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Laughin’ Louis

By (February 1, 2010) One Comment

Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong

By Terry Teachout
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009

Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson

By Wil Haygood
Knopf, 2009

Louis Armstrong bothered people. Not all people, to be sure. He did, after all, become the best-known jazz musician in the world and win countless adoring fans over a career last more than fifty years until his death in 1971. Yet both fellow musicians and some audience members – and not only black ones – often thought his ear-to-ear grin and his obvious eagerness to please discredited him as an artist. Even admirers had reservations and sought to distinguish between his music and his on-stage antics. In Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, Terry Teachout insists not only that Armstrong’s sound and his personality can’t be disentangled but that there’s no reason anyone should want to separate them.

Other trumpeters were among Armstrong’s harshest critics. In 1949, Dizzy Gillespie bemoaned Armstrong’s lack of sophistication and consigned the still very much active Armstrong to the past. “Nowadays,” he explained, “we try to work out different rhythms and things that they didn’t think about when Louis Armstrong blew. In his day all he did was play strictly from the soul – just strictly from his heart. You got to go forward and progress. We study.” Several years later, Gillespie condemned what he called the insufficiently studious Armstrong’s “Uncle Tom-like subservience.” Miles Davis was similarly dismissive, complaining that Armstrong’s personality was “developed by white people wanting black people to entertain by smiling and jumping around.” (Gillespie’s penchant for comedy made him too close to Armstrong for the more restrained Davis’s comfort.)

Ralph Ellison thought musicians emerging in the 1930s and 1940s, like Gillespie and Charlie Parker, mistook Armstrong. In his writings on jazz in Shadow and Act (1964), Ellison explains the resentment of Armstrong as the result of the younger musicians “confusing the spirit of his music with his clowning.” They made Armstrong a scapegoat for his refusal to shed “those nonmusical features that came into jazz from the minstrel tradition.” They overlooked what made him an exceptional musician – an “artful juxtaposition of earlier styles” of music comparable to what T.S. Eliot realized with poetry – and noticed only his personal conduct.

Expanding on the idea that his performance as a musician and his performance as an entertainer could be considered apart from each other (even if too many failed to do this), Ellison argues that Armstrong assumed “a make-believe role of clown” (Ellison’s emphasis). He suggests that Armstrong’s stage show had a satirizing or “signifying” side. For Ellison, the man who recorded “Laughin’ Louie” (even though he preferred for his name to be pronounced LEW-is) was laughing at those who would laugh at him.

With Pops, Teachout sets out to refute such notions. He contends not only that Armstrong’s personality pervades his playing but that the clowning that others complained about should be appreciated as the un-ironic joyfulness of a truly happy man. Armstrong’s “personality was as compelling as his artistry,” Teachout writes. “The two could scarcely be separated, for his lavish generosity of spirit was part and parcel of his prodigal way of making music.” More directly still: “Armstrong’s music, like his personality, was fundamentally optimistic.” What younger black Americans found cringe-worthy, Teachout believes, was also what made him popular. For jazz to reach a large audience, it needed a gifted musician, of course, but one with a charismatic personality, which Armstrong supplied. Variety once reported that Armstrong had “a very ingratiating manner.” Not only were musicians like Davis wrong about Armstrong’s behavior, writers like Ellison were wrong to try to detach it from his playing: “the virtuoso-clown and the fertile improviser were one and the same man.” Besides, Armstrong was never only clowning around, as Pops reminds us: “We must take him, like all great artists, as he was, and it is no sacrifice to do so, for even when he was at his most trivial, seriousness kept breaking in.” That seriousness took the form of a relentless devotion to his music.

This same commitment can be seen in other choices Armstrong made that Teachout believes have been misunderstood, such as his deference to white people in his business dealings. Armstrong allowed his manager, Joe Glaser, to decide which musicians he performed with and where, which resulted both in his working with a racially mixed band and in his performing before segregated audiences. Glaser also deliberately sought to make his client appeal to white audiences. “An entertainer, singer, and musician can make 10 times as much money as an ordinary trumpet player,” Glaser said. “So I used to say, ‘Louis, forget all the goddamn critics, the musicians. Play for the public. Sing and play and smile.’” And, much to Davis’s disappointment, Armstrong did.

Teachout knows that not everyone finds this as easy to accept has he does. On Armstrong’s first trip to England, in 1932, his “extroverted behavior” disturbed some audiences. One unsubtle critic declared him “the ugliest man I have seen on a music-hall stage” and continued: “He looks, and behaves, like an untrained gorilla.” If, as Ellison avers, the clowning was just an act, it was very much misunderstood. Others failed to see the tight bond between entertainer and artist that Teachout says defines Armstrong. As one observer put it, “The sweating, strutting figure in the spotlight hitting endless high notes had only tenuous and intermittent connection with the creator of the intensely moving music of ‘West End Blues’ and ‘Muggles.”

Though he doesn’t share Ellison’s understanding of Armstrong, Teachout does believe the trumpeter infused his material with layers of meaning. When he recorded “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue,” a song from the 1929 Broadway musical Connie’s “Hot Chocolates,” he “turned the chorus into a threnody for black of every shade.” When Armstrong sings the last lines – “My only sin is in my skin / What did I do to be so black and blue” – Teachout hears “a touch of wry humor” that makes them “all the more telling.” Ellison’s narrator in Invisible Man also hears defiance in the song, if only of an inadvertent sort. “Perhaps I like Louis Armstrong because he’s made poetry out of being invisible,” he says. “I think it must be because he’s unaware that he is invisible.” Teachout doesn’t remark on the more disturbing lines, the ones in which it’s hard to hear either humor or protest: “I’m white inside / But that don’t help my case.” Armstrong himself distanced himself from any political content some might hear in the song, explaining that he didn’t want to do anything that would “ask people to look at the song and be depressed and thinking about marching and equal rights.” Though both Ellison and Teachout see social commentary of sorts in Armstrong’s take on the undeniably political song, Armstrong acted as if it were just another tune.

For the most part, Armstrong preferred not to use his celebrity as a platform from which to speak out on race relations and civil rights. In this respect, he resembled Sugar Ray Robinson, also the subject of a 2009 biography and, like Armstrong, one of the first black men to appear on the cover of Time magazine. (The pair had even more in common: The boxer named his Greenwood Lake, New York, training camp after Cabin in the Sky, one of the many movies in which Armstrong had a small role, and when Robinson sought to break into show business as a song-and-dance man, he hired Joe Glaser, Armstrong’s manager, as his entertainment agent and even shared bills with the trumpeter.) Robinson opted not to attend the summer 1963 March on Washington, for instance, and Armstrong similarly eschewed demonstrations. Armstrong and Robinson reached their apolitical positions by different routes. “The conundrum of race was not an easy thing for Sugar Ray Robinson to digest,” Wil Haygood explains in Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson. “He had come of age in the world of Northern amateur boxing; its participants were a willing mixture of white, black, and Hispanic.” Having grown up poor in the South, Armstrong experienced the full force of racial prejudice, but, as Teachout puts it, “he never yielded to the temptation to treat white musicians as he had been treated by whites.”

Ironically, given his resemblance in outlook to Armstrong, Robinson befriended Miles Davis, who forcefully rejected Armstrong’s style of aiming to please. While the younger trumpeter assertively denounced the racist treatment of black people in America, his friend the fighter generally kept his thoughts to himself. When Josephine Baker was refused service in a New York City hot spot, for instance Robinson declined to join the NAACP-backed protests. Haygood calls Robinson a “stylish symbol,” but it might be more accurate to call him a symbol of style. Haygood grafts interludes about his equally stylish contemporaries, Davis and Lena Horne (star of Cabin in the Sky), onto Robinson’s narrative (in ways that at time feel a bit forced.) Davis admired Robinson’s dedication to his craft, his gracefulness in the ring and his sartorial flair. The fighter also found something to admire in musicians: “Robinson identified so easily with jazzmen because they made valiant efforts to control their own destinies.” Teachout believes Armstrong shared this drive with his colleagues, even if younger ones misunderstood what he was trying to do.

Indeed, for Armstrong, trying to entertain people by working with an integrated group was his means of combating racism. He said:

I have my own ideas about racial segregation and have spent half of my life breaking down barriers through positive action and not a lot of words…. I don’t socialize with the top dogs of society after a dance or concert. Even though I’m invited, I don’t go. These same society people may go around the corner and lynch a Negro. But while they’re 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.”

It meant he was not Uncle Tom, in Teachout’s view. It meant that, by doing what he loved, and doing it to the best of his ability, Armstrong (like Robinson) chose the surest course toward becoming fully human. He wanted to entertain people, and in doing so he also expressed himself and realized his artistic aims. By connecting with a large and diverse audience, he believed, he could do more to reduce racism than any overt political activity could ever do. More to the point, he did what he wanted to do, not what others told him he should.

Of course, not everyone will find Teachout’s take convincing. Much as he would like to, he can’t conclusively settle the matter, even with a thoroughly researched and mostly even-handed (if hardly neutral) study like Pops. Unending debate about the significance of an individual some dismiss as embarrassingly simple and others regard as slyly complex probably confirms only one thing: the ability for observers to see what they want to see in celebrities. Perhaps the generation following Armstrong needed a figure to rebel against, a model of what to reject in their pursuit of artistic respect and fundamental dignity. Perhaps for writers like Ellington, sensing greater complexity than is immediately apparent as well as literary qualities like irony satisfied some intellectual need. And maybe conceiving of Armstrong as a swinging Booker T. Washington best satisfies a Wall Street Journal critic like Teachout. The biographer wants a sincere Laughin’ Louis, someone who didn’t dwell on racial matters or other hardships, preferring instead to succeed through tenacity and dedication – and finds him.

John G. Rodwan, Jr., an Open Letters Monthly contributing editor, has also had work published by The Mailer Review, The Oregonian, Blood & Thunder, The Second Pass, California Literary Review, Spot Literary Magazine, Slow Trains, Shaking like a Mountain, The Brooklyn Rail, Logos, American Writer, Free Inquiry and the Humanist, among others. He has lived in Detroit, Michigan; Geneva, Switzerland; Brooklyn, New York; and Portland, Oregon.

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