In a throwaway phrase, Philip Larkin distills the enduring charm and importance of Louis Armstrong and his music: “good-humoured virtuosity.” I hear the words equally stressed. “Good-humoured” because that was Armstrong’s nature, despite the impossible circumstances into which he was born. He knew joy and made it his artistic mission to share it with listeners. He was, unashamedly, an entertainer. “Virtuosity” because no else played so forcefully and beautifully, and by doing so changed the nature of the art he practiced, jazz. Taken together, these two qualities converge in happiness for listeners. I know of no other music that so reliably lifts my spirit and reminds me to feel grateful simply for being alive.
We had lunch with Terry Teachout on Sunday and then drove a few blocks to see his play, Satchmo at the Waldorf. Terry is directing the production at the Alley Theater here in Houston. It’s a tour de force of acting. For two hours, one man, Jerome Preston Bates, plays three roles – Armstrong; his white manager, Joe Glaser; and Miles Davis. Armstrong’s language is jubilantly obscene, and early in the show we heard gasps coming from others in the audience. The language never let up but the gasping subsided. Terry’s Armstrong is, as we ought to expect of human beings, a complicated man. For the backstory, read Terry’s Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong (2009)
When Larkin appeared as the guest on the BBC’s Desert Island Discs in 1976, Larkin’s first choice was Armstrong's 1929 recording of “Dallas Blues.” In his review of two Armstrong books, published in the Guardian in 1971, Larkin writes:
“. . . in spite of the world-wide recognition as an international figure, we may still be only on the threshold of understanding his true significance. Of course he was an artist of Flaubertian purity, and a character of exceptional warmth and goodness. But has anyone yet seen him as the Chaucer, say, of the culture of the twenty-first century? While we are wondering whether to integrate with Africa, Armstrong (and Ellington, and Waller, and all the countless others) has done it behind our backs.”