Two books came my way this past Christmas so it’s time for my book report.
One I’ve been wanting to read for a couple of years now is Terry Teachout’s biography of Louis Armstrong. That’s pronounced Lew-iss not Lew-ee, as he was apparently fond of saying to folks.
I heard Teachout interviewed on the radio when it was first published and he talked about his sources. Seems that Pops was among the early purchasers of a portable 7-inch reel-to-reel tape recorder back in the 1950’s and recorded hundreds of hours of stuff, not just music but the world and conversations around him in his home and on the road. He had a lot of material other biographers had no access to.
Teachout is a compelling writer when he brings to life the early 20th century in New Orleans and the type of childhood Armstrong had. The student/teacher relationship between Joe Oliver and Armstrong is explored at bit, but the early days of jazz are essentially lost without recordings, as it is always about the music.
Somebody once said something along the lines of; writing about music is like dancing about architecture.
This is a good place to begin almost any jazz study.
The rather well worn territory of Uncle Tom-ism and the verbal sparing between Dizzy Gillespie and Armstrong is given a going over once again. Also present and accounted for in the book is Da Mob, the guys with the bent noses, who played a role in Armstrong’s grief and his ultimate success.
I came away from the book with pretty much the view I had always had of Louis Armstrong. The view I got as a child through his music. My Dad had an Armstrong recording and an Aker Bilk one too. He preferred Bilk on the clarinet but Dad was a Moldy Fig anyway, I was into the moderns and before The Beatles there was Pops. Armstrong was an entertainer, plain and simple, he loved what he did and did it to such a degree that he set the standard.
I rate Terry Teachout’s Pops 60 keys out of 88 with a flatted 7.
The second book and more piano related, is A Natural History of the Piano, by Stuart Isacoff.
Good book, but then you might expect me to say that with anything about pianos.
Not a difficult read and having read it cover to cover I’m not sure it has to be read that way. There were enough little asides in boxes and fairly short chapters that it could also be suitable for just dipping into. You could start at the Index since it is a fairly well indexed book and sort of analog ‘Google’ your way through.
Lots of good stuff about Mozart having to work the bars and restaurants.
From Craig’s List may or may not be true but is quite funny.
Beethoven breaking pianos, Liszt and Chopin wow-ing everybody, Oscar Peterson wow-ing them all again and then Lang Lang doing it with feeling one more time.
Some details emerged on the Cat Piano, which led me to this video.
Watch the Film
Not all fun and games though,there is some serious discussion around the various improvements in the piano mechanism and the styles of music the instrument created.
Isacoff is himself a jazz pianist who studied with jazz great Sir Roland Hanna and he writes knowledgeably about the genre and the cross-pollination with European classical piano. He has long lists of great pianists classical and jazz. He explores the styles and lives of some of them, however, for me conspicuous by his almost complete absence beyond a few cursory mentions, is Keith Jarrett. He has a tremendous body of work across genres and is surely one of the most influential pianists of our time. Keith does not get the attention he deserves in a book of this nature.
Anyway, I really enjoyed the book it is an engaging read, and although there is much dancing for architecture, I heartily recommend this book for all three types of people in the world, piano players, piano technicians and music lovers.
I give Isacoff’s Natural History of the Piano 68 keys with an arpeggio.