Trum­pet colos­sus

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Af­ter lay­ing down an open­ing ca­denza, Louis Arm­strong bleats 20 notes of Hoagy Carmichael’s luminous “Star­dust” into a Chicago record­ing-stu­dio mi­cro­phone. It’s Nov. 4, 1931, roughly one decade into the life­long mu­sic ca­reer that qual­i­fies Arm­strong as one of the most gifted and in­flu­en­tial per­form­ing artists our coun­try has pro­duced.

Terry Tea­chout, au­thor of the highly praised 2009 Arm­strong bi­og­ra­phy, Pops: A Life of Louis Arm­strong (Houghton Mif­flin Har­court Pub­lish­ing) calls this record­ing “the most rad­i­cally in­no­va­tive and orig­i­nal jazz vo­cal recorded in the 1930s. If you could pre­serve only one record to let peo­ple know what Louis Arm­strong was about, ‘Star­dust’ would be it,” he said in a phone in­ter­view.

The 30-year-old jazz sen­sa­tion slices into Carmichael’s plain­tive tune with star­tling ease. A 10-piece or­ches­tra churns lo­co­mo­tive rhythm as Arm­strong’s golden-toned, no-non­sense solo trum­pet van­quishes ev­ery trace of “Star­dust’s” sen­ti­men­tal­ity. Swap­ping his pri­mary in­stru­ment, horn, for a secondary one, voice, Arm­strong trans­ports the mo­ment, es­chew­ing the melody of the song and rest­ing in­stead on one note, a D-flat. He toots the song’s Mitchell Parish lyric the way a trum­pet spurts air: “Some­times I won­der why I spend such lonely nights [moan­ing to him­self, ohhh baby lonely nights].” Arm­strong’s rasp­ing voice then scales the song’s great emo­tional lad­der (“each kiss an in­spi­ra­tion”) and fi­nally de­scends into non­sen­si­cal sound nuggets— scat singing, only one of Satchmo’s great jazz trade­marks.

Tea­chout, drama critic for The Wall Street Jour­nal and one­time pro­fes­sional jazz mu­si­cian, ex­plained: “At that time, you never heard a singer break away from the melody. He com­presses, sim­pli­fies, and para­phrases the lyric. By the end of the song, he is free as­so­ci­at­ing.” Audiences may re­mem­ber Tea­chout as the li­bret­tist of The Let­ter, the W. Som­er­set Maugham-in­spired “opera noir’ writ­ten with com­poser Paul Mo­ravec that had its pre­miere at the Santa Fe Opera last sum­mer.

His book Pops swells with praise for the hard­work­ing mu­si­cian’s “lus­trous tone and unerring swing”; his “abil­ity to use the up­per reg­is­ter of the trum­pet to ex­pres­sive ef­fect”; his noodling so­los that reach a “realm of ab­stract lyri­cism that tran­scend or­di­nary hu­man emo­tion”; and his “steel-wool voice,” pitch-per­fect even while dish­ing out en­dear­ing side com­men­taries.

Tea­chout re­counts the life of an Amer­i­can artist who found au­then­tic self-ex­pres­sion and cold cash in the mar­ket­place. Arm­strong led bands, per­form­ing nearly nightly in dives and in con­cert halls. He recorded iconic master­works in­clud­ing “Po­tato Head Blues” (1927), which Tea­chout calls “one of the great­est solo record­ings by a jazzman, a land­mark of mod­ern mu­sic,” and “West End Blues” (1928), one of his most cel­e­brated record­ings, whose open­ing triplet arpeg­gios to a fiery high C that Tea­chout iden­ti­fies as “the most tech­ni­cally de­mand­ing pas­sage to have been recorded by a jazz trum­peter up to that time.” It “cat­a­pulted his fel­low jazzmen into a mu­si­cal world in which even the sim­plest of phrases were charged with an ir­re­sistible for­ward thrust.”

The son of a dirt-poor New Orleans pros­ti­tute, Arm­strong would even­tu­ally en­rich Chicago and Har­lem night­club own­ers, Hol­ly­wood movie pro­duc­ers, Man­hat­tan tele­vi­sion ex­ec­u­tives, sundry book­ing agents, wives (four), man­agers (two, but the most im­por­tant was Joe Glaser), and, mod­estly, him­self. Audiences flocked to see him in Chicago, New York, Lon­don, Tokyo, and Paris. He was adu­lated in Africa and played SRO in Las Ve­gas. He was an un­re­pen­tant au­di­ence pleaser, a great en­ter­tainer who had chops, rap­ture, and drive. And a thick skin.

Arm­strong de­scribed his life as “all hap­pi­ness” (adding, “I love ev­ery­body”), but he had an in­cred­i­bly com­pro­mised child­hood as a fa­ther­less street kid in the Sto­ryville district of New Orleans. Tea­chout tours the well-trod Arm­strong nar­ra­tives, like his pe­riod of in­tern­ment in a foster home, where a pho­to­graph shows him as the somber, cor­net­tot­ing mem­ber of the ColoredWaif’s Home Brass Band. He ap­pren­ticed with Joe “King” Oliver’s band and as­cended rapidly through Chicago’s gang­ster-rid­den mu­si­cal scene. There he played his most ad­ven­tur­ous licks with his Hot Five and Hot Seven en­sem­bles. ( Jazz was hot then; it cooled down only later.) A broad swath of big bands marked the ’30s and ’40s for Arm­strong, to the dis­may of jazz purists, as his reper­toire mor­phed from hard-core New Orleans ex­per­i­men­ta­tion into stan­dards, bal­lads, and dance­able stuff. In the late ’40s, he formed Louis Arm­strong and His All Stars, whose ever-chang­ing per­son­nel shared the joy Arm­strong spread world­wide to mil­lions un­til his death in 1971.

Arm­strong’s life be­gan un­der the most heinous form of racial seg­re­ga­tion; it spanned the civil-rights move­ment. On the pro­fes­sional plane, he wit­nessed, while not al­ways adopt­ing, vast de­vel­op­ments in an art form he him­self pi­o­neered. As the brash in­no­va­tor grew ar­tis­ti­cally stolid in his mid­dle years, Amer­i­cans be­gan to un­der­ap­pre­ci­ate him. Pro­tec­tive of his sub­ject, Tea­chout sug­gests that Satchmo was over­ex­posed: his growl­ing voice was ubiq­ui­tous on early ra­dio; a nat­u­ral ac­tor, he ap­peared in sev­eral movies, in­clud­ing The Glenn Miller Story, High So­ci­ety, The Five Pen­nies, and Hello, Dolly!; and from the ’50s on­ward he was a main­stay on tele­vi­sion va­ri­ety shows such as The Bell Tele­phone Hour, The Dean Martin Show, and The Ed Sul­li­van Show.

A snob­bish cul­tural van­guard, writes Tea­chout, sneered at Satchmo’s baroque vaudevil­lian per­sona and his in­stinct to en­ter­tain— and fur­ther, to please. What is most painful, his mu­si­cal off­spring, Dizzy Gille­spie and Miles Davis, came to see in Pops the un­bear­able man­i­fes­ta­tion of all the wrongs done to black men in Amer­i­can so­ci­ety. He was a light­ning rod in a tran­si­tional time in Amer­i­can cul­ture, and al­though Arm­strong was a scarred vet­eran of racial pol­i­tics (abun­dantly clear in the di­aries and au­dio­tapes on which Tea­chout bases his re­search), in per­for­mance, he main­tained his jovial per­son­al­ity.

Tea­chout re­minds read­ers that, as a black man born in the New Orleans of 1901, Arm­strong in­hab­ited a dif­fer­ent world. “My book is just an­other step in an on­go­ing process that be­gan with the con­ver­sion of Wyn­ton Marsalis, who now places Arm­strong at the cen­ter of his per­sonal pan­theon,” he said. “The Ken Burns jazz doc­u­men­tary [for PBS] too, set in mo­tion a ground shift in crit­i­cal opin­ion about Arm­strong. Es­sen­tially, my book brings th­ese threads to­gether into a uni­fied nar­ra­tive of Arm­strong’s life that tries to get him right.

“You can un­der­stand how dif­fi­cult a place the world is without be­ing de­feated by the knowl­edge. That is Arm­strong in a nut­shell. He re­ally didn’t have il­lu­sions about the world and par­tic­u­larly about how the world af­fected black men of his gen­er­a­tion. I see Arm­strong as a very in­spir­ing fig­ure,” Tea­chout said. “In his life and in his char­ac­ter, he is as in­spir­ing a fig­ure as we have had in the 20th cen­tury.”

Arm­strong is the third artist whose bi­og­ra­phy Tea­chout has tack­led. Fol­low­ing The Skep­tic: A Life of H.L. Mencken (2002), he turned his at­ten­tion to the bril­liant chore­og­ra­pher and co-founder of the New York City Bal­let, pro­duc­ing All in the Dances: A Brief Life of Ge­orge Balan­chine (2004). “My books are about char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally Amer­i­can artists,” Tea­chout said. “I see [Arm­strong and Balan­chine] as birds of a feather. Al­though each alone was very dif­fer­ent— Balan­chine, in fact, was a [Rus­sian] im­mi­grant— nev­er­the­less they are cen­tral to Amer­i­can art in the 20th cen­tury. Both were great pro­fes­sion­als, ut­terly prac­ti­cal peo­ple who dealt with the prob­lem fac­ing them, un­em­bar­rassed to present them­selves as both artists and en­ter­tain­ers. Balan­chine, who worked on Broad­way and in Hol­ly­wood, was al­ways con­scious of the need to cre­ate works that made sense to his audiences. He cre­ated a wide-rang­ing reper­tory that fed his au­di­ence and its de­sires.

“They were also both very much in tune with them­selves. They weren’t alien­ated from the world; they ac­cepted the world as it was and trans­formed it into art. They did not strug­gle with their muse in the way that, say, Jerome Rob­bins strug­gled all the time, or to take an ex­am­ple from jazz, John Coltrane. What comes out of Arm­strong is nat­u­ral and in a way un­medi­ated; it is an im­me­di­ate man­i­fes­ta­tion of what is within him. And Balan­chine was the same kind of artist.

“That type of artist is where my own sym­pa­thy lies. I’ve never been one to grav­i­tate to Great Artists who are self-con­scious about mak­ing art. Balan­chine fa­mously said, ‘My muse comes to me on union time.’ And Arm­strong got up ev­ery night on the night­club stand in cir­cum­stances that were far re­moved from a Carnegie Hall recital. But he made art.”

Miles Davis even­tu­ally ad­mit­ted that: “You can’t play noth­ing on trum­pet that doesn’t come from him.” And Dizzy Gille­spie, who openly mocked Arm­strong for years, made peace with him be­fore his death, say­ing, “I be­gan to rec­og­nize what I had con­sid­ered Pops’ grin­ning in the face of racism as his ab­so­lute re­fusal to let any­thing, even anger about racism, steal the joy from his life. Com­ing from a younger gen­er­a­tion, I mis­judged him.”

Louis Arm­strong in his dress­ing room in Las Ve­gas in 1970, nine months be­fore his death; Ed­die Adams, AP/Wide World Pho­tos

Im­ages cour­tesy Houghton Mif­flin Har­court

Arm­strong writ­ing at his home in Queens, 1958; Den­nis Stock, Mag­num Pho­tos

Town Hall, New York, May 17, 1947: the first time Arm­strong had pub­licly led a small group of his own since 1926; William P. Gottlieb, www.jaz­zpho­tos.com

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