Tag Archives: Terry Teachout

“TO MY LIFE LONG BUDDY”

HORN OF PLENTY by Robert Goffin is more enthusiastic than accurate or correct — not on the same level as Louis’ own autobiography or contemporary works (Max Jones, Terry Teachout, Ricky Riccardi).  But here‘s a memorable copy I found on eBay, autographed by its subject to his pal Wild Bill Davison:

TO MY LIFE LONG BUDDY WILD BILL DAVIDSON

The handwriting is authentic, as are the sentiments.

May your happiness increase!

Advertisements

“THE CAUSE OF HAPPINESS” IN PAPERBACK

Are you looking to begin your holiday shopping early?  Of course, you can shower your friends and family with gift cards, but I propose a more satisfying gifts for the people on your list who might need a portable reminder of how deep happiness goes and how it can be attained.  They don’t need to love jazz; they need to be open to love.

My suggestion?  Ricky Riccardi’s enduring book WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD: THE MAGIC OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG’S LATER YEARS. Click here for the essential details.

It is a great human story of an artist, joyous and courageous, bringing light to hundreds of thousands of people.  You don’t need to be a jazz fan to admire the story and the book.

Here’s what I wrote in 2011, when the book first came out.  It still seems true to me today.

Ricky Riccardi’s new book, WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD: THE MAGIC OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG’S LATER YEARS (Pantheon), will be published in a week, and it has already gotten a glowing review in the Washington Post, with NPR and The New York Times coverage to come.  (You can read the reviews and Ricky’s interview in JAZZ TIMES by clicking here):

Full disclosure: my name crops up in the acknowledgments, and I admired Ricky’s work long before this book came out.  But I would think this book was magical even if I’d never met its author.

On its surface, this biography depicts the last quarter-century of Louis Armstrong’s life — his years of global popularity as a beloved figure, the years of HELLO, DOLLY! and WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD.

But the real story in this book is the gap between public perception and essential reality.  “To be great is to be misunderstood,” Emerson wrote, and it rings true here.  Artists cannot defend themselves against those who choose to interpret their work.  There is often a huge gap between what artists create, how the “experts” and “critics” perceive it, and how the art is represented to the world.

There have been many books about Louis — the best of them have been Terry Teachout’s POPS, and LOUIS by Max Jones and John Chilton.  (I am passing over the other biographies, marred by their distance from the subject or by personal rancors.)

But Ricky’s book deeply and effectively faces the complex question of what it is to be a working artist in the modern world.  An artist working in the public world — not a painter or a poet in a studio, but a “performer” on television, on records, onstage.

Louis lived to make music, and to “lay it on the public.”  A musician needs a community, both on and off stage.  Louis was no recluse; he didn’t scorn his audiences.  He spent his days and nights, consciously and subconsciously, living for what would come out of his horn, how he would sing.

This was his quest, his joy, and his “hustle,” what he did for a living.  He didn’t demand to be taken seriously as An Artist, but he did know that he was creating masterpieces; he was proud of his art and the pleasure it brought and continues to bring.

Thus, when he began to be sneered at (and that’s not too strong a word) as an Uncle Tom, an “entertainer,” someone who had sold out, had lost his creativity, had turned his back on “the truth,” even “a good-natured buffoon,” these cruel misinterpretations turned Emerson’s words into knives.

Another artist might have turned his back on his critics and spent his last quarter-century in wounded seclusion.  Louis worked harder; he toured the world; he became “Ambassador Satch,” he created astonishing beauties.  The audiences understood this in deep spiritual ways, even if they had never read Gunther Schuller.

But it took this book — the new material in it and Ricky’s affectionate, dogged diligence — to bring Louis, complete and complicated, to life once again.  And here I want to move slightly to the book itself — and its author.

Ricky Riccardi is, first off, a fine writer.  Not fussy, not academic, but someone whose vigorous, human speaking voice resonates through these pages.  So the book is a pleasure to read: I rationed the pages I allowed myself each night so that it wouldn’t end too soon, as I knew it had to.  He has so steeped himself in the life of the man he is celebrating (and it is a celebratory book!) that his easy assurance illuminates every page.  But the reader never feels intimidated by an impending avalanche of facts and dates and itineraries.

This book places the living Louis Armstrong in front of us, seen anew — the man who had a very intricate relationship with his manager, Joe Glaser, but was in charge of that relationship, not its victim.  There is an astonishing long letter from Louis to Glaser on the subject of marijuana — a revelation not only in the tale it tells, but in Louis’s angry eloquence.

Ricky has delved more deeply into Louis’s private tapes than any biographer before him, thus the book is full of new insights rather than being a synthetic assemblage of what other people have written.  I was surprised and delighted (dee-lighted, really) on every page.  And while this biography is no uncritical fan letter, its affection comes through from start to finish — a fitting celebration of Louis, who created and felt “the love and warmth of a million people.”

As a working jazz musician, Ricky also understands much more about the music than many writers who have been on the scene longer.  Even though you don’t need to be a musicologist to read this book, and there is not one intimidating transcribed solo (just lovely photographs), the book never feels distant from Louis’s art.

Louis Armstrong lived “in the cause of happiness.”  Although he knew his art was unique, he wore his achievements lightly, “I’m not lookin’ to be on no high pedestal.  [The people who hear me] get their soul lifted because they got the same soul I have the moment I hit a note.”

More than any other biography of Louis Armstrong, Ricky’s book vibrates with those truths.  Even if you are someone who appreciates Louis Armstrong only casually, you will find in this book a deep, rewarding, honest portrait of a man, an artist, his century.

It’s an extraordinary biography and a wonderful book.  And it brings the same joy that Louis did.

P.S.  Ricky also maintains a wonderful Louis Armstrong blog, with music and video. Here is his most recent posting — full of delights from Louis in Scandinavia, 1933.

May your happiness increase!

“THE CAUSE OF HAPPINESS”: WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD: THE MAGIC OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG’S LATER YEARS

Ricky Riccardi’s new book, WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD: THE MAGIC OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG’S LATER YEARS (Pantheon), will be published in a week, and it has already gotten a glowing review in the Washington Post, with NPR and The New York Times coverage to come.  (You can read the reviews and Ricky’s interview in JAZZ TIMES by clicking here):

http://dippermouth.blogspot.com/2011/06/more-news-and-reviews.html

Full disclosure: my name crops up in the acknowledgments, and I admired Ricky’s work long before this book came out.  But I would think this book was magical even if I’d never met its author.

On its surface, this biography depicts the last quarter-century of Louis Armstrong’s life — his years of global popularity as a beloved figure, the years of HELLO, DOLLY! and WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD.

But the real story in this book is the gap between public perception and essential reality.  “To be great is to be misunderstood,” Emerson wrote, and it rings true here.  Artists cannot defend themselves against those who choose to interpret their work.  There is often a huge gap between what artists create, how the “experts” and “critics” perceive it, and how the art is represented to the world.

There have been many books about Louis — the best of them have been Terry Teachout’s POPS, and LOUIS by Max Jones and John Chilton.  (I am passing over the other biographies, marred by their distance from the subject or by personal rancors.)

But Ricky’s book deeply and effectively faces the complex question of what it is to be a working artist in the modern world.  An artist working in the public world — not a painter or a poet in a studio, but a “performer” on television, on records, onstage.

Louis lived to make music, and to “lay it on the public.”  A musician needs a community, both on and off stage.  Louis was no recluse; he didn’t scorn his audiences.  He spent his days and nights, consciously and subconsciously, living for what would come out of his horn, how he would sing.

This was his quest, his joy, and his “hustle,” what he did for a living.  He didn’t demand to be taken seriously as An Artist, but he did know that he was creating masterpieces; he was proud of his art and the pleasure it brought and continues to bring.

Thus, when he began to be sneered at (and that’s not too strong a word) as an Uncle Tom, an “entertainer,” someone who had sold out, had lost his creativity, had turned his back on “the truth,” even “a good-natured buffoon,” these cruel misinterpretations turned Emerson’s words into knives.

Another artist might have turned his back on his critics and spent his last quarter-century in wounded seclusion.  Louis worked harder; he toured the world; he became “Ambassador Satch,” he created astonishing beauties.  The audiences understood this in deep spiritual ways, even if they had never read Gunther Schuller.

But it took this book — the new material in it and Ricky’s affectionate, dogged diligence — to bring Louis, complete and complicated, to life once again.  And here I want to move slightly to the book itself — and its author.

Ricky Riccardi is, first off, a fine writer.  Not fussy, not academic, but someone whose vigorous, human speaking voice resonates through these pages.  So the book is a pleasure to read: I rationed the pages I allowed myself each night so that it wouldn’t end too soon, as I knew it had to.  He has so steeped himself in the life of the man he is celebrating (and it is a celebratory book!) that his easy assurance illuminates every page.  But the reader never feels intimidated by an impending avalanche of facts and dates and itineraries.

This book places the living Louis Armstrong in front of us, seen anew — the man who had a very intricate relationship with his manager, Joe Glaser, but was in charge of that relationship, not its victim.  There is an astonishing long letter from Louis to Glaser on the subject of marijuana — a revelation not only in the tale it tells, but in Louis’s angry eloquence.

Ricky has delved more deeply into Louis’s private tapes than any biographer before him, thus the book is full of new insights rather than being a synthetic assemblage of what other people have written.  I was surprised and delighted (dee-lighted, really) on every page.  And while this biography is no uncritical fan letter, its affection comes through from start to finish — a fitting celebration of Louis, who created and felt “the love and warmth of a million people.”

As a working jazz musician, Ricky also understands much more about the music than many writers who have been on the scene longer.  Even though you don’t need to be a musicologist to read this book, and there is not one intimidating transcribed solo (just lovely photographs), the book never feels distant from Louis’s art.

Louis Armstrong lived “in the cause of happiness.”  Although he knew his art was unique, he wore his achievements lightly, “I’m not lookin’ to be on no high pedestal.  [The people who hear me] get their soul lifted because they got the same soul I have the moment I hit a note.”

More than any other biography of Louis Armstrong, Ricky’s book vibrates with those truths.  Even if you are someone who appreciates Louis Armstrong only casually, you will find in this book a deep, rewarding, honest portrait of a man, an artist, his century.

It’s an extraordinary biography and a wonderful book.  And it brings to same joy that Louis did.

COME AND JOIN THE JUBILEE!

I had the great pleasure of meeting the Louis Armstrong scholar Ricky Riccardi at the Armstrong Archives (they’re in the Queens College Library and they’re a marvel) so that we could have a brief chat about his new book, WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD: THE MAGIC OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG’S LATER YEARS (Pantheon).  The book will be out on June 21 although you can pre-order it on Amazon.

It’s a wonderful book, and I’ll have more to say about that in a few weeks.  But here’s its young author — informed, sincere, down-to-earth and full of love for his subject.  And I’m not the only one who thinks so:

“The story of Louis Armstrong’s later years is the great untold tale of postwar jazz.  Now Ricky Riccardi has told it to perfection,” says Terry Teachout, author of Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong

Now do you understand why Louis smiles while Ricky is speaking?

You’ll have another opportunity to meet Ricky, to buy an autographed copy of his book . . . and where better than at a summer garden party at the Louis Armstrong House Museum?     The book party will take place in the Armstrong Garden at the Louis Armstrong House Museum,  Sunday, June 26 from 2-4 PM.

Tickets are $35, which includes an autographed book, a guided tour of the Armstrong House and refreshments.  $25 for LAHM members.

Space is limited. Make your reservation today!   

Reservations can be made at:  reservations@louisarmstronghouse.org.

For further questions call the museum at  (718) 478-8274.

The LOUIS ARMSTRONG HOUSE MUSEUM is located at 34-56 107th Street, Corona, Queens, New York City 11368.  It’s easy to get there by car or by public transportation.

If you can’t come to the party, I hope you will buy a copy of Ricky’s book and consider becoming a member of the Louis Armstrong House Museum — a down-home shrine visited by people from every country on the globe.     Members support their mission — making sure the joy Louis spread is never forgotten — and receive exclusive benefits throughout the year, including: free admission for historic house tours, special member discount to all events, a subscription to Dippermouth News, a sneak peek of upcoming events, 10% discount in our museum store, pre-show parties with other members, and much more.

“JAZZ LIVES”: SETH COLTER WALLS

Excerpts from his piece, “JAZZ IS DEAD.  LONG LIVE JAZZ.”  (From NEWSWEEK, Dec 21, 2009.)

[O]n an economic level, right: as a mass-culture force, jazz is dead. Simply look at the contemporary brand most familiar to a lay audience: the Marsalis family. In the early ’90s, one brother (Branford) was leading Jay Leno’s late-night band, while another (Wynton) was the preeminent trumpeter on Columbia, Miles’s old label. By the middle of this decade, both of them had lost those public perches—and no one has reached that stature since. 

Multi-disc sets of previously unissued live concerts from Ella Fitzgerald and Stan Getz are also competing for the public’s limited attention span this season. So no wonder folks keep saying jazz is dead: devotion to its past is stealing oxygen from the same room in which the present hopes to draw a breath.

[A]t the point where a relatively young art like jazz amasses enough history to merit these important tomes and huge box sets, the more difficult it becomes for the culture to absorb what’s happening in real time. And real time is how jazz is best experienced. Like baseball—another great American invention—part of jazz’s appeal is in how it unspools without deference to the clock. Just as drama asks for suspension of our disbelief, jazz asks us for the suspension of our need to program our every moment. Meantime, our contemporary mania for abbreviated text updates—think Twitter, Facebook, and BlackBerrys—feels as if it stands in direct opposition to jazz’s deliberate, instrumental abstractions. Enjoying the music—really swinging with it—is a glorious sacrifice of the need to micro-manage the moment. And though it can be dreamy, this surely isn’t a recipe for amassing a stable brand that can support itself in the modern marketplace. At the beginning of the 21st century, the economic status of jazz is more like that of the symphony orchestra, only without the economic safety net of foundation funding that undergirds concerts featuring Beethoven and Brahms.

In fact, the arts community should debate whether a greater share of the music endowment pie ought to be going to jazz musicians. The rub is that it never will, unless there is an understanding that jazz’s economic status isn’t a hideous reflection of poor aesthetic health. But even if jazz is finally buried in that (expanding) graveyard of former mass-culture obsessions, that doesn’t mean the music isn’t still happening, or that it isn’t still perfectly capable of talking to us at an individual level. As long as they don’t starve to death, committed jazz musicians will be there for you, the forbidding economics of their pursuit be damned. And even if no one you know is talking about what they’re playing, be wary of any strangers who tell you they aren’t swinging anymore.

In reprinting excerpts from Walls’ piece, sent to me by Bill Gallagher, I am definitely not trying to awaken the Teachout-driven controversy about whether “jazz is dead” or not.  But I think Walls makes splendid points about the competitive marketplace that makes jazz — for most listeners — less essential, and the short attention span so characteristic of our times that makes many people too impatient for the music, too eager for instant gratification to immerse themselves in a musical form that no longer seems like a common language.  It wasn’t difficult to get listeners to appreciate jazz in 1936 or even 1956, because it was still part of the contemporaneous art . . . but now everyone has to work a bit harder.  I would quibble about his division between “past” and “present” in his second paragraph, since the jazz I revere brings those two artificial entities together from the first bar.  But that’s semantics. 

Since I think that much of what Walls writes makes good sense, and especially because “swinging” is the penultimate word of his essay, I hope he is able to come to New York City some Sunday night: I’ll buy him dinner at the Ear Inn. 

Comments, anyone?

The full piece can be found here: http://www.newsweek.com/id/226331/output/comments. 

And I would try not to be startled by the many unfamiliar names Walls cites: you can, if they make the room spin around, insert the names of musicians you love.

HERBIE NICHOLS: A JAZZIST’S LIFE

Two biographies of jazz musicians have recently gotten much well-deserved media attention: Robin G. Kelley’s study of Thelonious Monk, Terry Teachout’s Louis Armstrong book. 

The Mercury Press has just published jazz scholar Mark Miller’s biography of pianist-composer Herbie Nichols.  It’s a small paperback, 224 pages, without accompanying fanfare. 

But HERBIE NICHOLS: A JAZZIST’S LIFE is, in its own quiet way, equal and perhaps superior to the larger competition.  It could fascinate a reader who had never heard Nichols on record or in person: Miller is that fine a writer and researcher. 

At this point, “full disclosure” is essential: I have admired Miller’s books before; my praise of his Valaida Snow biography is on the back cover here; I also tried to help him speak to New York musicians who might have played alongside Nichols, among them Leroy “Sam” Parkins and Joe Muranyi.  But if I had received a copy of this book with its author’s name erased, I would have been mightily impressed. 

But more about that later.  Who was Herbie Nichols?  “Dead at 44 of leukemia” is one answer.  “Brilliantly original but underacknowledged in his lifetime.”  “Peer of Monk, not a disciple.”  “Inimitable pianist and composer.”  “He could work with Danny Barker and Roswell Rudd and please them both.” 

Nichols rarely made his living playing the music he had created.  The paying gigs were with rhythm and blues bands or playing for cabarets, chorus lines, and shows, and most often “Dixieland.”  In fact, I first heard him on records with Rex Stewart and Joe Thomas.  (Nichols’ last record was the Atlantic MAINSTREAM session.) 

But Nichols knew a wide variety of music, and didn’t bring his own ideology to the gig, even though the jazz critics were busily pitting “Dixieland” against “modern.”  He was a fine stride pianist, choosing Jelly Roll Morton’s THE PEARLS as his feature when he played with a traditional band. 

But he retained his identity, and the players who worked with Nichols understood that he was going his own way in the traditional ensembles of the time, not always easily.  Dixieland gigs proliferated, even though writers might now see the Fifties as the era of cool jazz or hard bop.  He worked in bands led by drummer Al Bandini (a friend of Pee Wee Russell) at the Greenwich Village club The Riviera, which may still be active, although without music, on Seventh Avenue South.  Buell Neidlinger recalled what I hope wasn’t a typical scene: “I can’t tell you the number of times I trudged over there with my bass just to get a chance to play with Herbie, even with Al there — just to make Herbie feel better.  Al was nasty to Herbie.  Herbie’d be playing one of his tunes and Al would say, ‘Let’s stop that shit now!  Right in the middle of the tune!  Let’s stop that shit now.  Let’s play When the Saints Go Marching In.‘ He’d say that real loud and the audience would scream, ‘Yeah!  Go, man, go, go, go!” 

Nichols’ brief life, the scant recognition he got, and such scenes might encourage a writer to depict him as a victim.  One imagines the Down Beat headline: JAZZ MODERNIST FORCED TO PLAY “ROYAL GARDEN BLUES.”  Intrigued by Nichols the man, Miller avoids the conventional portrait of the suffering jazzman, and shows us that Nichols — refiined, intellectual, chess-player, poet, and painter — was not self-destructive, an alcoholic, an addict.  African-American, he was not victimized by racism — no more than any man of his race in those decades.   

Rather, Miller is sympathetic without being idolatrous, candidly describing the missed chances, the system of jazz-stardom that put Thelonious Monk on the cover of TIME but had Nichols playing the piano for female impersonators.  Nichols is a particularly challenging subject for a biography because the evidence that exists nearly forty-five years after his death is slim. 

However, readers who are intrigued by famous names and the people a working musician might encounter will be delighted by the players Nichols worked with or knew: Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, Sidney Bechet, Dick Rath, Ed Polcer, Conrad Janis, Wilbur deParis, Illinois Jacquet, John Kirby, Charles Mingus, Roswell Rudd, Sheila Jordan, Dave Frishberg, Cecil Taylor, Max Roach, Art Blakey.  We find him on a Turkish cruise ship playing traditional jazz with Steve Swallow.  A Nichols melody caught Billie Holiday’s ear and was retitled, with lyrics, LADY SINGS THE BLUES.  He helps a ten-year old Phil Schaap negotiate the New York subway system. 

Miller knits together all these incidents, bits of hearsay and anecdotage without making his book seem like a banquet of crumbs.  The biography moves chronologically, but Miller isn’t tied to the calendar (some jazz books read as if the author wanted to follow the subject gig by gig, month by month); Miller is both expert and free, so the book moves sideways when the material needs it, without losing the thread.  The biography is compact (Miller considers that not every artist needs a five-hundred page monograph) but it is both dense and quickly-paced. 

And in the essential small things, Miller is splendid: he has a fine emotional intelligence that allows him to be fond of Nichols (as everyone except Bandini was, apparently) without idealizing him.  Although the evidence is often sketchy, Miller doesn’t hypothesize excessively; he avoids psychoanalyzing his subject; he doesn’t get irritated by Nichols, nor does he pad the biography by quoting large excerpts from Nichols’ prose.  His musical analysis is pointed but not over-technical; Miller captures the flavor and sensibility of Nichols playing, composing, and imagination.

Another writer might have made himself the subject of the book: “Look how much detective work I had to do to find out this shred of information about that neglected pianist — I forget his name.”  Someone might have shaped the facts of his subject’s life to fit a particular ideology.  Because Miller illuminates Nichols and gently stays out of the way, his subject’s personality shines through, even when the evidence is most thin.  I began the book with great eagerness because I admire Miller’s writing, his perspective, and his research — but very soon I was forcing myself to read it more slowly, because I did not want it to end.  That may be the best tribute a reader can pay — to Nichols and to his chronicler.       

COPYRIGHT, MICHAEL STEINMAN AND JAZZ LIVES, 2009
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.  Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Michael Steinman and Jazz Lives with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
 

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.