The Louis Armstrong House Museum in Corona, Queens has been open to the public since 1994. But I’d never been there until Saturday (1.9.2010), when Leslie and I drove over in early afternoon for a free event featuring Terry Teachout, the author of Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, published December 2009). The book is excellent: carefully researched, well paced, written with open ears in a clear and candid style. I’d recommend it to anyone with any interest in Louis Armstrong, jazz, and/or American pop culture.
In taking on this Promethean subject, Teachout had an edge over his several precedecessors in at least two respects. Although presently the drama critic for the Wall Street Journal, he was once a professional bass player and thus the first trained musician to essay an Armstrong biography. Perhaps more importantly, Teachout was the first biographer to have had access to over 650 hours of reel-to-reel tapes recorded by Pops himself. These tapes capture Armstrong in uncensored casual conversations with friends and fellow musicians, playing trumpet along with records (both his own and those of other artists), even trying to coax his wife Lucille into the marital bed for a little pre-dawn action.
We may presume that the Armstrong archives were better organized and more easily accessible to Teachout than to previous researchers, and Louis’ own writings are excerpted often and effectively in Pops. “In between playing three hundred shows a year,” Teachout notes, “he turned out two memoirs, several autobiographical manuscripts, dozens of magazine and newspaper articles, and thousands of personal letters to friends and fans, as well as a number of strikingly frank autobiographical manuscripts that did not see print until long after his death.” The author sheds new light on some long-clouded episodes in the trumpeter’s life including his 1930 marijuana arrest — Armstrong was a lifelong pot smoker — and his entanglements with Chicago mobsters.
All that said, I’m not sure Teachout’s book is so vastly superior to its immediate predecessor, Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life by Laurence Bergreen (Broadway Books, 1997). This was the first Armstrong bio I ever read, not counting the great man’s own Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans, and it greatly enhanced my knowledge and perception of its subject. Until the arrival of Pops, Bergreen’s was the most comprehensive book on its subject but it seems to have gotten rather short shrift from both jazz and book critics, perhaps because Bergreen had never written about jazz or jazz musicians before. In his New York Times review of Teachout’s book, David Margolick referenced earlier biographies by Gary Giddins and James Lincoln Collier but not Extravagant Life; nor is it among the half-dozen books sold in the gift shop of the Armstrong House Museum. Witty, elegant, and warmly appreciative of its subject, An Extravagant Life moved me to pick up two more of Bergreen’s non-fiction works, Over the Edge of the World: Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe (also excellent) and Capone: The Man and the Era (bought but not read yet).
Meanwhile, back at the shack… After perusing the gift shop and helping ourselves to a bowl of complimentary gumbo, we joined the crowd seated on folding chairs in the low-ceilinged basement of the house. Following some opening remarks, Terry Teachout read excerpts from the first and last portions of his book, then screened a high-quality B&W clip taken from a 1958 TV appearance by Louis Armstrong and the All Stars. Pops sounded both vigorous and completely at ease singing “On The Sunny Side of the Street,” but the sweat dripping from his brow reminded me of the physical effort he put into his live performances. His trumpet solo, although described by Teachout as a “set piece” that varied only slightly from show to show, was a soaring work of sonic architecture — the musical equivalent of watching a ten-story building erected in elapsed-time motion before your eyes. Teachout then took questions and comments from the audience. Among the speakers were trumpeter Jon Faddis, who recalled being transfixed by Armstrong’s mid-Sixties appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show”; and vocalist Melba Joyce, who recounted her guest appearance with Louis and the All Stars on a show in Dallas in 1961.
We then joined a small group for an abbreviated version of the standard house tour. Louis and his wife Lucille purchased the modest two-story dwelling at 34-56 107th Street in 1943. It was the first and only home Armstrong ever owned, and to him a treasured symbol of his rise from the dire poverty of his New Orleans boyhood. After her husband’s death in 1971, Lucille Armstrong lived on in the house until her own passing twelve years later. By that time, the property had been deeded first to the City of New York, then entrusted to Queens College which today administers the Museum and the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation.
Among the many intact period features of the house are Lucille’s custom-built kitchen cabinets, with their nifty jet-age design and turquoise enamel finish; Pops’ upstairs den, with LPs from his personal collection and his reel-to-reel tape decks; original Sixties oil paintings of both Armstrongs, and the bed in which Louis died on 7/6/1971. As we stood in the den, our guide clicked on a wall switch and the room filled with the sound of Armstrong’s inimitable voice on segments from his private tape stash. Pops was right there with us, in the home he loved.
Louis Armstrong – “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” (1943, with the Luis Russell Orchestra). “Even on the simplest of the big-band sides, his playing is charged with an expressive depth that seizes the ear…There is an underlying seriousness in his light-hearted art that recalls a remark made by the film director Howard Hawks, who claimed that ‘the only difference between comedy and tragedy is the point of view.'” (Teachout, page 146)