NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
Louis Armstrong died in 1971, rich and seemingly content after a life of astonishing accomplishment. The son of a prostitute who grew up dirt-poor in New Orleans became a great artist, a musical revolutionary, and a world class entertainer. Millions of fans doted on his gravely voice, the high notes of his horn and his charismatic million-watt smile. It's a story we thought we all knew. But Armstrong also amassed hundreds of hours of intimate conversations on audio tape - Armstrong backstage, Armstrong romancing his wife, Armstrong lighting up a joint. The tapes, the voluminous correspondent and two autobiographies formed the basis of Terry Teachout's new biography of Louis Armstrong.
Later in the program, regional airlines take-off. They make up almost half the flights in the country now and raise questions about pilot training and compensation. But first, if you have questions about the life and music of Louis Armstrong, our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our Web site, that's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Terry Teachout is drama critic at The Wall Street Journal and his new book is �Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong.� And he joins us from NPR's bureau in New York. Nice to have you in with us today.
Mr. TERRY TEACHOUT (Author, �Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong.�): Pleasure to be here, Neal.
CONAN: And it is Louis Armstrong, we read, because he wasn't French.
Mr. TEACHOUT: That's right, exactly right. The Creoles of color in New Orleans, the blacks who were descendants of French whites, spoke French, were an entirely separate middle class and they rather looked down on dark-skinned blacks, which Armstrong was. And that's the reason why he always pronounced his name Louis, as we can hear on his record of �Hello Dolly.�
CONAN: This is Louis, Dolly.
Mr. TEACHOUT: That's right.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: That background does so much to inform, well, not just his music but his character. He is someone who definitely believed in the work ethic.
Mr. TEACHOUT: Yes, it was ingrained in him from earliest childhood. He was working when he was seven years old. And then as a young boy, because he fired off a pistol on New Year's Eve in New Orleans, he spent a year and a half in what was called the Colored Waif's Home, a kind of reform school orphans home. That was where he got his first real training in music, really learned how to play the coronet. And it was also where the whole idea of music as a way of life, work as a way of life was implanted in him. And it was with him for ever after that.
He believed devoutly really in the transfiguring power of work to change a man's life. And, of course, it changed his life beyond recognition. A boy who started out in the gutter ended up being in one of the most famous musicians in the entire world.
CONAN: And you draw a fascinating portrait of the neighborhood, not just of New Orleans at the turn of the last century, but the neighborhood in which Louis Armstrong grew up called Story Town, which was, of course, the red light district of New Orleans for much of that time, and a place where Jazz was beginning to be born.
Mr. TEACHOUT: Yes, it had already taken shape when Armstrong was - starting to take shape when Armstrong was born in 1901. He titles the chapter - one of the chapters in his memoirs �Jazz and I Get Born in New Orleans.�
Mr. TEACHOUT: And the music was all around him. New Orleans was an extraordinarily musical place, not just Jazz but a culture of opera, another kind of music that Armstrong loved very much. And you could hear it on the street, you could hear the people pushing the wagons, playing the blues on kazoos. Of course, you could hear it in the bordellos and the night clubs and it was all around Armstrong. It was in the air.
CONAN: And he did play in some of those bordellos but he also made money hauling coal and it was in fact the Armistice Day, November the 11th, 1918, when he realized that indeed because of the wartime restrictions that had been placed on Story Town, they would be lifted after Armistice Day, after the war was over, and indeed he could begin to make a professional life as a musician.
Mr. TEACHOUT: That's right. That very day, he heard the word, the war was - the word that the war was over and he realized at once that he was going to be able to spend from then on all of his life making music. And he cut his mule loose, take it home, went back to his mother and said, mother, the war is over and now I'm going to be a musician. And of course, that's exactly what happened.
CONAN: And the rest - there are so many people who are so important to his life and you mentioned that policeman who arrested him and changed his life by putting him into the home where he got the musical training, but nevertheless, the first person we think about is the great Joe Oliver.
Mr. TEACHOUT: Yes. Joe Oliver was one of the top jazz men in New Orleans when Armstrong was a boy. He later went to Chicago, which is where he came to fame and he sent for Armstrong, who'd been a protege of his back in New Orleans. Oliver had trouble with his gums, he had pyorrhea. He was beginning to weaken as a player and he thought that having a second coronet player in his band, The Creole Jazz Band, would make all the difference. And sure enough it did.
So, he sends Armstrong a telegram down in New Orleans and pretty much Armstrong took the next train up to Chicago, started playing with a band that was the group with which he made his first records in 1923, our first opportunity to see what he sounded like. And ever after, Armstrong never, never - his loyalty to Oliver was never diminished. He was a true believer in the greatness of King Oliver, as he was known in Chicago, and Oliver shaped his style. Oliver taught him the importance of simplicity, of appealing to the people. And that was Armstrong's first commandment as a musician.
CONAN: And indeed, you also have to think of the generosity of a jazz star, superstar of his time, even when losing his chops, bringing somebody who would compete with him and indeed surpass him very quickly.
Mr. TEACHOUT: That's right. It wasn't - jazz, like all art forms, is highly competitive. And Oliver really believed in the potential of Little Louis, as he was known down in New Orleans. And that break he gave him was one of the two or three great moments of transition in Armstrong's life, one of the moments when a door opens and he steps through, ready.
CONAN: We're talking with Terry Teachout, the author of a new biography of Louis Armstrong called, �Pops.� 800-989-8255. Email us firstname.lastname@example.org. And we'll start with Kieren(ph). Kieren calling us from Steamboat in Colorado.
KIEREN (Caller): Hello. I always wondered if Louis Armstrong invented scat, the style of music, and what were the circumstances of that?
Mr. TEACHOUT: Well, he didn't invent it. Jelly Roll Morton tells us that scat was around in New Orleans before - when Louis was still a little boy. So that kind of singing was in the air. Armstrong, however, was one of the very first people to record scat in his recording of �Heebie-Jeebies� in 1926. And he was without question the man who popularized it.
He always said that his playing and singing were the same thing, that he played the way he sang, that the singing came first. And you can really hear that when he sings these non-sense syllables in �Heebie-Jeebies.� You realize that both sides of his musical character, the singing, the playing, spring from the same font of inspiration and that's crucial to understanding him as musician.
CONAN: Kieren, thanks very much for the call.
KIEREN: Thank you.
CONAN: Bye, bye. Armstrong left Oliver eventually and went on to form his own organization, small groups in the '20s, the Hot Five and the Hot Seven. And we're going to play a cut now from 1927 and the Hot Five. This is his solo in �Struttin' With Some Barbecue.�
(Soundbite of jazz music, �Struttin' With Some Barbecue�)
CONAN: And you hear how brilliant that is even today. What we don't recognize is how, in its time - that was incandescent. That was revolution.
Mr. TEACHOUT: Yes, he flies through the air on this solo. And Armstrong was one of the very first people who really developed a solo concept in jazz. The music of New Orleans, the music of Joe Oliver, was an ensemble music. You didn't want one person standing out from the group. But Armstrong, there was within him, a stronger impulse, a feeling that he had to get out in front and display himself. And his interior life comes through in this music, too.
He really is, as a man, that ebullient, that exciting, that pleased with the world as the solo that you just listened to.
CONAN: Also took risks. His technique, he was a much more schooled musician than we tend to think; but nevertheless, because of the way he held his lips to the trumpet, he took great risks.
Mr. TEACHOUT: Yes, Armstrong's technique was fairly homemade. He has dome schooling at the Colored Waif's Home, but he didn't understand that if you use what we now call the high-pressure technique, where you really hold that horn up to your mouth tight to get those high notes out, over the long run, you do damage to your lips, and he did.
If you see any photograph of Armstrong from the later years of his life, you see how deeply scarred his lips are. They split fairly frequently, and there were periods, once a very extended period, when he simply couldn't play at all.
CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is John(ph), John with us from Coventry, New York.
JOHN (Caller): Hi, Neal. This is a real pleasure to be on your show. You're the greatest.
CONAN: Oh, well thank you.
JOHN: I just wanted to make the comment that Tom Waits is probably Louis Armstrong's biggest fan. He was such a huge influence to Tom Waits. One reason being the way Louis would interact with the audience, which is a great deal of Waits', you know, popularity, the way he's able to banter back and forth with the audience, and of course, the gravelly voice.
Mr. TEACHOUT: Sure. You can really hear it in the singing, yeah.
JOHN: Oh, absolutely.
CONAN: But it's interesting. Terry Teachout, in his book, suggests that as soon as Armstrong lifted that first cornet and then later the trumpet to his lips, everybody after that was influenced by Louis Armstrong.
JOHN: No doubt about it. No doubt about it.
CONAN: There's a great line, you quote, from Miles Davis - no fan of Armstrong's, well, what he considers his minstrelly(ph) tactics on stage, but who said - what was it exactly, Terry?
Mr. TEACHOUT: He said that he never heard Armstrong play a bad note at any time in his life.
CONAN: And that anything that comes out of a trumpet, I think he said, well, it comes from Louis Armstrong.
Mr. TEACHOUT: Yeah, that's right.
CONAN: John, thanks very much for the call.
JOHN: Neal, one other thing. Tom Waits - just a quick - Tom Waits always said that Louis was the original potato, straight out of the ground.
CONAN: All right. Thanks very much for the call, John, and thanks for the kind words.
JOHN: Thank you, bye-bye.
CONAN: We're talking about the life of the great Louis Armstrong with Terry Teachout. His new biography is "Pops." Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. By the 1950s, Louis Armstrong was appearing in movies and on TV. He showed up on "What's My Line?" and, no surprise, given that iconic voice, was identified in less than 90 seconds.
The most important feature in Armstrong's life, of course, decades of his music, and fans of Louis Armstrong can rarely pick just one favorite song. So we asked Terry Teachout to share his five favorite Armstrong tunes. To see those, you can to go npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Terry Teachout's new book is titled "Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong." If you'd like to talk with him about the life and music of this great artist, our phone number here in Washington, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
And let's see if we can get another caller on the line, and let's go to Chris(ph), Chris with us from Paonia in Colorado.
CHRIS (Caller): Yes, hello.
CONAN: Hi, go ahead.
CHRIS: Glad to be here. I'm a big fan of Miles Davis, and Miles Davis was sort of a mixed fan of Louis Armstrong. I was wondering how that relationship manifested on Louis Armstrong's side? And I'll take my answer off the air.
CONAN: All right, Chris, thank you.
CHRIS: Well, we don't really know what Louis thought of Miles' playing. As far as I know, he never commented on it. From Miles' end, of course, he thought that Louis' playing was golden and perfect. His problem was with Armstrong's stage behavior.
But Armstrong himself was generally rather hostile to bebop and all forms of modern jazz because he thought that they were musicians music, that people who did that kind of playing got out of touch with the great public, which was the goal of his life was to appeal to them.
In the end, in Armstrong's next-to-last recording session, Miles Davis actually pops up in a chorus that sings "We Shall Overcome" behind Armstrong. There's a wonderful picture of the two of them sitting in the studio together. So one way or another, they made it up.
CONAN: There is - there are those who, of course, are critical of Miles Davis' stage conduct, as well.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: He would sometimes turn his back on his audience, which is about as far to the opposite of Armstrong as you could possibly get.
Mr. TEACHOUT: A hundred eighty degrees.
CONAN: Yeah, and there are - this might be going a little too far, but there are some who would argue that Armstrong began to sell out, that everything he recorded after 1929 was in some degree an appeal towards the more entertainment side and away from the pure, hot jazz that he played in the '20s. We're going to hear a little bit of something he recorded in 1933 called "I Got a Right to Sing the Blues."
(Soundbite of song, "I Got a Right to Sing the Blues")
CONAN: And still that great, golden tone, the marvelous control over his instrument, but all those strings. The big orchestra, this was quite a change.
Mr. TEACHOUT: Well, it was simply a different way of doing what he had always done. He was a great lover of melody, from the beginning of his life. He wanted to appeal to people. He loved songs. He didn't just want to play the blues, although obviously that was central to his way of expression, and he liked doing duets with Bing Crosby just as much as he liked playing "St. James Infirmary" with the Hot Seven.
In his mind, there was no difference between being an artist and being an entertainer. These two goals, these two objectives, were completely fused, and increasingly in recent years, I think that the more perceptive critics have understood that, in fact, Armstrong was right, that everything that came out of that horn was serious, and everything that came out of it was jazz, no matter what the backing was, no matter what the song was. It was all Louis.
CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is Sharon(ph), Sharon with us from Novato in California.
SHARON (Caller): Hi, thank you for taking my call.
SHARON: My parents took my sister and me to see Louis Armstrong in Las Vegas in the early 1960s. We were on one of those, you know, road trips where you pack all the kids into the car and drive forever and ever. And it was one of the highlights of my life, really. I will never forget it. My parents needed to kind of hold me down to keep me from running up on stage.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SHARON: You know, it was just the energy was electric in the auditorium. It was just one of the most phenomenal things I've ever experienced.
CONAN: Do you remember any of the tunes he played that night?
SHARON: I don't, I don't.
Mr. TEACHOUT: That's a long time ago.
SHARON: It was a long time ago, and I just remember being almost in a state of ecstasy, you know, at the age of seven or eight. It was just - it was beyond belief, he - and I remember looking at him and just seeing the sweat pouring off of him and his cheeks, you know, just larger than life and just - it just felt like life didn't get any better than that.
Mr. TEACHOUT: I love that you used the word ecstasy, because that was something that Armstrong himself clearly felt while playing. You can see him in the films and the videotape of his playing. He's rapt. He's transported.
SHARON: He is, and I think he had the capacity to�
Mr. TEACHOUT: To inspire that in others.
SHARON: That's exactly right, to inspire it in others. It was just absolutely extraordinary. So that's what I wanted to say.
Mr. TEACHOUT: That's a wonderful thing to say. Thank you.
CONAN: Sharon, thanks very much.
SHARON: Thank you.
CONAN: We talked about the people who played key roles in his life, King Oliver obviously, but also a man named Joe Glazer, who was a complicated influence on Armstrong's life.
Mr. TEACHOUT: He was indeed. Not - from Armstrong's point of view, there was nothing complicated about it. Glazer was the man, a former confederate of Al Capone back in the '20s. He actually is supposed to have run Capone's whorehouses in Chicago, and he set himself as a manager.
Armstrong came to him in 1935. His career was at a standstill; he'd had lip problems. And Armstrong said I want you to run my life as a musician, and Glazer was the man who really opened up the whiter world of entertainment to Armstrong. He was the motivating force in his going on the radio, in his developing a film career, in changing labels to Decca, which was a label that really was able to push him as a pop singer but without compromising the essentially jazz-rooted qualities of his art.
Glazer was a very, very tough customer. Everybody who worked with him talked about that, but Armstrong trusted him absolutely, believed that he'd been good for him and never swayed in this view during Glazer's lifetime.
CONAN: And the object of one of many statements from Armstrong that would rankle a lot of people today - he said if you want something done, get a white man.
Mr. TEACHOUT: Well, remember, we're talking about a man who was born in New Orleans in 1901, and that line was a piece of advice that Armstrong had been given by one of the older black men who was a mentor to him, Black Benny Williams, back in New Orleans.
He said, you know, that's the only way that you're going to be safe out there in the world. And back then, it was true. And Armstrong had the wit to know that if he found somebody who could front for him in the world of business and relieve Armstrong of the responsibility for making his own business decisions, it would change his life because Armstrong didn't want to do that. He didn't want to meet the payroll. He didn't want to be hiring and firing musicians. He wanted to be able to get up there on the bandstand every night and put that horn in his mouth and make magic, and Glazer made that possible.
CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is Jay(ph), Jay with us from Fairbanks in Alaska.
JAY (Caller): Hi, Neal, wonderful program, and a wonderful subject, especially Louis Armstrong. The story I have to tell is Louis Armstrong came to Lincoln, Nebraska to play, in about 19 - excuse me, 1955 or '58. And the date escapes me now, but after he had played, my father thought it would be a good idea - he was one of the kind of city fathers in the area - and he thought it would be a good idea to invite Louis Armstrong over for drinks and libations afterwards.
And it was his friend's birthday. And they came over, and somewhere - during the night, why, he, Louis Armstrong, decided he was going to sing "Happy Birthday," and he sang "Happy Birthday" to my father.
Mr. TEACHOUT: Oh, my goodness.
JAY: And it wasn't his birthday. It was his friend, Dick White's(ph), birthday.
CONAN: Well, okay, but nevertheless.
JAY: And the interesting thing is also, my father was a classical music lover, didn't like anything written after the 18th century, it was all purple music, but Louis Armstrong really held - he held him in high esteem.
CONAN: That's a great story, Jay.
JAY: You bet.
CONAN: Thanks very much.
JAY: Thank you, bye-bye.
CONAN: Here's another one from John(ph) in Milwaukee. I was eating at a small restaurant in Bangkok, Thailand, and I noticed a picture on the wall and recognized Louis Armstrong in the photo. I got up and walked over to the photo, and it was a picture that had been taken in Bangkok. In the photo, Louis Armstrong was with Benny Goodman and the king of Thailand, who had his saxophone out and was playing with them. In the background was a young man who I was told was George H. W. Bush.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Could you ask your guest if he thinks this is a real picture of Louis Armstrong playing jazz with the king of Thailand and a young later-president in the background?
Mr. TEACHOUT: I don't think so, to be honest with you. Part of it's real. Goodman definitely did go out there, and he definitely did jam with the king of Thailand, but I don't think Armstrong was really part of that scene. I think a little Photoshopping must have been going on.
CONAN: Here's another email, this from April(ph) in North Carolina. Do you know how long Louis would practice daily and what he would play to practice?
Mr. TEACHOUT: Well, he did practice every day. I know that part of his warm up routine - he loved to play, believe it or not, the intermezzo from Mascagni's opera �Cavelleria Rusticana.� It was a tune that he played as a feature number when he was playing in a movie house in Chicago in the �20s. And it became a permanent part of his warm up routine.
Armstrong, as I mentioned earlier, loved opera. When he got his first phonograph as a teenager in New Orleans, he had a lot of records by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, but he also had a lot of Caruso and John McCormack and (unintelligible) and as he might have put it, Tetrazzini.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: You argue that, in fact, while Louis Armstrong was famous in America and recognized as a great, great jazz musician, he truly became world famous and somebody who went on to a stage that - well, very few people ever achieve when he started to appear in the movies.
Mr. TEACHOUT: That was really a big transition in his life. And this is something that I did not realize until I started working on this book and I explored what a scholar would call the reception history of Armstrong, when did he first start turning up in the New York Times, in the New Yorker, in Time magazine?
And the film career, the major phase of which began in 1936, was absolutely crucial to this. Bing Crosby, one of his greatest admirers, who had an independent production deal to make a movie, insisted as a condition that Armstrong be brought in to co-star and to be billed with Crosby above the title. The first time that a black man had ever been so-billed in Hollywood. That was the film �Pennies from Heaven.�
CONAN: �Pennies from Heaven.� And, of course, Armstrong then went from that to, well, any number of firsts. He topped the charts many times. The last time he topped the chart was, I guess, in 1963, knocking off a band called The Beatles with this�
Mr. TEACHOUT: Sure did.
(Soundbite of song, �Hello, Dolly�)
LOUIS ARMSTRONG (Singer): (Singing) Hello, Dolly. This is Louis, Dolly. It's so nice to have you back where you belong. You're looking swell, Dolly. I can tell, Dolly. You're still glowing. You're still growing. You're still going strong. I feel the room swaying.
CONAN: And I have to tell a little personal story. I was in Ireland one day and woke up, the radio in the next room was playing that tune. I said, oh, it's so nice to hear Armstrong here in Ireland. And then, the next tune they played was �Basin Street Blues� by Louis Armstrong.
Mr. TEACHOUT: Oh, boy.
CONAN: And I realized that that must mean he's dead.
Mr. TEACHOUT: Yeah, yeah. I can just imagine the shiver you must have felt when that happened.
CONAN: Absolutely. Absolutely. We're talking with Terry Teachout about his new biography �Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong.� You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's go to Tallulah(ph), Tallulah with us from Minneapolis.
TALLULAH (Caller): Yes. Hello, Neal.
TALLULAH: I have a rather lovely story. I may even break up when I tell it. It was 1956. I was about 13 years old and Louis Armstrong was in town. My brother had written a high school speech that had won an award about Louis. And so, I was elected to call the hotel and see if we could meet him. I called the nice hotel in town and they said, I'm sorry, we don't take colored people.
And they directed me to a really working class hotel to call there. I called. I asked for him. They put me right through to his room and he picked up. He invited us down. He and his wife were having dinner in the room. They invited my parents, my brother and my brother's very huge friend who almost filled the room, and he was wonderful, absolutely wonderful.
And like your guest said, his lips were really scarred. And we noticed that right away. They kept eating and talking. We took photos, signed autographs, gave us tickets to the concert, free tickets. And when we got there, during the break, he took us out to the bus and introduced us to some of the band members. He was wonderful.
CONAN: And Terry Teachout's book is filled with stories like that, a man who was an incredibly generous spirit, a man who was very bright. We don't - thank you very much, Tallulah. It's a great story.
Mr. TEACHOUT: That's a fabulous story.
TALLULAH: Thank you. I mean, he's just so kind. And when he came back to town two years later, my brother called him and he took my brother out to eat. They sat right�
TALLULAH: �at a lunch counter in a local caf�. He was just a prince.
Mr. TEACHOUT: And he remembered. He would always remember.
TALLULAH: He remembered.
Mr. TEACHOUT: He would always remember.
CONAN: Thank you very much, Tallulah.
TALLULAH: Thank you. Thank you for the book. Bye-bye.
CONAN: And the other part of this, though, is how intelligent he was, what a fine writer he was, the author of two autobiographies he wrote himself and that incredible amount of correspondence. He wrote vividly, but he wrote very well.
Mr. TEACHOUT: Yes. It's a homemade style, of course. I mean, he didn't have that much schooling, but he bought his first typewriter when he was a teenager. And by the end of his life - well, I mean, there are thousands of surviving Armstrong letters and I'm sure there were 10 times as many more, because he once called typing his hobby.
And after the gig, he would answer his mail. He wrote vividly. By the way, our previous caller named Tallulah, her namesake, Tallulah Bankhead, a great fan of Armstrong's, said that Armstrong strung together words as vividly as he strung together notes. And it's absolutely the truth.
His second autobiography, �Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans,� was written without a ghostwriter. It is really Armstrong. The copyeditor cleaned it up a little bit, but it's the man himself. And every word he wrote, his personality shines through his prose the same way it does through his music.
CONAN: Here's an email that we have from Pete(ph) in Cape Mane, New Jersey. Wynton Marsalis, a big fan of Louis Armstrong, an accomplished musician, said that he find Armstrong's music very difficult to play. Have you heard this from other musicians? What is it about Armstrong's music that makes it tough to play? The tone? Is it difficult to transcribe note by note?
Mr. TEACHOUT: Oh, golly. That's absolutely true. And it is because Armstrong was, in fact, a virtuoso. He was one of the first real virtuosos in jazz. And I assure you, although standards in brass playing - of jazz brass playing have gone up since 1928, it's just as hard to play the opening cadence of �West End Blues� now as it was back then. Marsalis is right on the mark with this.
CONAN: Terry Teachout, thank you very much for the book and thank you for sharing your time with us today. It's been a great opportunity.
Mr. TEACHOUT: Oh, my pleasure entirely.
CONAN: Terry Teachout's book is titled �Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong.� He's the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal, also writes for Commentary Magazine, and joined us today from our bureau in New York.
I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.