The story appears on

Page B13

December 13, 2009

GET this page in PDF

Free for subscribers

View shopping cart

Related News

Home » Feature » Art and Culture

Brilliant 'Satchmo' transcended critics

ONE of the hardest parts of writing a biography is finding a fit subject, but sometimes they're in plain sight. Despite his incalculable contributions to American culture, there has never been a fully adequate narrative biography of Louis Armstrong.

Terry Teachout now fills that void with "Pops." No one disputes that Armstrong revolutionized music, helped popularize jazz throughout the world and created countless imitators.

Even his sometimes disparaging successors readily acknowledged their debt. "You can't play nothing on trumpet that doesn't come from him," Miles Davis once said. Satchmo's influence spilled over into the rest of American culture, particularly regarding race.

Through recordings, concerts, movies, magazine interviews, and radio and television appearances, he was the first black man whom millions of white Americans allowed into their homes, and hearts.

Why, then, the scholarly neglect? Teachout maintains that Armstrong's detractors were so critical or uncomfortable over his public persona - the sweaty brow, the megawatt smile, the crowd pleasing, ingratiating manner - that they ignored his enormous, continuing contributions to music and to civilization. To them, he was simply too entertaining, too popular or too pandering to be taken seriously.

Too pandering to whites, that is. Dizzy Gillespie complained of his "Uncle Tomlike subservience" and "plantation character," for instance, while the narrator in a James Baldwin short story disparaged his "old-time, down-home crap."

Armstrong unabashedly liked whites, and wasn't shy about saying so. "Believe it - the White Folks did everything that's decent for me," he once wrote, before comparing them favorably, in terms of kindness and industriousness, to blacks (and "blacks" was not the word he used). He particularly liked Jews, in part because it may have been a Jewish junk dealer named Karnofsky who helped him buy his first cornet.

Given this disrepute among some blacks, what white liberal would dare write about him, let alone extol him?

Instead, enter the chief culture critic of commentary and drama critic for The Wall Street Journal, which is what Teachout is. And Armstrong could not have a more impassioned advocate. At times, "Pops" reads like a defense brief, but a very loving and knowledgeable one.

Teachout leads us along Armstrong's familiar path from the black Storyville section of New Orleans, where he was born in August 1901, the son of a father he barely knew and a 15-year-old servant girl (and probable prostitute).

Beyond dispute

He journeyed on Mississippi River steamboats, where he honed his ability to read music (and may first have developed his trademark hoarseness), then Chicago, then New York, then Chicago again. There, in his mid-20s, he formed his Hot Five and Hot Seven, with whom he recorded, for US$50 a side, what Teachout quite properly calls the "Old Testament of classic jazz."

There is a kind of perfunctory, dutiful quality to this part of Teachout's tale; where Armstrong's brilliance is beyond dispute, Teachout doesn't seem fully engaged.

Only when the critics start dumping on Armstrong does Teachout become energized. That started in 1929, when Armstrong abandoned small ensembles and took a big band on the road and, though he returned to more intimate groups - for many years after World War II, Armstrong had his All Stars - the attacks continued. Always, the charge was the same: that he'd sold out, playing or recording what one leftist critic called "the white man's notion of Harlem jazz."

Armstrong regained his reputation long before Teachout came along. It's striking how many greats - Hoagy Carmichael, Jack Teagarden, Teddy Wilson, Django Reinhardt, Bunny Berigan, Bing Crosby, Gene Krupa - were moved to feats of great eloquence describing Satchmo.

In his later years, he became America's foremost cultural ambassador. Denigrators like Dizzy Gillespie recanted. In 1964, "Hello, Dolly" bumped the Beatles off the top slot on the charts.


Copyright © 1999- Shanghai Daily. All rights reserved.Preferably viewed with Internet Explorer 8 or newer browsers.

沪公网安备 31010602000204号

Email this to your friend