Saturday, March 13, 2010

Letter to The Nation Magazine

I suppose I'll pull it from here if it's going to be published and they ask me to do so.

I am neither an amateur nor professional jazz discophile. Much less am I an an academic expert on music, though I do enjoy and even revere it as one of humanity's most impressive products. I do enjoy good pie-throwing historical hagiography, though, so I read with interest David Schiff's polemics in his review of Terry Teachout's "Pops: A life of Louis Armstrong" (March 1, 2010).

In an essay with so much focus on the social and cultural roots, largely hidden from public view, of Armstrong's life and art, I was surprised to find no mention whatsoever of the underground legend that Armstrong was an avid smoker of marijuana throughout his life. If true, surely this fact would have some social import Schiff could glean--it would support his opposition to the Louis-Armstrong-as-Horatio-Alger story, for one thing. If false, its debunking would be news to many of us and worthy of inclusion in Armstrong's biographical discussion. Could his "muggles"--as the legend says Armstrong called his pot (and note the curious allusion to the not-yet-created work of J.K. Rowland!)--be partly behind his exclusion from white, polite society? Perhaps this can be a topic for future publications, maybe as part of a larger discussion of illicit drugs and jazz and its implications--someday when the topic is not too hot to handle.

Not to suggest compromise or the "R-word"--reconciliation--but surely all observers of Armstrong's life and work could agree that the theme music (rather than "Accentuate the Positive" or "I Got a Right to Sing the Blues") should be "When You're Smiling". Armstrong's big grin was an act of will, overcoming all the sorrows of the world, and at the same time a pragmatic and successful strategy. It's also right at the heart of his universal appeal: "the whole world smiles with you."

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