In the December 14, 2009 issue of THE NEW YORKER, the book review is given over to Terry Teachout’s Louis Armstrong biography, POPS, which has received unprecedented media coverage. The review is titled “THE ENTERTAINER,” which gave me pause.
Its author is John McWhorter, “a Senior Fellow of Public Policy at the Manhattan Institute and a lecturer at Columbia University.” Thus, he seems not to be an official “Jazz Critic,” which is fine, and his prose is commendably clear. And the review is mostly an overview of Armstrong’s life, with comments on Teachout’s book sprinkled here and there. McWhorter closes by quoting alto saxophonist Charlie Holmes, a commendable act.
I suppose I should confess (although close readers will have guessed it by now) that I am what some uncomprehending writer referred to as “guilty of Amstrongidolatry,” although I do not value all of Louis’s performances equally. But he seems monumental.
Halfway through the review, nine words leapt out at me:
“Armstrong, like many self-taught geniuses, had a faulty technique. . . .”
Lest I seem to be quoting out of context, I will add that McWhorter then speaks of the scar tissue on Armstrong’s upper lip, and that the result of his “faulty technique” was audible in the Fifties, when “rapid-fire cascades of notes no longer came as easily.”
All of this is true, although I will leave aside the question of whether Arnold Palmer or Joe Louis would have been reproached for, later in life, having less muscular ability than in their youth.
But “faulty technique” sticks in my throat, or my craw, or wherever irritating half-truths can be said to stick.
“So!” I said to myself. “That “faulty technique” must be the reason Louis’s playing on HE’S A SON OF THE SOUTH and AFTER YOU’VE GONE and GOT A BRAN’ NEW SUIT and WHEN YOU WISH UPON A STAR is so . . . . “faulty.”
Had Louis, instead of being placed in the Colored Waifs’ Home, been fortunate enough to master legitimate trumpet technique . . . had he been able to spend several years in a Jazz Studies program . . . had he been able to master the proper rudiments of brass playing with teachers more well-trained than Peter Jones and Joseph Oliver. . . well, then. Then we would have heard some great music, instead of these flawed performances.
I was a very very bad trumpet player in fifth grade, and my later attempts at the brass family would impress no one. But I do know how difficult it is to play the trumpet at any level, and thus Louis’s playing strikes me as astonishing. And it might seem to some to be ad hominem to ask on what instrument McWhorter has distinguished himself, and is his technique beyond reproach?
And before any reproachful readers write in to (of course) deliver reproaches, I would ask that they listen to at least three minutes of an Armstrong performance they hold dear and work diligently to uncover the faults in its technique. Only then might we be able to discuss this in some informed way.