FAULTY TECHNIQUE (by John McWhorter)

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.

17 responses to “FAULTY TECHNIQUE (by John McWhorter)

  1. Pingback: FAULTY TECHNIQUE (by John McWhorter)

  2. Ahh, so John McWhorter has necessarily to have better technique than Armstrong in order to criticize it? Well, I think you should certify your critical faculties are superior to McWhorter’s before you gainsay him.

    It’s not a particularly scintillating line of argument.

    Simple question: did Armstrong have technical flaws in his embouchure which caused him chops problems? I think it’s a pretty well established fact that he did. And I’ve even read trumpet players saying that this was completely unnecessary.

    Unless you have better facts. If so let’s have them.

    If not, why whine about McWhorter pointing this out? he’s not insulting Armstrong, he’s pointing something out–what he believes is a fact. He’s writing a review, he’s not participating in an embouchure-off.

    If some guy told you someone was stealing your car, what would you say, “What do you know about cars?’ It’s witless.

  3. As someone who has been blowing on a trumpet close to 30 years now, and who has examined Armstrong’s playing from a technical standpoint on a level of intensity that many would consider insane, I have to say that I’m with you, Michael. While Louis’ technique differed in some ways from ‘legit’ players, it really was overuse of his chops that contributed the most to his problems, not “flawed” or “primitive” technique. Throughout most of his early life Pops was playing so much, and at such a level of intensity, that he damaged the muscles in his embouchure, hence the scars. His level of performance was far beyond what an average dance band trumpeter would do, and quite a bit more than a symphony musician with ‘legitimate’ technique. There is also much disagreement about what is technically ‘correct’ in the world of trumpet pedagogy, so to say that Pops’ embouchure is ‘flawed’ really depends on who you ask. All things considered, given the parameters of his playing, Armstrong had very good technique, and he played in a way that had great integrity. He never sacrificed tone for high register virtuosity (as did Maynard Ferguson for example) which is why his high notes sound so good. His tone and technical virtuosity speak for themselves. He was able to maintain a punishing playing schedule. His playing even in the last years of his life was perfectly capable of expressing what he wanted to say. He worked very, very hard, and his scars are more a testament to his artistic integrity than his technical ignorance.
    Which is why statements such as McWhorter’s are so irritating – they’re a rehash of the old ‘Noble Savage’ view of Armstrong that was common for many years and a favorite theme of the self-conscious hipsters. When viewed in total, Armstrong was one of the most sophisticated artists of the 20th century, and some critics just don’t get that. Perhaps some of these boobs feel that Louis needed feet of clay to be such a great artist, or that mention of ‘flawed technique’ makes them sound like an authority. Such foolish generalizations are insulting to Armstrong, and to any inteligent person.

  4. The use of the word “faulty” says more about the user, and his lack of understanding of jazz, than it does about Armstrong. In jazz you might say, “So-and-so’s lack of formal training led to lip problems later in his career.” But the word “faulty” implies a value judgment that applies to classical playing, where there is a uniformly accepted standard of competence; not to jazz, where each player’s sound can be – should be – highly individualistic. Do we cry “Faulty!” when practically every one of Bunny Berigan’s solos contains one fluffed, overblown note? Hell, Miles Davis built an entire style around a “faulty” technique! When I’m listening to the Haydn Trumpet Concerto, I want faultless technique. When I’m listening to jazz, I want the player to tell his/her own story in his/her own unique way. Besides, Armstrong’s “rapid-fire cascades of notes” that “no longer came as easily” were replaced later in his career by a more lyrical, economic approach as sublime in its own way as his earlier playing.

    I suspect the word “faulty” wouldn’t have made it past the editor’s desk at the old New Yorker, where they had a deeper understanding of jazz.

  5. “rapid-fire cascades of notes no longer came as easily.”

    WTF??? Is he speaking of Louis or Dizzy here?

    Also, some who might be interested in an awareness of the Manhattan Institute the neo-con ThinkTank with which Mr John McWhorter is associated can start here:


    Rumor has it that McWhorter heads the “Free Market Chops Research” division.

  6. His level of performance was far beyond what an average dance band trumpeter would do, and quite a bit more than a symphony musician with ‘legitimate’ technique.

    And McWhorter denied this where?

    And he uses the word “primitive” where?

    Which is why statements such as McWhorter’s are so irritating – they’re a rehash of the old ‘Noble Savage’ view of Armstrong that was common for many years and a favorite theme of the self-conscious hipsters.

    What the hell are you talking about? To note any possible fault in any aspect of Armstrong’s trumpet playing is to call him a “noble savage?” Bizarre.

    Do we cry “Faulty!” when practically every one of Bunny Berigan’s solos contains one fluffed, overblown note?

    Well, when McWhorter writes something about Berigan, we’ll ask him.

    And the assumption here that faulty technique would neccessaily result in bad performances is wrong–the usual story with Armstrong is that he arrived at an approach that was musically fine, but needlessly taxing on his lips, which I believe is precisely (obviously) what McWhorter is getting at.

  7. Dear Mr. Kelley,

    I am printing your comment in the spirit of free exchange, but I admit that I find your self-defined “contrarianism” (as you call it in your Amazon profile) rather tedious. Being “contrary” also means being sulky, disagreeing for the sake of argument. I would politely suggest that you get your own blog at this point, but since you already have one . . . I suggest that you use it to the fullest in whatever fashion you find most gratifying. I wonder, frankly, what Armstrong recordings you have listened to in the past day / week / month / year to have such strongly defined, although amorphous, reactions. As I read your reply above, it seems simply an articulate child’s version of “Did too!” “Did not!” — not something I would encourage. As before, I have given you a platform from which to air your opinions, but I am reluctant to continue doing so. Yours most cordially, Michael Steinman

  8. Dear Mr. Kelley,

    The simple truth of the matter is that “faulty” is an inapt word to use in this context. In the English language, we often have several, or many, words with similar (but not the same) meanings; a writer may then select the word that best expresses his precise meaning. If you consult Roget, I’m sure you’ll find a better adjective or phrase to describe Louis Armstrong’s technique. Since you apparently believe that one adjective is just as good as another, I suggest – in the holiday spirit of charity and helpfulness – that you enroll in a course in English Composition.


  9. If you consult Roget, I’m sure you’ll find a better adjective or phrase to describe Louis Armstrong’s technique.

    how’s about ‘technique perfectly suited to fulfill the artistic aims of expression’.

    Lest we all apply ourselves to more perfect renditions of “Flight of the Bumblebee”.

  10. “Technique perfectly suited to fulfill the artistic aims of expression.” Yes, I’d say that’s an improvement over “faulty.”

    One must sympathize, though, with Mr. Kelley’s disappointment that Louis’ technical shortcomings deprived the world of another Rafael Mendez tossing off “Bumblebee” on the Ed Sullivan Show.

  11. I’ve been listening to Louis Armstrong since I was kid, and after 50 years of listening and playing the horn myself, I’ve yet to hear him play a note I didn’t like. Even the wrong ones sound right, they all make sense, reached me at every age of my life, I hear his phrasing in all my modern jazz idols. I hear nothing but life and beauty in all of them, even when he played too many. Like Glenn Gould on piano, or Monk. To have such a capacity to express oneself at such a high level for so many years surely means having to develop fantastic technique to go the distance, not just the trumpet, but the mind, heart, and music itself. Louis transcended the physical limitations of the horn. I defy anyone to name an artist who could have surpassed Louis on his chosen methods and productivity. Therefore, I conclude that Louis Armstong was matchless in his ability, had as near perfect technique as he could possibly require to sound the way he did.

  12. What a beautiful thirty-two bar chorus, Leif! Thank you, Michael Steinman

  13. I can’t believe you shut down a dialogue just because someone disagreed with you Jazzlives.

    All McWhorter is saying is Armstrong’s technique put unneeded strain on his lips. Armstrong would get such bad calluses that he would (by himself) cut them out of his mouth with razor.

  14. Dear “Sam,” I hardly call this “shutting down a dialogue”: I’m extending you the courtesy of printing your comment. The comments I refused to print were stated in a discourteous manner . . . which I have the right to discourage. But your words are here for the world to see and consider. Cheers! MS

  15. “The classic example of severe tissue damage can be studied in the photography and videography of Louis Armstrong. Louis is one of my all-time heroes for many reasons, but the fact remains that he played with a pressure-dependent embouchure for his entire career and there are scars to show severe muscle and tissue damage. There are many historical accounts of Louis working so hard to play high C’s at the end of a show, that his lips literally bled on stage. His concert/tour schedule was delayed several weeks on more than one occasion to allow his chops to heal. This is an extreme example of an amazing musician, the KING of jazz and trumpet and we should all take care to learn from his lessons. Tissue damage is a real problem that should be avoided at all costs. The real problem is our tendency to use pressure to play higher.” –Jason Harrelson

    And of course, McWorther picked this up directly from the book he was reviewing. Teachout talks a fair deal about Armstrong’s faulty embouchure and its effects in the book. Why would you attack a reviewer for merely mentioning something reported as fact in the book he is reviewing? Frightened of attacking Teachout directly?

    Armstrong was a musical genius. Armstrong played some of the greatest trumpet ever played. Armstrong’s embouchure was faulty and contributed to the lip damage from which he suffered from the 1930s onwards. These things are all true and normal adults should be able to assimilate all three facts.

  16. Mr. Kelley, your points are valid. I wish you could disagree with me without feeling the need to insult me. If you must mix your intelligence with personal animus, your comments will not be posted here from this point on. In a more colloquial utterance, “Find someone else to attack.” Thank you.

  17. Oran, you come back to this thread ten years later to make a contribution that hardly moves the discussion forward…basically makes points you made already and then concludes with a not-so-subtle swipe at the blog’s creator.

    Does not seem to be something a “normal adult” would do. But normality is highly overrated anyway.

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