wby1When I was in graduate school, deep in W.B. Yeats-idolatry (my other life has been wound around Irish literature), I admired “Under Ben Bulben”  — his great late poem — immoderately.  But I had very little patience for this quatrain, and wondered if Yeats had made the idea fit his rhymes.

Even the wisest man grows tense
With some sort of violence
Before he can accomplish fate,
Know his work or choose his mate.

The slightly satiric visual image these lines suggested to me was of the artist as bullyboy, getting ready to wallop someone, the man getting dressed to go out with his ladylove, shaving in front of the mirror in tremendous annoyance.  And as I write this, I am listening to an old record of Johnny Windhurst ambling through a ballad-tempo “Memphis Blues”; he sounds utterly at ease.  And Yeats himself — in the famous photo here — looks more pensive than violent.

But I do know that the creative process, even for writers, is tension-producing, the effort of making something a tiring and often irritating thing.  Although we talk about “relaxation” as an ideal creative state and imagine that the string bassist playing those beautiful lines (I am thinking of Pat O’Leary at the Ear Inn last Sunday) is dreamily easeful, every muscle loose, this may be a fallacy.  I wonder if creative energy, productive anger and violence are much like sexual tension: that state of being ready for action, mildly edgy, on the brink of action.

But these lines came to mind again because Sam Parkins, sage and improviser, sent me something he had written about Louis and the emotional climate needed for creativity.  It also reminds us of Louis’s essential deep seriousness about his art, something that all the grinning pictures occasionally obscure.  Some readers might think that these two examples are atypical, but I wonder.  A great deal!


In all the voluminous writing about Louis Armstrong there is something elementary missing, and the minute I tell you about it you’ll agree.  I started looking for it about ten years ago, when I started researching him. Had to be there.  Violence.  The need for it comes at you from all directions.  His start in life, in the funkiest, most criminal part of New Orleans.  The stress of dealing with really bad racial stuff – from both sides, because he was darker than most, and would have got it from lighter folks as well as whites.

And something I know from myself.  When I get deeply involved in music, I go around slightly pissed all the time.  It generates a kind of energy that it’s a good idea to be aware of.  I noticed it only last fall when I had to play clarinet on a critical recording, including memorizing the book, and having to practice my way to more than competence in a hurry.  If you knew Zoot Sims, you would have been aware that it was always there – an undercurrent.  (Don’t take this to include all artists all the time – just a tendency).  But all the writing portrays Louis as this pussy cat.

So finally I found it.  In a recent book, “The Louis Armstrong Companion: 8 Decades of Commentary” (ed. Joshua Berrett, Schirmer Books, 2000), there’s a couple of prime examples:  1) Someone goes into the dressing room just in time to see Louis with his hands around his manager Joe Glaser’s neck – “Lissen motherfucker – if I find you’ve stolen one penny from me you’re dead”.

2) Just before the All Stars are about to go on stage, Louis flattens Jack Teagarden.  Knocks him out.  And goes on to announce sweetly, “Mr. Teagarden will not be able to be with us for this performance”.  (Doesn’t tell us why). I asked biographer James Lincoln Collier if he knew about this, because it’s not in his book. “Yes – I knew about it, but didn’t include it because I have to have something like that from two sources and there’s only one”.

6 responses to “CREATIVE VIOLENCE?

  1. Well – I could imagine ‘pensive’ in the Yeats picture, but what I really see is, to paraphrase Louis re Joe Glazer – “Lissen motherfucker – don’t mess with me…sam p

  2. “Louis’s essential deep seriousness about his art” – Anyone seen that first Louis film (in Copenhagen?) where after the usual mugging he puts his horn to his jaws to play ‘Dinah’? Gone is the clown Louis, here comes the laser-like concentration on one thing. Getting what’s in his head out the bell of his horn. What we all strive for – and Louis actually did…sam p

  3. In one of my lectures at the Institute of Jazz Studies on Armstrong’s later years, I read a bunch of quotes from critics who complained about Armstrong’s clowning, vaudeville routines and general Uncle Tomming. Then I read this quote: “His ego when he was a young man and clowning that he did must have been rather amusing for laughs, to get the recognition he achieved. But he sure did not play the cornet seriously at any time. Just Clowned all the way. Good for those idiots’ fans who did not care whether he played correct, or they did not know good music, or cared less.”

    Care to guess where that quote comes from? Pops himself, writing about Freddie Keppard. I think it sums up everything he was about. Did he clown? Of course and he admitted it. “Critics in England say I was a clown, but a clown, that’s hard. If you can make people chuckle a little; it’s happiness to me to see people happy, and most of the people who criticize don’t know one note for another.”

    So when you put those quotes together, you have a pretty good equation for the genius of Louis Armstrong. Sure he clowned…but that music was as serious as his life. When Armstrong played “Tiger Rag” in the 1950s, the performance usually ended with Armstrong chasing trombonist Trummy Young around a piano, all in good fun. But if you close your eyes and just listen, well my goodness, the man’s hitting high C’s with the force of God. I just analyzed a nine-and-a-half minute “Tiger Rag” from 1959 that I’m sure included a lot of clowning visually but also an astounding amount of serious playing. Dig it…


  4. And his eyes turn upward toward the heavens,
    as the horn reaches his chops;

    that’s where the music comes from:

    trickster as clown- shaman brings it down from above and shows it to us.

    Many don’t get it; maybe that’s why the anger?

  5. The image of The Clown, which we see in highly diluted form in the circus version, is ancient and highly archetypal.

    Manifested as The Fool by Shakespeare although the tradition is much more archaic. He wraps the nutritive poison of truth in a sweet.

    Thanks Ricky for your great insight and devotion.

  6. A postscript with several layers: I understand that there might be, for some readers, a logical problem in what’s being advanced here in the name of a certain kind of violence or anger being necessary for creativity. I can hear someone saying, “Just because Louis was enraged by Joe Glaser or furious at one of his misbehaving sidemen, that doesn’t make a philosophical principle for Louis or for anyone else.” Granted. But after I wrote this post, I thought of the faces of the improvising musicians I’ve seen, while they are playing or listening to a playback in the recording studio. (And this is true of many photographs that capture these players.) Their expression of intense muscular / emotional concentration is so ferociously concentrated that it seems indistinguishable from rage — or, at its mildest, a dangerous degree of irritation. “Don’t you dare mess with me — this is very hard work!” their faces seem to say. And the smiles and giggles that they break into at the end of a solo seems to suggest that they are happy to create what they have but also so relieved to have gotten safely over to the other side, like Phillippe Petit walking that wire so many stories above us.

    And as far as Sam’s comment on Yeats’s facial violence, I wonder. Yeats wrote often and deeply about violent men — Parnell and Cuchulain come to mind — but he seems to have funneled all of his own violence into his writings. Yes, he did empty the dregs of his teapot out the window of his Merrion Square flat (presumably on the heads of people walking below) but I would take that as dreamy obliviousness rather than creative fury. But jazz-loving Yeatsians, if they exist, are encouraged to send in examples that contradict my position.

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