A few years ago I received a Louis Armstrong CD for Christmas from a family member who knew of my appreciation of the great man’s music. Unfortunately, to my mind at the time, it was a later CD, a collection of his songs with the All-Stars, the small combo band he formed in 1947 and continued performing with right up until his death in 1971. I had listened to little of Satchmo’s music from this period because I had the same opinion of it that many jazz fans had, i.e., that it was the music of a man who had stopped taking chances long before, that compared with the blazing hot music of his early career it was not worth listening to. Might as well just put on “Potato Head Blues,” or “Muggles,” or “Mahogany Hall Stomp” or any of the dozens of songs he recorded back in the twenties and thirties and listen to them again.
A few days after that Christmas, while my wife and I were taking down the decorations, I put the CD on and was more than pleasantly surprised. It is terrific. While the music on the CD is certainly not comparable to the music of his early years, it wasn’t trying to be. It was something else entirely: the music of an old pro, smooth, self-assured, and highly entertaining. It has few of the exhilarating moments of the early stuff but, again, that was not the point of this music. This is music for the masses, pure entertainment, and it succeeds on that level. It’s fun! While snobs and jazz aficionados can and often have called it the music of a sell-out, they missed out on some terrific entertainment in their insistence that Armstrong had to push at the boundaries each time he picked up his trumpet. The opinion-makers of Armstrong’s time damned him because he wouldn’t produce another “West End Blues,” and unfortunately, it was the view of these high-brows that came to prevail. In a nutshell, the opinion of Louis Armstrong for many years before and after his death was that he had sold out in order to please white audiences, that he valued fame and popularity more than his music.
There is much to Terry Teachout’s terrific biography of Armstrong, Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, but if there is a main point it is to shatter this opinion. Teachout, who was a jazz musician himself before becoming a full-time writer and critic, shares in the enthusiasm of Armstrong early, ground-breaking work – his analysis of this early work is alone worth the price of the book - but he also builds an impressive case for the worth of Armstrong’s later music. It’s definitely not a hagiography. Teachout, who I consider the finest critic in America today, is intimately familiar with Armstrong’s music. He knows when Armstrong was mailing it in or settling for less than he should have, and he has no qualms about pointing these moments out. But he takes the music of Armstrong’s career for what it was and he is marvelous at pointing us to the highlights of his career, including what was worthwhile in his later work. I’m not going to go into it any more than this but I’ll simply say if you love Satchmo then you need to read this book. You’ll end up with a better understanding of the man and who he was, the man in full. What’s more, Teachout doesn’t criticize Armstrong for not being the man many of his contemporaries wanted him to be.
Teachout also points out something important: From the early 1930’s onward, Armstrong probably could not have duplicated his earlier technique due to the lip problems he began experiencing around that time. His embouchure – the technique of shaping the lips to the mouthpiece of his horn - was flawed from the beginning and it was hard on his lips. As a result his lip began to break down around this time, often rupturing in the middle of a performance, and he’d have problems with it on and off for the rest of his life. He had to alter the way he played, if he wanted to play at all. And he had to play. Armstrong made it clear to everyone who knew him, including his four wives, that his horn came first. It was his reason for being. He would spend over fifty years, from the time he was fourteen years old until he was in his late-sixties, on the road, playing his horn. If he took a break, even late in life due to doctor’s orders, he would soon become restless, summon his band, and hit the road again.
Well, who else does this remind you of? Earlier this year in this space, I made the case that there are four musicians who could make the claim of being the “Greatest American Musician.” Armstrong was one of them, along with Dylan, Presley, and Sinatra, take your pick. All four of these men were (in the case of Bob Dylan, still are) obsessed with their craft. After the prime of their careers, they all continued on, making records surely, but for the most part on the road, playing before adoring audiences. To a man, they toured constantly. They’ve all been accused of selling out (in the case of Armstrong, Dylan and Elvis) or continuing on long past the time when they should have hung it up (Sinatra.) But none of them cared. They were music men. They all lived to play, to share their special talent with those who appreciated it. They’ve all been condemned by the know-it-alls for these so-called failings.
But consider the following.
If [Armstrong’s] new style was less spectacular, it was also purer, shorn of the excesses that had obscured the lyricism at the heart of his artistry. To some extent this purity may have been imposed by the cumulative effects of the string of split lips that he suffered in the early thirties, but if that was the case, it would not have been the first time that a great artist has been freed to follow his inner impulse by technical limitations arising from physical decline.
Long before Teachout gets to this passage on page 217 I had been thinking about the parallels between Armstrong’s split lip and Sinatra’s vocal cord hemorrhage in 1950. Sinatra had been a smash with the kids during the war, dubbed “The Voice”, a classic crooner in the style of Bing Crosby. He had numerous number one hits for Columbia records during the forties but by 1950 his popularity was waning and he hadn’t had a number one hit for a few years. He was also unhappy with the direction Columbia was taking when it hired the hokey Mitch Miller as its musical director. Then came the vocal cord injury and he emerged from the incident a changed singer, perhaps even a changed man, one who was intent on becoming more than a pop star. He left Columbia records and signed with Capitol and the rest is history. His voice was now deeper, and he could no longer croon. Instead, he invented a new style of singing: conversational, personal, less directly emotional, but more affecting. There was a distance now between Sinatra and the song he was singing and that distance allowed the listener in; there was room for us to imagine ourselves in the song. This was the key to his success, to his art. (To illustrate this point, listen to Sinatra sing “I’m A Fool To Want You” during his Columbia days here, and then listen to his later, more mature, more controlled version of it here.) He was no longer a pop star, he was an artist, the man who created the music in which we saw ourselves. As with Armstrong, circumstances other than his physical injury had something to do with Sinatra’s new style but it certainly played a role. What emerged, as Teachout says of Armstrong, was something purer and more profound. For years afterward Sinatra was creating something new each time he entered the studio, and he knew it.
I could make the case that Bob Dylan emerged from his motorcycle accident in 1966 a changed man but it’s a case that’s been made many time before and is hard not to see. The difference between the pre-accident Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde and the post-accident The Basement Tapes and John Wesley Harding is profound. You may prefer the earlier work but it was Dylan’s retreat to his roots in the latter records that set the stage for the rest of his career. Blood on the Tracks, Empire Burlesque, Good As I Been To You, and all of the records that he’s produced in the last dozen or so years during his re-emergence have much more in common with the records he produced just after the accident than those just before it.
Read Teachout’s book. It is marvelous, his best book yet. I concentrated on a particular thread that happened to interest me but there is so much more to it.