When 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”.