The American Interest

Books, Film, and History

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Top Brass

Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis achieved perfection in opposition.

Published on May 1, 2010


Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong
Terry Teachout
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009, 475 pp., $30

The Blue Moment: Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue
and the Remaking of Modern Music
Richard Williams
W.W. Norton & Company, 2010, 320 pp., $25.95

Trumpeters Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis became two of the most influential American jazz musicians of all time by taking very different approaches to their art, but they had more in common than meets the eye, or ear. Armstrong reigned as the most famous jazz musician in the world, Terry Teachout reminds us in Pops, but Davis made the single most enduringly popular jazz album with Kind of Blue, which Richard Williams scrutinizes in The Blue Moment. Teachout, chief culture critic for Commentary, argues that Armstrong is underestimated as an artist, while Williams, a former Melody Maker editor, believes the full impact of Kind of Blue has yet to be fully appreciated. Considered together, both books reveal how much the pair shared beyond incomplete recognition of their accomplishments, despite the younger man’s deliberate efforts to distance himself from a predecessor he couldn’t help but grudgingly admire.

Armstrong liked to believe he was born on July 4, 1900 (he probably actually arrived a year and a month later), and he liked to say that he and jazz were born together. While he was not among the first jazz players, “he was the first great influence in jazz”, according to Teachout, who calls recordings Armstrong made in the mid-1920s “the first chapters in what was to become the Old Testament of classic jazz.” These rhythmic scriptures attracted many disciples in the United States and Europe. Indeed, Armstrong achieved widespread recognition in England before doing so stateside. His trips to Europe helped spread the musical gospel: “He . . . left his mark on a generation of European musicians who drank deeply from the well of his genius.”

Teachout thinks his “gritty tenor voice” is the key to Armstrong’s impact: Thanks to the then new technology of commercially available sound recording, “Armstrong was the first jazz musician whose voice was heard by large numbers of people.” Consequently, he was able to impress “his personality on all who heard him, even those who found most instrumental jazz to be unapproachably abstract.” With a voice “as recognizable as fingerprints”, he made songs into standards that continued to be performed decades after he recorded them. Teachout believes Armstrong’s singing “gave these records their commercial appeal.” His use of “improvised nonsense syllables”, what came to be called scat, in place of song lyrics inspired many imitators. Billie Holiday and Ethel Waters both attested to his influence on their singing. “Armstrong didn’t invent scat singing, but it was his version of it that caught on”, Teachout reports. During the Great Depression, when record sales fell sharply, “Armstrong was still in demand, in part because he had turned himself into a pop crooner who also played the trumpet.”

Armstrong’s work on his horn mattered too, however, and it also affected how others played. “By the end of 1927 he was the most important soloist in jazz, the man to whom other musicians looked for inspiration”, Teachout writes. Armstrong’s technical prowess, including his ability to hit high C and F notes, and to do so not only repeatedly but also expressively, spurred other trumpeters to emulate him—“if they could.”

Besides his distinctive voice and trumpet-playing skills, Armstrong’s impact owes much to his making solos the centerpieces of songs, creating a showcase for individuals instead of subordinating each player to the ensemble. Armstrong “pulled away from New Orleans tradition” when he made solos “the point of performances”, Teachout says. Through his solos, many of which became set pieces rather than instances of improvisation, he conveyed his personality, and his biographer contends that Armstrong’s “personality was as compelling as his artistry.”

The truth, however, is that in this case personality was polarizing. While many were drawn to the grinning, garrulous Armstrong, others disapproved of his persona and on-stage antics. Miles Davis and many others of his generation of musicians found Armstrong’s act discomfortingly reminiscent of minstrel performers. (Davis was born in 1926, right around the time Armstrong hit his stride as a musician.) But Davis liked Armstrong’s playing. “You can’t play nothing on trumpet that doesn’t come from him, not even modern shit”, Davis says in Miles: The Autobiography (1989). “I can’t even remember a time when he sounded bad playing the trumpet. Never.”

Even so, Davis didn’t set out to follow Armstrong’s example. “Not only did he play his horn differently”, Teachout notes, “but he played it with an attitude that could scarcely have been further removed from Armstrong’s desire to give uncomplicated pleasure to the paying customers who came to hear him.” While “hurtling momentum” and “expansive lyricism” characterize Armstrong’s playing, as Teachout puts it, Davis achieved what Williams calls a “plaintive, hollowed-out sound.” Armstrong sought to advance what he called “the cause of happiness.” In contrast, when Davis put a mute in the bell of his trumpet, Williams heard “a tight, drizzling sound even more powerfully evocative of mid-century alienation.” Further, Davis adamantly rejected the role of entertainer; he regarded himself as an artist, and not one inclined to “acting the clown” like Armstrong, as he proclaims in his autobiography.


There are nevertheless some striking similarities between Armstrong and Davis. One notable example involves the racial make-up of their groups. Armstrong dissolved his big band after World War II, and the small band he worked with until the end of his life in 1971 always included both black and white musicians. As Teachout observes: “The All Stars were integrated, not by chance but as a matter of policy. In 1947 and for years afterward, it was still uncommon for a working jazz group to be racially mixed, especially one whose leader was black.”

This was a tradition Davis willingly extended. “Davis himself, although fully aware of his own blackness, was colour-blind when it came to collaborators”, writes Williams, who points out that Davis permitted pianist Bill Evans to realign his group’s approach around the time of Kind of Blue. Davis also found “his musical soulmate” in another white man, Gil Evans. (Regarding his arranger and friend, Davis in Miles expresses gratitude for having had someone “close enough to pull your coattail when something’s going wrong.”) Evans, in turn, cited Armstrong as one of his early influences and sees him and Davis as providing epochal moments in the history of their instrument. “Miles changed the tone of the trumpet for the first time after Louis—the basic tone”, Evans declared. “Everybody up to him had come through Louis Armstrong”, a point Davis himself seconds.

Both Armstrong and Davis also had artistic problems with bebop—the style of jazz that emerged in the 1940s. Bebop, the style in which a young Davis got his start playing with pioneers like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, convinced many listeners that Armstrong was out of date. Armstrong no doubt felt the sting of most boppers’ explicit disdain for his brand of showmanship. “These cool cats that say my music’s old fashioned”, he remarked in Louis Armstrong: A Self-Portrait (1971). “They say they study music. Funny they got to and I didn’t have to go into no rudimentals [sic].” He also worried that bebop’s uncompromising sound, with “all them weird chords which don’t mean nothing”, would confuse listeners and lessen jazz’s appeal. Audience incomprehension didn’t concern Davis; instead, according to Williams: “Bebop was too fast and frantic for his temperament.”

Despite manufactured appearances to the contrary, Davis did care about audience response to his work. In his autobiography he unhesitatingly expresses his desire for popularity and acclaim: “As a musician and as an artist, I have always wanted to reach as many people as I could through my music. And I have never been ashamed of that.” Armstrong could have said the same thing, and probably did in so many words. Davis sought the ideal situation for a jazz musician (or any artist): a refusal to compromise his art while still being well-received by large numbers of people. Indeed, Williams notes that Davis, after incorporating elements of rock and roll into his sound, played “a demanding half-hour set to a crowd of 600,000, who gave every indication of enjoying the experience”, at the 1970 Isle of Wight pop festival.

Even if they used divergent means of attracting audiences, both trumpeters also managed to offend jazz purists. Armstrong’s work with big bands in the 1930 and 1940s, when he played pop songs and show tunes for dancers, led to accusations that he had “sold out”, the same charge leveled at Davis when he fused jazz with rock and started playing pop music festivals. Together they expose the Catch-22 in jazz criticism: Armstrong the entertainer disappointed some listeners by steadfastly refusing to change his style, while Davis the artist caused consternation by ceaselessly reinventing himself rather than sticking with what had made him popular. By definition, no one can please more than one self-described jazz purist at a time, since jazz doesn’t lend itself to monochromatic purism.

Armstrong and Davis held incompatible ideas about selecting sidemen, too. Armstrong preferred to let his manager decide whom to hire and fire, whereas Davis chose players with contrasting as well as complementary personalities as he saw fit for each project. Such scrupulous attention to the make-up of his groups resulted in the counterintuitive pairing in Kind of Blue of tenor saxophonist John Coltrane with the far more “rhythmically exuberant and naturally blues-based” alto saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley. Teachout argues that by distancing himself from such matters, Armstrong “was freed to devote himself to the thing that mattered the most: his music.” He says this despite acknowledging elsewhere in Pops that the sub-par accompaniment of weaker musicians mars many of Armstrong’s recordings.

Yet even their dissimilar strategies incorporated similar tactics. Teachout believes Armstrong and producer George Avakian invented the “concept album”, something Frank Sinatra and Nelson Riddle usually get credit for doing. Several months before Sinatra sang the songs chosen and arranged by Riddle for In the Wee Small Hours, in mid-1954, Armstrong and the All Stars began recording Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy, which Teachout describes as “a thematically unified, meticulously sequenced single-composer album.” A year after Armstrong and Avakian, and a few months after Sinatra and Riddle, Davis made Blue Moods, an important precursor to Kind of Blue. Because of its unity of mood, it might qualify as jazz’s first concept album, according to Williams.

Kind of Blue, recorded in 1959, could also be considered the first concept album to embrace the so-called modal principle, which substitutes scales for chords. Williams calls it “one of the most influential albums of our time.” He finds evidence of its contribution to music history everywhere: in work by “minimalist” American composers such as Steve Reich and Philip Glass; in the art rock of the Velvet Underground; in the R&B; of James Brown; in the activities of the “remarkable” German jazz record label ECM (or Editions of Contemporary Music); and in the efforts of English experimentalist Brian Eno, who collaborated with the likes of Roxy Music, Talking Heads and David Bowie.1

Across the Sea

Davis and Armstrong may have been exceptionally influential, but they were also very much influenced by the cultural currents cascading around them—and not just in the United States. While Davis found favor among students of European composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen and Arnold Schoenberg, he also responded to what he discovered in Europe, and especially Paris. “Miles Davis’s dark Italian suits and his European sports cars made him stand out from the generality of jazz musicians in the 1950s”, Williams writes. “No doubt his visit to Paris in May 1949, when he met Sartre and Boris Vian and fell in love with Juliette Gréco, had broadened his cultural horizons as well as his fashion sense.” Williams situates Kind of Blue among what he sees as other milestones of its artistic moment: Albert Camus’s L’Étranger, Alberto Moravia’s La Noia, Kerouac’s On the Road and Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. “In the light of his subsequent development . . . it would be difficult to believe that this brush with the leading lights of the existentialist movement had not exerted a considerable influence on his view of himself as an artist”, Williams says.

Along with Italian clothes, Davis also picked up sprezzatura, cultivating an appearance of effortlessness. Music, he claimed in his autobiography, was not all-consuming for him. He said he would happily put down his horn after the last set and go skirt chasing, unlike Coltrane, who preferred to keep practicing and playing. Such coolness, just like turning his back on the audience or leaving the stage while someone else soloed, was part of his act. He did work hard, as his best-known work makes clear. “For all its air of laconic spontaneity”, Williams insists, “Kind of Blue had been the subject of greater forethought than any of Davis’s earlier small-group recordings.” However he wished to seem, Davis was no stranger to what Teachout identifies as Armstrong’s “lifelong watchwords”: self-discipline, self-improvement and self-reliance.

Armstrong and Davis both nurtured affection for music other than jazz, as well. (They followed divergent courses when it came to listening to their own records. Davis claimed he never did; Armstrong regularly played his version of “When You’re Smiling” at a loud volume before leaving home to go on tour.) Armstrong traveled with a record collection that ranged from Bix Beiderbecke to Bing Crosby to Béla Bartók. He loved opera and habitually warmed up before shows by playing the “Intermezzo sinfonico” from Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana. People who visited Davis’s house, he said, “were shocked to hear me listening to classical music all the time, you know, Stravinsky, Arturo Michelangeli, Rachmaninoff, Isaac Stern.” He denies allegations that pianist Bill Evans composed some of the music on Kind of Blue but allows that Evans turned him on to some classical composers, such as Maurice Ravel, who influenced him. Ravel played his jazzy violin sonata with Joseph Szigeti in New York in 1928, which Teachout calls a year of artistic triumph for Armstrong, one when he made recordings to which his later work would routinely be compared. At the time, Ravel said he expected more American composers to recognize the significance of what musicians like Armstrong were playing, which Teachout takes as indicating that jazz had “won a measure of acceptance in highbrow circles.”

Perhaps of greatest significance is the fact that both men achieved something unusual in any art form: perfection. When, late in his career, Armstrong rerecorded some of his hits, he “made the mistake of trying to improve on perfection”, in the view of Teachout, who regards his subject as “not just a man but a miracle.” By charting the influence of a single album rather than recounting its maker’s life story, Williams takes a different course than Teachout, but he arrives at a similar conclusion regarding Davis, whose Kind of Blue provides “a rare example of human perfection, never needing to raise its voice to make itself heard but speaking more clearly as the years go by.”

Even if Teachout and Williams at least slightly overstate their respective cases, together they bear witness to an exceptional pair who certainly earned all the critical attention they have received over the years, in their homeland and around the world, and who might deserve even more attention. Of course, assessing their claims requires setting aside the books and listening to the sounds they celebrate, which can be done with real pleasure.

1Finding connections between admired jazz musicians and other, not obviously related performers is something of a tradition in jazz writing. In Coltrane: The Story of a Sound (2007), for instance, Ben Ratliff charts the influence of Kind of Blue sideman Coltrane on rocker Iggy Pop and punk rockers the Minutemen. Sometimes these purported ties appear rather tenuous. Williams concedes that with Eno’s excursions into ambient music “the ripples spreading from Kind of Blue can be heard at their faintest.”

John G. Rodwan, Jr. is the author of the forthcoming essay collection Fighters & Writers. He lives in Portland, Oregon.