On Not Being a Self-Respecting Jazz Writer

I am not a jazz musician, a jazz critic, or even a jazz writer. I am however, a writer who is working on a book about a jazz musician. This, it turns out, is a perilous place to be. Consider this paragraph from Terry Teachout’s 1997 review of a Louis Armstrong biography:

But Laurence Bergreen is a professional biographer, not a jazz scholar (his previous books were about Al Capone, Irving Berlin and James Agee, an oddly assorted trio [Ed: Not to mention the explorer Magellan]), and the very first sentence of Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life—“In the beginning, he was a sound, and only a sound: a strange blend of happy cacophony and tormented caterwauling”—points to trouble ahead. No self-respecting jazz writer would have allowed a fruit-filled sentence like that to get into print, and Bergreen, though clearly an assiduous researcher, writes as if jazz were a foreign language he had studied late in life for the sole purpose of writing Armstrong’s biography.

I’ve read Bergreen’s book and accept most of Teachout’s criticisms (Teachout, meanwhile, is working on his own biography of Armstrong). But I flinch at the phrase “self-respecting jazz writer.” What does this mean exactly? Is “jazz writer” a guild one must join before intruding upon the genius of Louis Armstrong? In a way, yes. The assumption here is that Bergreen should, if not be a musician exactly, at least be knowledgeable of the music. “Revealingly, neither ‘West End Blues’ nor any other Armstrong solo is reproduced in musical notation,” Teachout observes. “Imagine a biography of Mark Twain that contained no excerpts from his writings!” I can’t. But neither can I imagine very many readers who could make heads or tails of a transcribed Armstrong solo. The two are hardly the same.

Teachout well understands the irony of that first sentence: rather than jazz, it seems to call on the Bible and on Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist (“Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo . . .”). The author’s roots, then, are literary, not musical.

But Teachout seems to be saying more, that there is, in fact, a literary style to jazz writing that Bergreen should but does not adhere to. (Such a style might be found here.[Ed.: Notice use of word fruit as in TT above.]) If that is true, I may be in trouble. I ain’t no Mezz Mezzrow or, for that matter, Terry Teachout.

[March 4, 2006]