November 23, 2009
REVIEW: of Pops: The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong by Terry Teachout (Robert Sandall, The Sunday Times of London)
Terry Teachout makes clear in this terrific biography, the world that Louis Armstrong inhabited was anything but wonderful. It was, for most of his life, both profoundly racist and astonishingly bitchy.
By the late 1950s, with his 60th birthday approaching and four decades of solid success behind him, Armstrong was still forced to sleep in a gymnasium while playing in segregated North Carolina and was denied access to a public lavatory in Connecticut. In Tennessee, dynamite was thrown at an auditorium where he and his All Stars were performing.
At the same time, he was being reviled as a sellout by younger black jazzers such as Dizzy Gillespie, the bebop trumpet ace, who called him “a plantation character”, and he was dismissed by James Baldwin, the leader of the so-called “Negro intellectuals”, as a purveyor of “old-time, down-home crap”. Armstrong never shook off the charge that he was a grinning ollaborator in white supremacism (an “Uncle Tom”), which tainted even messages of support from admirers such as Billie Holiday. “God bless Louis Armstrong, he Toms from the heart!” she proclaimed unhelpfully. Such was the rivalrous animosity he inspired in other band leaders that one shopped him to the police in 1932 for smoking his beloved marijuana outside a gig, an arrest that had him briefly sent to jail.
It was the way he soared above all these brickbats that was truly wonderful.
Posted by Orrin Judd at November 23, 2009 6:50 AM