Terry Teachout: Pops – The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong (JR Books)

AS TERRY Teachout makes clear in this terrific biography, the world that Louis Armstrong inhabited was anything but wonderful. It was, for most of his life, both profoundly racist and astonishingly bitchy.

By the late 1950s, with his 60th birthday approaching and four decades of solid success behind him, Armstrong was still forced to sleep in a gymnasium while playing in segregated North Carolina and was denied access to a public lavatory in Connecticut. In Tennessee, dynamite was thrown at an auditorium where he and his All Stars were performing.

At the same time, he was being reviled as a sellout by younger black jazzers such as Dizzy Gillespie, the bebop trumpet ace, who called him “a plantation character”, and he was dismissed by James Baldwin, the leader of the so-called “Negro intellectuals”, as a purveyor of “old-time, down-home crap”.

Armstrong never shook off the charge that he was a grinning collaborator in white supremacism (an “Uncle Tom”), which tainted even messages of support from admirers such as Billie Holiday. “God bless Louis Armstrong, he Toms from the heart!” she proclaimed unhelpfully. Such was the rivalrous animosity he inspired in other band leaders that one shopped him to the police in 1932 for smoking his beloved marijuana outside a gig, an arrest that had him briefly sent to jail.

It was the way he soared above all these brickbats that was truly wonderful. Born in 1901 into grinding poverty in New Orleans (his mother was a prostitute; his father absconded soon after his birth), Armstrong was an energetic self-starter. He had a lifelong distrust of what he saw as the fecklessness of fellow blacks.

A big influence on his early life were the Karnofskys, a local family whose kindness, industry and domestic solidarity he greatly admired. “If it wasn’t for the nice Jewish people we would have starved many a time,” he later wrote. In hospital at the end of his life (he died in 1971) he scrawled in a notebook: “The White Folks did everything that’s decent for me. I wish that I can boast those same words for n*****s.”

Armstrong discovered his talent for music around the time he was sent, aged 11, to a “Colored Waifs’ Home” for firing blanks from a pistol in public. The routine suited him. He began playing the cornet (bought with a $5 loan from the Karnofskys) and by 14 was entertaining hookers in brothels. He was handily situated to ride the wave that saw ragtime morph into jazz and, in 1919, left New Orleans for Chicago where his wild soloing in Joe Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band shifted jazz on its axis, creating the vogue for instrumental improvisation. Ten years later, Armstrong was one of the biggest stars in America with a list of mould-breaking achievements including being the first black man to star in a Hollywood film.

With mainstream success came raging controversy. Teachout is especially good at exposing the difficulties that Armstrong experienced with critics and fellow musicians after he became famous. On his first tour of Britain in 1932 he was on one hand hailed as an innovator – “as modern as James Joyce” – and on the other dismissed as a circus act. The Daily Express man complained that “he looks and behaves like an untrained gorilla”. Another commentator mocked his “clean-shaven hippopotamus physiognomy”.

As time went by, opinion became even more polarised. Philip Larkin lauded him as “more important than Picasso”; Le Corbusier called him “equilibrium on a tightrope”. Meanwhile, a growing chorus of reviewers objected to the film roles, hit records and funny-guy stage patter. “Now he is a one-man show: comedian, jivester, and lastly musician,” was a widely voiced put-down. These jibes hurt. Armstrong was a far more shaded character than his sunny public persona let on. Teachout’s access to a previously unavailable archive of taped conversations and writings has allowed him to construct the most complete picture yet of a well-studied subject. In particular he captures Armstrong’s deep ambivalence to his predicament as a black celebrity in an industry run by whites. He lamented the way he had become “a greater attraction among whites than my own people, a thing which has always disturbed me”. Not that he did much about it.

His passivity in handing over the management of his career to a Chicago mobster, Joe Glaser, and his fondness for manipulative wives (four of them, none of whom, mysteriously, bore him a child) are well documented. Teachout’s key insight is his understanding that Armstrong was “a child of his time, not ours”. A pragmatic believer in self-reliance, he was completely out of step with the political correctness that has been ingrained in the cultural discourse of black America.

Teachout retells an encounter between Armstrong and a drunk Southern redneck who marches up to inform him that he “don’t like n*****s”. to which Armstrong replies equably: “Why not, Pops?” Stumped, the guy starts to cry and the two become friends. In that act of forbearance, Teachout argues, lies the essence of Armstrong’s “sunlit, hopeful art”.

© Robert SandallThe Sunday Times, 22 November 2009

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