April 23, 2004


A Face of Armstrong, but Not the Image (TERRY TEACHOUT, JUL 29, 2001, NY Times)

Granted that serious jazz scholarship is a comparatively young field, it is still decidedly odd that so many scholars and critics have been so slow -- if not positively reluctant -- to grapple with the sometimes uncomfortable implications of what Armstrong wrote about his life and work, which does not always mesh neatly with his good- humored public image. One who has done so is Dan Morgenstern, who wrote the introduction to the 1986 paperback reissue of "Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans." In it he shrewdly observed that while Armstrong "doesn't pass judgment on the `gamblers, hustlers, cheap pimps, thieves [and] prostitutes' among whom he was raised, it is clear throughout this book that his values, from a very early age on, differ from theirs."

"He was different from most of them, and the key difference was character," Mr. Morgenstern wrote.

Again, most people know in a general way that Armstrong grew up poor, but the devil is in the details. He was the illegitimate son of a 15-year- old part-time prostitute from the poorest quarter of New Orleans, abandoned at birth by his natural father and sentenced at the age of 11 to the Colored Waif's Home, an orphanage-like reform school, for the crime of firing a revolver into the air to celebrate the Fourth of July. It was the first time his name appeared in print, and by all rights it should have been the last, save perhaps for a final entry on a police blotter; instead, he wrote himself indelibly into the history of Western music. Yet his genius alone was not powerful enough to pull him out of the gutter. That took something more, and he knew it.

Why did Armstrong spend so much of his spare time hunched over a typewriter? Partly because he was a gregarious soul who loved to send letters to his friends, but also because he thought he had important things to say. Armstrong's autobiographical writings "can be seen as a series of moral lessons," Mr. Bergreen argues, and, like Mr. Morgenstern, he got it right on the nose. Armstrong wanted to teach his fellow men a lesson, which can be summed up in six words: You get what you work for. Having been born desperately poor, he worked desperately hard, first as a boy and then as a man. In this respect, he had much in common with Ragged Dick, Horatio Alger's plucky bootblack, whose burning desire to "grow up 'spectable" propelled him into the ranks of the middle class. Self-discipline, self- improvement, self-reliance: these were Armstrong's lifelong watchwords, and no Alger hero could have improved on his iron determination to get ahead in the world. Once he did so, he felt an obligation to tell others how to do the same thing.

"I don't want anyone to feel I'm posing as a plaster saint," he wrote in "Satchmo." "Like everyone I have my faults, but I always have believed in making an honest living. I was determined to play my horn against all odds, and I had to sacrifice a whole lot of pleasure to do so."

This aspect of Armstrong is no longer fashionable, to put it mildly, and even in his lifetime, long before the 19th-century work ethic of individual responsibility and deferred gratification had become politically controversial, progressive-minded intellectuals were starting to have trouble with it. Around the time that Armstrong was sent to the Colored Waif's Home, George Bernard Shaw was writing "Pygmalion," in which Eliza Doolittle's father savagely mocks the accepted distinction between the "deserving" and "undeserving" poor:

"I don't need less than a deserving man: I need more. I don't eat less hearty than him; and I drink a lot more . . . What is middle class morality? Just an excuse for never giving me anything."

A true child of his time, Armstrong would have found such talk absurd at best, pernicious at worst. He smoked marijuana every day and cheated happily on all four of his wives, but when it came to poverty, he was a perfect Victorian, certain that work was the only path to salvation and that those unwilling to follow it earned their dire fate. "The Negroes always wanted pity," he recalled in his 1969 reminiscence of life in New Orleans. "They did that in place of going to work . . . they were in an alley or in the street corner shooting dice for nickels and dimes, etc. (mere pittances) trying to win the little money from his Soul Brothers who might be gambling off the money [they] should take home to feed their starving children or pay their small rents, or very important needs, etc." The note of anger -- of contempt -- is unmistakable.

In a recent review of "Louis Armstrong, in His Own Words" and "The Louis Armstrong Companion," Brian Harker, an assistant professor of music at Brigham Young University, remarked that Armstrong was "a product of turn-of-the-century African-American ideology, especially that of Booker T. Washington."

"Like Washington," Mr. Harker added, "Armstrong was an accommodationist, determined to play -- and win -- by the rules of the white majority." This is true as far as it goes, but it overlooks the fact that most jazz musicians, black and white alike, come from middle-class backgrounds, while most of those who are born poor strive mightily -- and more often than not successfully -- to join the ranks of the middle class. Anyone who doubts that Armstrong filled the latter bill need only visit his home, some seven blocks from Shea Stadium in a shabby but respectable part of Queens. (It will open as a museum in 2003.) It is a modest three-story frame house whose elaborate interior is uncannily reminiscent of Graceland, Elvis Presley's gaudy Memphis mansion. From the Jetsons-style kitchen-of-the-future to the silver wallpaper and golden faucets of the master bathroom, the Armstrong house looks exactly like what it is: the residence of a poor Southern boy who grew up and made good.

Unlike Graceland, though, it is neither oppressive nor embarrassing. As one stands in Armstrong's smallish study (whose decorations include, among other things, a portrait of the trumpeter painted by Tony Bennett), it is impossible not to be touched to the heart by the aspiration that is visible wherever you look. This, you sense, was the home of a working man, one bursting with a pride that came not from what he had but from what he did. "I never want to be anything more than I am, what I don't have I don't need," Armstrong wrote. Referring to his fourth wife, he added, "My home with Lucille is good, but you don't see me in no big estates and yachts, that ain't gonna play your horn for you. When the guys come from taking a walk around the estate they ain't got no breath to blow that horn." Is it any wonder that it enraged him to be branded an Uncle Tom? As far as he was concerned, working hard was not "acting white": it was acting human.

A writer misuses the great Louis Armstrong (Stanley Crouch, August 3, 2001, J ewish World Review)
LOUIS ARMSTRONG was perhaps the greatest single innovator in the history of original American music, but he was often dismissed as an exploited Uncle Tom because of his equal emphasis on art and entertainment.

But Armstrong was never exploited in such a brazen manner as he was by Terry Teachout in Sunday's New York Times Arts & Leisure section. By stressing Armstrong's belief in "self-discipline, self-improvement, self-reliance," and through the selective use of quotes, Teachout sets Armstrong in conflict with his own people. He makes him appear to be a Negro-hating Negro.

Bitter Armstrong letters are quoted from 1969, when black power had subverted the civil rights movement and people of his generation were being dismissed or insulted.

Teachout ignores this context and gives the impression that Armstrong hated his own ethnic group. But Teachout is after more than name-calling. His point is that the problems experienced by black people were not attributable to racism, institutional and otherwise. No, their unwillingness to work hard or take responsibility for their fates or to help the ambitious among them is why those destined to succeed must count on the kindness of white people.

Did Mr. Crouch even read the column in question?

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 23, 2004 3:09 PM

I am currently reading Gary Giddins "Satchmo", which is by far the best book I've read about Armstrong. Giddins draws widely on Armstrong's writings from throughout his life (as soon as he moved to Chicago from New Orleans, he bought a typewriter, and was an avid correspondent and diarist for the rest of his life).

Posted by: Foos at April 24, 2004 4:46 PM
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