Armstrong Biographer Laurence Bergreen
In 1997, NPR's Weekend Edition host Scott Simon interviewed Laurence Bergreen, author of "Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life," published by Broadway Books that year. Below is the transcript of that interview.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST: This is Weekend Edition. I'm Scott Simon. Louis Armstrong was in many ways the sound of America, his trumpet the clarion call of freedom music. Duke Ellington said nobody had ever heard anything like it, and his impact cannot be put into words.
BEGIN AUDIO CLIP OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG AND THE HOT FIVE PLAYING MUSIC
SIMON: That's "Drop the Sack," a 1926 recording cut in Chicago with Lewis Armstrong's band, The Hot Five, including his second wife, Lil, on piano. Laurence Bergreen's new biography is called "Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life," and so it seems, through Louis Armstrong's childhood in New Orleans' storied Storyville district, his ascendance to the speakeasies of Chicago and the clamor of Harlem's Old Cotton Club, to movie sets, European concert halls, four wives, and a singular, inimitable sound. Laurence Bergreen joins us from our studios in New York. Thanks for being with us.
LAURENCE BERGREEN: I'm glad to be here. Thanks for having me.
SIMON: You begin by calling Louis Armstrong both a genius and a jester.
BERGREEN: Yes, and I think that this is one of the things that catches most people by surprise, people who remember him from his "Ed Sullivan" show days and "Hello, Dolly" days think of him as a charming throwback to an earlier era, an old man with a gravelly voice that was very appealing. People who are aware of his earlier work, his innovative, ground-breaking jazz realize that he's the founding father of jazz and a musical genius. But he really cultivated both extremes of his personality.
SIMON: Mmm-hm. Does that come from his growing up in a place like Storyville, which sounds like one of the most amazing spots on earth, this famous neighborhood in New Orleans?
BERGREEN: Right. I better explain that Storyville was the only legal red-light district in the country. And it flourished at the time that Louis was growing up there. He lived about a block or two away from it. And it flourished until 1917, when the U.S. government shut it down. This meant that he grew up in an environment populated by pimps and gangsters and prostitutes and gamblers and other assorted hangers-on. These were the people he knew and felt comfortable with, and basically loved, throughout his entire life. So I do think that his approach to music was based on entertaining. It was based on performing on the street, where he began performing with a sort of little barber-shop quartet when he was just a kid. I think the pioneering musical quality that he injected into his performances came later when he was making tremendous intuitive leaps by the time he got to Chicago. But there's no question that he was really carrying the style of jazz that was developed in New Orleans at the time he was growing up, although I should add that that music was not called "jazz" at the time. It was just called "music."
BEGIN AUDIO CLIP OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG PLAYING MUSIC
SIMON: Near as I can tell, the first time he blew a horn in any serious way was for the Karnofsky family junk wagon...
BERGREEN: That's right.
SIMON: In the streets of Storyville.
BERGREEN: Right. It's an incredible story. You know, I came across a lot of unpublished manuscripts of Armstrong's that he wrote during his life in which he talked about his life and hard times and incredible times. As a biographer, I made a decision to emphasize his earlier years because there was so much happening. And one of the most amazing stories was his first exposure to the horn came when this Russian-Jewish immigrant family employed him to blow the horn to attract attention to their junk wagon as it rolled through Storyville to sell coal to the prostitutes to use on cold evenings. His first exposure to singing came with the same family when he would go home to have dinner with them at night. And after dinner they would sit around singing folk songs.
SIMON: And they thought he had talent. This was just not a kid blowing a horn next to a junk wagon.
SIMON: They tried to nurture his talent.
BERGREEN: They did. They bought him, on the installment plan, his first horn, a cornet, which he paid them back a little bit at a time per week. And they definitely encouraged him. They realized there was something exceptional about him. In fact, the Karnovsky family virtually adopted him from the age of 7 to 12. His own family was in dire straits. His father had abandoned the family almost at the moment he was born. His mother was working as a part-time laundress and a part-time prostitute, in all likelihood, to make ends meet, and there was also a younger sister. So the Karnovsky's filled a very important void in his life. There was also an interesting side effect. I think his close association with them altered the way he related to whites throughout the rest of his life. He grew up and came of age in an environment which was embittered by racial animosity, the legacy of slavery. And Armstrong somehow managed to see beyond this historical tragedy to the possibility of a positive relationship with at least some whites. And this influenced the course of his career.
SIMON: I must say, reading this amazing story of Louis Armstrong, I'm absolutely infatuated with his mother, Mayanne.
SIMON: Just a fabulous, vivid, wonderful mother.
BERGREEN: Well, you know, he adored her. And it was such an unusual relationship, more like a brother and older sister than a mother and a son. They never really knew each other. They were never together for the first five years of his life when his grandmother Josephine was taking care of him. And then he was brought back to his mother, who was very ill at that moment. And he immediately started taking care of her. So this was a relationship where one really took care of the other, almost in equal measure, throughout their lives. There's a story in my book about how she taught him, in her own fashion, how to drink. When he...
SIMON: I love it. Yes. Could you tell us this story? He was 16, I think?
BERGREEN: When he was 16 or 17, he began experimenting with alcohol. And she didn't want him to become a drunk, and so she decided to teach him how to drink like a man. And her approach was to take him to one bar and honky-tonk after another in New Orleans. And they did that, and they were drinking some very strong booze indeed. And they both got so roaring drunk that they were stumbling over each other. And finally one of her boyfriends brought her home, and they both slept it off. And then he considered that a kind of a rite of passage. And after that, he told her how much he appreciated the respect she showed him for exposing him to alcohol in that way. And in fact, he never did have a problem with alcohol after that.
SIMON: Yeah. Looking back on it, say from his early 20s, when he came to Chicago and first began to attract national attention, what was it that was exceptional about him, when Duke Ellington meant that there was just a sound that nobody had heard before?
BERGREEN: Oh, gosh, that is a very complicated and fascinating question. I think there's this fabulous horn technique, which you can hear, you know, right off the bat from his very first recordings with the King Oliver band, which he made shortly after coming to Chicago. Now, part of the reason that Armstrong had such a distinctive trumpet style -- and you can hear it -- is this very distinctive attack -- he jumps way out in front of the melody. He plays the melody. Then, eventually, he'll play around it. He'll suggest notes above it or around it or below it, and he'll get behind it. But in the first instance, he always puts that melody right in your face.
BEGIN AUDIO CLIP OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG PLAYING MUSIC
BERGREEN: The second thing that he does with his trumpet is to work in all sorts of subtle riffs. Now this was an innovation that he picked up from his second wife, Lil Hardin (ph), a great woman of jazz in her own right. And she described how she heard him whistling when they first met, and she loved the riffs that he whistled. And she encouraged him to work them into his trumpet-playing. This was difficult to do, as you can imagine, but he eventually did. And once he did, he really acquired that distinctive sound that we associate with him.
BEGIN AUDIO CLIP OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG PLAYING MUSIC
SIMON: His voice, his singing voice was just about as remarkable and influential as his trumpet.
BERGREEN: Yes, it was, I think largely because of his skat singing. The first time he sang skat at a recording was in Heebie Jeebies in 1926, which he recorded with the Hot Five in Chicago. He had probably been performing skat, using his nonsense syllables live on stage, even earlier, and in fact it was a kind of a stock minstrel or vaudeville show device. But he popularized it, and really brought it up to the level of an art form.
SIMON: Did he begin singing as a way of saving his chops?
BERGREEN: He resorted to singing, often in his later years, as a way of resting them, particularly in the mid-1950s. You know, he had this terrible callus on his upper lip, simply from overuse. But he actually, as I discovered during the research, was singing as a kid on the streets of New Orleans, and loved to sing and dance, as well as blowing the horn, and then was kind of held back from doing it when he got to New York in 1924 and was playing with the Fletcher Henderson orchestra. His rather gruff, rough shouting style of singing didn't blend with the orchestra. And Henderson discouraged him. So, it took him a while to find a proper place to sing.
BEGIN AUDIO CLIP OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG PLAYING MUSIC AND SINGING
LOUIS ARMSTRONG, SINGER AND MUSICIAN, SINGING: Oh, fine old garden walls, When stars are bright, And you are in my arms, The night and days (Unintelligible), Are barren on the roses (Unintelligible), In my heart it will remain, My start-up melody, Oh, memory, Oh, memory Oh, memory...
SIMON: I do have to ask you about a devotion in the life of Louis Armstrong, marijuana? I guess from a fairly early age he probably had it every day of his life. He believed in it.
BERGREEN: Yes, he did. This is one of the more difficult things about him to understand. He always -- often said that he was old enough to remember when booze was illegal and pot was legal because of course he came of age in the Prohibition era in the 1920s. And the idea was -- and he was not wholly mistaken at that time -- that it was healthy. Well, it was healthier than toxic moonshine, which was making other jazz musicians sick and even killing them. And he felt that it relaxed him a lot. So even though he got into trouble with the law a few years later for possession of marijuana, he continued to use it in very heavy quantities, you know, three cigar-sized joints a day, at least, throughout his life. Now, this did have a long-term harmful effect. I think if you talk to a doctor, they'll tell you that that amount of heavy, chronic marijuana use will have a bad effect on your lungs, for starters, and Louis did indeed suffer lung problems in his last -- later years, and couldn't blow for a long period as a result.
SIMON: There was a time in the 1950s, 1960s -- two of the other giants of jazz, and I'm thinking specifically of Charles Mingus and Miles Davis, were critical of Louis Armstrong. They thought he'd become a caricature. Charlie Mingus, if I'm not mistaken, even used the word "Tom," as in "Uncle Tom."
BERGREEN: Right, actually even as early as the 1940s, that perception clung to Louis. Billie Holiday said, "He Toms from the heart." I've often wondered what she really meant by that. But I think what they felt was that his audience at that time seemed to be overwhelmingly white, that his recording company was white. But then again, so was everybody else's. But they, particularly the younger generation of jazz musicians, the boppers, disavowed Armstrong, because they felt that he was a son of the South. You know, he was identified with that song "When It's Sleepy Time Down South" at the period which was full of images of mammies and banjos and other cultural stereotypes best forgotten. But later on, that all turned around 180 degrees when they realized that he actually had been the great pioneer and was not the Uncle Tom that they thought he was. But he did love all that minstrel schtick. I must say, that, you know, his idea of jazz was not music of protest. It was music of joy and celebration, and it was fund.
BEGIN AUDIO CLIP OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG PLAYING MUSIC, SPEAKING, AND SINGING
ARMSTRONG: Now, ladies and gentlemen, we have a little novelty here for you this evening. We'll have a little argument between the saxophone and the trumpet because these cats just told me they're going to get away. And the little trumpet just said he's going to do the same. Isn't that right, little trumpet? Say yes there.
SOUNDBITE OF ARMSTRONG LAUGHING
ARMSTRONG: Oh, that little devil! But before we riff, we're going to interpret a few for you this time. So get your chops together, boys, while we mug lightly, slightly, and politely.
ARMSTRONG, SINGING: Chinatown, my Chinatown, Where the lights are low, Oh, my Chinatown (unintelligible)...
SIMON: Have you come up with an answer, through the entire experience of writing this book and reading volumes of the letters that he would send to people, as to how it's possible to put so much feeling into a musical instrument?
BERGREEN: I don't know. I think that's part of his genius. Also, he never played for himself. He never played to satisfy himself, or in terms of some sort of mental game with himself. It was only and always for an audience. It was to reach people. It was his way of talking to people, whether he was singing or blowing. So I think that accounts for part of that intensity that you were describing.
SIMON: And he came very close to playing until his last breath.
BERGREEN: Yes, you know, he was on a restricted schedule those last few years because he had suffered some heart attacks, and even could not blow his horn on doctor's orders, although he began doing it surreptitiously in the bathroom of his house, where he thought nobody would hear him. And then he did go back on the road. He was on a couple of TV specials and was in Vegas and went to London. And it looked like he was going to go on forever. But, you know, once again he began having heart troubles, and you know had a very difficult time coming to grips with the fact that his body was failing. He died on July 6, 1971, at home in Queens. Poignantly, he had a rehearsal scheduled the following day with the All Stars, his group, because they had another gig coming up.
SIMON: Laurence Bergreen is the author of the new book, "Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life." He spoke with us from our bureau in New York.
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