Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Rock & Roll &

Pops as Pop

book cover

Like millions of other Americans, I was fortunate enough to witness a Louis Armstrong show once, in the winter of 1959. A college freshman too young to have seen much live jazz, I strode home through the snow babbling happily about a concert where the only songs I recall recognizing were "Muskrat Ramble" and "Mack the Knife." Back at the dorm, however, a sophomore called me on my naiveté. Armstrong was corny, I was informed, and it must have sunk in, because the next time I listened seriously to Louis Armstrong was in 1975, when Gary Giddins got evangelical about the Smithsonian's canonizing Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines 1928.

Giddins's work on Armstrong--particularly his gorgeous 1988 polemic Satchmo--initiated the phase of Armstrong appreciation that doesn't worry overmuch about corny. Inspired by Terry Teachout's Pops to dare an Armstrong piece of my own, I would ordinarily have peppered Gary with requests for context--I edited him for decades and we remain good friends. But recognizing that he has a horse in this race, I haven't phoned or emailed him since I got Teachout's book. Giddins can scarcely be ignored in what follows. But this one's on me.

Since Satchmo is biographical criticism rather than a full biography, Pops will remain the definitive Armstrong bio until somebody tops it, which somebody should. Its major competitors, jazz specialist James Lincoln Collier's 1983 Louis Armstrong: An American Genius and popular historian Laurence Bergreen's 1997 Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life, have their uses. But Bergreen loves cheap color and doesn't have much to say about music, and while Collier can be good on the recordings he admires, he doesn't admire enough of them, cultivating a supercilious streak that's doubly unbecoming in such a flat-footed stylist. Both Collier and Bergreen devote the great bulk of their books to the pre-World War II period, though Armstrong lived from 1901 to 1971 and toured till the year he died.

Like Gunther Schuller and many older jazz critics, and also like that sophomore, Collier finds so little "genius" in Armstrong's later music that these proportions make a kind of sense. But in Bergreen they're ludicrous unless he believes hanging with prostitutes and gangsters makes a musician more "extravagant" than dinners with royalty and audiences with the pope. Leaving ample room for Armstrong's impoverished New Orleans boyhood, Chicago and its Hot Five and Seven sessions, the thug-ridden compromises of the big-band '30s, and a long postwar career as an American icon leading the pared-down All-Stars, Teachout's 382-page text reaches 1938 with 150 pages to go because he truly respects Armstrong's life and artistic choices. "He was born poor, died rich, and never hurt anyone along the way," said Duke Ellington. "I know of no man for whom I had more admiration and respect," said Bing Crosby. No matter how drastically you believe Armstrong's music deteriorated, he deserves to be chronicled in toto.

Beyond his musical brilliance, what Teachout loves most about Armstrong is his positive attitude. "Never wear the trouble in your face," King Oliver had taught him, and without soft-pedaling how hard it was to grow up black and poor in America, Armstrong brought joy wherever he played--intelligent joy, accomplished joy, freewheeling joy, comic joy, sardonic joy. Where Collier magnifies his supposed personal insecurities into a condescending excuse for his supposed artistic timidity, Teachout assumes the obvious: for anyone to rise from Jane Alley in New Orleans to Fate Marable's riverboat band, never mind worldwide fame, required a courage few humans ever approach and an ambition few can comprehend. Yet, where Giddins risks hagiography for purposes of argument, Teachout doesn't understate this very good man's flaws: his chronic resentments and sporadic rages, his daily gage, his philosophy of philandering, and the terrible credo that united him with the notorious manager Joe Glaser: "always have a White Man (who like you) and can + will put his Hand on your shoulder and say--'This is "My" Nigger' and, Can't Nobody Harm Ya."

Clear, balanced, accurate, fast-flowing, and musically informed though it is, Pops is based on secondary sources. Especially since these include previously unmined scholarship and archives, this seems a reasonable biographical method--the novice can start with Satchmo, which Teachout praises warmly, then move on to Pops for more detail. In a sheaf of raves dismayingly short on new ideas, the only significant objection to Teachout's bookcraft I've found, by David Schiff in The Nation, is there to finesse a bigger and uglier issue: what to do when the definitive biography of an African-American hero is written by a vocal neoconservative whose signature outlets are Commentary and The Wall Street Journal. Post-Satchmo especially, many left-leaning critics are fans of Armstrong's late music--Gene Santoro and Bob Blumenthal, to name just two, might have written excellent bios. But Teachout got there first with something to prove.

Emphasizing Armstrong's positivity is fine--"keep ya head up," as Tupac put it. But when Teachout intones that Armstrong "returned love for hatred and sought salvation in work," he sure does sound like a white polemicist with dibs on the black role model of his dreams. So hypersensitive to identity politics that he even spars with sometime conservative Stanley Crouch, Teachout writes sparingly about African-American artists, especially for someone who once supported himself as a jazz bassist. Of the 59 essays in his 2005 A Terry Teachout Reader, 20 concern music, 11 vernacular music, and three African-American music: an essay denying that jazz is fundamentally African-American, an essay denying that Duke Ellington is a great composer, and 2001's "Louis Armstrong, Eminent Victorian," wherein are contained the seeds of Pops.

Teachout has the major critical virtue of liking what he likes palpably and unpretentiously, and--mindful of the cred factor--makes an effort to transcend ideology. Sure, he's inordinately fond of Whit Stillman and John P. Marquand. But he also feels such lefties as Aaron Copland, John Sayles, and Jerome Robbins, and his forthright embrace of popular culture plainly proceeds from his Missouri upbringing and his own pleasure. As a left-populist skeptical of academic postmodernism and avant-garde obscurantism who stopped dissing the middlebrow mindset decades ago, I often sympathize. But I doubt that would prevent him from slotting me as one of those "middlebrow-hating radicals of the Sixties" with a "propensity to deny the existence of meaningful distinctions between high and popular culture."

I'm not, but let me go on. Of course there are meaningful distinctions between high culture and popular culture. The important question, which the word "meaningful" skirts, is whether those distinctions are qualitative--whether what Teachout once terms "indisputable greatness" can accrue to both, and hence whether it can accrue to Armstrong. Teachout skirts this question too. But from his Ellington essay, which dismisses Ellington's suites on structural grounds and assumes that Ives's and Copland's mastery of longer forms guarantees their artistic superiority, I infer that no mere songwriter gets to enter Teachout's greatness derby--and no mere improviser either. "West End Blues" may be an "immortal" work in which Armstrong can be observed "descending majestically from the firmament." But apparently all that means is that he was a hell of a miniaturist.

To me, this way of seeing things is suspiciously undemocratic. One meaningful distinction between high and popular culture is that there's way more good popular culture--because its standards of quality are more forgiving, because sobriety isn't its default mode, because there's so damn much of it. Since there's so damn much of it, and a lot of that is terrible, it rewards connoisseurship. But its strengths are quantity and variety--democracy.

From this perspective, Armstrong is overwhelming. For years my Armstrong listening was confined to three box sets, a best-of, and an Ella Fitzgerald record: the definitive, four-disc, 81-track, disgracefully out-of-print Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which I'm still plumbing after 16 years; the four-disc, 89-track Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings, including 29 Portrait keepers; the three-disc, 60-track Louis Armstrong: An American Icon, relaxed 1946-68 material; Ella and Louis, which I pull before any Sinatra when I feel like some standards; and the budget 16 Most Requested Songs, which I play more than any of them. But recently I've been listening with pleasure to half a dozen more--some collectors' items, others a click away: The Great Summit with Duke Ellington, the All-Stars-debuting Complete Town Hall Concert, the remakes-with-narrative Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography, the George Avakian concepts Satch Plays Fats and Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy, and the gloriously redundant four-disc California Concerts. There's more. But these'll probably hold me till I die.

This music is longer on Armstrong's corny/iconic period than on his canonical '20s. Even Teachout, 11 of whose 30 "key recordings" are post-World War II, also lists 11 from 1923-29. They're very inconsistent, but at their best the Hot Fives and Sevens are indisputable, although note what Smithsonian annotator J. R. Taylor concludes regarding three vivid but contradictory musicological analyses of the 11-second cadenza to "West End Blues": "the subtle ambiguity of Armstrong's rhythm has--significantly--so far defied descriptive consensus." The only consensus is that rhythm comes first. Armstrong couldn't have invented swing (could he?), but he manifested it so irresistibly that every jazz musician became his imitator, and you'll know it when you hear it. And that's just the beginning. There's almost as much praise for the clarion unflappability of his trumpet sound, compromised though it soon was by the split lip he held off for 40 years; for singing that exhibited, through a rough timbre almost as prophetic as his swing, what Schuller swore were "all the nuances, inflections, and natural ease of his trumpet playing"; and for his devotion to melody, admired no less by Collier the stickler than by Teachout the cheerleader.

Reading description after insightful description, however, I was reminded that jazz critics care more about good solos than good records. Thus they ignore many Hot Fives and Sevens altogether and zone in on the extraordinary elsewhere; thus they neglect Armstrong's raucous shout on the shamelessly simplistic "Georgia Bo Bo" and pretend that Lonnie Johnson's guitar occupies the same universe as the leader's trumpet on "Savoy Blues." My two favorites are well-loved: "Heebie Jeebies" and "West End Blues." But jazzbos, ever appalled by the pop market's thralldom by the demon novelty, attribute "Heebie Jeebies"'s sales breakthrough solely to Armstrong's first scatted vocal. Having just had the theme echo in my head for weeks, I say the tune is the hook, tricked up nicely by the scat and augmented by a shamelessly simplistic lyric. And on "West End Blues," often deemed the greatest record of the 20th century, Fred Robinson's trombone is generally insulted or ignored, meaning the greatest record etc. includes 12 embarrassing bars--30 seconds of bad music! Giddins, bless him, believes this "sober trombone solo squired by woodblocks" is integral to a "sensationally varied performance." I myself am certain "West End Blues" wouldn't be nearly as sublime without Robinson's slow walk to the corner store. I'm also partial to the woodblocks.

The canonical Armstrong was a singer as well as a player. His singing spread his fame and enlarged his influence, but the playing is what got him canonized, because jazz improvisation is what the canonizers value. So it's not too much of a stretch to suggest that as much as his comedy, a free-flowing gift that had its uncomfortable moments, it was his singing that made the canonizers decide he'd gone corny on them. Giddins distinguishes between the young artist-as-entertainer and the older entertainer-as-artist, and though I don't think art and entertainment bifurcate so easily, the difference is clear: the entertainer-as-artist was primarily a singer, master of three or four dozen songs and interpreter of many others. As such, he made more good records in his iconic period than with the Hot Fives and Sevens. They just weren't as influential.

Armstrong wasn't blackmailed into this. "Singing was more into my Blood, than the trumpet," Teachout quotes him as saying, and I say his singing was as remarkable as his playing--only Holiday and Sinatra top him, no rock and rollers at all. "Interpreter" doesn't exactly get it--most of the time, he didn't examine the meaning of a lyric so much as explore the potential of a melody. His shifting rhythms, assured slurs, and unstable note values don't undermine the material, they play with it--fondly, kindly, ebulliently, confidently. Nor did this vocal emphasis, which predates the All-Stars, turn his trumpet into a high-profile accessory of the Satchmo image--as his embouchure slackened, he compensated with a pensive, nuanced economy that Wynton Marsalis reports is harder to replicate than his early virtuosity.

All these factors were well in place as of that concert in 1959. Just a kid, I got the ebullience, missed the subtlety, and did a poor job of arguing my case. Insofar as the show taught me anything about jazz, it was by motivating me to play catch-up with my dormmate. Yet the memory never left me--a memory not of jazz or pop, art or entertainment, but of Louis Armstrong himself, a great good man we lesser mortals are still getting our minds around.

Barnes & Noble Review, May 14, 2010