Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, by Terry Teachout (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 474 pages, $30)
In the spring of 1998, Time commissioned Al Hirschfeld, the doyen of American caricaturists, to draw an unusual cover. It would celebrate five outstanding “Artists and Entertainers of the Century”—Pablo Picasso, Lucille Ball, Charlie Chaplin, Steven Spielberg, and Louis Armstrong. Much fanfare accompanied the announcement. That illustration was never published.
A handful of staffers condemned the portrait of Armstrong as racist and made their feelings known to the managing editor. He capitulated without a backward glance. “We thought,” recalled Walter Isaacson, “it’s controversial, so why go there?” Hirschfeld redrew the cover (for a substantial fee), with Bob Dylan sitting in for the black trumpeter.
The decision was an egregious blunder. In the first place, it distorted history in the name of political correctness. Dylan is a pop and folk superstar, but he is in no sense a great musician. His compositions are elemental, his guitar work no more than adequate. As for his voice, only Woody Allen could sound so adenoidal. In contrast, Armstrong’s horn is the most authoritative instrument in the annals of jazz (“You can’t play nothing on trumpet that doesn’t come from him,” remarked Miles Davis). And Armstrong’s vocal phrasing has influenced just about every cabaret and band singer from the 1920s to the present.
Second, Hirschfeld, once an editorial cartoonist for the radical New Masses and perhaps the least biased artist in America, had no intention of giving offense. He was simply rendering Armstrong’s toothy, incandescent smile and exophthalmic eyes, markedly white against his dark brown skin. Hirschfeld didn’t create that caricature; Armstrong did. As Terry Teachout explains in his luminous biography, exaggeration and over-the-top bonhomie were the way Armstrong survived, then prevailed, and finally triumphed in life and in show business, an arena with even fewer scruples than journalism.
Armstrong spent his early years in an impoverished black section of New Orleans. His father cut out early, forcing his mother to turn tricks in order to survive. One of Armstrong’s many sleepover “stepfathers” owned a pistol. On an epochal December afternoon in 1912, the 11-year-old stole the gun from a bureau drawer, loaded it with blanks, and fired them off to salute the approaching New Year. He was promptly arrested and sent to a reformatory. At the Colored Waifs Home, little Louis learned to play the cornet. “I do believe,” he once wrote, “that my whole success goes back to that time I was arrested as a wayward boy. . . . Because then I had to quit running around and began to learn something.”
Armstrong had an “inchoate yearning for discipline,” Teachout cannily observes. Music appeased that desire. He applied himself to timing and phrasing, sang in church choirs, played in bands, polished his technique. All the while, he kept smiling. No one had to teach him about the pain of segregation; harsh lessons had been dispensed on the streets of the Big Easy. But the nascent musician was determined, even then, to change the mind of white America with his personality and performance. Armstrong began in a small way, with small groups. His solos soon attracted the attention of bandleader King Oliver, then one of the biggest names in jazz. Oliver brought the young man to Chicago. “I’d never seen a city that big,” Armstrong remembered. “All those tall buildings. I thought they were universities.”
In a way, they were. As the uneducated Herman Melville once reflected, “the sea was my Yale and my Harvard.” Similarly, Jazz Age ensembles became Armstrong’s college and graduate school. His professors were bandleaders like Oliver and Fletcher Henderson, who immediately recognized that they were in the presence of genius. They were not alone. In 1923, composer Hoagy Carmichael and cornetist Bix Beiderbecke went to hear Oliver—and were floored by Armstrong’s melodic inventions, composed as he played. “‘Why,’ I moaned, ‘why isn’t everybody in the world here to hear that?’” Carmichael wrote in his memoir. “I meant it. Something as unutterably stirring as that deserves to be heard by the world.”
The world didn’t have long to wait. Armstrong had married early and unhappily. His second wife was an ambitious jazz pianist, Lil Hardin, who encouraged him to go out on his own. Soon he was leading the Hot Five and the Hot Seven. In them, he took jazz to a new level. Teachout, a trained musician, describes an Armstrong record cut in 1927. “West End Blues,” he writes, starts with a surprise—“an unaccompanied cadenza in which Armstrong snaps out four biting quarter notes by way of fanfare, then vaults upward through a chain of interlocking triplet arpeggios to a fiery high C embellished with a touch of vibrato. It was the most technically demanding passage to have been recorded by a jazz trumpeter up to that time.”
From the 1920s to the 1950s, Armstrong went from strength to strength. 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.