December 22, 2009


All That Jazz: Terry Teachout’s luminous biography captures the “sunlit, hopeful art” of Louis Armstrong: a review of Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, by Terry Teachout (Stefan Kanfer, 22 December 2009, City Journal)

By the early 1960s, known variously as Pops and Satchmo (short for satchel mouth), he had appeared on prime-time television and big-budget films like High Society, recorded duets with Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra, and become an international jazz icon. That was his trouble. Younger black musicians attached themselves to the civil rights struggle; they resented Armstrong’s laid-back personality and ear-to-ear grin. Horn player Dizzy Gillespie called him a “plantation character,” and singer Billie Holliday remarked sarcastically, “God bless Louis Armstrong! He [Uncle] Toms from the heart.”

This was callous and unfair. In a memoir, Armstrong wrote: “I think I have always done great things about uplifting my race.” He was under no illusion about prejudice, but he saw himself as a goodwill ambassador, not an agitator. While white folks “are listening to our music, they don’t think about trouble. What’s more, they’re watching Negro and white musicians play side by side. And we bring contentment and pleasure. I always say, ‘Look at the nice taste we leave.’ It’s bound to mean something.”

That was not enough for the activists; they continued to portray Armstrong as a back number, clinging to the attitudes that existed before Brown v. Board of Education. No matter. Armstrong went his own way, using his instrument and his gravel voice to make hits of “Mack the Knife,” “What a Wonderful World,” “Hello, Dolly,” and scores of others, living contentedly with his fourth wife, Lucille, in their modest house in Corona, Queens. When he died in 1971, British poet and jazz critic Philip Larkin praised Armstrong as “an artist of Flaubertian purity, and a character of exceptional warmth and goodness.” Bing Crosby, who had learned scat singing from the Master, was more succinct. He wrote Lucille, “I know of no man for whom I had more admiration and respect.” In time, the black establishment came around. As Teachout observes, no tribute was “more to the point than that of Duke Ellington: Louis ‘was born poor, died rich, and never hurt anyone on the way.’”

Yet the militants still denigrated Pops, even after he passed. Fascinated by technology, he had made tape recordings of his music, his memories, and his friends. These have been available for years, but the trove was of little interest to writers on the left. It took the theater reviewer for the Wall Street Journal (and culture critic for the even more conservative Commentary) to demonstrate that the noise of axes grinding could never drown out the immortal sound of Louis Armstrong’s music. To Teachout, that constitutes a “sunlit, hopeful art, brought into being by the labor of a lifetime.” Second the emotion.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 22, 2009 7:12 PM
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