Terry Teachout: The Balance Between Scholarship & Readability
Author of biography of Louis Armstrong talks about the importance of research and the unique advantages of being a musician and writer.
Terry Teachout is the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal, the chief culture critic of Commentary, and the author of “Sightings,” a column for the Saturday Journal about the arts in America. He blogs about the arts at his own web site. His books include The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken, A Terry Teachout Reader, and All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine. Born in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, in 1956, Teachout attended St. John’s College, William Jewel College, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. From 1975 to 1983 he lived in Kansas City, where he worked as a jazz bassist. He now lives in New York City and Connecticut.
His most recent book, Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, has recently been published in paperback by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Teachout spoke with JT about that book and the challenges and rewards associated with writing a biography.
What was first piece you wrote professionally?
The first piece I ever wrote for money was a classical review for the Kansas City Star. It was about a concert by a violinist named Yuval Waldman, of whom I’ve never heard anything since the review ran in the Star in 1977. Believe it or not, I was still in college! Everybody in town thought I was a lot older than I really was.
What was the first piece you wrote about jazz?
A couple of years after I started reviewing classical concerts for the Star, I talked the arts editor into letting me write the paper’s jazz reviews as well. I can’t remember what my first piece was, but for the next five years or so I covered everybody who came through Kansas City—Basie, Brubeck, Woody Herman, Dizzy Gillespie, Gary Burton—along with various local players. At the same time I was working as a bassist in the Kansas City area, mostly weddings and country-club gigs, though I played a certain amount of straight jazz as well.
What sort of formal training did you have as a writer?
Next to none. I studied journalism in high school and college, but that was mainly a matter of putting out the school paper every week—you got tossed in at the deep end and had to sink or swim. At one point I did a semester-long independent study with the classical music of the Kansas City Star, which was how I ended up writing concert and record reviews for the paper. After that, though, I was completely on my own.
Why did you go from writing about theater, literature, dance and music to doing a biography on the most famous jazz musician of the 20th Century?
The idea initially came from Michael Cogswell, who runs the Louis Armstrong Archives at Queens College. It was the summer of 2001, and I was doing a piece for the New York Times about the Armstrong centenary. I went out to Queens to visit Armstrong’s house—this was before it was opened to the public as a museum—and Michael took me on a private tour. Afterward he mentioned to me that none of the existing biographies of Armstrong was fully adequate and suggested that I might want to write one. At this point I was finishing up The Skeptic, my first biography, which is about H.L. Mencken. I’d been working on it for a decade, and the idea of going directly to work on another large-scale biography wasn’t very attractive to me. But the seed had been planted, and a year later, right after The Skeptic was published, it suddenly hit me that Michael’s idea made a lot of sense. I understood the nuts and bolts of writing a primary-source biography, which is something you don’t learn in school. I was also a trained musician who’d worked as a jazz bassist, which meant that I knew the world of jazz from the inside out. I’d loved Armstrong’s music ever since I was a boy and heard him play “Hello, Dolly” on The Ed Sullivan Show. Why not me? So I called up my agent, and a couple of months later the contract was signed and I was off and running.
What do you think you brought to the story as someone who had been trained and had worked as a musician?
Two things. First of all, my musical training means that I understand how Armstrong’s music works, not just superficially but in a much deeper way. I’m one of the few Armstrong biographers who can actually play the blues! At the same time, my experience as a critic and journalist makes it possible for me to translate that specialized musical knowledge into plain English and make it accessible to readers who aren’t musicians. Beyond that, I understand the culture of jazz in a way that might not be so easy for a civilian to grasp. I know what it feels like to come home at three in the morning after spending the night playing for a roomful of dancers—and I know what it feels like to have the guy who hired you say, “We don’t want you musicians drinking at the bar with the guests.”
What do you enjoy about writing a biography?
Pretty much everything, to tell you the truth. I love doing primary-source research, especially in a really well-organized place like the Armstrong Archives. I can’t begin to tell you what a thrill it was for me to handle Armstrong’s handwritten correspondence and manuscripts and listen to his private tapes. I also love doing interviews. I think I must have spent eight hours talking to George Avakian, who produced Armstrong’s Columbia albums and knew him well, and that was incredibly exciting, too. Above all, though, I enjoy the writing itself, especially the challenge of portraying the characters of great men like Louis Armstrong. A number of people who knew Armstrong personally have told me that I “got” him in Pops. I’m proud of that.
What don’t you enjoy about writing bios?
I can’t say that I enjoy the long after-the-fact slog of obtaining permission to reprint photographs. Sometimes it takes quite a bit of digging—and once in a while you come up empty-handed.
I liked the way that the photos were integrated into the text. I found it much more reader-friendly than the usual photo folio treatment.
Me, too, and it’s the first time a publisher has allowed me to do that—I’m very grateful to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. I spent a lot of time choosing the photos. I looked at more than a thousand different images at the Armstrong Archives, and spent almost as much time trolling through Web-based archives in search of unpublished and rarely seen gems.
How do you decide on a subject? What are the variables you look at?
First of all, I only write about subjects who mean a great deal to me personally. I admire Armstrong’s art without reservation—I rank him right alongside Aaron Copland and Frank Lloyd Wright and Robert Frost as one of the quintessentially American geniuses of the twentieth century. In addition, he led an eventful life, which makes for a better book. Some great artists have led dull lives! Then I ask myself whether I have something new to say that hasn’t already been said by previous biographers, and whether there’s significant primary source material that has yet to be tapped by researchers. In Armstrong’s case, the answer to both questions was yes. All existing biographies of Armstrong are full of factual errors, some of them minor and others hugely significant, so a new book was needed for that reason alone. In addition, I’m the first biographer to have had access to the private tape recordings that Armstrong made between 1947 and his death in 1971, some of which are enormously revealing. Finally, I want to know whether the subject’s personal papers and other effects are easily accessible to researchers. I already knew that the Armstrong Archives were close to me—I live in New York City—and that they have an open-door policy for scholars, so that sealed the deal.
How long did it take to do all the research for Pops? How long did it take to write from start to finish?
I spent a total of five years working on the book. The research took place throughout that time—I generally do basic research on a chapter, write a first draft, then go back and do more research in order to answer questions that emerge during the drafting process. I was still doing research and making discoveries in January and February of 2009, two months before I received the proofs of Pops and started making my final revisions and corrections.
How many interviews?
No more than a half-dozen of real consequence. Nearly all of the people who knew Armstrong well were dead by the time I started working on Pops. Fortunately, a large number of his closest friends and colleagues either wrote memoirs or were deposed for oral-history projects. I went through every single oral-history transcript in the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers looking for information about Armstrong.
Did you travel to New Orleans or Chicago for the research?
No. I was making plans to go to New Orleans when Katrina hit in August of 2005. After that, the situation on the ground was simply too chaotic. The truth, though, is that the New Orleans Armstrong knew no longer exists, and it was gone long before Katrina. Remember that he left town for good in 1922, and the sections of the city in which he lived and worked as a boy and a young man have long since been changed beyond recognition. Besides, Armstrong’s New Orleans years are the most fully researched part of his life, and most of the relevant source materials have been widely available for years, thanks to the devoted efforts of countless scholars of New Orleans jazz.
Even after Katrina, I would have spent time in the local archives, but Thomas Brothers had already done a complete survey of all New Orleans-based archival material in preparation for writing Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans, which was published in 2006. That made it unnecessary for me to repeat his pioneering work. All I had to do was fill in a few minor gaps here and there.
More or less the same thing is true of Chicago. Armstrong lived there off and on from 1922 through 1929, but he didn’t put down roots, and virtually all of the sites closely associated with him were torn down long ago. Needless to say, I’ve spent a lot of time in Chicago, but it wasn’t necessary for me to go there simply to look at old newspapers—I can do that in New York. In any case, Armstrong’s personal scrapbooks, which provide the fullest surviving documentation of his Chicago years, are on deposit in the Armstrong Archives in Queens. Anybody who writes about Louis Armstrong is going to end up spending three-quarters of his time going through the material in the Armstrong Archives, because Armstrong, bless him, was a pack rat. He hung onto everything, right down to his expired passports.
What did you learn about Armstrong that you didn’t know coming in? What was the biggest surprise or revelation?
I was surprised to learn about his hot temper. He had a short fuse, and he frequently flew into red rages that he forgot all about the next day. He could even be cruel to close friends—though they always forgave him. This side of Armstrong fascinated me because it was so completely absent from his warm public persona.
How do you avoid hagiography with a subject so remarkable as Armstrong?
By telling the truth about him. Louis Armstrong was a great and lovable man, but he wasn’t a saint, and he wouldn’t have wanted to be portrayed as one. That’s something he makes clear in his own autobiographical writings. It was immensely important to Armstrong to make sure that posterity would know the whole truth about him. That’s why he took care to preserve his personal papers, and why he spent so much time writing the letters and manuscripts in which he told his side of the story of his life. He wasn’t afraid of telling the truth about himself, and that inspired me to do the same.
You integrate an incredible number of voices into the narrative? Was that something purposeful and if so, why?
Oh, absolutely. That’s a big part of what gives life and variety to a biography. It’s not just about one person—it’s about a whole cast of characters, and you have to give each one of them the right amount of time in the spotlight.
Do you find it hard to get the right mix of biographical detail, historical context and musical analysis?
I think that’s the hardest part of writing a biography. The goal is to strike the best possible balance between scholarship and readability. Ideally, you want the scholarship to be at once impeccable and invisible, so that laymen can get as much enjoyment out of the book as musicians. What I wanted was to write a book that my mother could enjoy—but one from which my musician friends would also learn things they didn’t know about Louis Armstrong and his life.
He was a surprisingly complicated individual. Was there material you left on the cutting room floor, so to speak?
No. Of course I didn’t tell everything I knew, but that wasn’t because I felt the need to conceal anything—it was simply because I wanted to keep the book from becoming unmanageably long. I’m sure some scholar will come along one day and write a three-volume Armstrong biography, but that wasn’t what I set out to do. I wanted to write a reasonably compact volume with the sweep and drama of a good novel, a book that would simultaneously provide a factually accurate summary of everything that is now known about Armstrong and introduce him to a new generation of readers.
The book is neither too short nor too long.
Thank you! That’s one of the nicest things you could say about it.
Do you come into a book thinking of a limit as to how long it should be? Is there a sweet spot?
I think that the most readable length for a full-length single-volume general-interest biography is around five hundred pages, including the source notes and bibliography—less if at all possible, but definitely not more. I brought Pops in at 475 pages, a nice comfortable length. I suppose it could have gone on been a bit longer, but as Armstrong himself would undoubtedly have said, it’s always better to leave ’em wanting more!
What biographies do you love personally?
The modern biography I admire most is W. Jackson Bate’s Samuel Johnson, which was my model for Pops. I also especially like Bob Caro’s The Power Broker, David Cairns’ two-volume biography of Hector Berlioz, and Simon Callow’s Orson Welles biography (which is still a work in progress—I’m eager to read the next volume).
The best jazz biography ever written is Bix: Man and Legend, one of the few books about an important jazz musician that is directly comparable in quality to the major literary biographies. I was close to Dick Sudhalter, the co-author of Bix, who lived just long enough to read the manuscript of Pops. I was constantly aware of wanting to do my best to make my book worthy of its great predecessor.
What contemporary (e.g. living) jazz writers do you respect and/or enjoy reading?
Quite a few, actually, so I’m reluctant to single anyone out for special praise—I wouldn’t want to give the impression that I didn’t like those writers whom I neglected to mention. But it goes without saying that I admire Nat Hentoff, and I’m also impressed by Ethan Iverson’s writings. I wish more jazz musicians would try their hands at writing about music. Ethan does it extraordinarily well.
In the past couple of years I’ve read two books about jazz that I found particularly memorable, Samuel Charters’ A Trumpet around the Corner: The Story of New Orleans Jazz and Bruce Boyd Raeburn’s New Orleans Style and the Writing of American Jazz History, neither of which attracted nearly enough critical attention. One of the things about the reception of Pops that pleased me most, by the way, was the fact that it was reviewed in dozens of publications that normally take little or no notice of books about jazz.
You didn’t ask about jazz writers of the past, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that I was powerfully influenced by Whitney Balliett, whose work I read when young and who made a deep impression on me, though my style is nothing like his. I wish he’d lived long enough to read Pops—I would have loved to know what he thought of it.
What’s next on your book-writing horizon?
Duke Ellington, I’m pleased to say. I’ve just started working on an Ellington biography that I hope to finish in 2014. It will be similar in scale and style to Pops, and the working title is Black Beauty. After that…well, we’ll see.