse, white people loved him and he was at the height of his popularity, despite the jazz critics and bebop "artists" disdain.

Teachout makes a strong case for Louis Armstrong as a leader in, and not a drag on civil rights. Armstrong led integrated bands. His small group the "All Stars" were "integrated, not by chance but as a matter of policy. In 1947 and for years afterward, it was still uncommon for a working jazz group to be racially mixed, especially one whose leader was black."

It was not his habit to speak out on public matters, but in an interview with a reporter in North Dakota, Armstrong broke his usual silence when the subject of the attempt to integrate the Little Rock Arkansas schools came up. "It's getting almost so bad a colored man hasn't got any country," Armstrong said, adding that the president was "two-faced" and had "no guts" and that Fabus was a "no good motherfucker." . . . then he went even further, saying that he had o intention of touring the Soviet Union for the State Department." Orval Fabus was the Governor of Arkansas in 1957 when President Eisenhower ordered the Little Rock schools integrated and sent in the army to enforce it. Louis Armstrong's words probably did not cause this to happen. Fabus became an "uneducated plow-boy" in the printed version of the newspaper story that brought Armstrong a lot of unanticipated publicity.

Armstrong continued to tour with his "All Stars" band through the 1950s and '60s. His appearances in film and television made him more and more popular with the general public and less and less respected in jazz circles. The combination of traditional jazz tunes, thought of as "Dixieland," which brings up visions of white men in striped sports coats and straw boaters, did not appeal to the critics.

Louis Armstrong did not care to be called "Louie," although he did not often object publicly to the name he had carried with him from the early days in New Orleans, where he had been known as "Little Louie." In 1963 he recorded a song from an as yet unnamed musical that was being tried out for Broadway. Micky Kapp, who produced the recording said, "I'm in the booth, Louis is in the studio, and he says to me, "How would you like me to sing this?" And I'm sitting there thinking, "God, what am I going to tell him - Louis Armstrong?" So of course I said, "Any way you feel it." But then I asked him to change the first line from "Hello, Dolly, well hello Dolly" to "Hello Dolly, this is Louie Dolly!" And from the studio he says "It's not Louie it's Louis!"

Armstrong's recording oh Hello Dolly became a number one song, edging out Can't Buy Me Love and Do You Want to Know a Secret by some English band. Hello Dolly opened on Broadway and did 2,844 performances before closing in 1970 and in 1968 Armstrong sang the song once again in the movie version with Barbra Streisand.

In 1967 Armstrong recorded another song, which fell right off the bottom of the Billboard charts and disappeared until it was used in the 1987 film Good Morning Vietnam. What A Wonderful World has since become the pièce de résistance of his career.

Terry Teachout's conclusion is that Louis Armstrong was a innovator in his early career, pushing jazz to new heights of musicianship and building the base on which the genre grew. He was a leader, who pushed to integrate show business, even in the deep south, during a time when such action was potentially very dangerous. He was, indeed and entertainer, but also an artist of the highest quality, who was not afraid to go against the tide and who's instincts invariably turned out to be right. In Teachout's words, "Faced with the terrible realities of the time and place into which he had been born, he did not repine but returned love for hatred and sought salvation in work. Therin lay the ultimate meaning of his epic journey from squalor to immortality: his sunlit, hopeful art, brought into being by the labor of a lifetime, spoke to all men in all conditions and helped make them whole."


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