Sunday, January 3, 2010

louis and richard

Photo courtesy of the amazing blog
If Charlie Parker Was A Gunslinger, There'd Be A Whole Lot of Dead Copycats
with a few small edits

I just finished reading Terry Teachout's Pops, an excellent new biography of Louis Armstrong. I highly recommend it as both a thrilling description of Armstrong's life as well as a book which gives a great sense of the cultural climate surrounding jazz in the first half of the century. I wish there were more classical (non-academic) biographies like this--telling the tale of the composer and his time in under four hundred pages.

Teachout is the first biographer who reconciles Armstrong's populism and entertaining side with his role as a formidable proponent of a new, modern style in music. It's easy to forget that behind Louis's smiling face lay an incredible mind that produced works that were just as revolutionary in the early twentieth century as The Rite of Spring or the Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. His music doesn't display the modernist angst of Schoenberg or Joyce, but just because it's toe-tapping doesn't mean it isn't profound. By explaining that Armstrong-as-entertainer doesn't necessarily conflict with Armstrong-as-revolutionary, Teachout fires back against the elitist view that Armstrong was a great musician watering down his talent for the masses. This is the same attitude which Alex took to Richard Strauss, Sibelius, Britten, and Copland in The Rest is Noise: justifying their use of tonality not as a conservative crutch or populist pandering, but as a genuine expression of their place in modern culture.

I see a lot of parallels between Louis and Richard, actually. Armstrong and Strauss both seemed to backslide in their middle-age following periods as young provocateurs. After Armstrong cut his influential small-combo records in the 1920s, he began big band work which was criticized by aficionados. And Strauss ceded ground after his breakthroughs in the hyper-modern Elektra and Salome, with the refined, classicist Rosenkavalier and Ariadne. The work which Strauss and Armstrong did in their youth paved the path for later, groundbreaking modernists (Schoenberg once said "I was never revolutionary...The only revolutionary in our time was Strauss!") who went on to criticize their predecessors. Perhaps they outlived their times. But just because both musicians seemed to retreat into conservatism, Ross and Teachout argue, doesn't mean that these works are any less great or important. Teachout points out that though Armstrong's big bands were often sloppy, his solo work and improvisations were just as artful. And gorgeous music like Strauss's Metamorphosen justifies itself, conservative or not.

Strauss is unfairly painted as a money-grubber and Hitler stodge; Armstrong as an Uncle Tom. The reality is of course more complicated, as both fought against oppression in their home countries: Armstrong spoke out against President Eisenhower when he didn't step in to desegregate Arkansas schools after Brown v. Board of Ed, and Strauss worked (albeit, somewhat covertly) against what Ross calls the "de-jewification of musical life,"* in Germany. But both composers' reputations were tarnished by their appearance of compliance with their governments. Armstrong's work as a jazz ambassador brought him scorn by younger, more politically active musicians; Strauss is still seen today as the court composer of Nazi Germany. Books like The Rest is Noise and Pops (for more on Strauss and politics, see Michael Kater's seminal studies The Twisted Muse and Composers of the Nazi Era) allow a glimpse into the realities of the cultures in which these musicians created so that we can dispell the myths which accumulate following any great artist's death.

I'd like to think that the two would get along if they ever met--I can imagine Louis getting a kick out of calling Richard "Herr Doktor Pops."

*The Rest is Noise, p. 324

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