Conversation: Terry Teachout, Author of ‘Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong’

BY Tom LeGro  January 8, 2010 at 3:27 PM EDT

The life of jazz great Louis Armstrong is the subject of the new biography, “Pops,” by Terry Teachout, who is the drama critic for the Wall Street Journal and cultural critic for Commentary Magazine. I spoke to him recently about the book:

Full transcript after the jump…

JEFFREY BROWN: He was a father of jazz, one of the 20th century’s greatest musicians and entertainers, a larger than life, world famous figure who also recorded private conversations in hundreds of after-hour tapes. Louis Armstrong was all that, he is now the subject of a new biography titled “Pops,” and its author is Terry Teachout, drama critic for the Wall Street Journal, cultural critic for Commentary Magazine, and I now learn a onetime professional jazz bassist.

TERRY TEACHOUT: I was, in Kansas City.

JEFFREY BROWN: Welcome to you.

TERRY TEACHOUT: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Start big, with the music, what made him so significant as a musician?

TERRY TEACHOUT: The first important element is that Armstrong essentially created the idea of the jazz man as soloist. In the early days of jazz it was ensemble music, everybody playing all together, nobody really stood out. But he, being a genius and being the first great virtuoso of jazz, couldn’t be contained by that idea. So he turns jazz more or less singlehandedly into a music of soloists, and that’s what it remained.

JEFFREY BROWN: He grew up in New Orleans, a hard life including years in what was called the Colored Waifs Home for Boys.

TERRY TEACHOUT: That’s right, a kind of reform school.

JEFFREY BROWN: A self-made man.

TERRY TEACHOUT: Yes, very much so. And he believed that beyond his talent it was his determination that made the difference in his life.

JEFFREY BROWN: And where’d that come from?

TERRY TEACHOUT: I think from his mother. If it came from anybody, it came from her. She wanted to see him get ahead. I mean, she had nothing. She was a part-time prostitute at the time he was born. His father deserted the family on the day he was born. But she taught him, he said, common sense and the belief that if you work for something you might be able to get it, and then the discipline of music took him the rest of the way. That was the real transformative experience in his life, the discipline of music itself.

JEFFREY BROWN: The discipline in music. And was there a drive to, did he feel he was changing music?

TERRY TEACHOUT: I think eventually he realized that he was. But he was not a very self-conscious man. He was self-aware, he knew what he was, and by the end of his life he knew what he’d done. But he didn’t sit around and say, How shall I innovate today? He simply — he was doing what he loved to do best, and so every day was a pleasure for him. You know, he was essentially optimistic man. In the book I call him a major-key artist. And that’s really the key to understanding what kind of man he was.

JEFFREY BROWN: And yet there were always the question, or there were questions at a certain point in his life, about whether he had stopped innovating, I guess, or stopped changing enough, whether he was keeping up with the times, whether he had sold out to put it in that kind of crude terms.

TERRY TEACHOUT: In a sense it all is, but there is a core of truth to it. As a young man he was an innovator, but remember, he is in a sense the first innovator, the person who creates the language of jazz. Once he does that he doesn’t really need to innovate anymore. It’s like somebody who’s discovered a country and then spends the rest of his life exploring it. That was what Armstrong did. After the mid-30s, once he had created the lingua franca of jazz, he spent the rest of his life refining, perfecting rather than exploring. And I think that’s a very appropriate thing for an artist like that to do.

JEFFREY BROWN: And then inevitably, and you have to, you cover this, the question of race, criticized by some blacks, including prominent musicians.

TERRY TEACHOUT: Well, remember, Armstrong is born in 1901. We think of him as a contemporary, because we remember him from television and because he is so vivid in his films in television appearances, but he’s a man of an earlier time. A man whose ideas about what a performer does on stage were formed in the age vaudeville and the minstrel show at a time when most blacks thought the kind of comedy in which he engaged they liked it. It was only a younger generation of musicians after World War II who were uncomfortable with the smiling Armstrong, what we think of as the cliche Armstrong. Most of them eventually lived long enough to realize that their discomfort was their problem. Dizzy Gillespie was the one he really started the criticism of Armstrong, and at the end of his life he said in his autobiography he’d been wrong.

JEFFREY BROWN: Was Armstrong bitter about that? About that sentiment, about what he had to go through?

TERRY TEACHOUT: He didn’t like it, but he wasn’t bitter about it. He wasn’t a bitter kind of man, you see. He was a glass-half full man.

JEFFREY BROWN: Meaning seeing the optimistic.

TERRY TEACHOUT: Yes, that’s right. And although he knew every kind of prejudice there was in his life — remember, this is a man who, a black man who toured in the Deep South in the ’30s and ’40s — he never let it crush his spirit. That essential optimism always comes through and it permeates his music.

JEFFREY BROWN: And he famously spoke out against President Eisenhower.

TERRY TEACHOUT: Yes. One spectacular occurrence when he was — this was at the time of the Little Rock desegregation and Eisenhower was slow to take action when Orval Faubus, the governor of Arkansas, said, we won’t desegregate the schools. And a young cub reporter came to interview Armstrong right at that moment, asked him the question. Armstrong blew up in front of him in a way that was entirely unprintable, so the two of them had to confer to create a printable version of what he said about Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles, and it became the biggest story in the United States the next day. And a few days later Eisenhower sent the National Guard into Little Rock.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now this was a man who wrote an autobiography, a very well received one.

TERRY TEACHOUT: Yes, and written without assistance. He did not use a ghost writer. He wrote thousands of letters that survive, and he really gets the sound of his own voice onto the page — the fundamental talent of an author.

JEFFREY BROWN: And then he also taped these private conversations, which I know you had access to and listened to. What comes through in that private Armstrong?

TERRY TEACHOUT: His temper.

JEFFREY BROWN: His temper.

TERRY TEACHOUT: Something that you did not see on the Ed Sullivan show.

JEFFREY BROWN: This is the optimistic man, but you see the temper as well.

TERRY TEACHOUT: Remember, he’s a genius, and so he’s a complicated man. Although the Armstrong that we know, the public Armstrong is real and true, there was more to him than that. He could blow up at you at noon and forget about it by 1 o’clock. And I talked to many people who knew him, they all said the same thing, they had seen this and the loved him anyway. It’s one thing to have somebody tell you about it; it’s another thing to hear it on a tape.

JEFFREY BROWN: And in the end that was something to listen to.

TERRY TEACHOUT: Yeah, it really was.

JEFFREY BROWN: But in the end it is an inevitably the music.

TERRY TEACHOUT: Yes. The personality is important because it is embodied in the music, but the music is his claim to our attention and it’s a permanent claim. He is the first jazz musician who really imposed his personality on the music and transformed it.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. The new biography is called “Pops.” Terry Teachout, nice to talk to you.

TERRY TEACHOUT: Thank you.