Q&A with Terry Teachout
BRIAN LAMB, FOUNDER AND CEO, C-SPAN: You know, over the years that I’ve been reading you, I always wanted to ask you and we’ve never met where the name Teachout came from.
TERRY TEACHOUT, DRAMA CRITIC, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL: It’s Dutch, as far as I know, and I spent my whole life spelling it to people who always say, ”Oh, just like it sounds.”
LAMB: Where where did you grow up?
TEACHOUT: I grew up in Southeast Missouri, in a small town called Sikeston down in the Boot heel. All my family is still back there.
LAMB: Create the the time when you were with instrument in hand, playing music, or do you still do that?
TEACHOUT: I don’t play anymore. I’m a recovering musician. But I started playing music well, when I was in junior high school, not long after I first heard Louis Armstrong for the first time, which was when I was 8 years old. I started out in violin. I heard jazz and thought I’d like to play this, violin not the best for that. So I borrowed a bass a stand-up bass from the high the junior high school band room. I took it home one summer and taught myself how to play.
I was a Music major in college, Music and Journalism, and then I played jazz professionally in Kansas City for several years before I decided I was a better writer than I was a musician. And I I’d never questioned the decision to be a writer, but I still miss making music. I don’t think you ever really get over that.
LAMB: Eight years old is the first time you heard Louis Armstrong and what year would that have been?
TEACHOUT: The year (ph) ’64 because it was on the Ed Sullivan Show. ”Hello Dolly” have just hit, and I was I don’t know what I was doing. I was playing in the next room one Sunday night. And my mother said to me, ”Come in here. There’s somebody I want you to see on the television. He wouldn’t be around forever and I want you to remember him,” and it was Louis, singing ”Hello Dolly” with the All Stars. And, obviously, it made a permanent impression on me. I was just at the very beginning of becoming conscious of jazz at that moment.
So that was really a formative moment for me, and my mother, who is still alive I tell this story in the epilogue of my book, and I didn’t tell her that I was telling this story.
LAMB: You know, there are two things they’re not they’re connected with you, but the audience wouldn’t understand it, the Pratt Library in H. L. Mencken, but I want to jump stay with Louis Armstrong for a moment.
LAMB: Six hundred and fifty reel to reel tapes?
TEACHOUT: Reel to reel tapes.
LAMB: They’re how were they recorded and where are they?
TEACHOUT: Well, the whole story Armstrong was one of the first people in America to own a tape recorder, right when they began to be put on sale commercially after World War II. He bought one in 1947. At first, he used it to tape his performances so that he could study them and perfect his act.
But then, when tape recorders were new and people first got their hands on one, they wanted to play with them. So he started leaving his tape recorder on in the dressing room and the hotel room and dinner parties, just to tape conversations. He would sometimes, he would do little mock radio shows and things like that, and he tapes his radio and TV interviews and often they’re the only documentation we have of those interviews.
But, mostly, he taped conversations and he saved them. They ended up in the attic of his house in Queens, New York, and they made their way, along with all the rest of his personal effects, to what became the Armstrong Archives at Queens College. They were a treasure throve, obviously. They were conserved. They were transferred to compact discs. They were indexed.
At this point, I come through the front door. I was the first biographer ever to have access to these tapes after they were made available to researchers.
LAMB: What year?
TEACHOUT: That would have been about four, five years ago.
LAMB: And what had led you to the point where you even thought you could do a biography on Louis Armstrong?
TEACHOUT: Well, it was actually that was nine years ago. It was the Armstrong centenary and I was out at Queens College. I was writing a piece about the centenary and about the Armstrong house for ”The New York Times,” and Michael Cogswell, the curator I was I was at this time in the middle of working on my Mencken book, and Michael said have you ever thought about writing an Armstrong biography? And, you know, when you’re in the middle of finishing up a biography that you spent 10 years on, your answer to that is no. Go away. Don’t bother me.
But three years later it was the first night of the Mencken book tour. I was here in Washington, actually around the corner of the hotel. I’ve just come off that first day, speeches and radio and TV and I fell on the bed, and it was like a bolt of lightning hit me in the forehead. I thought, Louis. And I thought about it, and the next morning I called my agent and I said I think I know what the next book should be, and, sure enough, that’s what it is.
LAMB: So, what was it how many hours did you listen to those tapes?
TEACHOUT: I can’t even tell you. A lot. But, you know, you lose count after a while because it was like being in the briar patch. I was just grabbing here, grabbing there. Fortunately, the tapes have been completely indexed. I mean, it’s a finding aid. So you don’t have to do random fishing expeditions in them, but I did a lot of I’d look in an index entry that would have been written by a student that gave us sort of a dull description of what was on the track, and I’d say I wonder if that’s interesting.
And in one of those fishing expeditions, I found a tape in which Armstrong talks at a dinner party about getting in trouble with the gangsters of Chicago in 1930, ’31, and he names names, something that he had never done in any published source that I was able to find. So that was that was one of my great factual finds in the tapes.
LAMB: Is this a case in where those tapes sit there and nobody really pays attention until somebody like you comes along?
TEACHOUT: They were starting to pay attention. Everybody knew about the tapes, because everybody who knew about Armstrong knew that he made them. But because they have been left in an attic for years, most of us assume, since they were reel to reel oxide (ph) tapes that they wouldn’t be playable. They were all playable. It was just a matter of transferring them digitally.
And it was simply perfect timing on my part that I came along when I did. Scholars are now starting to work with the tapes, although Michael Cogswell at the Archives tells me that he’s surprised at how comparably few people listen to the tapes, which anybody can come and listen to. All you have to do is make an appointment.
LAMB: But while you’re talking about this, and we’ll get back to Louis Armstrong and why we’re even talking about this, as our program deals with public policy and politics, there’s another event in your life. You spent some five years up there in Baltimore in the H. L. Mencken room in Pratt Library
TEACHOUT: I was writing a primary source biography of Mencken. It was my first full-length biography. I had been reading, as just as I have been listening to Armstrong all my life, I’ve been reading Mencken since I was in junior high school.
Mencken left behind a very large catch (ph) of private papers, autobiographical manuscripts, that were sealed for a long period after his death, and they have been released from time seal, and that was what stimulated me to want to write the book about him, ”The Skeptic: A Life of H. L. Mencken.”
LAMB: How many hours did you spend in that room?
TEACHOUT: Well, I spent 10 years working on the book. And during the main period that I was working on it, I would come down to Baltimore most weekends and spend a three-day weekend, pretty much always in the Mencken Room. You could set up shop there.
I bought my first laptop computer, back when they were larger than they are now, to work on the Mencken book, and they tell me it was the first laptop ever brought into the Mencken Room. And I was 20 feet away from his first typewriter, which was a little bitty old Corona that was a century old and had been used so much that the enamel was worn off the space bar.
LAMB: I actually and and I want to ask you about things like Google Books, because I found enough on Google Books to pull out from your book on H. L. Mencken. And as the cultural editor of the Washington I mean, ”Wall Street Journal,” I want to know what you think about this. And the quote I’ve got here is, ”The American politician is a man who has lied and dissembled, and a man who has crawled. He knows the taste of the boot polish. He has taken orders from his superiors in knavery and he was wooed and flattered his superiors in a sense.”
TEACHOUT: You know, I used that quote in my stump speech about Mencken, the one that I did on the book tour. It is actually one of my favorite Mencken quotes.
LAMB: So how you know, how much does well, how much do do these folks in the culture world impact politics in the country?
TEACHOUT: Armstrong, I think, had a real impact on politics, even though he was not himself in any way a political man. His impact is in race relations. He was one of the very first black people that white people all over the country came to respect and, I think, to love through his art, through performing in films and on television. And I think, although he was not an activist in any conventional sense of the word, I think that that contribution to race relations in America is really as powerful as just about anything anybody else did in the ’40s and ’50s.
Now, Mencken, there you have a different case altogether. Mencken is essentially the prototype of the modern op-ed columnist, really, the man around whom the idea of what we now think of as an opinion column crystallized and coalesced in the ’20s. And although his track record as a political prognosticator was fairly pitiful, he had a great deal to do with creating the way that we think about politicians, the skepticism that we bring to discussions of them in columns like the one from which the quote that you read a moment ago came from.
I don’t think that he had any kind of direct role on the political process itself, although he was one of the first people to cover political conventions in anything like a sophisticated, modern way.
LAMB: We’ve got some video tape, as a matter of fact, off YouTube. But before we go to YouTube, the reason why I brought up Google Books, they’ve got some of your material on Google Books. Did they pay you for that?
LAMB: What do you think of the idea of all those books? Now, they don’t have the full book. And a matter of fact, all the books you’ve written, like on Whittaker Chambers and other books, they don’t have much on there in anyway of anyway, but they do have enough on there from this book on Mencken that you could at least get a little bit of information. What do you think of the whole idea?
TEACHOUT: Well, I’ve shockingly (ph) mixed feelings about it. I used Google Books in researching my Armstrong book. Of course, it didn’t exist when I did the Mencken book. It was useful to me.
But the copyright and compensation issues are very serious, enough so that I I was a party to some of the preliminary litigation about the Google Book settlement. My agent, my literary agent, Lynn Chu, is one of the people who has been objecting strongly to the Google Book settlement. So I I think that’s going to have to be worked out a lot more fully before people are prepared to go on with it.
LAMB: Why do you think they thought they could ever do something like that and why do libraries cooperate?
TEACHOUT: Well, the libraries cooperated because it was, obviously, to their advantage in terms of making material available.
LAMB: Do they pay them?
TEACHOUT: That I don’t know. I’m not part of I’m not part of that that loop of the process. But, I think Google assumed that if they did this on a sufficiently large scale that people just wouldn’t think much about the extent to which the original form in the settlement compromised their long-term rights in in the works that they created.
Now, I want materials to be available to people through electronic searching. I think it’s very important. But I also think that copyright is important, and I don’t think that the rights of authors should be compromised, in some cases failing, by settlement that is flawed.
LAMB: And the reason I mentioned that and YouTube, because there’s a vast amount of material, and we’re going to show something that we’ve found from YouTube. We don’t know the man’s name that does the interview, but it’s from CFTL Television in Canada
TEACHOUT: I was going to say there’s a Canadian column (ph) (INAUDIBLE).
1956. Have you seen this?
TEACHOUT: I don’t remember yet.
LAMB: Well, let’s just play it.
TEACHOUT: Play it and I’ll tell you.
LAMB: Because it leads into the discussion about the race issue that you spent so much time on the latter part of your book.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Satchmo, I believe you once expressed the desire to play behind the Iron Curtain, maybe in Russia itself. Had you any plans along that line now?
LOUIS ARMSTRONG, LEGENDARY JAZZ MUSICIAN: Well, now, it’s up to Uncle Sam, you know, because it’s been a little rough over there and unless they say go, I don’t think we’d just deliberately go over there, you know?
But, I mean, they say the trumpet (ph) thing, just blow, right? Any way it’s played, I mean, they just know that if it plays right, it’s going to be appreciated in any language. So if Uncle Sam says we’ll go there tomorrow, I mean, like that (INAUDIBLE).
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I recall on a recent trip to England, Louis, you kind of shattered protocol by saying you are going to lay a song on for Princess Margaret. Now, what was the Princess’s reaction to that?
ARMSTRONG: Well, you know, when we laid it, (INAUDIBLE), you know? And we bothered nobody, so just (INAUDIBLE).
LAMB: How did the crowd react, Louis?
ARMSTRONG: Oh, man, they weren’t even disturbed at all (ph). It was thrilling (ph), and then the house came down, you know?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The house came down.
ARMSTRONG: We’re having such a ball there, and they didn’t know before that, just, you know, love of the music is the same as as we play, you know? And then knock them all out (ph).
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LAMB: Which Louis Armstrong are you seeing there that you knew?
TEACHOUT: That’s the public Armstrong. And it’s important to say right here that the public Armstrong is real. He’s not a mask that Armstrong put on for the purpose of of deceiving the public or concealing large parts of his own life. He really was a fundamentally optimistic, likable, really lovable man.
But the private Armstrong, the one that I know from the tapes and from having talked to many people who knew Armstrong and read his unpublished manuscripts, is capable of speaking with much more sharpness about race relations in particular, but many other issues as well.
This clip, which I have seen, I think probably must have been filmed in the late ’50s or early ’50s
LAMB: ’56, I think.
TEACHOUT: Yes. OK. That makes sense. This is just before he has the blow-off with President Eisenhower. At that point, he was talking to the State Department about the possibility of touring to the then Soviet Union. That’s what he’s referring to in the film clip.
LAMB: Yes. I’m actually looking at that word, you quote, ”The Associated Press is saying trumpet player Louis Armstrong said last night he’d given up plans for a government sponsored trip to the Soviet Union. Mr. Armstrong said President Eisenhower had no guts and described Governor Orval E. Faubus of Arkansas as an uneducated plowboy,” but that’s not what he said. He really (INAUDIBLE).
TEACHOUT: It’s not the word he really said, and I can’t say what he really said on this television show.
LAMB: And why?
TEACHOUT: Because it is an obscenity of the highest possible voltage, and one commonly found in the vocabulary of jazz men. The background of the story is that Armstrong, as I say, was not a political person. He didn’t even vote. He said once he didn’t know enough about it to vote. But he knew about race relations and he was, like every other thinking person in America, and black people in particular, very disturbed by the the direction in which things were going in the late ’50s.
Well, for those who don’t remember what happened in Arkansas, in Little Rock, Governor Faubus refused to cooperate with Brown vs. Board of Education and allowed the desegregation in the public schools in Little Rock. President Eisenhower hesitated to take action against Faubus.
At this moment, Armstrong is up touring in I forget where it was Grand Rapids, you know, some place in Northern Midwest, and a cub reporter named Larry Lubenow, who is still with us. I spoke to him about this interview. It’s his first big assignment. He talked his editor into sending him up to visit Armstrong, who was in town to play a dance.
So, Lubenow thought, how do I get in to talk to him? So he talked the room service waiter into letting Lubenow bring up Armstrong’s dinner. So, Lubenow goes through the door, presumably wearing a white jacket, you know, with an armful of dishes, and then immediately tells Armstrong who he is and what he did, and Armstrong, being the kind of guy he was, was absolutely delighted by this.
So they sit down, they chat about music. Lubenow asked him who his favorite musician was, and he said Bing Crosby. And then Lubenow asked him about Little Rock, which was right at the top of the news that week, and Armstrong blew up.
What we know from the tapes that people who only know Armstrong from ”The Ed Sullivan Show” don’t know, is that he had a temper. He would fly into red rages at noon that he’d forget about at 1:00. But, this time, he was furious with the president of the United States.
And so he spoke with the utmost frankness and with very, very strong language about Eisenhower, about Secretary of State Dulles, and most particularly about Governor Faubus. This is, of course, for a cub reporter, the story of a lifetime, world’s most famous musician chews out the president of the United States, but the story is unprintable. So he sits down with Armstrong and they figure out euphemisms to use in place of the obscenity of high voltage, and they came up with ”uneducated plowboy” for Faubus.
So Lubenow goes back to the newspaper, writes up the story, shows it to the editor, and the editor, and the editor says, ”I’m sorry, kid, but I just don’t believe a word of this.”
So Lubenow, who is a very resourceful young man, went back to the hotel the next morning with a photographer and type scripted (ph) the story and showed it to Armstrong, who’s I think he was shaving. Armstrong read it, gets a pen, scribbles at the top of the manuscript, ”Solid,” and signs it, ”Louis ’Satchmo’ Armstrong.” Then they take a picture of the two of them together with the manuscript.
Kid goes back to the newspaper office, story goes on the wires, AP picks it up. It’s in every paper in the United States the next day, on the TV networks the next night, and, a few days later, President Eisenhower sends the National Guard into Little Rock.
LAMB: On your book and I want to jump to this. Tell me what this is all about. Armstrong sent Eisenhower a congratulatory telegram. I’ll read it.
LAMB: ”Daddy if and when you decide to take those little negro children personally into central high school along with your marvelous troops, please take me along. ’O God it would be such a great pleasure, I assure you
” ”May God bless you, President. You have a good heart.”
TEACHOUT: Isn’t that wonderful?
LAMB: Yes. What led to that?
TEACHOUT: Well, this was right after Armstrong after Eisenhower decided to send the National Guard in and, as I’ve said a moment ago, Armstrong had a temper, but when it was over, it was over, and he realized that the president had done the right thing, maybe at the prompting of Louis Armstrong himself, although we have no information about that. And so he sent the telegram, which is which is to be found in Eisenhower’s presidential archive. That’s where it turned up.
LAMB: How often did he go overseas, and did he eventually make that trip?
TEACHOUT: Not to the Soviet Union, but in 19 I think ’60, he made his first official tour under the auspices of the State Department.
He have been playing in Europe well, he made his European debut in 1932 or ’33, in London, and although, obviously, he didn’t travel abroad during World War II, but before and afterwards. He went to Europe regularly, and he was seen as an unofficial ambassador of American music.
George Avakian, who was his producer at Columbia Records, gave one of his albums, the one he’ll title ”Ambassador Satch” and the jacket of the album shows him in a morning coat, carrying a dispatch case. Wonderful, wonderful picture.
But he performed regularly in Europe. He was always mobbed there. He was beloved there. And, eventually, he became a quasi-official American ambassador there, touring for the State Department.
LAMB: So what was his way of treating the black/white issue in Europe when he was over there and all the troubles that were going on here in this country and civil rights?
TEACHOUT: He didn’t talk about it much. I think he felt that his presence, leading an integrated band, as he always did, said what he wanted to say about it. He did not see he didn’t bring politics or his views about race relations into the performance setting, and he talks very specifically about this on many occasions. He says that his contribution to race relations, and, as I said a moment ago, I think there’s a lot of truth to this, was to go before mixed audiences with a mixed band, playing music that they loved. And, in his own person as a black man, being a man who was obviously an artistic genius, a man worthy of respect and eventually loved.
LAMB: Three (ph) quick things Pops. Who started calling him that?
TEACHOUT: Well, the way that started was, like many people who spend their whole lives on the road, shaking hands with thousands of people every week, Armstrong had trouble remembering people’s names. All right, how do you deal with that? Well, he just started calling everybody he met ”Pops”.
Well, his his friends and his colleagues were charmed by this, and they started calling him ”Pops”. And, of course, it stuck not just because of of his own habit, but because it had symbolic metaphoric value. Louis Armstrong is a father figure of jazz.
So when I was casting about for a title for my book Satchmo has been used several times, including by Armstrong himself, and I I actually said on my blog, I invited people to suggest the main title for the book. And Darby Bannard (ph), a painter in Miami Beach, an artist, wrote in and said, ”How about Pops?” And I mentioned this on the blog, and immediately, several people who knew Armstrong well said, that’s the perfect title for your book.
LAMB: Here’s another YouTube takeout, and this is La Vie en Rose. A little bit of trumpet, and we’ll see some photographs that they had on there, some of more (ph) in your book. You can see the order (ph) on that monitor.
What do you see when you explain what you see when you see Louis Armstrong.
TEACHOUT: In the pictures you saw a moment ago, you see the artist, the serious man. When you see performance film of Armstrong this is a pose photograph from the cover of ”Life Magazine” but when you see Armstrong really performing, he clowns until the moment that he puts the instrument to his lips, and then, suddenly, you were face to face with the artist.
That shot gives you an idea, the fundamental seriousness of the man when he was making music. He was an he was an entertainer, even though he was immensely charismatic, somebody who really was irresistible. He never took a bad photograph. At heart, he was the most serious of artists, an artist who loved life, who embraced life, who got the most pleasure that was going out of life at any given moment.
But the greatest and deepest pleasure of all that he ever got is the pleasure of making art of that horn, and he took it with the greatest seriousness possible his whole life long.
LAMB: Born in 1901, died in 1971.
LAMB: Born in New Orleans, died in Queens.
LAMB: Married four times.
TEACHOUT: Yes. The first wife was a prostitute, the second one a musician, the third and fourth chorus girls, and the fourth marriage took.
LAMB: Did you ever meet him?
TEACHOUT: Too young. I only saw him on television.
But listening to the tapes and talking at great length to people who knew him well, I feel has brought me as close to him as you can be.
LAMB: Let’s listen to that little bit of sound.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ARMSTRONG: (SINGING LA VIE EN ROSE).
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LAMB: Back to the YouTube aspect of this, because you follow this culture, this is this all is available for nothing on YouTube.
TEACHOUT: Isn’t it amazing?
LAMB: Is that good or bad or what?
TEACHOUT: Well, it’s a mixed blessing. Most of the things that are most treasurable that pop on YouTube are things that are either out of copyright or perhaps ought to be, because no real attempt has been made to make them available in any other form. There’s a whole lot of video of Armstrong, especially the early television appearances, that you just can’t get at in any other way.
Of course, in a perfect world, everybody should be compensated for what they do, but I wouldn’t deny for a moment that because of the availability of this material, some of which I didn’t have access to in any other way, I was able to find out things about Armstrong that I couldn’t have found out any other way.
LAMB: On you, how long have you been at ”The Wall Street Journal”?
TEACHOUT: Well, I’ve been the drama critic of the Journal for coming on seven years now. I’ve been writing for them, you know, since the world was young.
But, one day, seven years ago, Paul Gigot asked me to lunch. He said he wanted to talk about the paper’s culture coverage. What he wanted to do was ask me to be the drama critic of the paper. He he dropped that bomb on me in the middle of lunch. And I said, well, Paul, let’s try it for a while, and that was seven years ago. We’ve been trying it ever since.
LAMB: He’s the editor
TEACHOUT: Of the Editorial Page.
of the Editorial Page, which means you work for the editorial part of this?
TEACHOUT: Yes. At ”The Wall Street Journal” Culture reports to editorial. That’s the institutional structure of the paper.
LAMB: How often do you meet a culture critic who’s Conservative?
TEACHOUT: Not too very often.
TEACHOUT: I have never come up with a good answer to that. Most of the Conservatives I know are not especially interested in culture the way I am. There are many exceptions. I mean, Bill Buckley is the most obvious exception of a Conservative who’s quite passionately interested in high culture.
And I think that for the most part, maybe 85 to 90 percent of the time, political issues simply don’t present themselves in the work that I do as a drama critic. When they do, as in the case of of, say, the play that I reviewed a few years ago by Dalton Trumbo, the blacklisted journalist, they became very salient, and I have to engage with them.
But, ordinarily, if I’m writing about a revival of ”Our Town” or ”The Glass Menagerie” or the latest Broadway musical, my politics don’t enter into it, and I’m I’m not interested in anybody’s politics in the sense of dragging them in by the forelocks into a cultural discussion. I don’t want to watch a right-wing play any more than I want to watch a left-wing play. I want to watch a play about life that tries to see life as it is and not through the prison of ideology.
LAMB: How about the selection of what you’re going to write about? Do you ever see that your own ideology coming into play in that, say you would pick something because of your instincts and some other paper wouldn’t?
TEACHOUT: I don’t think so. My deal with the Journal is I review all Broadway openings, and, in between them, I can write about anything I want in the United States. And I don’t seek out ideo-pop (ph) style plays because I don’t think they tend to be very good, no matter what their politics are.
I try, insofar as possible, when I’m choosing the play, to go see something that I want to see that I think is going to be good. I’m not going, though, to write bad reviews because I have to sit through, the show, remember? If an off-Broadway play that has a strong political slant that is immediately relevant, that is news-worthy comes up, I mean, like, say, ”My Name is Rachel Corrie,” about the pro-Palestinian activist, I’m going to go out of my way to see that, but that’s a news judgment as much as it is an ideological judgment.
Now, once I get there, obviously I’m bringing my perspective to it. That’s all I have to bring. That’s what a critic does.
LAMB: A lot of Conservatives think that the world of communications and Hollywood and Broadway and arts and all that is dominated by Liberals. Is it?
TEACHOUT: Oh, yes. I don’t think there’s any question about that.
As I say, I don’t think it’s a salient matter most of the time. But when it is, it’s quite salient, and I’m I am aware, through friends and colleagues of mine who work at Hollywood, that it’s very difficult to get anywhere in Hollywood if you are openly Conservative because people are simply uncomfortable with being around folks like that.
Theater is a social art. It is collaborative art. Insofar as possible, you try to work with people who are familiar to you, with whom you are comfortable, and people who are interested in doing political theater, obviously, bring their own perspectives to the table. So it doesn’t surprise me that it should be this way.
The deeper question of why people on the Left seem to be more interested in high culture than people on the Right, I don’t have a good answer to that. It’s something I thought about. I have idle speculations about it, but they don’t really have any purchase. I just don’t know.
LAMB: St. John’s colleagues, the one up Annapolis?
LAMB: How long did (ph) spend there?
TEACHOUT: A semester. I was too far away from home. I remember I had come from a very small town, and just as Armstrong didn’t set foot out of New Orleans, and so he was at 20 years old. I’ve never really been out of Sikeston, Missouri, and suddenly I go all halfway across the country to Annapolis. I I didn’t know what I was doing there.
I came back, went to school at William Jewell College, a college in Liberty, Missouri, just outside of Kansas City, closer to home. Made more cultural sense to me and it turned out to have opportunities that I couldn’t have gotten anywhere else. That was where I started playing jazz. That was where I started writing music criticism.
LAMB: How about the University of Illinois?
TEACHOUT: I went back there and I spent two years at a point in life when I was thinking that, believe it or not, I wanted to be a psychologist, a psychotherapist. That was a false scent that I was chasing, though I learned a lot there.
I studied statistics there, which was the most valuable thing I ever studied academically in my later life as an editorial writer.
TEACHOUT: Because if you have actually studied statistics, learned how to run t-tests, learned about experimental design, you will never again take at face value what scientists are (ph) telling you because you have the mental equipment to look at and speculate on how their experimentation was designed. You simply see the world in a different way once you’ve studied statistics.
LAMB: How long at the ”Kansas City Star”?
TEACHOUT: Oh, gosh. From if I remember right, from ’77 to ’83.
LAMB: What did you do there?
TEACHOUT: Well, I was a stringer. I was an undergraduate when I began I became their second string classical music critic. And then, because they didn’t have anybody who was really into jazz, I, far too young, became the first string jazz critic. It was tremendously exciting. These were the days, the early days, when you filed the review by 11:00 for the morning paper the next day.
I’ll never forget the first review I wrote for the ”Kansas City Star.” I didn’t fully understand what I was getting into. So I show up at the paper. I’ve just gone to a concert. This was in the days of typewriters. And I typed the first page of the review, and a copy boy remember copy boys? comes up behind me and grabs it out of the typewriter and takes it off in the copy desk, and I have to finish the review just like that. I learned my lesson that night.
LAMB: How long at the ”New York Daily News”?
TEACHOUT: Several years. I can’t call up my resume in front of me. That was my my second big job after I came to New York, in ’85, I guess it was. I started out as an assistant editor at ”Harper’s Magazine” when I edited the Harper’s forum. And then I moved over to the Daily News and I worked on the editorial page. I was an editorial writer.
Eventually, I came to specialize in foreign policy. This was what jazz musicians call a day job, but it was a wonderful one. I worked with Michael Pattingham (ph), who was the Editorial Page editor then, and it was my graduate school for writing, because writing about complicated issues for the Daily News Editorial Page taught me how to write about complicated things in simple, accessible language, and I tool those skills and I applied them to writing about classical music and jazz and modern dance and art.
LAMB: What is on your blog and who would you write it with?
TEACHOUT: The blog is terryteachout.com. It is a blog about the arts. The title says it the arts in New York City, but, truthfully, it’s all over the country. I write it with two friends, Laura Demanski in Chicago, and Carrie Frye in Asheville, North Carolina. And we write about whatever we’re interested in that day, basically.
I always have a daily quote, which usually comes from my reading. Every Wednesday I post a video about the arts that interests me, every Thursday, a theater guide, teasers for my drama column in ”The Wall Street Journal”, in my arts columns, and, for the rest, it’s Well, the name of the blog is ”About Last Night” and very often it is about last night. It’s about what I went to see last night, what I did. When I go home tonight, I’ll probably write about this interview.
LAMB: I want to go back the Louis Armstrong biography, and I want to go to a a footnote. It speaks for itself. Quote, ”Louis Armstrong,” I’m at the wrong spot. I’ll start here, a restaurant owner in Connecticut, quote, ”We set out on a bright, warm Saturday afternoon, headed north, with everyone in a good mood. The band bus did not have a toilet, so somewhere in Connecticut we stopped in order for Louis to go to the bathroom. I was stunned when the owner of a restaurant, clearly on the basis of race, refused him use the otherwise available facilities. I would never forget the look on Louis’ face.”
This is from Herb Snitzer, quoted in Nat Hentoff, ”Louis: Black and Blue and Triumphant”, ”Jazz Times”, October of 2000.
TEACHOUT: Herb is one of the great jazz photographers. He took some of the great images of Armstrong. My wife, who is from Connecticut, was absolutely shocked when I read this quote. She said, ”That couldn’t have happened in Connecticut in the ’60s,” and I said, not only could it, but it did (ph).
LAMB: That’s why I ask you about that, because all through the book there are times when the this being a black man in often a white world audience, or the audiences were white, what kind of life did he lead and how often was there an affront to him?
TEACHOUT: Well, in the last part of his life, obviously, he was largely insulated from this kind of experience because he was very famous and because the climate of opinion in America had changed. But throughout the first part of his life, he could never be sure that he would be able to stay in a hotel, that he would be able to use the bathroom in a club.
He talks at one point about how he ate more meals than he could imagine in the kitchen, off the chopping block when he was out in the road. His whole band was thrown into jail once in Memphis because the person who was handling the band was white. They threw him into jail and said, ”We need some cotton pickers down here,” and the only the only reason they let him out was that the band agreed to play a benefit concert for the Memphis Police.
Armstrong knew every kind of prejudice there is, and, to me, the great miracle of his life and his spirit was that far from being hardened by this or turning into a reverse racist, which happen with many people, his spirit was never bound (ph). He never lost his fundamental optimism, although he was entirely realistic about things. But, you know, he always looked, insofar as possible, on the bright side.
LAMB: And this is the song that kind of reflects some of this. Let’s just listen to a little bit.
ARMSTRONG: (SINGING ”WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD”).
LAMB: In your book, you said that when he died in 1971 he was worth something like $500,000, which would be worth $2.8 million today. But it seems to the man who was on the road constantly and was so popular, that’s not a lot of money.
TEACHOUT: It isn’t. He said once that he didn’t want to die rich. He and actually, the net value of his state was somewhat more than that when you figured in the pending royalties and the recordings, but it still wasn’t nearly as much as his manager made.
On the other hand, Armstrong ran his life the way he wanted to run it. He he ceded all responsibility for his business affairs to his manager, Joe Glaser, in return for Glaser’s taking care of all the problems in his life, from paying his taxes to picking his musicians, and this was because Armstrong understood what he wanted out of life, which was to be able to get up on the bandstand arena and play music. And, ultimately, he was satisfied with the way things were financially.
He could have made more money if he had taken more responsibility for that part of his life, but, especially in the ’30s and ’40s, it would have been difficult to the point of impossibility for a black man to take that kind of responsibility in a white world, and, you know, he was you can say that he was defrauded, but I think he thought that he made out all right in the bargain.
LAMB: How much of the state was left beyond the $500,000, I guess, in the bank or whatever? What how about what’s the value of all that he left in songs?
TEACHOUT: Well, the royalty stream continues to this day. It it has been rolled over into the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation, which founds (ph) a very wide variety of educational activities related to music and medicine. And, of course, the Louis Armstrong House Museum and Archive has been made possible by the the value of all this.
I mean, essentially, it’s incalculable. As long as Armstrong continues to be remembered, continues to be popular, he will continue to make money, and it will be used, since he has no offspring, no issue
LAMB: No offspring?
TEACHOUT: No. He he so far as we know, he didn’t have children. I think he was probably sterile.
LAMB: Where did you get that?
TEACHOUT: It’s a guess. It’s a guess based on the fact that he smoked marijuana every day of his adult life, which probably depressed his sperm count. We know that he wanted to have children. I have reason to believe from things that his fourth wife said to him that she thought he was sterile. He thought at one point he had fathered an illegitimate child by a girlfriend, but the wool was being pulled over his eyes. It’s only a guess.
He had an adopted son, a distant relative whom he took under his wing when he was a teenager, really, in New Orleans, a boy who was was mentally ill, and he had an accident. He’d fallen on his head, and, in Armstrong’s words, was feeble minded for the rest of his life, but Armstrong made himself responsible for the boy’s care. His name was Clarence Armstrong. He outlived Armstrong by many years.
LAMB: How how long did he live in New Orleans?
TEACHOUT: Born in 1901, went South went North to Chicago in 1922.
LAMB: And how much education did he have?
TEACHOUT: Not much. A little bit of elementary school, and then he spent a year and a half in a reform school, the Colored Waif’s Home of New Orleans, which is where he had his own reformal (ph) musical training, where he learned the rudiments of reading music, learned the rudiments of playing the horn. After he left, he never went back to school. He was, in essence, self-educated, and did an extraordinary job of it because something not well known about Armstrong was he was a really good writer.
LAMB: Here’s some more from that interview. He talks about jazz.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you feel, Louis, that American jazz can be an instrument for spreading goodwill overseas?
ARMSTRONG: I think so. Over there (ph), jazz is stronger than Masons (ph). It’s just like a religion.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They’re going for it big?
ARMSTRONG: Yea, I mean, they live it (ph).
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How was the reception to it (ph) been when you’ve played over there?
ARMSTRONG: Well we’re playing. Don’t care if you can’t speak the language. Notes a note in any language, and they really appreciate it. They come in like they go into a football game.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LAMB: What impact did he have on the whole jazz world, and how much of it was it jazz and how much of it would would turn out to be the ”Wonderful World” and ”Hello Dolly” and some of the songs, ”La Vie en Rose”?
TEACHOUT: The impact is colossal and incalculable. He was, without question, the single most important figure in jazz in the 20th century. When he’d began to make records under his own name in 1925, they simply took the world of jazz by storm because he I mean, Armstrong didn’t invent jazz, but he was the first jazz soloist to become powerfully influential. He had the sense of swing along with that personal charisma, and he was just as influential as a singer, I might add, as a trumpet player.
The influence spread beyond the world of jazz when he started to make feature films in 1936, to appear on the radio, and, later on, on television. And it spread throughout the whole world. What he’s saying in that film clip is absolutely true. Whenever he appeared in Europe, he was mobbed. And, of course, in the United States, he really couldn’t go out in the street because people immediately recognized him and they were all over him.
What fascinates me about him is, as you allude to, the influence is equally balanced. He’s influential among jazz musicians of the highest seriousness. He is influential among pop singers who were simply touched by the the sincerity and the expressive power with which he sang. He touches everybody.
LAMB: What about folks in his own race who accuse him of being an Uncle Tom, who did it?
TEACHOUT: Dizzy Gillespie was the first one to become prominent with this sort of attack. It was, I think, understandable.
We think of Armstrong as more contemporary than he is because he’s so vivid and present in his films and his television appearances, but he was born in 1901 in the Deep South. The performative influences on him as an entertainer were vaudeville and minstrel shows, and he wasn’t the only musician like this. I mean, if you listen to (INAUDIBLE) Morgan’s recordings, you’re going to hear the same sort of minstrel show hokum on them. The difference is that Armstrong lived longer and was more famous.
And so, after World War II, when a younger generation of musicians, and black musicians in particular, comes along, who start to think of themselves in a more self-aware way as artists rather than entertainers, they are uncomfortable with this side of Armstrong, and they talk about it. In interviews, Gillespie described him as a plantation character who is subservient, like an Uncle Tom.
LAMB: Why would he do that, though? What would motivate him?
TEACHOUT: I think a little bit of it was the son going after the father, you know? I mean, Armstrong, as we said a moment ago, was the great father figure of jazz, and Dizzy Gillespie, coming along right after World War II, is making a name for himself with a radically new kind of music, bebop, and it’s kind of natural for the son to want to go after the father in that way.
Gillespie, fortunately, lived long enough to change his tune, and in his autobiography, written a few years before his death in the ’70s, he says flat out, he had been wrong about Armstrong. He even says, and I believe I quote him verbatim here, ”Hell, I had my own way of Tom-ing”.
And I think, basically, the discomfort that people felt with Armstrong in the ’50s, at a time when racial consciousness was changing, is largely dispelled now simply because Armstrong, we now see him as a historical figure, and the 20th century is behind us. The early years of jazz are behind us. We can see him as he was, in historical perspective, and one of the things that I tried to do in my book is to provide the historical perspective. It makes it easier to see why Armstrong would have behaved the way he did.
LAMB: How often have you met somebody that’s never heard of Louis Armstrong?
TEACHOUT: I have never met anybody who has never heard of Louis Armstrong. Occasionally you find somebody who doesn’t quite have the story straight.
I saw a cabbie two days ago who I he said, ”Where are you going?” and I said I’m going up to Washington. I’m doing a book tour. I wrote a book about Louis. And he said, ”Oh, I loved those big cheeks when he played,” and of course he was thinking of Dizzy Gillespie. But at least he knew we were talking about a trumpet player.
LAMB: What was his problem with Sammy Davis Jr.?
TEACHOUT: Sammy Davis Jr. a very odd duck. Davis criticized Armstrong in the ’50s for not having spoken out more about racial matters, and, specifically, for performing in front of segregated audiences, as if most black performers didn’t do that. Virtually everybody and anybody who toured in the South had to play in front of them.
Why Davis felt it necessary to speak out in this way at the time Davis made these comments right after the big Little Rock to do, and every other black entertainer went on record, talking about Armstrong, was awestruck by the fact that he stood up to the president of the United States, and Davis said, well, but he’s still playing in front of segregated audiences. True, but I think, in that context, irrelevant.
LAMB: So to go back to your 650 tapes, or reels of tapes, that were Louis Armstrong speaking on them, where are they kept physically?
TEACHOUT: They’re physically at Queen’s College. The original tapes still exist, but, of course, one never plays them since they’ve all been transferred to compact discs. But you want to look at the boxes, because all of the boxes are decorated with homemade collages, made by Armstrong himself.
In addition to being a great jazz musician and a very gifted writer, he was a very talented amateur artist.
LAMB: And and who can go and listen to the now they’re on, I guess you say they are in discs?
TEACHOUT: Yes. Anybody.
TEACHOUT: All you have to do is is call up the Armstrong Archive, make an appointment, and you will be allowed to listen to the tapes.
LAMB: How many places in the country are there places to go Louis Armstrong? Or, as you say, Louis Armstrong?
TEACHOUT: I’m sorry, I don’t quite
LAMB: Well, the house
TEACHOUT: Oh, I see! Sites.
LAMB: Is there something in New Orleans? I know there’s a
TEACHOUT: No, there’s Actually, there’s nothing left in New Orleans. All of the all of the significant sites that Armstrong was associated with in his life were torn down long ago. Storyville, in black Storyville, he’s (ph) nothing recognizable. Armstrong’s birthplace, the shack he was born in, was razed in the ’60s. It was in
There’s a terrible photograph, not in my book. It’s the last photograph ever taken of the Armstrong house. You can see a bulldozer in the corner of the frame. They’re just about to knock it down.
The Armstrong house itself, which is now a museum, is, without question, the place to go if you want to get a sense of what the man was like, and not far from that is his grave, which is another beautiful place to go. New Orleans has the great statue of Armstrong in New Orleans Park, and, you know, you have to go to New Orleans just because it’s New Orleans, to get a feel for the world of jazz.
But Armstrong’s world is a world of the past. He left there in ’22 and the sites are mostly gone.
LAMB: It’s interesting to listen to him talk about rock and roll and the impact, and we’ve got a clip there, what he sounded like many years ago.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ARMSTRONG: When I was a kid, I remember old sanctified churches (ph). They used to, you know, shout and the sister (ph) would shout and they had a banjo. You name it rock and roll, but it’s sanctified music and, quite naturally, it’s beautiful music. The kids just, you know, figured it more easy.
See when I was a teenager, I listened instead of tried to tried to pap seats (ph) and fight (ph) and things like that. I mean, we went to (INAUDIBLE) and people would go into (ph) the church and listen and observe what was happening, and it was the same with rock and roll. It’s spread love, happiness, it’s all kind of music (ph) you want to find, and the music is beautiful.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK (ph). And what about the beatniks out there (ph)?
ARMSTRONG: Well, uh nothing but things we did as twenty year old youngsters, just crazy that’s all. I see them having a good time and crazy man- and rich and things like that. It knocks you out. It’s youth (ph). I’m forever youthful.
Man, in my age, you know, I love it. Let’s watch it, you know?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LAMB: So as the culture critic of ”The Wall Street Journal,” put today in context of rap music or whatever, you know, all the the rock well, they don’t call it rock today, but the pop music of today. How does that fit in to our history?
TEACHOUT: Well, Armstrong is the great grandparent, or, in some cases, the great, great grandparent of it all. As he mentions in this clip, he recognized immediately that rock is an outgrowth of black popular music, by gospel music. He loved the Beatles, whom he knocked off the top of the pop charts with ”Hello Dolly”.
I think one of the most striking things about Armstrong is he was open to so wide a variety of musics. He listened to and loved opera and classical music. He made a record with Jimmy Rogers. At the end of his life, he goes on television and performs with Johnny Cash. I think he would have been interested in, if he were alive today, whatever was going, and he would have been totally open to it.
LAMB: What about your opinion of today’s entertainment, overall?
TEACHOUT: I like some. I don’t like some.
LAMB: What’s your favorite? What’s not so good for you?
TEACHOUT: I can’t say that I’m especially interested in in rap, what we’re supposed to call hip hop. I don’t find to use a phrase that Armstrong used in another context that it has enough ingredients, musically speaking, to hold my attention.
But rock and its successor musics continue to fascinate me. I remember that I I am 53 years old, and I grew up listening to and playing rock and country music. I played in a power trio at the same time that I was first starting to play jazz. And I have always tried to keep an open ear to whatever was going, and I still do.
LAMB: What’s next for you?
TEACHOUT: I am going to write a biography of Duke Ellington, along the same lines as the Armstrong book. I got this idea back in the summer. The unexpected popular success of this book, which has taken all of us by surprise
LAMB: You’re talking about the Armstrong book?
TEACHOUT: About the Armstrong book, has opened a way for me to do this. I’m very excited to get going on it, though obviously I’m going to keep on with my day job. I have the best job in the world, as the drama critic of ”The Wall Street Journal”, so I’m not going anywhere there. I’ll be working on this in my spare time, as always.
But Ellington is a character just as fascinating as Armstrong in completely different ways, and I really can’t wait to roll my sleeves up and get going.
LAMB: How much has been written about him, and where do you think you can find something that hasn’t been written about him?
TEACHOUT: Well, with Ellington, there’s actually even more primary source material than there is for Armstrong. The major archives are in Washington and at Yale, and I feel pretty confident that I can bring the same kind of new perspective to Ellington that I did for Armstrong, the perspective of someone who has been a musician, who also takes a very wide cultural view, because one of the things I tried to do in the Armstrong book is to set him in the larger history of art and culture in the 20th century. I want to do that with Ellington as well.
LAMB: So what do you think has caused this book to catch on like it has?
LAMB: And, as a matter of fact let me just say I can say what I’ve read nothing but quote after quote from from ”The New York Times” reviewer on down that this is a great book and it’s some people say it’s the best biography of the year and on and on. Where’s that what’s doing that?
TEACHOUT: Well, it’s because it’s about Louis Armstrong. I mean, I always tell people, if you can’t write a good book about Louis Armstrong, be a plumber. You’re in the wrong business.
I tried to write about him I tried to bring everything I knew about the world of art to writing this book. I tried to translate my specialist knowledge into generalist language. I wanted to write a book that would make sense to my mother, that would have the narrative pull of a novel, because it’s a great story that I’m telling.
LAMB: Is mom still alive?
TEACHOUT: Mom is still alive.
LAMB: Has she read your book?
TEACHOUT: She loves it.
LAMB: Was she a fan, then, of
TEACHOUT: Yes, she was.
LAMB: What else? I didn’t mean to interrupt?
TEACHOUT: Oh, no. I mean, I just I mean, I’ve done my best to write a book that well, to use the phrase that I liked to use, that folks can read.
But, beyond that, it’s the subject of the book. I mean, Armstrong remains, to this day, an extraordinarily present and communicative character. He hasn’t lost his his relevance. He hasn’t lost his charm. And I think people they have a chance to read a book about a man like this, they’ll take it.
LAMB: I have to ask you this, though. Did you write the book listening to Louis Armstrong?
TEACHOUT: Oh gosh, yes. I mean, you don’t actually do first drafts with music going because you can’t concentrate. But I edited this book with Armstrong going. My iPod has I forget how many Armstrong songs it has on it. It’s in four figures. But there is always Armstrong music going when I was doing the editing, and that’s part of the fun of writing a book like this is that you’re spending your time with someone so likeable, who is also a great artist.
LAMB: So if you’re going to buy a Louis Armstrong CD or download an album that’s been made, you have your favorite?
TEACHOUT: Well, the appendix of my book is a list of 30 songs by Louis Armstrong that can all be downloaded from iTunes. They’re the songs that I talked about at length in the book. You can’t get all of them on one album, and that’s why I suggested that people might want to consider downloading. I mean, it gives you a good cross-section of what he was about, all the way from his first record down to ”Hello Dolly”.
If you haven’t gotten into the age of the iPod and you don’t want to download, there’s a 2-CD set on Sony called the ”Essential Louis Armstrong” that has a pretty good chunk of this material. But it’s only going to give you part of the picture, and I would really suggest that you consider approaching it through downloading.
LAMB: So what year on Duke Ellington?
TEACHOUT: Well, I just made the deal, so I’m not sure what year we’ll finish it, but I would think four or five years from now.
LAMB: Terry Teachout, author of ”Pops”. Thank you. And let’s listen just a little more of ”What a Wonderful World”.
ARMSTRONG: (SINGING ”WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD”).