Monday, August 23, 2010

Pops Star

In Pops, critic Terry Teachout gives us a picture of Louis Armstrong as great artist, because he was a democratic artist

The following review was posted this weekend on the  on the Books page of the History News Network site.

Louis Armstrong (1901-1971) is one of those artists -- his contemporary, Norman Rockwell, comes to mind as another -- who were very popular with the masses in their lifetimes but regarded with disdain, if not outright hostility, by the critical elite then and since. Like Rockwell, however, Armstrong has been the subject of increasingly respectful reappraisal in recent years. Armstrong revisionism dates back to the time of Gary Giddins' 1988 study Satchmo. So Terry Teachout's appreciative new biography of Armstrong, soon to be out in paperback, does not exactly break new interpretive ground in that sense. But it is a notably fresh reading of the man nonetheless.

There are a number of reasons why. The first is the quality of the research (though I will confess I found checking the citations to be clumsy). Teachout draws heavily on newly available writings and taped recordings Armstrong made in the last 25 years of his life. Armstrong's idiosyncratic prose voice, no less than his musical one, is delightfully off-beat. (I'll tell ya watcha do now," he instructed a group of musicians during a taped television broadcast. "Not too slow, not too fast -- just half-fast.") He also includes a bevy of previously unpublished photographs that bring his subject to life, and excellent captions to go along with them. Armstrong's irrepressible personality -- funny, profane, subject to occasional rages and funks -- leaps off the page.

Teachout can take some credit for that. A critic for the Wall Street Journal and Commentary, his prose is polished to a high sheen, and can be playful without ever being precious. Responding to Armstrong's assertion later in his life  that he took better care of himself than his colleagues (there's an absolutely hilarious private postcard Armstrong made for friends celebrating the virtues of an herbel laxative), Teachout writes, "He did not see -- or refused to admit -- that he was in the same boat, and it was sinking fast." He also does a terrific job of placing his subject in a broader cultural context, both culturally and politically.

The publications Teachout writes for have a conservative tilt, and this comes through in his stance toward his subject. For a long time, the standard line on Armstrong -- one articulated most sharply and influentially by John Hammond, the giant of American ethnomusicology who in this case allowed  his blue-blood disdain for populism to get the best of him -- was that he betrayed his talent. In this version of the story, Armstrong was a Promethean genius, an organic musical intellectual who sprang from the whorehouses of New Orleans and helped found an entirely new jazz idiom in the 1920s. But by the end of the thirties, he stopped playing in the ensembles that showcased his talent, and became increasingly content to work with indifferent collaborators and sadly thin pop material. His defenders at the time and since in effect celebrated him despite, not because, of this. Yet Teachout stoutly defends Armstrong's work over the course of his life. He concedes that a vein of passivity in Armstrong's personality did cost him opportunities at different times. But he asserts that songs like "Mack the Knife" and "Hello Dolly" have their place in the Armstrong canon right beside "St. Louis Blues" and "West End Blues." It is stunning to read that Armstrong's collaborators ranged from Jimmie Rodgers to Barbara Streisand, and there is something truly Whitmanic about Armstrong's range and generosity of musical spirit toward these and many other people. Even Bing Crosby seemed to like him (and that's really saying something).

The other dimension to this musical fault line is a racial one. The bebop artists who came of age in the forties had little patience for Armstrong's accommodationist sensibility. To a great extent, history was on their side, both in terms of Civil Rights politics and in giving a distinctively African American genre a new generational lease on life. But Armstrong was never exactly a patsy. He made international headlines in 1957 when he criticized President Eisenhower for his inaction on Civil Rights, and described segregationist Arkansas governor Orval Faubus as "an uneducated plowboy" (the Associated Press could not run with what he originally said). Perhaps more to the point, it's hard not to be awed by the sheer resilience of a man who started with nothing and became one of the gigantic figures of the 20th century,  a global symbol of what was best in America. You don't attain those heights without strength and discipline, part of which involves being able to ignore slights.

Similar to his line on Armstrong's music, Teachout asserts that Armstrong did not pander to middle-class values. That's because he avowedly embraced them. Comparing the trumpeter to Horatio Alger, Teachout claims Armstrong's house in Queens "was the home of a working man, bursting with a pride not from what he had but what he did." He may be pushing his luck here in suggesting that Armstrong's lifestyle was anything like that of from his fictional Queens neighbor, Archie Bunker. But insofar as he's right, such a perspective serves as a reminder that conservative values have never been white property alone. Booker T. Washington was no patsy,either.

Teachout's encapsulation of Armstrong's life, offered in the introduction of Pops (a moniker he gave to virtually everyone he saw, whether he remembered their names or not)  seems like a good way to end here: "He was a man of boundless generosity who preached the stony gospel of self-help, a ferociously ambitious artist who preferred when he could do what he was told, an introspective man who exploded with irrepressible vitality when he stepped into the spotlight, a joyous genius who confounded critics by refusing to distinguish between making art and making fun." God Blessed America when he gave us Satchmo.