Idea Of The Day

The Value and Values of Louis Armstrong

Was Louis Armstrong, as Terry Teachout wonders, a Victorian? (This may be just one way of asking the less obvious but really vital question: If Armstrong were alive today, would he subscribe to Commentary magazine?) Did his adherence to values of work and and individualism set him apart from other Black Americans, whether they were musicians or not? “Armstrong’s rage, though genuine, was not typical,” Teachout writes. “That great smile was no mere game face, donned to please the paying customers: it told the truth about the man who wore it. ‘I think I had a beautiful life,’ he said not long before his death in 1971. ‘I didn’t wish for anything I couldn’t get, and I got pretty near everything I wanted because I worked for it.’ It would be hard to imagine a more suitable epitaph for jazz’s most eminent Victorian.”Stanley Crouch believes that Teachout’s views are mendacious and pernicious. “By stressing Armstrong’s belief in ‘self-discipline, self-improvement, self-reliance,’ and through the selective use of quotes, Teachout sets Armstrong in conflict with his own people. He makes him appear to be a Negro-hating Negro.” In addition, the outing of people as “Victorian” by conservative critics, such as Teachout, is beside the point. Do Armstrong’s supposed Victorian qualities explain his trumpet playing? Of course not. Jazz was, among other things, a rejection of Victorian values. If Armstrong could answer the question himself, one can imagine him replying in the much the same manner as Alan Bennett when a prurient journalist wanted to know if the playwright was gay. “Well, I like a little bit of this and a little bit of that, but I don’t get enough of either.” As Otis Ferguson, a noted jazz critic who contributed to the New Republic, wrote about Armstrong: “Art is most poorly served by those who, conscious that they have to make a living by talking about it, talk always with a dogmatic but uneasy impulse for what there is that could be talked.”