Commentary Magazine

Louis Armstrong

To the Editor:

In the midst of his otherwise appreciative review of my biography, Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life [November 1997], David Ostwald took the book to task for several “appalling” lapses. But the lapses are his, not mine. I am particularly concerned about the way he distorted or overlooked certain passages of my book in order to arrive at his unjustified conclusions.

For example, Mr. Ostwald writes that my book “surmises that the recordings made by Armstrong when stoned surpass those made when he was sober.” In reality, I wrote something quite different: “Although there is no dramatic distinction between his preand post-marijuana recordings, Louis thought he heard a world of difference.”

On another occasion, he quotes the phrase “funny babbling” as evidence of my alleged misunderstanding of scat singing. Mr. Ostwald lifts this phrase out of context so improperly that he alters its meaning beyond recognition. At the same time, he ignores extended passages discussing the origins of scat and its far-reaching influence. If I am to be taken to task, I would prefer to be criticized for what I actually wrote—not the reverse of what I wrote.

In the same vein, Mr. Ostwald alleges that a passage in the book confuses two characters in Armstrong’s life, “Slippers,” a bouncer in new Orleans, and Joe Glaser, Armstrong’s manager. But the passage in the book reflects no such confusion. Mr. Ostwald was either not paying attention or misrepresenting the book, or both.

In another instance, Mr. Ostwald tries to “correct” my book by insisting that George Avakian, the record producer, did not try to exclude Velma Middleton, a vocalist, from the recording Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy. He then leaps to the conclusion that I must have confused George Avakian with George Wein, the jazz promoter. Mr. Ostwald is just plain wrong about this matter. As reported in the book, Avakian, who produced the recording for Columbia, specifically told me, in an interview recorded on July 29, 1995, that he unsuccessfully urged Armstrong to omit Middleton. To quote: “I told him [Armstrong] that perhaps we could do it without Velma Middleton singing . . . because I was afraid at first that would take the spotlight off Louis himself.” (This interview is cited in my endnotes.) Why would Mr. Ostwald arrive at his erroneous conclusion, and then jab at me for failing to share his error?

There are other examples of Mr. Ostwald’s erroneous statements and distortions of my work, but I think the point is clear. The way your reviewer was going, I am surprised he didn’t accuse me of confusing Louis Armstrong with Neil Armstrong, or Louis XIV. The vehemence of his remarks, to say nothing of their inaccuracy, leaves me searching for a comprehensible explanation.

Laurence Bergreen
New York City



David Ostwald writes:

Laurence Bergreen thoroughly understands the genius of Louis Armstrong, just as I said in my review, yet he dilutes his own credibility with dozens of unfounded opinions and factual errors. These include many I did not specifically cite, such as having Armstrong boasting of his sexual prowess at age seventy when he died at sixty-nine, and undervaluing his estate by 100 percent when a review of the court file Mr. Bergreen purports to have examined would have revealed the true amount. And they also include the lapses he now tries to defend.

For example, Mr. Bergreen maintains in his letter that he did not say the recordings Armstrong made when he was stoned surpass those he made when sober. Yet on p. 284 of his book he states unequivocally: “The records [Armstrong] made before marijuana entered his life demonstrate that he was doing fine without it; after he began smoking, he simply got better and better.”

Next, Mr. Bergreen claims that I “ignored extended passages discussing the origins of scat and its far-reaching influence.” Not true. I read and reread these passages but found them unpersuasive and, in the case of his highly speculative theory about a connection between voodoo and scat, unsupported by even minimal musical analysis. Not only does Mr. Bergreen use the phrase I quoted, “funny babbling,” to characterize scat singing, he also says that Armstrong used scat singing “basically for comic effect.”

Then there is the question of Joe Glaser and Slippers. Here the book speaks for itself. On p. 173, Mr. Bergreen has Armstrong quoting advice given to him by Slippers, a bouncer in a New Orleans honky-tonk. The passage ends with Armstrong calling Slippers “a crude sonofabitch.”

Clear enough. Then on p. 376, in a passage dealing with Joe Glaser, Armstrong’s manager, we find Slippers’s advice being quoted again. Here, however, the passage ends with Armstrong calling Glaser “a crude sonofabitch.”

How is a reader to know that the attribution is correct in the first instance, in reference to Slippers, but wrong in the second?

As for confusing George Avakian and George Wein: in the book, Mr. Bergreen writes that Avakian “tried to banish” Velma Middleton from the Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy recording. Evidently, he believes that Avakian’s discussion of the possibility that the presence of Middleton might “take the spotlight off Louis himself” was tantamount to an attempt to banish her. But many artists and colleagues of Avakian, as well as Avakian himself, have confirmed to me that it was never his style to dictate personnel. On the other hand, “banish” might indeed be an appropriate word to describe George Wein’s vain attempt to pressure Armstrong not to use Middleton at the Newport Jazz Festival of 1957 (not 1959, as Mr. Bergreen states on p. 491, though he gives the correct date on p. 470).

In his book, Mr. Bergreen offers a powerful portrait of his complex subject, but frustrates us with a multitude of errors that could have been easily avoided. Nor, unfortunately, am I alone among critics in this judgment.


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