The Beatrice Interview

Laurence Bergreen

"It was never a crime for cats of any color to come together and blow."

interviewed by Ron Hogan

"I first thought of Louis Armstrong as a biographical subject when I was working on my Irving Berlin book, As Thousands Cheer," Laurence Bergreen explains over the telephone from his New York home. "I'd heard some stories about Armstrong's marijuana use which surprised me, but I didn't think that those stories alone would make for an interesting biography, so I tucked them away in the back of my mind. Later, when I was researching Capone: The Man and the Era, I talked with a lot of jazz musicians who were in Chicago in the 1920s what it was like to play in Capone-controlled jazz clubs. It was the time that Armstrong arrived from New Orleans, and they talked about what a hero he was to them. I realized that there was a fascinating story to tell about African-American musicians who migrated to Chicago for better economic opportunities, and that Armstrong was a very prominent part of that." In Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life, Bergreen explores the larger cultural and historical context of the virtuoso jazz entertainer, filling out the life of the great 'Satchmo' with the help of prolific autobiographical writings Armstrong was constantly working on at home and on the road, including previously unpublished manuscripts about his extensive use of marijuana which his managers suppressed during his lifetime 'for his own sake.'

RH: Towards the end of the biography, you discuss how "Hello Dolly" created this image of Satchmo as a lovable old clown, and for many Americans, particularly young people, those autobiographical writings blow away a lot of the misconceptions that people have of Louis Armstrong, the mythology that's grown around him.

LB: Yes. I'm 47, and people of my generation most likely think of him as the lovely old man singing "Hello Dolly" with that gravelly voice. But it turns out that he was the hippest cat around, and this one song was a distraction from both the wilder side of his career and the more serious side. After all, he was a founding father of jazz, a man most jazz musicians would probably agree is the most influential jazz musician in history. Once you explore his discography and career, you start to realize how often he'd been there and done that before anybody else. His recordings in the 1920s were incredibly influential. He made thirty films, and was the first African-American to have his own network radio show.

He performed in places where African-Americans hadn't played before, which often put him right up against discrimination and bigotry. Keep in mind that for most of his life, Armstrong couldn't dine or stay in the hotels where he played with his band. But his basic principle was that a note was a note and, as he put it, "it was never a crime for cats of any color to come together and blow." Jazz for him was a happy, joyous medium for all races to take part in. His thinking on race relations changed dramatically in the late '50s. He was on the road watching television coverage of the Little Rock desegregation crisis and incensed by what he saw, especially the sight of onlookers spitting on schoolchildren. He fired off a series of telegrams to President Eisenhower saying that Ike should go down to Little Rock and take those children by the hand and walk with them to school. He called Eisenhower "gutless." Most people thought that Armstrong was committing career suicide, but a lot of jazz musicians were surprised to see him standing up so forcefully on this issue. Many of them, including Charles Mingus, Billie Holliday, and Miles Davis, were calling him an Uncle Tom from the '40s onward. His statements showed them how little they understood him.

It wasn't career suicide, but after that, Armstrong always refused to let himself be used by politicians. In 1968, Nixon asked him to come to the White House to receive a tribute, and Armstrong said "No" in rather obscene terms (his exact words were "Fuck that shit" -- RH). Even when universities wanted to give him honorary degrees, he would ask them, "Where were you when I needed you twenty or thirty years ago?" You have to admire the guy for his independence. He didn't see himself as a civil rights leader...

RH: ...but he didn't take any shit from anybody. And even as he became a global celebrity, he lived in a simple house in the outskirts of New York City.

LB: The house in Corona was primarily the choice of his fourth wife, Lucille, who wanted to get him away from the distractions of the women and the nightclubs. Corona was primarily a white neighborhood at the time, but already becoming a haven to the black intelligentsia looking to escape the noise of the city. Dizzy Gillespie and many other black artists and writers were also moving to that general area at the time. Even when Armstrong was on the cover of Time in 1949 as the king of jazz, he would still come out every afternoon at three if he was home and buy ice cream cones for the neighborhood kids. He did his own shopping. He got his hair cut at the local barber shop. He was just "Pops" in Corona.

RH: One of the things that interested me was that despite growing up in the more colorful parts of New Orleans, which offered numerous illicit temptations, he didn't start smoking pot until he left for Chicago.

LB: It was Chicago musicians who turned him on to marijuana. He considered it healthy, and during Prohibition it was certainly healthier than bootleg liquor. He used it very heavily, say about three large reefers a day, his entire life, and claimed that it had no adverse effects, although most doctors would probably agree that such chronic use would inevitably affect the lungs. In fact his lungs did begin to go towards the end, which made it difficult for him to blow.

Marijuana was an integral part of his life. He recommended it to other musicians. It shaped much of his vocabulary, which worked its way into song titles like "Vipers" and "Muggles." He even claimed that it helped his music playing, although I don't notice it when I listen to recordings made before and after his marijuana use began.

RH: Getting back to New Orleans, you point out how both Armstrong and jazz grew up together in the streets of New Orleans.

LB: Part of the reason he loved New Orleans despite his harsh childhood was that he was at the right place at the right time for jazz, although it wasn't called that when he was growing up. There were "spasm bands," there were Creole bands that played sweet dancing music, and there were the hot uptown musicians. The most famous of the uptown musicians, Buddy Bolden, is a legendary jazz musician who played several instruments but was never recorded. It's not clear whether or not Armstrong ever actually heard him play, but he was certainly influenced by Bolden's music because Bolden shaped New Orleans music so forcefully. And music was a key part of daily life in New Orleans.

RH: In other interviews, you've commented that this is the first time you've come to the end of a biographical project liking the subject more than you did when you started.

LB: I think that it's a common thing for biographers. You spend so much time on your subject, learning everything about them, and they get to be annoying after a while. But with Armstrong, with everything that he overcame in his life, every eccentric and delightful aspect of his personality, I came to admire him more and even become personally fond of him. I began this book thinking he was a great entertainer and possibly a musical genius. I ended it convinced he was a musical genius and one of the great spirits of our age. His influence extended beyond the nightclub and the concert hall. Even though he was such a bawdy, seemingly casual hip person, there was a lot of spirituality and sincerity to him that comes through in his words and deeds. At some point I stopped being the critical biographer and simply wanted to help piece together the larger lessons that people could learn from his life.

BEATRICE More Beatrice Interviews
Carolyn Burke | Joseph McBride

All materials copyright © 1997 Ron Hogan