By Louis Bayard
Sunday, December 20, 2009; B06
A Life of Louis Armstrong
By Terry Teachout
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 475 pp. $30
Let's propose that the best jazz expresses either the joy or the pain of making music. We can easily list the agonistas: Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Nina Simone. But whom do we turn to for joy? In a pinch, sure, Fats Waller, Art Tatum, Ella Fitzgerald. But to get the biggest pickup in the shortest span of time, I put on Louis Armstrong. He could be crooning "Gone Fishin' " with Bing Crosby or crowing "I've Got the World on a String" or else blowing the brass off his horn in "Dipper Mouth Blues," an explosion of sound so ecstatic as to make the blues impossible. The end result is always the same. I walk away a happier man.
It wasn't until I read Terry Teachout's exceptional biography that I realized quite how problematic happiness can be. Or how heroic. We're familiar with the outlines of Armstrong's childhood, thanks in large part to his idiosyncratically eloquent memoir, "Satchmo." We know that he was born at the turn of the 20th century in New Orleans's poorest quarter. That his father was a no-show from day one and that his mother was a part-time prostitute who plied her wares on the evocatively named Perdido Street. That the young Louis was so poor he picked through garbage barrels for half-spoiled food to sell to restaurants and that he was arrested at the age of 11 for firing a gun on New Year's Eve.
By any measure of probability, he should have sunk from sight, but he had the good fortune to be packed off to a progressive reform school, where he was encouraged to pick up the cornet. Hooked at first blow, he refined his craft in New Orleans brothels and on Mississippi River steamboats, and by the time he reached manhood, his fame had spread far enough that he was summoned to Chicago to play in the Creole Jazz Band. What happened next was not just a new form of music but a new way of hearing the world. It's worth heeding Teachout's reminder that Armstrong "did not invent jazz, nor was he its first significant figure, and it is not right even to call him the first great jazz soloist." But he was "the first great influence in jazz. No sooner did he burst upon the scene than other musicians -- trumpeters, saxophonists, singers -- started imitating him." Figures as diverse as Coleman Hawkins, Max Kaminsky, Lionel Hampton and Billie Holiday drew sustenance from Armstrong. He was the guy who got there first.
His technique wasn't perfect -- a flaw in his embouchure, or mouth placement, often strained his chops to bursting -- and his singing voice was, to say the least, unusual (one listener likened it to "a wheelbarrow crunching up a gravel driveway"), but the power and spot-on intonation of his trumpet playing, his ability to wax both lyrical and kinetic, created music of rare excitement. Listening to 1920s cuts like "Shanghai Shuffle" and the seminal "West End Blues," you hear a musician soaring into the unknown, driving his instrument into clarinet-like upper ranges without sacrificing an ounce of ease or clarity. "The higher he went," reported one fan, "the broader his tone got -- and it was beautiful!"
If Armstrong had had the good sense to die then, like his friend Bix Beiderbecke, his place in the critical pantheon would be both smaller and more secure. Recognizing, however, that crossover fame meant leaving the jazz-club grotto, he spent the next two decades touring the country with mediocre big bands, playing dance and pop music for largely white crowds. He toured 300 nights a year, he appeared on radio, he made movies, and he became what purists could never forgive: popular. Not just the first jazz musician to make the cover of Time but probably the only jazz musician most Americans could identify. A court jester so familiar at first sight or hearing that he required no last name. Close your eyes, and he comes straight back: the popped eyes, the face-rifting grin, the handkerchief forever dabbing at the workingman's sweat. Armstrong was, in short, everything his bebop successors despised: apolitical (except for a brief outburst against Eisenhower), unabashedly melodic, interested in the audience's comfort. Dizzy Gillespie, no mean jester himself, accused Armstrong of "Uncle Tom-like subservience," and even Armstrong's allies winced at how he ceded control of his career to a mob-affiliated white manager who gouged him out of millions of dollars.
Maybe we need a half-century's distance to see this gifted man without the filter of politics, to regard his grin not as an accommodation to the white world but as the distillation of his soul. In the end, true goodness may be the hardest quality to pin down, or to accept, in art, but that is what Armstrong's music abounds in, even at its most commercial. He was, in Teachout's lovely phrase, "a major-key artist," whose "lavish generosity of spirit was part and parcel of his prodigal way of making music." That prodigality is our gift, and Louis Armstrong, I am happy to report, is still grinning at us. Upon finishing this definitive life, the reader is instructed to flip to the discography, download every last song, listen and grin the hell back.
Louis Bayard is a novelist and reviewer whose most recent book is "The Black Tower."