Terry Teachout is drama critic for the Wall Street Journal and has authored biographies of H. L. Mencken, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington. He has also written a play about Armstrong. I interviewed him on March 11, 2006, at his Upper West Side, New York City apartment.
TERRY TEACHOUT: He [Fats Waller] has a different kind of critic problem which is that people don’t think he’s serious just because he’s funny.
BRENDAN WOLFE: Louis Jordan has that problem. I just saw an essay in a used bookstore today about how Louis Jordan is not given enough credit.
TT: Interesting. That was for a long time the Armstrong problem. But that wreckage has now pretty much been cleared away, first of all by Dan Morgenstern and then by Gary Giddins in the first chapter of his book. Giddins’ treatment of it isn’t perfect. It does have the advantage of clearing this rubble away and allowing us to say, without any hesitation, that the fact that Armstrong saw himself as an entertainer is central to who he was. And it’s neither a bad thing nor a good thing. It’s just a thing. I think some of these people have erred too far in that direction and they haven’t really attended closely enough to what Armstrong said about himself, though most of those documents have become available since Gary wrote his book.
BW: But that’s something he did, pay attention to—
TT: It was really quite pioneering. Gary’s book was the best short treatment of Armstrong ever written and although I’m going to correct a lot of things in it, it’s still really a good, sound book. You read it and you’ll come away with a very clear sense of Armstrong and what he was.
BW: He attends to the music—you can listen to a song and read his description. It’s great. And it’s only 150 pages long.
TT: It’s real hard to write a short book that is that good. He should be very proud of it. He’s not a musician; therefore, there are thing he can’t do, but that was more of a problem in his Crosby book, which is so long that you have to be able to engage with musical material for a primary source biography in a way that Gary can’t. Gary didn’t understand the nature of Crosby’s vocal crisis, for instance. He just doesn’t know enough about singing. I wrote a long essay about Crosby in my anthology, The Teachout Reader. I really admire Gary’s book. I reviewed it for Time and praised it enthusiastically, but there are some things he doesn’t know. I saw that posting that you did. I think it’s perfectly possible for people who don’t have musical training to write well and interestingly about music. It just means there are certain kinds of things that are much harder for them to do. One of them is to write a primary source biography about a musician that attempts to be a full-scale life and works summary. That’s really hard for someone without musical training to do. It’s not impossible, but it’s hard. And it happens that nobody with musical training has attempted to write that kind of book about Armstrong. Mine will be the first. I mean, I’m not going to bang people over the head with it. I want the book to be intelligible. But it really needs to be informed by that kind of knowledge, or you’re just not going to be able to go all the way in. Have you ever seen the website Jerry Jazz Musician? He did a long and quite good interview with me and I talked about these things. That’s the big problem with Stanley Crouch. My cat knows more about music than he does. So Stanley exudes these clouds of rhetoric which sometimes are evocative, although he really needs better editing, but he does not know anything about the stuff of music. Now if you want to write a book about the Bix legend, you’re totally empowered to do that. You don’t have to read music to be able to do that. That’s a different thing.
BW: I can read music, but I have no jazz training whatsoever, and I’m not a good listener. I’ve not been taught to understand the technical stuff going on as I’m listening. Gary Giddins is clearly a good listener.
TT: Yeah, he’s picked it up. Whitney Balliett is good at it, too. If I get you right, sort of what you want to write is a cultural studies book about Bix, only in English.
BW: That’s absolutely right, because I’m not an academic, although, you know, I spent enough years around the university. Let me just give you a sense of what I’ve done so far. The first chapter is about Bix and Davenport. Davenport just has an incredibly complicated relationship with Bix. I grew up in Davenport. You can grow up in Davenport and not learn one thing about Bix Beiderbecke.
TT: That is so interesting.
BW: But his face is everywhere. You know Bix, but you think it probably has something to do with the Bix 7 road race. And you know there’s a Bix festival, but all you really know is that it’s a guy with a trumpet, it’s the twenties, you don’t know anything about him because there’s nothing in Davenport to teach you. It’s not in the schools, it’s not on the radio. And the festival has become kind of cordoned off from street festivals, and the huge race. All this stuff going on, and then there’s these old geezers with suspenders on and clarinets up on the band shell. As kids you don’t really want to have anything to do with that.
TT: No, of course not.
BW: So it took me until, I had just graduated from high school when I was hired to be an extra on the bandstand and pretend to play fiddle in the Pupi Avati movie. And here’s this Dixieland band from Italy, with Tom Pletcher on cornet that had done the soundtrack that was being blasted over, and we just played along. And that was the first time I had heard his music, which wasn’t even his music.
TT: Fascinating, though Tom does a very reasonable simulation.
BW: I loved it, and being around all these people who know about Bix. So I went out and read the first book I could find about Bix, which was Ralph Berton’s book.
TT: [laughs loudly]
BW: And I lived in blissful ignorance of anything more than that, other than the fact that I had bought his music on tape and listened to it. Until the Berton book was reissued and I wrote an essay, and then got the letter from Bix’s nephew. But that’s kind of Davenport: it makes money off Bix, it has a lot of municipal identity invested in Bix, but people on the street have no idea who he is, and the festival itself is dying kind of a slow, painful death.
BW: Yes, they’re getting old and they don’t want to change, they don’t want to do anything to get the festival involved with more people. So eventually they’re going to die and that’s going to be the end of it. It’s really sad.
TT: I’ll tell you right here: You need to read a book, the new cultural history of the painting American Gothic. It’s superior. I did a blurb for the dust jacket, which is why I didn’t review it. It is a model of this kind of treatment. You’ll just enjoy reading it, it’s so good, but it will also give you a lot of good ideas for how to approach your subject matter.
TT: Was it Benny Green who referred to him [Bix] as the vegetable god? I think that’s in there, but if it’s not him it’s Philip Larkin. One or the other.
BW: ... My idea is that Bix and Louis kind of define each other and define the parameters of what was going on in jazz in the twenties. I think that will move in to a bigger chapter on Bix and race, which is one of the primary reasons that Bix is still talked about and argued about today is that he’s sitting right there in the middle of pretty much any argument about jazz and race.
TT: Yeah. He is an indisputably major figure in jazz who is white. This pushes all kinds of different kinds of people’s different kinds of buttons. You must have seen the Commentary piece I did about Bix. OK, so I won’t tell you what that says since you know what it says, but that’s the thing. He’s like the ace in the hole for a lot of different kinds of people.
BW: He’s either the reason somebody believes something or he’s the exception so that they can still believe it.
BW: That’s true in Blues People. He’s the great exception. I’m still trying to get my head around what LeRoi Jones’ argument is in Blues People, because he’s basically saying that Bix Beiderbecke’s ability to play original, innovative jazz was what made jazz an American art form. It was black music, then you take someone like Bix, and all of a sudden it becomes American music.
TT: Yes, and that’s a profoundly racist argument, it just comes from the other direction. It’s utterly racist. LeRoi Jones is as reverse racist as is humanly possible, and now, of course, a total psychopath. My interpretation of jazz is that while it started out, obviously, demonstrably, a black music, whatever it means to be black—remember what a complex amalgam that is—it acquired other racial admixtures virtually from the start. It’s perfectly obvious from the early history of New Orleans jazz. And it acquired a major figure [Bix], and as I pointed out, to the month, at the same time as Louis Armstrong in 1924. It was an American music to begin with. It’s the quintessential expression of what it means to be American I think. That’s its own myth but it’s a myth that happens to be true. And that’s why Orwell used to say that Dickens was the kind of writer you wanted to have on your side, a good writer to steal. Jazz is a good art form to steal. It allows you to play in so many different kinds of contexts. Jazz musicians, as opposed to jazz critics, don’t have arguments like this. Except for some who are themselves racial extremists, and they exist on both sides of the fence. They see the music as something that’s accessible to everybody and entry to the club is simply on merit. That’s what the real culture of jazz is like when you’re actually a part of it. And even people who have powerful racial feelings like Miles Davis, who was very clear cut about this, anybody can do this. Anyone’s expression of it is authentic. The whole idea that the blues is somehow a defining characteristic of jazz, in whose absence one is not playing jazz, is ahistorical. And crazy. And of course it’s at the center of the whole Crouch argument about jazz. And Beiderbecke naturally makes these folks squirm because blues plays no part in his musical expression at all.
BW: On the Bix forum last week they were arguing about Bix and blues. To my ear, which again is untrained and I can’t speak in any way that would impress anyone with my intelligence on this subject, but I don’t hear what I perceive to be blues in any of his music.
TT: That’s correct. Bix does not use anything that’s recognizable as blues language. You know you can count the number of times he actually plays 12-bar blues choruses. The thing to remember is that there are also lots and lots and lots of black players about whom exactly the same thing is true. Fats Waller is one of them. Most of the stride pianists. Dizzy Gillespie did not play blues, and would have happily told you so, did on more than one occasion. Crosby said one of the big differences between him and Parker was that Parker was a blues player and he wasn’t. Any two statements like this put the lie to the whole idea of the blues as an essential element of jazz. It’s just an element of jazz.
BW: In your review of the Thomas Brothers book [Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans], and it’s something I noticed right away, the racial politics that are invested in some of his argument. And he wants to argue for a more African-American roots to Armstrong’s music.
TT: Yes. I believe that.
BW: He talks about the blues, the importance of blues and how Armstrong grew up playing the blues while others might have picked it up later in life and not embodied the idiom.
TT: I think everything Brothers says is true or defensible, it’s just the interpretative framework. It’s just part of the air that so many academics breathe, and especially white academics, who tend to be a little bit suspicious of themselves. So then they come a little too far to one side. But the book is brilliant. You may have seen what I wrote in Commentary, I really mean that. I think it’s the best thing ever written about Armstrong. But it just forgets that there’s a little bit more to Armstrong than that, even though what he points out about Armstrong is at the center of him. He is a man from the gutter. And completely part of this life, and not totally accepting of it. My framework for understanding Armstrong is that he’s a proto-Victorian. [garbled] He accepted what he was and where he came from, but he really embodied the Victorian work ethic and saw it as ennobling, even though he didn’t feel he needed to be, what blacks called at that time, “dicty.” He wasn’t dicty at all. But he believed deeply in another locus of [garbled] and that is what made him become what he became. He thought that work was ennobling, sanctifying, and that’s really part of him. Morgenstern understands this. I don’t think Gary Giddins completely gets it. Crouch doesn’t get it at all and gets extremely furious when it’s mentioned.
TT: I don’t know. Stanley in particular I don’t know. Because when Stanley is not writing about jazz, his way of thinking about racial politics is like this. It’s when he walks into the jazz room he loses his perspective. I don’t understand it. I don’t know enough about him. He also really tries to downgrade the importance of Armstrong’s writing, which I think is consciously or subconsciously an attempt to brush the evidence under the carpet. Armstrong wrote a lot, a lot. He’s the only major jazz musician to write that much, of most it’s autobiographical. So it’s possible to know a lot about what Louis Armstrong thought about himself. And if you ignore that in any way [garbled]
BW: I read Bergreen’s book a couple years ago.
TT: Bergreen is to be approached with the utmost caution.
BW: I realized that because I read it at the same time I read Bix: Man & Legend, and I was reading all the major stuff about Bix, and I realized that he gets a lot wrong about Bix. When you realize that, you sort of take the rest of it with a grain of salt.
TT: Salt. Stalactite.
BW: He likes the anecdote. There’s an anecdote in there about Babe Ruth coming over to Bix’s house in Queens toward the end of his life ... and I don’t think there’s any evidence of that, I don’t know where he gets it from, but it just sort of fit.
TT: Following his footnotes can be a very educational process. [garbled] He used a research staff. He never once went to the Armstrong archives. I know this because the archive has told me so.
BW: There’s a big thank you to Dan Morgenstern in the front of that book, as there are in the fronts of most books on jazz, and I was always curious, knowing that there’s a lot of weird stuff in this book, I always wondered what Morgenstern thought of this book.
BW: Well. Then Morgenstern’s big collection of essays comes out this year, and sure enough. He didn’t think terribly highly of it.
TT: Dan’s a great guy by the way. Talking to him is an education.
BW: Reading him is always interesting because he’ll be making some point and then he’ll say, just in passing, that he first thought of this idea while standing next to So and So Jazz Great while they were watching So and So Jazz Great in 1956.
TT: You should probably also try to talk to George Avakian. [...] Obviously he didn’t know Bix Beiderbecke, but he plays an important part in the whole idea of the jazz reissue. I can give you his email address. [...]
BW: You talked about Bix and Louis as the twin lines of descent in jazz. The way I think about is that they were opposites in so many fundamental ways.
TT: I think so.
BW: Opposite styles, opposite backgrounds, opposite races obviously, opposite class backgrounds.
TT: Paradoxically, Armstrong was articulate in a way that Beiderbecke wasn’t.
BW: Well that was a comment you made about all of Armstrong’s writing. They also had a real different idea of what to do on stage, a real different sense about the entertainer and the relationship with the audience and, I guess, by virtue of that, relationship with the music. They had very different personalities. Armstrong’s personality was something that was just out there. And Bix’s personality was something that has been hidden forever.
TT: He’s an introvert. It seems to be incontrovertible that Bix’s personal issues stem from his youthful experience of, you know, the morals rap. That would have had to have been the end of the world with his relations with his family, especially if he had had, as seems possible, an inclination toward homosexuality. And I don’t think we can question what Ralph Berton said in his book.
TT: Because why should we? There’s no reason not to. There’s nothing in it for him to make that up. It’s very specific, the claims are extremely restrictive. It is only about what his brother told him. And it has a very high degree of what social scientists would call face validity. I don’t see any reason to doubt, at the very least, that Gene told Ralph what Ralph says he told him. And I don’t see why he would have made that up. It doesn’t have the ring of falsehood to it. And it also fits well into—I mean, Beiderbecke, from what we know about him, behaved like someone who was at the very least equivocal about sexual relations. I don’t think, and Dick [Sudhalter] doesn’t think, that the story about the sexual attack with the bottle is true. That’s just a story. But it would explain a great deal to some degree, if this were true. We can never know for sure. Finding out what we found out about the morals charges, I don’t think we’re ever going to get any farther than that. But it sure all fits.
BW: I think it potentially does. Here’s what I’m hearing from people I talk to. It’s in my best interests not to even have an opinion about this right now.
TT: Of course.
BW: But last weekend I talked to a historian in Davenport who specializes in German-American culture.
TT: Ah, someone who might actually have a useful opinion.
BW: Yeah, he’s an interesting guy. And then later that day I talked to Bix’s grand nephew. First what the historian said to me was that what he thought was strange ... that police report was written April 22. So Sudhalter has said that the timing of his parents deciding to send him to Lake Forest as being compelling evidence that the two are somehow related. But the historian said he finds it equally compelling that if Bix was such a disgrace, he spent the whole summer gigging around town. And so he thought that if he was in this disgraced position, he might not have done that. But that raises all kinds of questions: What does it mean to gig around town? Who were you playing for? Maybe that already wasn’t the most respectable thing you could do.
TT: Well, in both white and black middle-class culture, gigging around town was not an honorable thing to do. This is something we forget about blacks in jazz, which is that there’s a whole black middle-class. They didn’t like jazz back then. It was no better that you should do that if you were a young black man than a young white man.
BW: OK, that’s a confusion I’ve had. It may have been Blues People, but somewhere I read about the distinction where in the white community, jazz was a form of rebellion, and in the black community, jazz was an expression of the community’s culture. But here maybe you’re talking as if the black and white communities are monolithic.
TT: Yeah. Blacks are not a monolith any more than whites are. In the black bourgeoisie, it was not a good thing to play jazz. Fats Waller had problems with it, Nat Cole had problems with it. Anybody whose parents were preachers had problems with it. The evidence for this just accumulates. For Armstrong obviously this is not an issue because he did not come from the black bourgeoisie. He had no desire to become a part of it. His aspirations were not class aspirations. But you find this in all kinds of instances. I would say that the desire to play it in a black person was not as likely to have been a form of rebellion against respectability. It was that it was this wonderful music and it was exciting and everyone wanted to do it, you know, like the Chicago kids did, like Dave Tough or somebody, because he didn’t like the lace on the curtains. Miles Davis. His father was a highly respectable dentist. His mother was very weird about jazz.
BW: Back to Berton. The Bix folks talk about Berton—we talked earlier about how the Bix cult has been able to nail down what he was doing pretty much every day. Based on that, they can just rip Berton apart in terms of chronology.
TT: Well sure.
BW: They’re saying that he was constantly claiming that stuff was happening on that day when it wasn’t, and that he may have claimed to have known Bix longer than he actually knew Bix. You can do that from a historical perspective. But I come to it with an MFA in nonfiction, and you can really get into the whole James Frey debate in terms of what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable when you’re writing a memoir. But they would say that you can’t believe him about this or this because those things are provably untrue, so can you believe him about this?
TT: You’re now seeing the difference between amateur and professional historians. Amateur historians, because they’re not professional and know they’re not professional, over-vest in the positivism of [garbled] especially when they have an axe to grind. Anybody who as I have has actually written a memoir knows that you forget things. If you don’t do primary source research on yourself, and you are writing about things twenty or thirty or forty years ago, chances are that you’re going to get some very large things wrong. You always exaggerate the amount of time something important to you took up in your life, because that’s just the nature of things. Aaargh! You just want to kick them!
BW: I feel like Berton was interested in trying to figure out who Bix was.
TT: Correct. Right on the target. Very few people in their work have tried to understand that question. Dick, obviously in his later work, tried to understand that question. Aside from conducting a thoroughly musical inquiry into Bix Beiderbecke, that’s what’s interesting about him. He is very difficult to know. He was an opaque personality.
BW: Which has allowed the legend to happen over the years.
TT: It’s facilitated it.
BW: He’s a big empty vessel and you can pour into it—
TT: Whatever you want to be, whatever suits your own preoccupations. He’s very good that way. Possibly the jazz figure who is best suited to that kind of treatment: died young, didn’t leave behind any secret autobiographical documents, we don’t know a lot about him, it’s an interesting story. You get to read into it whatever you want. And he was white. Better even than Buddy Bolden. But I never understood the craziness about the Berton book: It is what it is. Of course it’s not ... it’s not what it’s not, but it is what it is. It is a primary source from an acquaintance of Bix Beiderbecke. There aren’t many of them of any value, and while yeah I think he probably made a little too much brick out of not quite enough straw, but I mean you can trim that part away.
BW: It’s an interesting book in that on the one hand he’s very self-consciously trying to puncture the Bix myth by saying that all that stuff is BS, let’s get at who this guy really was. But on the other hand, he has this bigger than life, mythological approach to what he writes about. I mean, he’s on page one comparing Bix to Jesus and Van Gogh.
TT: Here’s a guy who as a boy knew a very great man. He wrote the kind of book that most people would write under those circumstances. Incidentally, it just occurred to me—and I’m not comparing Bix to Jesus—but there are definitely some resemblances between the way he gets written about and Biblical textual criticism. Or biographies of Shakespeare where people don’t have enough primary source material to work with and so they engage in wild speculation which may or may not be worth much. The next thing presumably will be someone attempting to prove that Bix was actually, you know, a black man who made these records under another name. The Francis Bacon theory of Bix Beiderbecke.
BW: One of the funniest things I ever encountered on the web was an article from an alternative weekly in Minneapolis titled “Bix Beiderbecke Was White!!!” with three exclamations. And the guy a few weeks prior had decided to give his readers the top ten black jazz artists of all time and had put Bix on that list. It was just so funny and so wrong in so many ways, and I’m just so sorry it had to happen in the Midwest.
TT: That’s funny.
BW: So he had to write this mea culpa, and in the mea culpa he never really thought to ask himself—I mean, he did a lot of ‘Wow, I’m stupid’—but he never thought to ask himself why he felt qualified in the first place to offer such a top ten list.
TT: That’s true.
BW: Because it seems like you can’t know anything, anything about Bix Beiderbecke without first knowing he was white. It just seems to be absolutely crucial in a way that it may not be crucial about Charlie Parker.
TT: There is an identifiable white jazz style. Never forget that a great many black people played it, and vice versa. But there is a style that tends to be associated with white musicians, and it descends more or less from Beiderbecke and from the Red Nichols school. That’s where it starts. You could plot all sorts of points, novelty piano and things like that, but it is white. Dick has written this remarkable book that attempts to pin it down what this line of descent is. You know, it’s not a good thing or a bad thing, it’s just a thing.
BW: Help me understand the backlash against Lost Chords.
TT: Lost Chords asserts that white musicians are as important to the history of jazz as blacks were. That is essentially, stripped of all the foliage, the heart of the matter. It really is. And Lost Chords does not make any claims beyond the ones that it makes. It’s not particularly polemical. It’s very careful in who it chooses as major figures. It’s not a sustained attack on Stanley Crouch. It’s none of these things. But it does make a claim for equal authenticity of major figures playing jazz who are white. That is the source of the backlash. Everything else is, you know, all else is commentary. That’s just too bad.
BW: The backlash?
TT: Yeah. Fortunately the book is there and quite widely read and it’s very important and I think increasingly recognized and it’s going to be there after the nonsensical commentary is gone. It does not make the claim that whites were superior to blacks playing jazz, which as you know such a claim has been made at different times. It doesn’t make the claim for whites as the originators of jazz. It’s very focused in the claims that it makes. And it does make an absolute claim for equal legitimacy for the major white figures of jazz, and that is not a tolerable claim for a lot of people.
BW: You write in your Bix essay that you think the dearth of Bix biographies is because Bix was white.
TT: That has something to do with it. Of course they might also have been intimidated by the fact of the existence of Man & Legend, which although it’s not a perfect book was at the time the best jazz biography ever written. And though it has weaknesses, and I’m sure you’re as aware of them as I am, it is without question one of the best five best jazz biographies to be written. It should have been rewritten by Sudhalter in the light of subsequent research and reissued, but still it’s immensely important. When it was published, which was when? ’68?
BW: ’74. Same year as Berton’s book.
TT: Yeah. We just didn’t have jazz biographies like that. Jazz scholarship itself barely existed as a professional [garbled]. I think probably Man & Legend was the first jazz biography that could be compared with any accuracy to a good biography of a major writer. I don’t think there’s been anything else. There have been some decent biographies but there has been nothing that has been primary source based and factually reliable. And he did a little bit of reconstructed dialogue and he shouldn’t have done that. Allowing for certain limitations like that, it was like George Painter’s Proust biography or something like that. It attempted to do what that kind of biography does. And we still have almost no jazz biographies that have been good in that way. That is my mental model in writing my Armstrong book. That’s the kind of biography I want to write, one that is of identical quality and seriousness of something you would see on a literary figure of identical significance as Armstrong.
BW: And a critical biography, right? Not just a descriptive biography.
TT: Not a life and works in which equal emphasis is given to the works. I want it to be integrated so that you can read it like a narrative like my Mencken book—in the process of reading about his life you can understand where all the works go, what their significance is. But to have the kind of dramatic flow that a good biography has. Jazz does not have that kind of book because jazz scholarship is very new. First you get scholarship and then later on you get biography. When new scholarship comes along, the first thing you have to have is positivistic scholarship that establishes the facts of the matter. And that’s pretty much the stage we’re in now with jazz. I mean, there are still major figures that haven’t been deposed by an oral history project. And after that, and after the monographs, then you get people—essentially what I’m doing is coming along and synthesizing all of the remarkable scholarship on Armstrong that has been done and turning it into the kind of book that Larry Bergreen should have written if he had been equipped to write it, which he isn’t. That’s what I want to do. And Bix: Man & Legend did that.
BW: Bix’s life obviously was so short and his professional life was so much shorter, so compressed, that it strikes me that one of the weaknesses of reading a book like Man & Legend it almost requires you to go day by day, gig by gig. I can’t imagine reading a biography of Armstrong where you went gig by gig from ’58 to ’69 say. But it seems like you do that with Bix.
TT: Yeah, I think it’s just because the chronology is so short, more than just chronology, you just don’t know enough. There are so many things, if you had more material, you would be able to say more about it, construct an unknown vehicle kind of narrative [?], but when you get a guy who died that young and didn’t leave behind any significant correspondence, there are these big wholes, you either write a book like the kinds of which we’ve had, or you write a Shakespeare biography where there’s an enormous amount of highly informed speculation rooted in knowledge about the period. Again, jazz scholarship is still stuck in the positivistic realm, which is fine, that’s where we need to be.
BW: Walk me through how we’ve gotten this far.
TT: It started with amateurs, it started with fans. Basically all of the early jazz writing is by fans. The first real jazz record review was by [?] in 27 or 28, and I think he may have still been an undergraduate when he published those. There’s no academic structure that would have allowed anybody to write about jazz. So you go from fans to somewhat older fans who are themselves established writers, like Otis Ferguson. A lot of it is politically driven. Remember that a lot of the early writing about jazz is by left wing people who no matter what they thought about jazz and its significance were writing for publications that might well have had a Marxist perspective and certainly saw jazz as an expression of the people. You also at the same time have coverage of jazz in the black press. And there’s a whole area that hasn’t been added to the total of jazz scholarship. Scholarship is only just starting now to look at the black newspapers in the United States and how they covered jazz. Jazz biographies—well, Armstrong’s Swing That Music, which is 1936, I think the first jazz as-told-to biography of any substance—Paul Whiteman wrote one earlier but he doesn’t count—and Benny Goodman wrote one right around the same time [garbled]—but in the ’50s people were beginning to write books about jazz, but they tended to be from the sociological perspective. The first substantial, significant work of critical history about jazz by a musician, which was recognized universally, immediately recognized for what it was, was Gunther Schuller’s Early Jazz in 196[?]. That turns the light on. Because all previous histories of jazz are not serious. I mean, they’re interesting, they may have interesting material—books like Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya—but Schuller wrote the kind of book about jazz that we now take as commonplace. The book has many deficiencies. Although Schuller is very problematic as a writer, it is a seriously important book. And essentially that’s where, that was the moment when jazz as a serious subject of academic inquiry became possible. Momentum has picked up considerably in the last 35 years. Really it’s been the last 15 or 20 years. You’re starting to get jazz departments that do more than just teach jazz as an applied pursuit you can do for a living. How do you play jazz on your instrument? Or jazz as music appreciation. And Man & Legend, as I say, is I think the first really serious jazz biography. We’re now getting, we’re now at the stage where we’re getting a lot of monographs about specific aspects of jazz. A lot of them are still being written by non-musicians, like Jazz on the River, which is William Kenney’s. It’s a good book up to a point, but it’s silted with politics, so you sort of have to screen all that out. But Brothers’ is a major, major work, which I think is going to be recognized 20 years from now as a turning point. Beiderbecke has not been the subject of, as you know, of much serious academic inquiry. Partly because of the race thing and partly just because it’s hard. What would you do? I mean somebody obviously needs to write an analysis of Beiderbecke as musician as a monograph, as the only thing you focus on, and somebody will do that eventually.
BW: But it doesn’t help the case any that Sudhalter’s book went out of print.
TT: Yeah, that’s just impossible. That’s maddening. I forget when I got my copy, but it was about the last time it was affordable. [...] We’re beginning to get books that are clearly informed by a cultural studies perspective, but some of them are almost like caricatures of cultural studies. Krin Gabbard's Jazz at the Margin, the book about jazz and film, it’s like a burlesque of everything that’s silly about cultural studies, although somewhere in there is some very intelligent stuff, and he’s not stupid. But it’s as though, I think there are a lot of people who want to look like trendy academics working in the field of jazz, so they’re sort of hinting at the argot of cultural studies. And I assume this is not what you want to do. You want to write a book more like the American Gothic book, which is written entirely in English; it’s informed by this perspective, but it’s intelligible to a general audience, and it contains within itself all the information necessary to understand what it says. That’s a good book to write. We need more books like that about jazz. One could write a book like that about Louis Armstrong. It’ll be an aspect of what I’m trying to do.
BW: The different arguments about Louis Armstrong over the years have been really interesting.
TT: Oh yeah. And Bergreen didn’t even know what any of them were. He didn’t understand that there was like, that there was a question about what was more important about Armstrong, there was a debate, you know, how important was the material in the ’30s. It’s like he was totally clueless about this. It was amazing how uninformed he was. That was the thrust of what I was getting at in the New York Times Book Review piece. He just, he didn’t even know what the arguments were, so he certainly couldn’t take part in them. And, you know, I think I know what’s true, but it’s debatable. You can argue very seriously that Louis Armstrong did all of his most important work before 1929. You can make a very strong case for that. I don’t think it’s true, but a very strong case can be made. And now you’re even getting these crazies who want to argue that his work was even more important in the ’50s and ’60s.
BW: So many people, what they know about jazz and about Bix Beiderbecke comes from the Ken Burns film. And Ken Burns obviously did a lot to promote the importance of Louis Armstrong.
TT: The Burns thing was way better than nothing. Way better than nothing. It was the Crouch-Murray point of view on jazz writ large. It was completely a racial politics perspective and not just the obvious stuff, but also the fact that they don’t think anything important happened to jazz after 1960. And Burns, who knows nothing about music and brought nothing to it, was led around by the nose by these guys. And the accompanying book, I mean it looks beautiful, and it’s wonderfully well designed, there’s a lot of good stuff in there. Everything in it has to be approached with the knowledge that it is a very particular, interpretative party line, and it happens to be ahistorical, a racial axe to grind, and that’s just too bad. To tell the truth about jazz is so ennobling to blacks, you know, it’s enough. You don’t have to pretend that nobody else did anything else worthwhile. And you don’t have to pretend that everything that blacks did was perfect. Just tell the truth and it’s the most amazing story. You tell the truth about Louis Armstrong and it’s the most wonderful and inspiring story. And it’s something that kids should read.
BW: What kind of distinctions are to be made, if any, between Albert Murray’s arguments about jazz and race and Amiri Baraka’s? I ask this with the understanding that Baraka tends to be a little bit cruder ...
TT: The heart of the matter is there is a way of looking at jazz in which blackness is the source of its authenticity. And blues is the token. And if you have that point of view, then anything else you think is of secondary interest, because that’s what defines it. If you’re Baraka, then you have a different kind of political overlay, because he comes along at a different time. He was this Black Power guy. And with Murray, I mean, I don’t understand Albert Murray. I don’t understand how somebody could take such an ahistorical approach and ignore obvious and well-known facts, and obviously only a non-musician can do that kind of thing, be so blissfully ignorant of the existence of major, first-tier black players for whom blues is not part of their self-expression.
BW: For Albert Murray, both in Stomping the Blues and his short book The Hero and the Blues, the blues seems to be something much bigger than simply music, more abstract, so that when you’re talking about whether so-and-so played the blues, I’m not sure you’re talking about the same thing Albert Murray’s talking about.
TT: It’s such a classic definition of the way a musician and a non-musician thinks about music. And I don’t say that the non-musical perspective is without value. I really don’t. the problem is that the Murray-Crouch, through its embodiment in Jazz at Lincoln Center, has acquired a degree of legitimacy that it shouldn’t have because of its fundamental ahistoricity. I mean, of course the blues is as important as they say it is. It’s one of the most important things about the American [garbled]. It probably is. You can’t understand the black experience without reading the blues into it. And you can tell the black experience in terms of the blues, the blues as metaphor. OK? All right. That really is as important as they say it is. But you can’t make the jump from that to saying and therefore jazz and the blues are consubstantial and the blues is the defining source of legitimacy of expression in jazz. And no real musician who isn’t totally in the thrall of ideology would do that, because it’s so obviously not true. It takes 90 seconds to list the exceptions to prove that this is not a rule at all. Everybody knows them. That’s why it’s very frustrating to argue against something like this, because you’re arguing against something that’s palpably, demonstrably untrue and that only a non-musician would pick at. And you just want to bang your head against the wall. And say why does anybody believe this? As I say, true claims about the blues are so sufficient and far-reaching and wonderful that you don’t need to muddy the water by making false ones.
BW: Is the whole argument about the racial makeup of programming of Jazz at Lincoln Center, is that old news now?
TT: It’s old news in the sense that everybody knows about it. And the program has improved somewhat, if only because they’ve run through all the people they wanted to run through in the first few years. There’s some tokenism and all of that. The real problem now with the Jazz at Lincoln Center is its product is inferior, that it’s not really presenting especially interesting programming. It’s very safe. The band has never been very good. That’s one of the great scandals that people don’t really want to talk about, that they don’t have a very good big band, that they don’t understand how to do historically authentic performances of the music that they do. There is also the secondary problem of Wynton Marsalis not being a very good composer and the undiscussed problem is that he uses ghost writers [garbled]. But the truth is that Jazz at Lincoln Center is of no interest to jazz musicians except insofar as they get a paycheck. They don’t go to the performances, they don’t go to the concerts. The series that they put on are just not really interesting or challenging. There’s just nothing happening. It’s like a caricature of an establishment jazz program. Now I’m not entirely that far away from Stanley in terms of his views about the avant-garde. I have some problems with the jazz avant-garde. But he’s so exclusionary for such ideological reasons. I mean it’s just dull. That’s the news. That nobody in his right mind would ever want to go to these things.
TT: [...] You know everybody who ever started a collection of anything, they’re just people who collected it because they’re crazy about it. And scholars come later. And we’re still struggling out of the primordial slime of jazz research in its evolution and we’ve made some real steps. We’ve got, I don’t know, maybe 20 really good books about jazz. But then we also have something really embarrassing like The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, which is just an embarrassment.
BW: You mentioned that, and you said that Bix didn’t even make it in there?
TT: No, he’s not in the key article. He is not mentioned in the key article about jazz. Now I’m going blank. Maybe it’s New Grove, it’s the main New Grove, the one that’s right next to you on the shelf there. Bix is not mentioned in the key article. That’s the one. The problems with the New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, I’ve written about that in extenso, but it’s not collected anywhere. The big problem with The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz is that it’s biographically illiterate. It doesn’t understand that these people actually had lives. It rarely mentions when someone was a heroin addict for example, just to take a single example off the top of my head. It doesn’t mention that Billy Strayhorn was a homosexual. It describes jazz in a biographical vacuum. And it’s very dangerous with jazz because you know how personal an art jazz is. It’s very hard to take a New Critical approach to jazz because it’s improvised to some extent. It arises from the texture of people’s lives. It’s a lot harder to detach it from their lives and cultures. And New Grove Jazz is really stupid on that point. Also there’s a lot of errors, but that’s different. Have you seen the Oxford Compendium of Jazz?
BW: I’ve seen it.
TT: It’s a good book. [...] [?] who edited it has deliberately left room for multiple perspectives. There are two separate articles about the origins of jazz, one of which emphasizes the African side, and the other of which doesn’t, for example.
BW: That’s outstanding.
TT: Yeah, he did a good job. Like I said, in any anthology, there are pieces that aren’t up to snuff. But there are some tremendous, there are some definitive secondary statements. [...]
BW: Let me ask you, getting back to Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke—
TT: Everything known about their relationship we only know through Armstrong’s [garbled]. That’s all there is. Armstrong writes about Bix in both of his memoirs, and he also made other published statements about him, on which he [garbled]. This is all there is. Things we don’t know, we don’t really know about the riverboat meeting, although it seems pretty likely that there was one.
BW: Oh you think so?
TT: Armstrong is unambiguous about it, that they met. But certainly he didn’t hear Bix playing then or anything like that. But there’s a lot of, like for example, we know from Baby Dodds’ memoir that they met, and that Beiderbecke actually got a horn for Armstrong.
BW: That was in Bergreen.
TT: That’s unambiguous. Dodds states that explicitly in his book.
BW: I think it was Jazz on the River where he seemed to say that if we can say anything for certain it’s that they probably didn’t meet but that Bix may have heard his music.
TT: Well, I think that Baby Dodds locks that up. I mean, when you have that kind of first-person reminiscence of it in addition to Armstrong himself, they must have met. Armstrong would doubtless have inflated the size of the meeting in the same way that everybody who writes a memoir does, but it seems pretty clear that there was some kind of meeting that did not involve Bix Beiderbecke playing for or with Louis Armstrong. When they did play together, the meeting that Armstrong describes in detail, was in ’27 or ’28, a jam session in Chicago [...] and Armstrong went to see a performance of the Whiteman band, and he specifically mentions having heard “From Monday On,” and there was a jam session afterwards. And it was much later that Armstrong was interviewed that you’ve seen the material from. So it’s safe to say that they probably only met in the low single digits number of times, but Armstrong’s memories of Bix are so specific and enthusiastic and characteristic of his own way of telling stories about musicians that the meetings obviously made a very, very big impression him. I’m sure that one of the reasons why they did was because Beiderbecke was white. Clearly he was completely open to the idea of, he took Armstrong seriously. He is a white guy playing with the Whiteman band, which Armstrong admired. You know that Armstrong’s favorite band was Guy Lombardo. This is not a joke. He was extremely catholic in his appreciation of music. He admired Beiderbecke, and he would have been very impressed by the role that Beiderbecke was playing in the band. He was quite specific about that. He was up there playing the parts. Because Armstrong himself was a fluent reader. This is the part that Brothers gets wrong. He undervalues the significance that Armstrong attached to formal musical [garbled].
BW: Brothers would have him think it was “dicty”?
TT: Yes. And because Brothers stops in 1922, he’s able to overlook some things that he would have had to grapple with had his treatment went on a little later. But we already know from Armstrong’s memoirs the kinds of things he was listening to. You read what I wrote. You know he was listening to [garbled] and the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. And later in life his listening was, although eclectic, was kind of all over the place. But he just liked what he liked. And he was proud of being a reading musician. He was immensely proud of having appeared with Leonard Bernstein and the Philharmonic. That’s the first chapter of my book. That’s the scene-setter, was the concert they did together. He was also amused by the fact that Bernstein was surprised at how good of a reader he was and how comfortable he was in a rehearsal setting. It wasn’t that Bernstein was condescending of Armstrong, it’s just that he thought that Armstrong might not have been at ease in this kind of setting. Armstrong had his part down. He probably had it memorized when he came in. He knew what to do when a conductor was waving his baton. And Armstrong was immensely proud of his omnicompetence. He could do all those things. Part of Armstrong’s warm-up routine, one of the arias [garbled], he was very aware of the whole Sousa-period marching band music, the great virtuosity, you know, the opening cadenza for “West End Blues” was undoubtedly influenced by this. So he would have been disposed to take this side of Beiderbecke very seriously. Beiderbecke had this kind of learning, although we know that it was kind of tenuous. I’m sure Beiderbecke wasn’t nearly as good a reader as Armstrong. He couldn’t notate his own pieces and all of that. And he was interested in classical music as Armstrong was. And Armstrong, you didn’t have to play like Louis to have him admire you. In fact, I’m sure that part of the admiration arose from the fact that Beiderbecke did not play like Armstrong.
BW: The latest argument on the Bix forum was whether Bix was influenced by Armstrong.
TT: I’m agnostic. We know that he admired Armstrong. Does that he mean he influenced him? I don’t know.
BW: What are the implications either way?
TT: Well, just remember they’re exact contemporaries. They came up at the same time, they started recording at the same time. Therefore they were coming into focus as musicians at roughly the same time. Armstrong came into focus earlier but that part of his career was totally submerged because it took place in New Orleans. I mean in a way, maybe Bix is making characteristic records a little earlier than Armstrong, just a little bit. But you would have to do quite a bit of proving to me to prove that Armstrong had quite a significant influence on Beiderbecke. The basic languages are completely different. Armstrong is highly vocalized, blues-based, improvisational language with an admixture of operatic virtuosity and some of the cornet virtuosity. And Beiderbecke is a whole different conception. He’s not virtuosic to begin with. What he plays is not technically difficult. Very restricted in the upper register. They’re both harmonically sophisticated, but with Beiderbecke it’s more salient. I mean, Armstrong’s playing is as harmonically sophisticated as Bix Beiderbecke’s, but he does not emphasize it, it doesn’t jump out at you in the same way that Beiderbecke emphasizing color tones and upper partials, it’s absolutely central to what he’s doing. Rhythmically, Beiderbecke is more four-square than Armstrong. His playing is not vocalized at all. At least I don’t hear it as being vocalized.
BW: By which you mean, well, there’s this whole bit in Brothers about the relationship between speaking and playing.
TT: Not speaking, singing. Beiderbecke doesn’t play like someone who’s especially interested in singing.
TT: Armstrong in fact plays like a singer who also plays trumpet. Their two styles are consubstantial.
BW: Which is why someone like Billie Holiday can be so influenced by someone like Louis Armstrong.
TT: And remember that Louis was as influential as a singer as he was an instrumentalist. Beiderbecke’s was a very tongued, clear, precise style. Actually, the striking-a-chime metaphor was really a very beautiful and good one because not only does it get the sound but it gets the precision of attack. And Armstrong obviously could play with that precision of attack, the first 12 notes of “West End Blues,” but it’s not what we think of. And with Beiderbecke really every note is clearly articulated and there’s no, there’s no attempt to make it sound like what a singer would sound like. He plays like an echt instrumentalist. And he plays piano. This is something Armstrong did not do. And if you play piano, you think in terms, in more explicit terms of harmonic structure. If you play an instrument, you may learn some piano in order to understand how chords lock together, but piano is Beiderbecke’s first instrument. Clearly his interest in harmonic exploration arises from the fact that he started as a pianist. There’s no question about that. He wouldn’t have done it the same way otherwise. I don’t see where the Armstrong influence is in Beiderbecke’s playing. I don’t hear it. If somebody were to make a demonstration for me and quote chapter and verse, I would take it seriously. But in the absence of that demonstration, I would suspect that it doesn’t really exist.
BW: If someone wanted to argue that Bix was necessarily influenced by Armstrong because Armstrong was the most important jazz player, is that not a kind of political argument?
TT: Could be. Depends on who’s making it. It’s also, it could also just be, people think that influence proceeds neatly and that there’s like a family tree of jazz, and it doesn’t work that way. And all you have to do is spend time talking to musicians.
BW: Brothers makes that argument when they want to build that tree for Armstrong in New Orleans and they forget about the possible influence of the rag dealers.
TT: Right. One must be very careful, very careful, of assuming that because somebody sounds like somebody else that they’ve been influenced by him.
BW: I thought, and again I say this from a position of ignorance, but it was just a thought that I had, that Sudhalter’s book, Man & Legend, may have gone a tiny bit overboard in suggesting that Bix pretty much influenced everyone around him.
TT: Some did, some didn’t. You know that Red Nichols very clearly said that he admired Bix’s playing but he did not model his own playing after him. And you can take that with a grain of salt, but you do have to take it seriously, because he does say it. He tells us that he didn’t. You know, at least that tells us what his thought processes were. I think that Beiderbecke’s real influence is the person who first shows us what it might be like to play a jazz ballad. I don’t think there’s much question about that. That’s Beiderbecke and Trumbauer who give us [garbled], that he offers a harmonic language that is different from the emerging jazz mainstream. He’s clearly, clearly akin to someone like Bobby Hackett, there’s no question about it, and Hackett will tell you so. He does in fact do what people say that he does. He creates a kind of a cool idea in jazz, a way that is counterposed to Armstrong’s hot idea, intense, demonstrative, virtuosic personal expression. And it’s very handy that we know, we know that this is where Lester Young got it. He told us so and you’d have to be an idiot not to hear it. It’s true that it’s Trumbauer that Young talks about, but if you heard the record of “Singin’ the Blues,” you heard them both. It’s natural that a saxophonist would talk about a saxophonist.
BW: Trumbauer and Bix seem to feed each other both professionally and personally.
TT: Right. Trumbauer is a perfect foil for Bix. He is underrated. He is not himself a great player. He is a wonderful personal, individual player, and he was hugely influential, and we know that because all sorts of people, black and white, have told us. And then Bix is also an influence in a non-musical way because he is a lifestyle, he is a self-image, he is the ideal of the romantic jazz musician, the first one that we have, the romantic self-destructive musician, and you know how influential that must have been. He did a lot of damage. Bix Beiderbecke killed a lot of people.
BW: In jazz, but in the larger culture, it seems to be a romantic image that has spilled over into rock and roll.
TT: Jazz musicians don’t like it. Anybody who’s been in the culture of jazz and has seen self-destructive people is not inclined to romanticize them. It simply happens to you or you happen to it, and it’s sad. It shortens your life and it impairs your playing. Only an amateur would take heroin in order to play like Charlie Parker. There’s a lot of peer pressure and a lot people get sucked into it that way, but jazz musicians—no real musician romanticizes self-destructive behavior.
BW: Ellington is quoted early on as being very impatient with that. You couldn’t be a drunk and be in his band. Which isn’t to say it didn’t happen.
TT: It happened all the time.
BW: Paul Gonsalves ...
TT: He wasn’t amused by it. He didn’t think it was funny. Woody Herman, the Second Herd was alsoincredibly self-destructive, heroin addicts, and it drove him crazy. But he knew that people who were determined to destroy themselves can’t be stopped. I keep coming back to this, but there’s really a difference between the way musicians and non-musicians look at this. Musicians are much more no-nonsense. There’s not a whole lot of bullshit in music, especially jazz musicians’ culture. These are, instrumentalists mostly, rather hard-headed people. They tend not to see themselves as aesthetic creatures. They have the culture of the instrumentalist. Most jazz musicians come from middle-class backgrounds, they wish to lead middle-class lives but are prevented from it because, first of all, they work at night. But nevertheless they’re tolerant, they lead looser lives, as all artists do. But they don’t see themselves as romanticized, self-destructive figures, and Bix Beiderbecke didn’t either. He didn’t know what the hell was happening to him I’m sure. He was a drunk and he was killing himself and he couldn’t help it and he didn’t know why. Sad and pitiful.
BW: I’m not sure that enough has been written that is hard-headed about the end of his life.
TT: I agree with you.
BW: The end of his life was pathetic.
BW: In Lost Chords, Sudhalter began to deal with the role of the people around him.
TT: He was surrounded by enablers.
BW: I can empathize with the difficulty of knowing what to do, and I can take into account what you said earlier which is that there wasn’t a firm sense of what it meant to be an alcoholic [instead alcoholism was considered some kind of moral failure]. You might have to have that definition in order to know what to do. I felt like Hoagy Carmichael was someone who didn’t know quite what to do. And I felt that maybe that was the smallest whole in Sudhalter’s biography of Hoagy in which the two, Bix and Hoagy, seem to be mutually influential, and Bix’s memory was so important to Hoagy over the years. But some of that must have been fed by his own feeling of helplessness and maybe a tiny bit of guilt.
TT: Remember who Bix fell in with at the end of his life. He fell in with people who actually were middle-class rebels, who saw jazz as an escape from a less interesting life. He couldn’t have picked a worse group of people to be around.
BW: Bix’s friends took away from that situation the legend. They created the legend.
TT: Yes. That’s how it starts. And maybe it has something to do with trying to explain their own lives. I mean, Pee Wee Russell’s life is pretty grim, too, although he pulled out of the tailspin. Maybe they were seeing Bix an excuse for themselves. It was a hard thing for these guys from middle-class backgrounds to play a music that at least had the potential to marginalize them socially. They were drinking, it was killing them. They were getting applause in dives. It wasn’t very much. By the ’50s it was better. It began to be a more respectable life. Condon’s memoir is so interesting about all of this because he is in fact probably the most articulate of this group. Although his memoir is ghosted, if you read the inter-chapters it sounds like Condon. Here’s a guy, he didn’t over-estimate his own ability. He’s a very smart observer, but he was a drunk. A real, high-voltage, put ’em away drunk. It’s a key document in your research. Part of what I try to do when I write about jazz figures is strip away the nonsense part and be hard-headed about the realities in the certitude that the achievement would stand out in even higher relief when you accept the human limitations of the people who created it. The neat thing about Armstrong is that he didn’t have a lot of weaknesses or limitations. The more you find out about him the more you like him. He was a great guy. There obviously were other jazz figures like that. but there’s also been a real reluctance to accept that some were real shits, or real fuck-ups. And you can either pretend that they weren’t fuck-ups, or, as with the Chet Baker cult, you can pretend that being a fuck-up is somehow a good thing. Well, it’s a bad thing and it shortens your life and it impairs your art. And whatever Bix Beiderbecke might have had to offer past the age of 27, 28, it didn’t happen. There’s nothing good about that. Nothing romantic about that. It’s pitiful. But the fact that it was pitiful doesn’t make the music worse. If anything it makes it more interesting.
BW: Maybe that’s a good place to stop.
TT: I think so.