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Trumpeter Louis Armstrong's Colorful Life and Critical Role in Jazz

Biographer Laurence Bergreen talks with Terry about his newest book "Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life". It is published by Broadway books. While this is certainly not the first biography of Armstrong, Bergreen used many of Armstrong's previously unexplored personal letters and diary entries. Bergreen traces Armstrong's life from his birth in New Orleans in 1901, through his four marriages, and his many contributions to American Jazz.


Other segments from the episode on June 26, 1997

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 26, 1997: Interview with Laurence Bergreen; Review of Wayne Kramer's album "Citizen Wayne."


Date: JUNE 26, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 062601NP.217
Head: Armstrong Biographer
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Louis Armstrong never was billed as the "King of Jazz," but he's the sole legitimate claimant to that musical throne, says jazz critic Dan Morgenstern (ph). He says without Armstrong, there would still be the music we call "jazz," but how it might have developed is guesswork. Armstrong was the key creator of its mature vocabulary.

We continue to learn new things about Armstrong. Tomorrow night, several of his newly-discovered compositions will be performed at the JVC Jazz Festival in New York. There's also a new Armstrong biography written by my guest, Laurence Bergreen. He's joined us before to discuss his biographies of Irving Berlin and Al Capone.

Let's start with one of Armstrong's hot-five recordings from 1928, featuring Earl Hines on piano. This is "West End Blues."


GROSS: Laurence Bergreen, you describe West End Blues as being the peak of Armstrong's art. Why that recording?

LAURENCE BERGREEN, AUTHOR, "LOUIS ARMSTRONG: AN EXTRAVAGANT LIFE": Well, I think most jazz connoisseurs really consider that Armstrong and the other performers from the hot-five on that recording really outdid themselves. This recording is in many ways a synthesis of thousands of hours of improvisations that they had been doing in Chicago over the last few years.

And by the time Armstrong put together that astounding cadenza that opens the recording, you realize that there was somebody who was not only a technical master, but who played with such urgent, burning feeling that the intensity of the communication was like something that people really had never heard before.

GROSS: You read Armstrong's unpublished manuscripts, memoirs, and reminiscences. What were some of the greatest surprises to you, reading that part of -- reading him tell about his own life?

BERGREEN: First of all, the extreme raunchiness, deprivation of his youth, as he describes it. He grew up in dire poverty in New Orleans; was raised by his grandmother for the first few years; was shuffled back and forth among families; was sent to a reform school at the age of 13 for firing a gun. This sounds like a recipe for disaster. It sounds like a recipe for the raising of a child who will go wrong.

And in fact, quite the opposite happened. You had a person of extraordinary optimism, exuberance, experience, and accomplishment who relished all of this.

The other thing was that Armstrong firmly believed throughout his whole life that this awful Dickensian childhood that he had was a blessing, and that he loved every minute of it, and all the pimps and hookers and gamblers and low-lifes that he grew up with, whose lives were often cut short by a razor and a bullet, were wonderful characters and he loved them all.

So he had this great feeling for people -- great love of people -- that he had in his youth and retained throughout his adult life. I thought it was extraordinary. There was this sense of child-like wonder about Armstrong that comes through in his openness to all kinds of experience around him. And fortunately, he left a record of it.

GROSS: Something else you learned about Armstrong from his unpublished writing which is that he loved pornography.


BERGREEN: Well, yeah, he did. I hesitate -- I hasten to add this was not what we think of as being triple-X rated pornography today. He loved -- he loved the bawdy side of life. He loved dirty stories. His letters were full of dirty jokes of his that my publisher would not -- that my publisher edited out of the manuscript unfortunately.

He also had a collection of stag films that he gave up on the occasion of his fourth marriage, and gave them to his dear friend, the famous trombonist Jack Teagarden (ph). He liked to collect stories that I guess you'd call R-rated pornography by today's standards, and have a circle of friends, including his fourth wife Lucille, and sort of read sections and selected readings together.

So sexual pleasure was something that Armstrong took along with every other part of life in a very natural, uninhibited fashion. Whether it was food or music or women, he definitely was not a prude and had no inhibitions, and he I don't think had any interest in trying to embarrass other people, but he did enjoy shock value.

Kind of on a related subject, his favorite self-portrait -- or one of his favorites -- was a notorious one of him seated, mostly naked, on a toilet with the legend underneath saying: "Satchmo says: Leave It All Behind 'Ya." And he sent this picture out to all his friends and had it printed on the outside of his stationery envelopes.

GROSS: Armstrong's first trumpet was a toy trumpet. Tell us how he started playing this and what he used it for?

BERGREEN: Well this is an unbelievable story that I came across in some of his earliest writings. He was -- had little or interest in music as a young child. We're talking maybe five or seven years old; perhaps as a drummer.

Then he found a job with a Russian-Jewish family of peddlers. They were recently-arrived immigrants in New Orleans, and they collected rags and bottles, and they also sold coal in the red light district in Storeyville (ph) to the prostitutes.

In order to attract attention to their cart, this family -- which was the Karnovsky (ph) family -- had Louis -- they gave him a tin horn to blow. And so he sat on top of the cart, blowing his horn to attract attention while the Karnovsky brothers went about their business. So that was his first exposure to the trumpet.

He also had his first exposure to singing, which is the other part of his musical equation, in the family, because he was virtually adopted by the family at that time for about five years. Those were crucial years, formative years, from seven to 12.

And he heard them sing various lullabies and Russian tunes and folk songs, and he said that his time with the Karnovsky family instilled "singing in the heart," in his words, in him, which he of course carried throughout his life.

GROSS: Louis Armstrong got serious about music in reform school where he was sent for firing a gun. It was called the "Colored Waifs Home."


GROSS: It sounds like it could have been a really miserable experience, but he found a mentor there. He started playing in a band there. What was outstanding, to him, about this experience? I mean he paid his respects to this home for the rest of his life. He'd visit it and help it.

BERGREEN: I think it was the beginning of Louis Armstrong as we know him. What could have been a year and a half in hell turned out to be, for him, a sense of becoming who he was. He came there as a criminal who had been sent there by a judge, and he emerged as a star cornetist who led the Waif's Home band on parades through the streets of New Orleans; who was the bugler at the Waif's Home; who raised and lowered the flag; who was a big man in the institution as a result of that.

He also got instruction there, and gained a sense of self-esteem and self-respect that was entirely lacking in his make-up until this time. I think that's why he felt so loyal to it throughout his life.

GROSS: Armstrong started playing professionally in whorehouses; in the red light district, Storeyville. And then when the whorehouses were closed down in 1917, he started playing on riverboats. What was his life like on the riverboats?

BERGREEN: Well, it was a very strange life. He was used to the free and easy life of the honky-tonks, the whorehouses, and the brothels. That's where he met his first wife, Daisy Parker (ph), who was a prostitute who worked in the very small town of Algiers, which was right next to New Orleans.

On the riverboats, the patrons were almost entirely white. It was a very segregated situation. The band was black. And he was also working under a very stern taskmaster named Fate Marable (ph), who was black. He was a light-skinned black. So it was a very disciplined setting.

Here, he got much more exposure to whites and to white life than he would have had in New Orleans because the riverboats were going all the way up the Mississippi to St. Paul and back again. He at one point calculated that he had traveled over 5,000 miles on these riverboats over the course of a couple of years of traveling.

He also broadened his musical experience a great deal, because he had to play in a large band. It was really an orchestra, rather than just with three or four other musicians. So he was becoming a more sophisticated musician.

Oh, and the final thing was that he also had to learn how to read music. Curiously enough, it was almost a point of pride among New Orleans jazz musicians at that time not to be able to read notes.

And the reason why was because they felt that reading got in the way of feeling, and they really wanted to play very expressive music, which is exactly what we prize so much about jazz.

But for Armstrong, the idea of the complete musician, which is what he wanted to be, was somebody who had that intensity of personal feeling, but could also play tunes and could read the notes. Now, he never was a great sight reader, but he had the facility.

GROSS: My guest is Lawrence Bergreen, author of a new biography of Louis Armstrong. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with Laurence Bergreen, author of a new biography of Louis Armstrong.

In 1922, Armstrong's musical mentor, King Oliver, called for him to join the Oliver Band in Chicago. And so Armstrong goes to Chicago, and starts recording. And I thought we could play a track from the first Armstrong-King Oliver recording session, and this track is called "Chimes Blues" and it contains Armstrong's first recorded solo.

What's the importance of this recording in Armstrong's story? And in the larger story of jazz?

BERGREEN: Well, I think the overall importance is that you hear jazz being born in front of the microphone. Almost from its inception, recording was instrumental, so to speak, in the spread of jazz -- not only among audiences, but the cross-pollination among jazz musicians around the country, because after all, you couldn't really notate jazz very well. So the recordings took the place of sheet music or notation, and that was how jazz spread.

So here you can hear jazz in its infancy, and you can hear that Armstrong already has a very distinctive tone that he'd retain throughout his life.

GROSS: The sound quality on this 1923 record is not very good, and it will sound especially bad for people who are not used to early recordings. I want you to describe what the recording process was in 1923 when Armstrong and King Oliver made Chimes Blues.

BERGREEN: Primitive, primitive, primitive. They went into a studio, the Jeanette (ph) Studios in Hammond, Indiana, which was a town that was a seat of the Ku Klux Klan. It was hardly friendly to their kind of people. They could not spend the night there.

They went into a tiny, sweltering little recording studio. In those days, there were still the mechanical process of recording which was -- which meant that they had to blow into essentially a large horn the size of an umbrella, and the impressions were recorded in hot wax. Because Armstrong's trumpet was so gosh-darn loud, they made him stay at the back so that he wouldn't overwhelm the other musicians.

Also, the sound was somewhat distorted because the acoustic range was so limited that you couldn't hear the drums; you couldn't hear the tuba. The other musicians could hear them, and they needed to hear those instruments in order to keep together, but they weren't picked up on the recording.

The first time I heard these recordings from this vintage, I thought they sounded very strange. But it's an acquired taste, and by now, after having heard them many times, I've really gotten to love them and I think many other people do as well.

GROSS: How much do you think the player Armstrong became can be heard in this -- his first record -- you know -- at his first recording session?

BERGREEN: You can hear his attack and you can hear his tone, which shines above the other musicians. And you can hear a discontinuity between his very modern, almost swinging style of playing, and their very old-fashioned, rather clunky style of playing. Which is not to run them down, exactly, but you could sort -- it's almost like that you hear the 19th and 20th century sort of awkwardly combined in this song.

GROSS: Well, let's hear an excerpt of the 1923 recording Chimes Blues, and listen for Armstrong's solo.


Louis Armstrong with the King Oliver Band recorded in 1923; and my guest is Laurence Bergreen, who's just written a new biography of Louis Armstrong.

A year after this recording was made, Armstrong went to New York to play with the Fletcher Henderson (ph) Band, and you say Armstrong just wasn't used to the kind of complicated arrangements that the Henderson band specialized in.

BERGREEN: Mm-hmm. To some extent, Fletcher Henderson was the Wynton Marsalis of that moment. He was state-of-the art. He was hip. He was in New York and he was very slick. And he had a band that everybody knew about. To be in that band was a great honor.

Armstrong came in as the third trumpet, so he was kind of a low man on the musical totem pole. In fact, he was still playing the cornet and they were all playing the trumpet, so he switched instruments. The two sound very similar, but look different.

As you know, a trumpet is kind of long and sleek and a cornet is similar to a French horn. It's kind of short and fat and somewhat larger. So he switched instruments and tried and tried to fit into this band.

The interesting thing was that as time went on, as the weeks went on, it wasn't that he began to sound more like this band, which was a very suave dance band, but that the rest of the musicians began to sound like him. They picked up on his liveliness. They picked up on his attack. They picked up on his urge to improvise.

So Fletcher was trying to keep him in sort of a musical straight-jacket, and Armstrong was just bursting with enthusiasm and with musical ideas.

GROSS: Well, I want to play the recording that is the first time Armstrong "scats" on record. This is a 1926 record of "Heebie Jeebies." And before we hear it, I want you to give what you know about the story of Armstrong and how he started scatting.

You know, the standard story is that he was at a recording session or concert; the sheet music fell; he couldn't remember the words. So he just started singing syllables, and thus "scatting" was born.

You don't think that story really stands up -- why not?

BERGREEN: No, it just -- it isn't logical. Keep in mind that this is a story, the origin of scat, that jazz scholars take very, very seriously. So I'm about to discuss the jazz equivalent of nuclear secrets.

But the story that actually Armstrong helped to spread -- the apocryphal story -- was that they were recording this song in Chicago and the music, the sheet music, slipped from the stand. He didn't have the lyrics in front of him, and so he just started singing nonsense syllables in order to fill in the gaps.

The only problem with this story is that when you listen to the recording, he's actually scatting -- making up the nonsense syllables -- before the point where the sheet music supposedly slipped from the stand. Also if you hear -- listen carefully -- the scatting is so proficient that you realize it couldn't have been improvised.

Also, there's a lot of evidence that Armstrong was doing this kind of singing in live performances on-stage at the Vendome (ph) Theater in Chicago and other places for months before that. In fact, it was kind of a staple of that sort of music.

So let's give Armstrong the credit for being the first to record it, but I think it would be overstating it to say that he actually invented it in quite this way.

GROSS: You speculate in your biography of Armstrong that scatting might have had a Jewish influence from the Karnovsky family -- the family of rag and junk dealers that he worked for when he was a child; the family that virtually adopted him for five years.

BERGREEN: Armstrong was talking with Cab Calloway, another great jazz performer and bandleader, and they were discussing the origin of scat between them, and they brought up the fact that they had been partly inspired by listening to Jews praying in a synagogue; to listening to them davining (ph) -- rocking back and forth -- and they picked up on some of that and combined it with their music.

That may sound strange or even bizarre, but keep in mind that one of the facet -- one of the interesting parts of jazz was the way it blended all sorts of cultural influences. And of course, Armstrong felt very much at home with and identified with Jewish culture and all its manifestations: Jewish ritual; Jewish food; and, you know, anything else you could think of.

GROSS: And this is because of the time he spent with the Karnovsky's?


GROSS: All right. Well, let's hear this 1926 recording of Heebie-Jeebies," Armstrong's first scat recording, and Armstrong on cornet and vocals; Kid Oury (ph), trombone; Johnnie Dodds (ph), clarinet; Lil Armstrong (ph) at the piano; and Johnnie St. Cyr (ph), banjo. 1926.


ARMSTRONG SINGING: Hey, I've got the heebies, I mean the jeebies
Talkin' about -- unintelligible) heebie-jeebie you

Say, don't you know it, (unintelligible)
Don't feel blue
Someone will teach you
Come on and do that dance
They call the heebie-jeebies dance

Yes maam
Talking about the heebie jeebies dance
Come up now, do that dance
They call the heebie-jeebies dance
Sweet mama, papa got to do the heebie jeebies dance

Whooh! Got the heebie jeeebies
I just had to have the heebies

GROSS: Louis Armstrong. Laurence Bergreen is the author of a new biography of Armstrong. Bergreen will be back with us in the second half of our show.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Laurence Bergreen, author of a new biography of Louis Armstrong.

In the first part of our show, we heard a couple of Armstrong's hot-five recordings from the '20s. The hot-five sessions were the first recording sessions led by Armstrong and are among the most influential recordings in the history of jazz.

I asked Bergreen how the hot-five was first formed.

BERGREEN: By accident. He had played with a number of the other musicians in the group, off and on in New Orleans and in Chicago. They had crossed paths on the riverboats in Fate Marable's orchestra.

So they all knew each other, and they all shared a similar background in New Orleans. And everybody assumed by the time they got to Chicago that they were playing New Orleans -- authentic New Orleans music.

In fact, they weren't. They were much better than the average New Orleans musician. And they, between them, among them, had caused the music to evolve. They retained the polyphany, but it was much more sophisticated. The kind of musical games they played went beyond anything anybody had ever imagined back in New Orleans.

And they related to them -- to each other in a way that was like a wonderful kind of conversation to overhear and to participate in. Keep in mind that one of the part-time members -- one of the important part-time members of the Hot Five -- was the second wife, Lillian Harden (ph).

Lil Harden Armstrong, who played the piano, was constantly pushing Louis to break away from King Oliver; to become a soloist on his own. And one of her ways of doing it was to free him from the grasp of Oliver's orchestra and to have his own group.

Now really, in this group -- in the Hot Five -- Louis is sort of the star. He's the most visible figure, but he's really just first among equals. And he gives everybody else their time to shine and everybody else considered him a wonderful leader, wonderful bandleader, for just that reason.

GROSS: The first recording that we played -- the recording that we opened with, West End Blues, featured Earl Hines at the piano. And they had a wonderful collaboration together, Armstrong and Hines -- how did they hook up?

BERGREEN: They met in Chicago when Armstrong was going through a fallow period; when he was briefly out of work. The personnel of the Hot Five were often changing, and it was sometimes the Hot Seven. There were occasionally six musicians who were part of it. So it was a studio group. By the way, they only performed live once. They were really just a studio group.

Anyway, he met Earl Hines in a musicians union. Earl was playing the piano and they just hit it off right away. And after a while, this gives you the idea of the way Armstrong could influence other musicians. He began influencing Hines' style of piano, which came to be called "trumpet" style.

So he wasn't just influencing other trumpet players, because by now, he was influencing a lot of trumpet players. He wasn't just influencing other singers with his scat singing. He was influencing all jazz musicians as well. Even trumpet players, 'cause they all -- piano players, because they all sound something in his approach to the music.

Earl Hines was from Philadelphia. He handled himself well. He was a very confident musician. And the two of them became the nucleus of a reconstituted Hot Five and Hot Seven. He replaced Lil -- by then, Armstrong's marriage to Lil was really on the skids -- and reinvigorated the group.

He had a dash and sophistication and musical imagination and a technique that Lil really didn't have. Lil was a kind of a spark plug for Louis, but Earl was a much more sophisticated musical presence.

GROSS: The Depression had a bad effect on Armstrong's life -- this is particularly early in the Depression. How did the Depression affect him?

BERGREEN: Well, by the time the Depression rolled around, he was already a famous jazz musician. He was not rich, but he was certainly known everywhere. He had many hit songs. He was moving ever more into the mainstream of American popular music, doing pop tunes and standards and not just what we called "jazz."

But the change in musical styles did not work to his advantage, because instead of the emphasis on the soloist -- on improvisation -- you had the big band. And he adapted to that style, to the sweet style, particularly of Guy Lombardo.

It may sound incongruous that he would emulate Guy Lombardo, of all people, but a lot of jazz musicians love that relaxed, sweet, polished sound of Lombardo's -- not just Armstrong -- and they felt that was what they want to have. This was an example of, again, this cross-pollination that was always taking place in jazz.

But many jazz scholars and connoisseurs really consider the next 10 or 12 years kind of the nadir of Armstrong's career, because he kind of ran out of ideas for a long time. He was also having such terrible management problems that he was often unable to perform. Or if he did perform and record, it was when he was exhausted. So it was far from ideal circumstances. All of this took a considerable toll on his recording.

GROSS: (unintelligible) about the whole 1930s is often being seen as the nadir of...

BERGREEN: That's right. Yes.

GROSS: I love some of the stuff from the 1930s. Armstrong was...

BERGREEN: Oh, yes, you know, no two people agree about what is the high point or the low point of Armstrong. So I'd love to hear what you have to say.

GROSS: Well, I know some people kind of dismiss some of the pop recordings from the mid-'30s as being, you know, "pop trifles" that take away from his great musicianship. But I think some of these recordings are just delightful. Why don't we play one now? How about -- did you like "Got A Brand New Suit?"

BERGREEN: Mm-hmm. Yes, I do.

GROSS: This is from the mid-'30s. It's just, you know, a nice pop tune -- just delightfully sung by Armstrong.


ARMSTRONG SINGING: Got a brand new suit
Got a brand new dime
Got a brand new twinkle in my eye
Do you know the reason why?

Got a brand new girl
And I want this viewed
She's the reason why
I got a brand new tie
And a brand new suit

When I'm with her
Got to look my best
Mmm, put on my tan shoes
Gray spats, double-breasted vest

Gonna wear my stickpin
The (Unintelligible) one
With the brand new tie
The brand new
Brand new girl

GROSS: We'll talk more about Armstrong with Laurence Bergreen after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

My guest is Laurence Bergreen, author of a new biography of Louis Armstrong.

Armstrong hooked up with a manager named Joe Glazer (ph), who really took control of Armstrong's career, and from what I understand, was not very well liked by most of the music industry who had to work with him. How did Glazer get to be Armstrong's manager?

BERGREEN: Well, he was a really interesting character. He's the heavy in Armstrong's life. He was not a nice man. He was widely feared, sometimes despised. He had a lot of Mob connections.

But Armstrong loved him -- I mean, truly loved him, and considered him a surrogate father. Armstrong's own father abandoned the family when he was born, and Joe Glazer who, not incidentally, was Jewish, came to fill that role. And Armstrong paid tribute to him as his father throughout his life.

Anyway, they met in about 1926 when Glazer was managing a nightclub in Chicago called the "Sunset Cafe" on the south side, and Armstrong was performing there such hits as "Big Butter and Egg Man." (ph) And this was definitely one of the high points of Armstrong's early career in the '20s. And he just hit it off with Glazer, who even then was known as being hot-tempered and profane at that time.

After that, Glazer went through a series of hard times. He was hauled up on charges of -- morals charges -- he always had a taste for very young girls. He was in a lot of legal trouble. He narrowly avoided jail. He was a fight promoter -- part of the Capone syndicate in Chicago, fixing fights -- for a long time.

Then when they finally hooked up after that period, Glazer was sort of down on his luck. Armstrong was down on his luck. His main problem at that time -- Armstrong's main problem -- was gangsters. Glazer made his gangster problems go away.

Armstrong's problems with gangsters were so bad that at one point in Chicago when he was performing at a nightclub called "The Showboat," some thugs came up and stuck a gun in his ribs. And he was getting death threats wherever he performed around the country, or implied death threats -- in Philadelphia and in other cities. In fact, he had fled to Europe and spent the better part of two years there, partly to avoid gangsters in this country.

Glazer made his gangster problems go away, through his own connections.

GROSS: Why was Armstrong in such deep trouble with gangsters?

BERGREEN: It was nothing personal with Armstrong. That was the jazz milieu. They controlled the nightclubs as a legacy of prohibition. And if you were a jazz musician and you playing in those nightclubs, you had to deal with those people, because they were the boss.

And Armstrong was a free and easy spirit. He went his own ways. He didn't want to not play in one city or not play here and not play there, just because of some gangsters told him to or not to. And he was therefore -- became a target for trouble.

But he was not the only one. I would say all the jazz musicians of that era all had similar problems. Because Armstrong was so visible and so prominent, his problems were more severe.

GROSS: Well, I'm glad you brought all of this up, because your previous biography is a biography of Al Capone.


GROSS: And I guess this is the chapter in which Capone and Armstrong get together; in which the two recent subjects of your books have their lives merge.

BERGREEN: That's right. Armstrong's take on Capone, whom he met, was almost unique. He thought that he was very sweet and he reminded him of a little professor -- Professor Al. And that sounds truly bizarre until you realize that most jazz musicians were very well-disposed to Capone because he was a generous boss who ran interference for them and made their livelihood possible.

Because after all, this was the prohibition era and Capone, who posed as the hero of the working man, was economically, at any rate, on the side of the jazz musicians and was kind of by default the biggest jazz impresario in Chicago at the time that Chicago was the center of the jazz world. So therefore, Armstrong was not really afraid of gangsters per se, although he had an abhorrence and a loathing of any kind of violence or gun play.

GROSS: Now, Armstrong was for many years, like, the "jazz ambassador" and he literally was. He literally represented the State Department on jazz tours around the world. This is -- I suppose during the Cold War -- when it was really good PR to send Armstrong and jazz around the world.


GROSS: In spite of Armstrong being the jazz ambassador, you write about a period during the early days of the civil rights movement when Armstrong was really angry with his own country...


GROSS: ... with what was happening in the South. And he expressed it. How did he express that anger?

BERGREEN: Well, just a little background here. Keep in mind that Armstrong was a famous black entertainer with a huge white following, and was in many ways considered an exception to all the prejudice and bigotry that was prevalent everywhere in this country -- not just down South, but in New York City as well, where nightclubs in Harlem were just as segregated as any place would be in Mississippi.

Except that Armstrong really wasn't the exception. Because he went everywhere and performed everywhere, he suffered a great deal from prejudice and bigotry. He kept most of that to himself. I think he felt, like most other performers at that time -- performers of color -- that to complain about it publicly would amount to professional suicide.

However, during the Little Rock school crisis in 1957, he happened to be in his hotel room. I believe he was in North Dakota at that time. And he saw television pictures of some of the race riots. And he saw pictures of local people there spitting on a young black child who was -- a girl who was trying to integrate a school; was trying to go to school.

He was so incensed that he did something that nobody ever thought he would do. He gave an interview to a local reporter saying that he was furious at President Eisenhower; that he thought Orville Faubus, who was the Governor of Arkansas, was an ignorant plow boy; and he said that he thought that Eisenhower should take these children by the hand and walk them to school.

And he signed the reporter's notes to show that -- he wrote it solid, and then he initialed it, so that everyone would know that the reporter had gotten this quote accurately.

Well, once these comments went out, a lot of people went ballistic. Armstrong was roundly drubbed in the press. Other jazz musicians were astonished because this was, well, rather late in the bop era, but he'd long been considered an Uncle Tom; a sell-out. And they didn't know that Armstrong had it in him. They didn't know that he had this kind of fire; this sort of indignation; this kind of moral indignation that he showed.

Many people considered that Armstrong's career would end at that point, because there were some radio stations that didn't play his music for a while after that. But Armstrong really surprised a lot of people with his statements at that point.

GROSS: I love Armstrong's playing and singing, and, you know, particularly like the music from the '20s and '30s. But I grew up in the '50s and early '60s seeing Armstrong on the Ed Sullivan Show...


GROSS: ... and really not liking him at all. It was the "Hello, Dolly" era -- a song and a record I felt I could live without.


And plus he just seemed -- you know, his performance style seemed to embody a stereotype, an almost minstrel-like stereotype. And I know a lot of his musicians, as you said, considered him to be almost an embarrassment; that his performances were a little like "tomming."

Did Armstrong realize how uncomfortable his mugging style made some of his audience and some fellow musicians?

BERGREEN: Oh, that's a really interesting question. He was certainly aware about other musicians. But Armstrong himself felt very comfortable in his performing style. You mentioned his seeming like a minstrel, and how incongruous that was in the '50s or '60s, but that was the tradition he came out of.

He wanted to please audiences. He was getting sort of old-fashioned by that point. And while he was tremendously avant garde and cutting edge and hip in the '20s, he clearly had fallen well behind the curve by the time the '50s came around and his repertoire had shrunk. And he was just trying to please audiences. He'd, you know, had fallen partly victim to the Vegas Syndrome.

Keep in mind that at this point, Armstrong was performing 350 nights a year. He never, ever took a vacation his whole life, unless some ill-health forced him to stop for a while. He just kept going and going and going. This meant that his fund of invention eventually ran out.

Although even while this sort of sterile, Ed Sullivan phase was going on that you evoke, he was still capable of doing things that were very personal and very dignified and very distinctive. I'm thinking of the recordings that he made in the 1950s with Ella Fitzgerald...

GROSS: Oh, yeah. Those were great.

BERGREEN: ... "Porgy and Bess" and some others which are really different -- have nothing to do with, you know, minstrel-type performing, and are just -- I mean, they are just entirely fresh and fabulous.

And then in the early 1960s, he made two records with Duke Ellington which neither collaborator was happy with, but in my humble opinion, I think are absolute masterpieces. And they're very, very simple, but they're just perfect. They are like haikus.

GROSS: You know, in talking about Armstrong's performance style in the '50s and '60s, one of the things -- he always had that handkerchief that he'd mop his face with.


GROSS: Was that like a performance affectation? Or was that something he really needed to do?

BERGREEN: It was both. He really did perspire a lot during performances. And he just -- it was a great prop, because he used it to mop his brow and to keep his hands dry so he could, you know, handle the trumpet. But after a while, it just became one of his trademarks that was identified with him.

GROSS: You know, it's funny -- I'm just thinking back again to that Ed Sullivan era when every comic who had an act -- every comic who was an impressionist had to do James Cagney and they had to do Armstrong.


Do you remember that?

BERGREEN: That's right. Well, it was that, you know, pop-eyed Satchmo persona that he...

GROSS: Yes, right.

BERGREEN: ... developed and which so many people decried and, you know, which he traded on for a while. I mean, he had several personas. They kept evolving during his life, but that's the one that people who are about our age, you know, grew up experiencing. And you know, it takes a while to realize that there was so much more behind that.

GROSS: Right. You get to know somebody really well when you write a biography of them, even though they're not alive anymore. Did you end up liking Armstrong any more or less than you expected to?

BERGREEN: I wound up loving him. Usually when you write a biography of somebody, you get a little tired of all their foibles. You know, it's sort of like having a roommate who sorts of grates on you after a while.

But I could never get enough of Armstrong. I never had this feeling before. I was really sorry I couldn't do two or three volumes on this guy, because he deserves it. And his personality was so engaging. There were so many terrific eccentricities, and he was so open that for a biographer, this was really a treat.

So I still play his music all the time and, you know, want to keep him in my life. I'm not going to let him go.

GROSS: Laurence Bergreen, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

BERGREEN: Thank you.

GROSS: Laurence Bergreen is the author of Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life. Here's "Can't We Be Friends?" from the 1956 album "Ella and Louis."


ARMSTRONG: Yes, I thought I knew the wheat from the chaff
What a laugh. This is how the story ends
I let her turn me down
Say, can't we be friends?


I (Unintelligible) like a kid out of school
What a fool -- Now I see this is the end
I let her turn me down
Say, can't we be friends?

Oh, why should I care?
Though she did give me the air
Why should I cry? Have a sigh?
And wonder why?

Yes, I should have seen the singin' stop
What a flop
This is how the story ends
She's gone and turned me down
Say, can't we be friends?

Though he gave me the air

ARMSTRONG: And why should I cry?
Have a sigh? Wonder why?

ARMSTRONG/FITZGERALD: I should have seen the signal to stop
What a flop -- this is how the story ends
I let him/her turn me down and
Say, can't we be, can't we be, can't we be, can't we be
Can't we be, can't we be, can't we be

Oh, yeah

GROSS: Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Laurence Bergreen
High: Biographer Laurence Bergreen talks with Terry about his newest book "Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life." It is published by Broadway books. While this is certainly not the first biography of Armstrong, Bergreen had used many of Armstrong's previously unexplored personal letters and diary entries. Bergreen traces Armstrong's life from his birth in New Orleans in 1901, through his four marriages, and his many contributions to American jazz. Bergreen is the author of three other biographies: "As Thousands Cheer: The Life of Irving Berlin," "James Agee: A Life," and "Capone: The Man and the Era."
Spec: Music Industry; Louis Armstrong; Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright (c) 1997 National Public Radio, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. under license from National Public Radio, Inc. Formatting copyright (c) 1997 Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information please contact NPR's Business Affairs at (202) 414-2954
Date: JUNE 26, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 062602NP.217
Head: Citizen Wayne
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:55

TERRY GROSS, HOST: MC5, which stood for the "Motor City Five," was a rock band formed in Detroit in the late '60s. The sound was loud, hard, and fiercely anti-establishment.

Many people consider them the forerunner of punk rock. MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer is back from some hard times with a solo album called "Citizen Wayne." Critic Milo Miles has a review.


Don't you ever feel like you're losin' your mind?
Like you tore your head out of your neck?
Don't you ever feel like you don't fit in
Like you're headin' for a major train wreck

Bigger than a monkey
Smaller than a mouse
Closer than a heartbeat
Baby, there's a stranger in the house.

MILO MILES, MUSIC CRITIC: Until recently, the legacy of the MC5 looked very sad. Their White Panther politics of "smash the state" and "off the pigs" was a joke.

Singer Rob Tyner was dead. Guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith was dead. Only guitarist Wayne Kramer appeared capable of carrying on, but for the longest time the main question about him was: when was the old warrior going to organize a serious solo career?

He had teamed up with guitarist Johnny Thunder from the New York Dolls in a band called "Gang War." And while they could rumble on stage, they were delinquent drivel on records.

Kramer then spent much of the '80s wrestling with his demons. When he resurfaced several years back, his rangy, whiplashed guitar sound was intact and so was his modest gruff singing. But his songwriting was spotty and the music was out of it. Apparently, Kramer's idea of a progressive was Bruce Springsteen.

However, he always sounded alert and of the moment when he played on albums by "Was Not Was." Now, one of the former leaders of that outfit, David Was, has produced Kramer's first really spanking solo album, Citizen Wayne.

What a difference a few chunky, funky rhythms can make, not to mention arrangements that leave space to breathe, but stay fierce. Even better, Kramer has written a batch of songs full of class consciousness and, by my reckoning, with less baloney content than the MC5 ever managed.


KRAMER SINGING: He's a temporary contract man
Since the union lost its clout
He's got no meds or benefits
He's livin' hand to mouth
In the shadow of the monument
He finally pay his dues
Dyin' of a heart attack
While shinin' Mr. Lincoln's shoes

There's them that's got the money
And then there's them that ain't
There's them that's smellin' roses
There's them that's huffin' paint
In the shadow of the monument
He finally pay his dues
Dyin' of a heart attack
While shinin' Mr. Lincoln's shoes

MILES: Kramer's, how shall we say, frame of reference remains fixated on the late '60s era and its consequences. Here though, he sounds more like an outcast determined to stay defiant rather than a fogey.

He spins out bits of personal history on the Chicago riots and the wrenching downward spiral of Johnny Thunder's. He calls himself a stranger in the house and mocks both pampered revolutionaries and those shadowy government operations that might run dope for democracy.

Still, Kramer hits the best chords of power as he describes a temporary worker who dies of a heart attack while shining the shoes of the Lincoln monument. They used to call such fables "righteously irreverent." What's new here is the wisdom at the end of a hard road, in songs like "No Easy Way Out" and the right purdy guitar instrumental called "A Farewell to Whiskey."

Now for Wayne Kramer, that is radical.

GROSS: Milo Miles is a music writer living in Cambridge.

Dateline: Milo Miles, Cambridge; Terry Gross, Philadelphia
High: Milo Miles reviews "Citizen Wayne.
Spec: Music Industry; Citizen Wayne
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright (c) 1997 National Public Radio, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. under license from National Public Radio, Inc. Formatting copyright (c) 1997 Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information please contact NPR's Business Affairs at (202) 414-2954
End-Story: Citizen Wayne
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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