Review: “Pops” by Terry Teachout

(Above: Satchmo and his septet rip through the “Tiger Rag.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The beauty of Louis Armstrong’s music was that it could be enjoyed and appreciated by everyone from children to adults and seasoned jazz fans to hardened critics.

Pity then that “Pops,” the new Armstrong biography by Wall Street Journal critic and former Kansas City resident Terry Teachout, isn’t as accessible.

Teachout is an exhaustive researcher who leaves few stones unturned. His biography draws not only from the two autobiographies published during Armstrong’s life, but dozens of books, articles, reviews and liner notes. It also boasts access to scores of previously unseen letters and hours of unheard conversations Armstrong recorded.

This unprecedented access allows Teachout to paint an intimate view of Armstrong. He paints a frank view of Armstrong’s daily marijuana use, which led to his 1931 arrest in California. We learn about the murder threats Satchmo received from the Chicago mafia for. When former boxing promoter Joe Glaser promised to make the threats stop, Armstrong rewarded him with a lifetime appointment as his manager. With Glaser taking care of everything else, Armstrong was free to focus on the only thing that matter to him: music.

Ironically, Armstrong’s music was most vital when his life was in the most upheaval. When he cut his classic Hot Fives and Hot Sevens sides, he was in the middle of a failing marriage, having trouble keeping a steady band together, and running ragged across the country to poorly organized shows. Most of those problems went away when Glaser came on the scene, but Armstrong’s music also reached a plateau.

While the current crop of trumpet stars were heavily and obviously indebted to Armstrong’s trailblazing technique, they were also disappointed by Armstrong’s repetitive repertoire and unashamed desire to entertain (which hewed too close to minstrelsy for the newly empowered African American generation). Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis were among the most vocal of Armstrong’s critics.

Yet even Diz and Miles were forced to reconsider their opinions after Armstrong cancelled a State Department-sponsored trip to Russia in protest President Eisenhower’s tepid steps to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. (Armstrong later sent Eisenhower a congratulatory telegram when the crisis was resolved.) Armstrong gained with respect with the trio of albums he released on Columbia in the 1950s that showcased a long-dormant vitality and sense of adventure.

Detractors may have been surprised when Armstrong spoke out on segregation, but he’d been fighting it most of his life. The color line is drawn most sharply when Teachout looks at what might have been were Satchmo’s skin lighter by comparing his career with his friend Bing Crosby’s. While Crosby was given his own radio show and starring roles in Hollywood films, Armstrong had to settle for guest appearances on the air and supporting roles in low-budget films.

“Pops” revels in the details of Satchmo’s glory days, but it doesn’t skimp on the leaner parts of his career. The last quarter of Armstrong’s life receive nearly 100 pages. These chapters document Satchmo’s renaissance as not only a premier jazz talent, but showman whose love knew no age or national boundaries. Stories of “Hello Dolly” knocking the Beatles off the top of the chart or recording “(What A) Wonderful World” do not feel like curtain calls, but the natural continuation of a career.

Teachout’s findings are fascinating, but impenetrable at first. It takes several chapters to comfortably negotiate Teachout’s style. His habit of identifying sources in the text instead of footnotes makes for a clunky read. Sometimes the sourcing overwhelms the content. However, after becoming accustomed to Teachout’s style, “Pops” is a pleasant and illuminating read.

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Releasing Jazz from Aspic

(Above: Ornette Coleman jams with the Roots. Improbably, people respond positively to the non-traditional collaboration.)

By Joel Francis

In 1958, Danny and the Juniors sang “Rock and Roll is Here to Stay.” Although the genre was only seven years removed from the its birth on the “Rocket 88” single and three years from its explosion into the mainstream with Elvis Presley, Danny White was right. Sixty years later, it is hard to imagine American culture without rock and roll.

It is also hard to imagine what the malt-shop teens and leather jacket hoods of the Eisenhower administration would have thought about auto-tune, power pop and nu-metal. Although the seeds of today’s rock were planted in the 1950s, the resulting flora has blossomed into hybrids that bear little resemblance to the original crop.

Picture how different today’s musical landscape would be if anything that varied from the pre-British Invasion strains of rock and roll were bastardized. If songs bearing the touch of John Lennon and Paul McCartney or Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were decried as impure for straying from the “true” roots of Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly.  Or if anything after the summer of punk and the rise of synthesizers was kept at arm’s length and segregated from the great Rock Cannon.

Would we expect our children to dig out old Bill Haley and Beach Boys albums if this were the case? Teach them “Fun Fun Fun” and “Maybelline” as historical exercises? Of course not. They would shrug, pay us lip service and invent their own confounding strain of music. The ties to existing music would be obvious – nothing emerges in a vacuum – but nothing we couldn’t dismiss as the impure follies of youth.

Why, then, do we place the same parameters around jazz and feign surprise with then inevitable occurs?

It seems every year a new study comes out showing the median age of jazz listeners climbs while attendance drops. The latest is a National Endowment for the Arts Survey of Public Participation in the Arts conducted through the U.S. Census Bureau. Predictably, the self-appointed Guardians of Jazz like Wall Street Journal columnist and former Kansas City resident Terry Teachout are freaking out. But all this hand-wringing is like an ordinary bicycle enthusiast fretting while the chain-driven model populates the streets. The vehicle is still very much alive, it’s just been modified and influenced by culture.

Too many jazz museums and concert curators suffer from WWWS: What would Wynton say. Would Wynton Marsails, the genre’s most prominent performer and steadfast caretaker, approve of their exhibit or event? While Marsalis is a talent trumpet player who deserves every bit of his fame and credit for bringing jazz to the masses, he is conservative and traditionalist to a fault. Museum directors and concert promoters should be following their own muse and vision, not looking to someone as restrictive as Marsalis for tacit endorsement.

The growth of jazz from Dixieland to big band to bebop is celebrated, but somewhere along the line – about 1965, shortly before John Coltrane’s death, when free jazz and fusion started to creep into the mix – a line was drawn. In shorthand, acoustic Herbie Hancock playing with Miles Davis and recording for Blue Note is “good” jazz; synthesizer-rocking Hancock’s best-selling “Head Hunters,” though, is “bad.”

If directors and promoters must get the thumbs-up from a Marsalis, could it please be Branford? Although a lesser celebrity, the tenor saxophone player and older brother of Wynton has equally distinguished jazz pedigree. He’s also allowed jazz to grow, branching into pop with Sting, serving as musical director for the Tonight Show and working with hip hop artists.

If the stodgy stylistic caretakers turned up their noses when jazz artists, the highest pedigree of musicians, started dabbling in rock and funk, they have completely ignored most jazz performers slumming with rappers in a genre oft-maligned for possessing the lowest level of musicianship.

The elitists are missing the point. At their best, jazz and hip hop are better together than chocolate and peanut better. The improvisational aspect of jazz fits the free-flowing poetry delivered by a great MC. The swing of the instruments matches the swagger of the beats. Dig the way DJ Logic’s turntable work complements Medeski, Martin and Wood’s “Combustication” album, how Mos Def and Q-Tip’s rhymes soar over Ron Carter’s live basslines, or how Roy Hargrove’s trumpet pushes and accentuates Common’s poetry.

Teachout and Wynton Marsalis’ simplified stances ignore the long history of jazz in popular culture. The enduring standard “Someday My Prince Will Come,” was plucked from Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” Although both Dave Brubeck and Louis Armstrong released albums of Disney material, it is doubtful Wynton Marsalis would record a song from a children’s cartoon.

The Chicken Little jazz forecasts don’t show that jazz is less popular or interesting today. The news they bring is even more disturbing: hard evidence that the standard-bearers of the genre are increasing ignorant to how their beloved music has grown, changed and been embraced. They’re the ones missing the party, but don’t worry – their numbers are dwindling.

(Below: More Ornette Coleman with the Roots for all the alarmists. Note how well the musicians play together despite being from the disparate worlds of jazz and hip hop. Surely this is a sign of the apocalypse.)