an interview with laurence bergreen   introduction  

photo of laurence bergreen

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Q. What made Louis Armstrong the icon of Jazz?

A. He was the "founding father of jazz," among other things, probably the greatest and most influential performer this country has ever produced. Even today, much of the jazz world traces their lineage straight back to him.

Q. Didn't Jelly Roll Morton claim the honor of inventing jazz?

A. Morton, a brilliant and innovative musician, could also stretch a point. You have to understand that Armstrong was responsible for so many innovations. With his trumpet, he developed the concept of the jazz musician as a soloist and composer, and with his voice, he developed the concept of scat singing. He also anticipated "swing" years before it became popular, and even prefigured bop in some of his trumpet solos. There was more than just music involved. He popularized New Orleans as the cradle of jazz to the rest of the United States, and later, throughout the world. He was a entertainer as well as an artist, and lived to please his audiences. He was also incredibly hard working; the man never took a vacation. Only ill health in his later years forced him to cut back his punishing touring schedule, but then he would be back onstage, blowing his trumpet against doctor's orders. I think his "iconic" status rests on three things: his innovations, his capacity for hard work, and his exuberant temperament. Throughout his career, of course, he was fighting intense discrimination.

Q. He was? Didn't younger jazz musicians consider him an "Uncle Tom"?

A. Yes, they did. To the boppers of the 40's and 50's, he represented everything they were trying to get away from. He was Southern, and ingratiating, and loved to clown. There was always a lot of minstrel show shtick in his act, and he relished it. He wasn't just an entertainer, however. He was a virtuoso, and more than that, a spiritual, burning intensity to his music. That's what makes it so compelling and gives it meaning. As the younger musicians, such as Dizzy Gillespie, matured, they realized their profound debt to Armstrong--where would they have been without his trailblazing?--many of them eventually became friends and admirers of his. When he publicly challenged Eisenhower in 1957 over the Little Rock school desegregation crisis, many Americans realized there was a hell of a lot more to Satchmo than a grin--and there was.

Q. What mattered most to Louis Armstrong?

A. In order of importance, I would say his horn, then the women in his life (he was married four times), followed by food, marijuana, and laxatives.

Q. I assume you are joking about the last two items.

A. Not at all! He tried marijuana when he was working as a young musician in Chicago in the 1920's, and came to believe it had beneficial, healthful properties and urged other musicians, whom he called "Vipers" to try it right along with him. As for laxatives, they became an obsession in later life; he was always handing out little cellophane packages of Swiss Kriss, a powerful herbal laxative, to everyone he met, and I mean everyone, even heads of state.

Q. Tell us about his marriages.

A. Well, Armstrong wrote fully about the intimate details of love life, and I have quoted from his letters, memoirs, and so on in my biography, but overall, there is an interesting progression. His first wife, Daisy Parker, was a prostitute in New Orleans, and part of the reason he left that city for Chicago was to put some distance between himself and the razor she always carried and often threatened him with. His second wife, Lil Hardin, was a much different kind of person: a talented, educated musician whom he met in Chicago, and she was responsible for launching him as a soloist. She is an important figure in the jazz world in her own right. His third wife, Alpha Smith was more or less a longtime girlfriend, and she left him for a drummer, and finally, with Lucille Wilson, to whom he was married at the time of his death in 1971, he found happiness and stability. Throughout all his sexual and romantic turmoil, he cared for a son he adopted when he--Louis--was only a teen-ager, and who was mentally impaired as a result of an accident. Louis's private life was extremely rich and complex.

Copyright © 1997 Laurence Bergreen

Photo Credits: Jerry Bauer; Bert Stern

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