Monday, 14 February 2011

Book Review - Louis Armstrong Special

Pops : a life of Louis Armstrong by Terry Teachout

Published in 2009 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt ISBN 9780151010899

Louis Armstrong, in his own words : Selected Writings by Louis Armstrong

Published in 1999 by Oxford University Press ISBN 0195119584

My Dad is a Moldy Fig - that is, a traditional jazz purist. As I grew up and began learning to play the trumpet, I had access to Dad's great record collection, which was a comprehensive one covering New Orleans, Chicago and Dixieland Jazz. To my Father, that was all there was to Jazz, and the King of them all, Louis Armstrong, took pride of place in his collection, with a "book" of LP's chronicling his famous Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings from the 1920s. For quite some years I don't think I even realised that Armstrong had a performing and recording career that extended almost to his death in 1970, because according to my father's purist tastes, anything Armstrong did after the Hot Five/Seven era was not "real jazz".

So now, many years later, I am filling in the gaps in my Jazz education, and have used my Christmas break to settle down with a couple of books about (and by) the great man. Pops is billed as the first biography of Armstrong written by a musician - Terry Teachout is the drama critic for the Wall Street Journal,sometime Jazz Bassist and Librettist for Operas. A musician he may be, an Armstrong disciple he certainly is, which has both good and bad effects on his book.

(Pops was one of Armstrong's many nicknames, given to him because he struggled to remember people's names and often called people Pops. Other nicknames were mainly inspired by his mouth - Gate, Satchmo, short for Satchel Mouth and Dipper Mouth being just a few . A famous tune played by Armstrong is entitled Dippermouth Blues).

Pops is a comprehensive life of the great man, leavened by much recent research on Armstrong, and by newly accessible material created by him, both on tape and paper. The famous birthdate of July 4th 1900 is shown to be more than a year out of date, and the story of him getting his first cornet at the colored waifs home is also shown to be probably not true. Probably, because there remains the problem of Armstrong's own stories, which have created several versions of major events in his life, so tracking the true path can be tricky.

Teachout provides a good overview of Louis' early years, and throughout the book he is at pains to place Louis' story into the greater milieu of what was happening in US popular music and politics at the time. He also gives us an insight into just how incredible Louis' playing was at that time - we are used to bravura playing with lots of fast runs and high notes these days, but you only need to listen to some of the really early Jazz recordings, or to the playing of someone such as Bunk Johnson, to imagine what an effect Armstrong must have had when he burst onto the scene in the 20s.

Armstrong was famously seen to be somewhat of an Uncle Tom by some of the post-war Jazz players - Teachout tries to make the case that Armstrong was fighting for civil rights in his own way, but what comes out for this reader is of someone trying to make their own way in the world while not trying to bring trouble down on their backs. For a black man, especially before the war, that meant having a white man in your corner, and Joe Glaser, Louis' manager for many years, was his white man. Teachout shows that Glaser certainly was a pretty unsavoury character, with mob connections, but also manages to give us some idea of why they stayed together and formed such a successful partnership. One reason was certainly that Louis didn't like to change things in his life, so if something was working he left it alone. His deal with Glaser (a 50\50 split of earnings) seems horrifying now, but if Louis could be left alone to play, have enough money for some reefer and a Cadillac, he was happy.

He was happiest when playing and singing, and it seems he didn't mind too much what he played and sang. From the 30s on, he was happy to be guided by managers, producers and recording engineers to the songs he should record and play. This never seemed to worry Louis too much, but certainly exasperated many of his fans, who despaired at some of the saccharine he put out later in his career. Teachout tries to make the best of this era, and this is the weakest part of his book, as dross is dross, even when played by a genius.

Armstrong's battle with his lip is also fairly well documented - after first having trouble with his embouchure in the 1930's, Louis never fully regained his earlier power on the horn, and played less and sang more as his career moved on. As a fellow trumpet player, I'm sure that these problems would have weighed heavily on Louis' mind, and perhaps this, ironically, is why he'd set himself such punishing playing schedules, trying to make the most of what he had while it lasted, however short a time that might be. There is a revealing quote in the book, which I paraphrase here, where Louis says he never played at parties, because if someone banged into his horn you never knew how much damage you can do to yourself. Playing the trumpet can be likened to walking a tightrope - when you fall off, everybody knows about it.

An added value to Pops is all the apparatus at the end of the book - comprehensive notes, bibliography and a list of 30 "must listen" Armstrong recordings (all available on iTunes).

Teachout mentions on more than one occasion in his book that Armtrong is rare among major Jazz figures in that he has left a rich legacy of written and spoken word material in addition to his music. He often spent hours a day in correspondence, wrote two autobiographies and several other long autobiographical pieces.

Louis Armstrong in his own words is a fascinating insight into this material. It can at times be a little difficult to decipher the meaning in Armstrong's idiosyncratic writing style, which is wonderfully like hearing him speak.  His piece about his childhood years working for the Jewish Karnofsky family is reproduced here in full, and is a great insight into turn-of-the-century New Orleans, quite apart from the biographical information it provides (it is in this piece where Louis explains it was the Karnofskys who helped him buy his first cornet).

There is an interesting piece of autobiographical writing that expounds on Armstrong's love for Marijuana, as well as a very revealing letter to Joe Glaser talking about his regular paymets to his mistresses.

This book is well worth a look for anyone interested in Armstrong, and indeed anyone who has an interest in the American music scene in the 1920s, as it related to Jazz. The way it brings you closer to the man makes it a fine companion work to Pops.


Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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