When I was a teenager in the late 1940s, I became interested in New Orleans jazz: Jelly Roll Morton, Bunk Johnson, George Lewis, Sidney Bechet, Kid Ory, and, of course, Louis Armstrong. This interest morphed into being an avid fan of the pulsating, simple rhythms of Dixieland. By the time I travelled North to Hanover, New Hampshire, to attend Dartmouth, like all teenage boys, I considered myself an expert and I had entrenched opinions about Dixieland jazz.
In my freshman year at Dartmouth, when I was supposed to be going to class and getting a solid liberal arts education, I traveled south to Amherst, MA to visit my St. Albans friends Tyler Abell and Ralph Pagter who were sophomores at Amherst College. On Friday and Saturday nights we’d go to a crowded club on the Connecticut River with beer-sticky floors where a Dixieland band led by a Princeton clarinet player whose last name was Rubin (first was Dave, I think, but like all memories of those times, his name is very foggy, undoubtedly because they were clouded by uncountable beers). We’d stomp ourselves sore and shout ourselves hoarse as Rubin and his band played favorites like “Indiana,” “St. James Infirmary,” and “King Porter Stomp.” The band would end the evening, of course, with “As the Saints Go Marching In,” as they tooted and stomped through the crowd. It was a miracle that the club shack didn’t disintegrate due the vibrations caused by the ruckus.
On Saturday and Sunday mornings we would wake up late in Tyler, Ralph, Don Lindberg, and Fred Werner’s room in Pratt Hall, a room whose walls were caked in places with small chunks of pineapple from a pie fight that had broken out early in the semester. For breakfast we’d have Orange Blossoms (gin and orange juice) and put on Louis Armstrong and his All Stars “Concert at Town Hall” 33-inch vinal album. We knew all the words and sang along with Satchmo and Jack Teagarden.
So it was with great anticipation in 2011 that I picked up Terry Teachout’s biography of Louis Armstrong, titled Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, and began to devour it. It was like going back and listening to a once-favorite record album; it brought back wonderful memories. Some of the details of Pops’s life I knew (some from Ken Burns’s great PBS Series, “Jazz”), but I understood much more about Armstrong as a person because of Teachout’s putting the facts of his life into an historical, psychological, and musical context.
I saw Louis and his All Stars (I remember that Barney Bigard and Trummy Young were on stage) in Washington in 1955 or 1956. I remember loving it, loving Satchmo, loving the show and loving the music. What I didn’t know at the time was how hard Louis worked, how hard life was for him as a black man, how much integrity he had for his music and how musically gifted he was.
Teachout is a musician and a historian, so he was able to add detail and deeper understanding to Pops’s musicianship and guts. He overcame an almost unbelievably deprived background, blatant racism, musical fads, nasty mobsters and greedy managers. He survived on talent, a strong work ethic and courage.
I’m a product of a loving-family, a privileged-upper-middle class, prep-school, Ivy-League, WASP background. I have done all the course work for a Ph.D. I have had every opportunity to be successful and I have worked hard; but I have not accomplished one-one-hundredths of what Pops accomplished and don’t have one-one-thousandths of the friends and admirers he had. Therefore, when I wept at the end of the book when Pops was ill and died, and when Teachout describes his funeral, I realized I was not crying for Pops, I was crying about my own inadequacies and lost opportunities.
I was sad because I didn’t follow my passion, my talent, my soul’s code. When I was 16, my father threw away all of the watercolors I had done in my beloved art class at St. Albans. He was afraid I might become an artist like my art teacher, Dean Stambaugh. I jokingly called my art teacher a pansy because I didn’t know what it meant or what a homosexual was. But my father did, and he was terrified that I would follow an artistic path and a path I’m sure he thought would lead to what he thought sexual deviance.
So, I did what he wanted. He used to say, “I don’t care what you do as long as you’re a regular guy and do what you do well.” I didn’t realize he was homophobic (I don’t blame him; he was born in 1898). I became a regular guy and, eventually, a salesman – something I was good at.
But I didn’t become an artist. I didn’t become a playwright, which is why I went to the Columbia School of Dramatic Arts (transferred from Dartmouth). I didn’t pursue the arts; I pursued commerce. So when I read the end of Pops, I wept. Louis Armstrong had guts, he had the courage of his convictions, he had artistic integrity, he was superbly human and most of all he had the guts to survive in a hostile world.
Thanks, Pops, for showing us the way.