Speaking of Bios: Louis Armstrong
“He was born in New Orleans in 1901, on the toughest block in town, his mother was a whore,” Teachout says, “and at the end of his life, everybody in the world knew who he was.”
Louis Armstrong. Eh. I know a few tidbits about him, but I’m not curious enough to pick up a biography. Hadn’t really considered a need for more knowledge. Until now. I like bios. Why not this one too? Here’s a little something I pieced together from the Los Angeles Times Books section on Terry Teachout’s new book Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong. It sparked my interest, maybe it will do something for you too:
Reporting from New York – In 1947, jazz great Louis Armstrong got himself a new gadget — a tape recorder, fresh out on the consumer market. It was a big, boxy machine that he set up in concert halls and jazz joints to record his six-piece All Stars so he could listen to each show in his hotel room and thin out the weak spots for the next gig. Before long, however, this work tool became a plaything . . .”He started leaving it on and making audio vérité tapes of chunks of his life — dinner parties, getting high in the dressing room after a gig, trying to get his wife into bed,” says Teachout, national drama critic for the Wall Street Journal. “He saved all these tapes. There are 650-odd of them.”
While the tapes have been available to scholars since 2002, Teachout is the first biographer to make full use of them, says Michael Cogswell, director of the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens, N.Y. And although Teachout says the tapes don’t contain any major revelations, they infuse “Pops” with the insights of an eavesdropper. “Armstrong, although he was very self-aware, was also a very unself-conscious man,” Teachout says in his art-filled apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “He knew what he was. He knew he was a very important figure in the history of American art. And so he saved everything that he could. But in making these tapes, he’s entirely unself-conscious. He just records parts of his life. . . . He is the only major jazz musician who has left behind a very large volume of documents of this kind.”
He also left behind a wealth of photographs. One uncredited shot in the book captures the portly Armstrong in a messy hotel room, wearing nothing but white briefs, his trumpet lying in an open case in the foreground and the tape recorder perched on a table in the back. . .
The book has revelations for those unfamiliar with Armstrong’s life and career. Teachout believes that few outside the jazz-studies world recognize Armstrong’s talent as a writer — he was the author of two memoirs. Nor do people know that he was “threatened with murder” by the Chicago mob, that lip damage led him to add more of what became his signature gravelly vocals to his performances or that “it really wasn’t so much his musicmaking but his film career that made him a real star.” Then there was Armstrong’s womanizing — four marriages and “numerous dalliances in between and during” — and his daily joint, a habit that in 1931 led to a nine-day jail stint in Los Angeles after he got caught lighting up between sets outside Frank Sebastian’s Culver City Cotton Club.
“Most people, I suspect, don’t know that he smoked marijuana every day,” Teachout says, although he acknowledges that a jazz musician using drugs wouldn’t really astonish anyone. “But people who know about Armstrong in the general way that most of us know about Armstrong, I think they’re going to be surprised.” (Read more . . . )
Might be worthy of a browse. Happy reading y’all.