1) Interview with Terry Teachout: Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Rex Stout, Donald E. Westlake, Anthony Powell, Teachout operas with Paul Moravec, Teachout the playwright (Satchmo at the Waldorf)
2) Reverential Gesture: A personal celebration of Duke Ellington that disagrees with some of the musical analysis in Teachout’s biography
I have known Terry for years. Among other connections, his blog “About Last Night” helped inspire me to begin DTM.
Thanks to Hyland Harris for the transcription. Hyland also offered valuable philosophical insight when I began “Reverential Gesture.”
Ethan Iverson: I know you are an admirer of Donald Westlake. He wrote one non-fiction book, Under an English Heaven, and his preface says, “Everything begins with the research.” Then he goes on to talk about how you pick up a book and then a few days later you are hidden in a dusty attic and they are sending out search parties.
Looking at your biographies I was struck by how much work it must take to assemble the information.
Terry Teachout: If you’re a serious biographer, then you’re turning over whole libraries in order to write a book. A lot of what you find out along the way is like fertilizer. It is read and then not seen. Maybe it contributes to something you end up saying in the book, but more likely it contributes to your going somewhere else to find something else.
My Mencken book, The Skeptic , took ten years to research and write. I decided to writeDuke in the summer of 2009 and completed it last January. The main thing that changed between the writing of those two books was the increased availability of online research facilities. Google came into being while I was working on the Mencken book. I bought my first laptop to do research at the Mencken archives in Baltimore. So I’ve seen all of this happen since I started writing biographies. The web has made it twice as easy to do the work that I do. You have more time–so you do more work.
EI: Do you find information on the web is inaccurate?
TT: All the time. You can never take anything for granted. But then again, you can’t even take the accuracy of primary sources for granted. This is most particularly an issue in the case of Ellington. And an enormous amount of other inaccurate information crept into previous Ellington biographies from secondary sources that were cited by people who didn’t bother to check them. The same thing happened with Armstrong. A lot of what people think Louis Armstrong said, he either didn’t say or said somewhat differently from the way he’s been quoted.
If you’re serious about writing a biography that sets the factual record straight, the first thing you do is check everything out. This is especially important in the case of a man like Ellington who, as I put it in the book, “talked not to explain himself but to conceal himself.” You cannot take any statement by Duke Ellington at face value. It may be true and it may not be true. If it is not true, then he’s changed it and distorted it for a reason–usually in order to conceal or obscure some aspect of his offstage life.
I don’t claim that Duke is without error. In fact, I know that it’s not without error. If we have a subsequent edition, there are already errors that I will be fixing. It was the same way with Pops. The most spectacular error there was that the cover photo of Armstrong was reversed! Even Dan Morgenstern hadn’t noticed that, and he’d known Armstrong forever. It was pointed out to me by a reader of my blog. I later realized that I am left-handed, so I don’t always notice that kind of transposition. We fixed it for the cover of the paperback edition.
So yes, there will be changes to the Ellington book, but I do believe that it’s still the most factually accurate biography of Ellington to date. Not just because of my efforts, but because of the additional efforts of three very important Ellington researchers, Steven Lasker in California, Ken Steiner in Seattle and Brian Priestley in Ireland. They read the manuscript from beginning to end and were more helpful than I can begin to tell you. Lasker, for example, is the world’s most important collector of Ellingtonia. You name it, he’s got it. In addition to consulting with him at length via e-mail, I went out to his home last year and spent several days working with him face to face. He’s got records in his collection that I wouldn’t let him let me hold! They were unique copies, and I was absolutely not going to touch those things. I looked at them from a distance. Much of the art in the book, including the cover image, comes from the Lasker collection, and Steven also suggested the title. (I had been calling it “Mood Indigo.”) All of these people, and others like them, are acknowledged in the book. Without them, Duke would not be the book that it is.
EI: It seems to me that a biographer has a double duty. One is to get the facts right and the other is to tell a compelling story. If you put everything in …
TT: …then you’d have a thousand-page book that isn’t readable. Now there’s absolutely a place for the comprehensive multi-volume biography, but it’s not the kind of book that I like to write and, in the cases of Armstrong and Ellington, it wasn’t the kind of book that needed to be written at the present moment. What was needed were narrative biographies that tell the story of a life, integrate the work into that story, get the factual record straight, then place the results in the larger context of our culture and history. This is something that many jazz biographers of the past haven’t done especially well. There have been any number of otherwise excellent jazz biographies that fail to give the reader any sense of how their subject fits into the larger mainstream of history. And with someone like Ellington, it’s absolutely essential that you deal with this larger picture, because Ellington’s life and work are a part of the modern movement in art, part of the history of race relations in America, part of all kinds of other larger stories.
EI: I really admire your books for placing these figures with American culture. I certainly know what you mean when people who love jazz treat it separately, not connected to anything else.
TT: And that’s fine, as far as it goes. Obviously the main reason why we want to read about Duke Ellington is because of his music. If all you know is the music, then you know the most important thing about Duke Ellington! But you don’t necessarily know everything you need to know in order to understand the music as completely as you might.
EI: What comes across in your books about these two figures is that you cannot write a history of America without either of them.
TT: I agree with you.
EI: They did not disassociate themselves from popular culture at all. They worked and breathed pop culture. They worked within the American experiment to do what they did.
TT: For both of them, there was just one big music, and they played certain kinds of it. What’s more, their personal experience of music was very wide-ranging. This is awesomely true in the case of Armstrong. We know the contents of his record collection, which still exists and has been catalogued. We can know what he listened to and what interested him, and the breadth of his interests is staggering. He really did listen to and like every imaginable kind of music.
EI: Both of them tried to make hit records.
TT: That was important to them. It was one of the ways in which they made a living. Duke Ellington in particular was a man who had a large nut. He had a band out on the road and he had a family to support. I’m not just talking about his estranged wife and his son, but his extended family. Although he himself did not live luxuriously, it took a lot of money to keep the Ellington operation going–especially during the lean years after World War II, when the bookings that the band got were declining in quality. He was putting songwriting royalties into the till to keep the band going, because he knew he could not function as a composer separate from the band.
EI: Both of them had career resurgences in the Fifties. In both cases a lot of people were involved with working with the artist to help crack open the door so the career could advance. Jazz was becoming more insular.
TT: It was becoming an art music. It had ceased to be the lingua franca of American popular music. The black audience for jazz was starting to dry up. So both Ellington and Armstrong had to reposition themselves in order to function. As it happens, both of them were on the same record label, Columbia, at the same time. They were both working with George Avakian as their producer. And Avakian was a man who understood that jazz was both an art form and something that you made your living by playing. They were not at all shy about grappling with these issues. For Armstrong, they weren’t even problems. Armstrong knew what he was. He knew he was a great artist – though he would never call himself that – but he didn’t see himself as being in the business of making art. He saw himself as an entertainer.
So it wasn’t an “issue” for him to record “Hello, Dolly!” It was part of the day’s work.
With Ellington, by contrast, I think there was more of a sense on his part that when he was recording the songs from, say, Mary Poppins, he was doing it in order to reach a wider audience. It was quite deliberate. That doesn’t mean he was condescending, though. He didn’t work that way at all. He took everything he did very seriously.
EI: “Hello, Dolly!” was the last Tin Pan Alley song to be a hit.
TT: And the last jazz record to top the pop charts. The only Broadway song to top the charts after “Hello, Dolly!” was Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns,” which tells you right there how much the culture had changed.
Armstrong, by the way, didn’t even like “Hello, Dolly!” It was Joe Glaser’s idea for him to record it. But when the song hit, Louis was delighted. He was ecstatic. For him, and to a lesser extent for Ellington, all was grist for the creative mill. Ellington actually kept up with music by listening to the radio. He drove from gig to gig in the second half of his life – Harry Carney drove him – and his main contact with the larger world of popular music was through the AM radio in his car, which would be on for hours and hours. Back then, top-40 radio was a really good way to find out what was going on. Now, with the culture as fissured as it is, it might work and it might not work. You might be listening to satellite radio and have a channel that only plays the Grateful Dead. But Ellington, from hour to hour, from day to day, was able to receive a cross-section of what pop culture was up to musically.
EI: At a dance at the Rainbow Grill with his octet and he plays one tune called “Acht O’Clock Rock.” It’s not one of the top-drawer Ellington pieces but it’s interesting that he’s trying to make it work.
TT: Remember, too, that he was playing for dancers, then and often, throughout his career. I did the same thing when I played bass in Kansas City, so I think I know what must have been going through his mind. I can’t tell you how many tunes I played back then that I didn’t especially like. But people wanted to hear them and dance to them, and they wanted to hear them performed by the groups with which I played. You could be sneering and contemptuous about their wanting to hear songs like “Last Dance” or “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” or you could say, “O.K., this is what people like, so let’s give them pleasure–and see if we can also find a way to give ourselves pleasure, too.”
I know there were times when Ellington and Strayhorn held their noses and did that kind of tune for cynical reasons. On his last appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” the whole band is dressed up in Carnaby Street-style “mod” uniforms, and they play a Beatles medley. If I remember correctly, Sullivan describes it as “a jazz concerto.” Duke didn’t even arrange that one – I think the chart was by Wild Bill Davis. And it’s terrible.
But such things were all in the day’s work, and it’s surprising how often a particular day’s work turns out in the long run to have been rewarding. Some of the best stuff from the later years is the pop stuff. Some of the studio recordings of Lennon-McCartney songs, which were usually arranged by Strayhorn, were really striking. And a lot of the Mary Poppins album is just wonderful.
The funniest effort by Ellington to use rock, by the way, is in a piece called “Neo-Creole” which ended up being used in his last film score for Change of Mind. It’s a rock adaptation of the main theme from “Creole Rhapsody,” his first attempt at a large-scale composition, which he wrote in 1931.
EI: I have not heard that.
TT: Well, you wouldn’t have! It’s all but unknown. I refer to it in a footnote in “Duke.” It’s ridiculous…but fascinating, too. It gives you the sense that Ellington had simultaneous access to all of his life’s work, and could use it in any way he wanted.
The point that you must always keep in mind is that musicians like Ellington and Armstrong were in the business of making a living. I think it helps me in writing about them to have done the same thing–to have played commercial music for money. My perspective on their music is that of an aesthete and an intellectual, but also a guy who played casuals in Kansas City for years and years. I used to play the Jewish country-club circuit in Kansas City. Those were always the best country-club gigs, by the way, because you weren’t treated like servants. When you played the WASP country clubs, you couldn’t go to the bar between sets.
EI: This brings up something I want to talk about. Tackling Armstrong and Duke, you are really looking at Afro-American history and I want to hear your thoughts on having permission to go in there.
TT: You have to approach that story with modesty. You have to understand that it isn’t your world. On the other hand, it’s also not the world of an eighteen-year-old black person of today. We’re talking about the past, and the past is knowable to anybody who is willing to put in the work and has the modesty to listen, to dig deeply into the sources and try to comprehend, imaginatively, what life was like for a black person in Washington or Los Angeles in 1899 or 1941.
It happens that I feel pretty much at ease in this world, partly because I played jazz for so long and partly because I come from a part of the country that has a very complicated relationship to black history. I grew up in a small town in southeast Missouri. The last lynching to take place outside the Deep South took place in my hometown in 1942 – and my father saw it. Our public schools were desegregated while I was a student there. I remember separate entrances from my early childhood. In fact, the one that I remember most clearly was a restaurant that had a door around back with a red neon sign that said “Colored.” Believe it or not, I went through the same entrance years later when I played in a bluegrass band that was doing a gig at that same restaurant. Obviously I’m not black, but the black historical experience intersects with my life, too. I’ve tried to learn as much about it as I can and understand it as well as I can, and I’ve tried to get an interior feel for what these men must have been going through in the ’20s and ’30s. It isn’t easy, but it is possible, and I think I’ve done it pretty well – I think. I hope.
EI: Apart from political sensibilities, do you feel like there is an Afro-American aesthetic that should be considered when looking at these musicians?
TT: Well, you always have to understand that they were black musicians playing for black people, sometimes playing in all-black clubs. In the case of Ellington, he is moving from one realm of experience to another–from the middle-class black culture of Washington, D.C., to Harlem in the ’20s. That fact itself is very important in understanding him. I’ve never played at a juke joint or a rent party, but I have played in what we used to call “broken-bottle joints,” and that world doesn’t seem alien to me at all.
EI: Let me reframe my question. I wouldn’t have given the kind of commentary you gave on some of the larger scale works, like how successful they are by a European or Aaron Copland-ish type of perspective.
I think The Far East Suite is a masterpiece in part because of the way it feels; the rhythm section and non-European concerns.
TT: Keep in mind, though, that when you’re talking about the suites, you’re not really talking about true large-scale compositions. The suites consist of separate, self-contained small-scale movements. This is something that a lot of people who write about Ellington don’t seem to grasp. Ellington basically gave up on true large-scale composition after A Tone Parallel to Harlem. That’s the last time he tried to write a large-scale, self-contained, organically developed musical structure. From then on he embraced the suite form, which allowed him to claim that he was writing large-scale compositions when in fact he wasn’t. So I don’t apply that kind of critical yardstick to the suites. It’s just not relevant. For me, they rise or fall not as totalities but on the strength of their individual movements.
For the most part they’re not even unified works on the terms that they claim to be. Such Sweet Thunder and the Far East Suite for example, both contain movements that were previously written for other occasions, renamed and inserted into the new suites after the fact–and Ellington doesn’t want you to know that.
EI: I’m sure he didn’t. On the other hand, lots of suite-type works in classical music have movements assembled from various occasions. In Bach some of the exact same music turns up at different times in different places.
TT: Sure, but there’s also no question about Bach’s ability to write organically developed large-scale works – he did it all the time. And that’s really the issue here: is Ellington successful as a creator of large-scale musical compositions? Part of the problem is that a great many critics, especially in recent years, have argued that the suites qualify as such, and the truth is that they don’t. They’re mosaics, and they’re very uneven in musical quality, especially the ones written after Strayhorn’s death. One of the things that I discovered while writing Duke, by the way, was that many of the parts of the suites that I like best turned out to be composed solely by Strayhorn.
What I didn’t know until I started working on the book was that with relatively few exceptions, Ellington and Strayhorn didn’t compose together. Walter van de Leur, who has examined all of the Ellington/Strayhorn manuscripts, says that there are only about fifty surviving manuscripts that are in the hands of both men. That’s not much for a musician who, like Ellington, is thought to have written about 1,700 compositions. Our understanding of Strayhorn’s achievement is obscured by the decision that the two men made in 1956 to bill themselves the way that Lennon and McCartney billed themselves. From 1956 on, the suites are jointly credited to “Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn,” regardless of who wrote what. Ellington agreed to this billing because Strayhorn was unhappy about the way he had been treated. I don’t know if it was a calculation on Ellington’s part – probably not – but the ultimate effect was to Strayhorn’s disadvantage. Because he wasn’t a public figure, because he didn’t appear with the band and wasn’t well known in his own right, most people simply took it for granted that the suites were mainly or exclusively written by Ellington and that Strayhorn’s contribution was relatively insignificant.
If you look at the liner notes to Far East Suite, you won’t find out there that “Isfahan” was written by Strayhorn. Ellington had no input into it at all, and it wasn’t even originally written for Far East Suite.
EI: That’s really unfortunate. However, for at least 25 years if not longer, I’ve always known that “Isfahan” was by Strayhorn, and I think that is because so many other musicians have played it and credited it properly. Do you know when clarity occurred?
TT: Probably around 1980 or so, and it became more widely known around the time that David Hajdu published his Strayhorn biography and people like Fred Hersch began recording Strayhorn tribute albums that included “Isfahan.” But the mistake kept on being made for a lot longer than that. You’ll even find it in books like Ben Ratliff’s “Jazz: A Critic’s Guide,” which came out in 2002. And of course the official songwriting credit, the one secured by copyright, is still “Ellington-Strayhorn.”
In any case, what I have in mind in the book is contemporary awareness of who wrote what. It was all but nonexistent in the ’50s and ’60s, and the reason why nobody knew is because of the joint-billing decision. Nowhere in the notes to Such Sweet Thunder will you learn that “Star-Crossed Lovers,” perhaps the most beautiful movement in the entire work, is by Strayhorn alone. In fact, it had already been recorded by Johnny Hodges. It was called “Pretty Little Girl” and it had nothing whatsoever to do with “Romeo and Juliet,” its ostensible subject in Such Sweet Thunder.
People who should have known better – Gunther Schuller being one of them – apparently couldn’t hear that Strayhorn’s musical style was very different from Ellington’s style. If a piece wasn’t specifically labeled as being by Strayhorn, they assumed that it was by Ellington. It wasn’t until van de Leur went through the manuscripts one by one and established definitively for all time who wrote what that our ears opened up and we began to see Strayhorn as a separate compositional entity from Duke Ellington. One of the things that I tried to do in Duke was to make this specialized academic knowledge available to general readers, so that they can understand the nature of the Ellington/Strayhorn problem and understand that it has now been solved. It’s not a critical issue anymore–or shouldn’t be, anyway. And I’m proud of the way that Strayhorn is handled in the book.
Conversely, I run into skeptics who nudge me in the ribs, figuratively speaking, and say things like “We know it was really Strayhorn who wrote all of the good stuff.” And that’s not true, either. Billy Strayhorn did not write all of the “good stuff,” or even a large part of it. Duke Ellington was a genius and a major composer. So was Billy Strayhorn, but he didn’t compose nearly as much as Ellington. Still, he deserves the credit that he deserves, and that’s part of what I tried to establish in “Duke.”
EI: To put the finger on the point of the question I was asking about earlier: Rufus Jones is a significant figure on the overall effect of his era of Ellington.
TT: And he’s only mentioned in passing in the book.
EI: For me, to judge The Far East Suite, I would need to start there.
TT: I see your point. But a book can only be so long–and this is a book about Ellington’s life that integrates the work into the story of the life, and the life comes first. The treatment of the Far East Suite is concise. All of the suites are treated concisely. I chose to spend the most time on Such Sweet Thunder because I thought it was the most biographically significant of the suites. A biographer has to call his shots. He has to ask, “Which of these things is going to allow me to make the points that I feel I need to make about Ellington, and about Strayhorn’s relationship to him?” You talk about the things that you want to talk about, that you think you need to talk about.
EI: That goes back to my comment about your ability to shape a narrative.
TT: Biographers are storytellers. All storytellers work selectively. There’s no way to avoid that. If I’d been writing a book that was two-thirds about the music and one-third about the life, it would have been a very different kind of book. There is absolutely a place for that kind of book, and someone will write it someday, just as someone will eventually write a thousand-page biography on Ellington at some point, which will be valuable in its own way. Many people don’t turn up in Duke. Somebody asked me on Twitter if Albert Murray was mentioned in the book. I said, “No, because he is not a part of Ellington’s story. Ellington is part of his story.” If someone writes a biography about Murray, then Ellington will figure prominently in it. Wynton Marsalis, on the other hand, turns up briefly because he is an important part of the posthumous story of Duke Ellington.
EI: One thing that I like in both books is the posthumous history. The historical assessment at the moment, the memorial scene, and your analysis of what the culture felt at the moment…
TT: And what happens afterwards. You’ll notice that it’s treated differently in the two books. There was much more posthumous history in Pops than in Duke because Ellington did not enter a period of posthumous eclipse. He was always understood to be a major figure. He has continued to be understood in that way. There was no significant posthumous revaluation of his work, though there’s been a debate about what was the most important part of his compositional legacy. With Armstrong, on the other hand, there was a lengthy period of eclipse, followed by a renaissance of critical attention to his work.
I sometimes read biographies backwards because I am fascinated how they develop from the end of life to the beginning. I always want that last chapter to be part of the overall momentum, the narrative sweep. I don’t want the energy to sag at the end of the book. When someone dies, it’s just not the last words that you want to hear, you also want to know what people thought of them, right then! As well as what they think of them now, and how we got from point A to point B.
EI: I was reminded that in high school, all of my classmates knew “What a Wonderful World” because of the movie Good Morning Vietnam. It is sort of remarkable echo showing how Armstrong spanned the 20th-Century American experiment.
TT: These are two men who are still remembered. The way we are conscious of them now is different from the way that people were conscious of them in their lifetimes. But they were part of the American cultural story, and they’re still part of it – Ellington I think somewhat more than Armstrong, but they’re both very much a part of it. And that, too, is central to the telling of their life stories.
Biographies do a lot of things. One of the things that a good biography encompasses is what scholars call “reception history.” How did the world find out about this person? When did he become famous? What did it mean for him to become famous? What were the mechanisms by which he became known to the culture at large, and how did the arc of the story carry through the years after his death? I find reception history fascinating. When I figured out early in my research, going through a reel of microfilm in an Orlando library, that I had just discovered the first time Duke Ellington was mentioned in the New Yorker, I nearly jumped up and did a jig right there. It’s a small piece of the puzzle, but it’s an important piece. In the cases of Armstrong and Ellington, nobody had done any serious analysis of their reception histories. With Armstrong, I was quite surprised to discover that it was the films he made in Hollywood that decisively carried him beyond the narrower world of jazz. So I was ready to find that to be the case for Ellington as well. I wasn’t at all surprised to discover how important his film career was in establishing him as a larger figure.
EI: The reception history is a highlight of both books. It’s valuable for us that play jazz now is to remember how connected to the culture overall that these two figures were and that’s a excellent reason to read your books.
TT: Duke Ellington’s feature film debut was in a 1929 film that starred “Amos and Andy,” Charles Correll and Freeman Gosden, two popular white comedians who played black characters on radio and wore blackface in order to play them on screen. I wouldn’t be able to dream up a coincidence so powerful in terms of the book’s racial narrative. If you put it in a novel, people would laugh it off and say it was unlikely and implausible–but it’s the truth. In fact, two members of the Ellington band, Juan Tizol and Barney Bigard, had to wear blackface in the film because their skin was so light. It was unacceptable that they should appear in a black band in a film that starred two white men wearing blackface. You can’t make up things like that, and you don’t have to. Truth is always better. Truth is always funnier. Truth is always more telling.
EI: I’d like to move on to some other things. I remember before you wrote Duke you chose Count Basie over Duke Ellington in “The Teachout Cultural Concurrent Index” on your blog.
TT: That’s right. It’s not to say that I don’t adore Duke Ellington’s music, but I’m a guy who played jazz in Kansas City. For me, the sound of Count Basie is the sound of heaven playing–Basie in all phases of his career. (Maybe not his Beatles album!) But I love the Old Testament and New Testament bands equally. I would have loved to play in a rhythm section next to a guitarist like Freddie Green. Alas, I never had that experience as a bassist. I never got a chance to work with that kind of straight-ahead, four-to-the-bar acoustic rhythm-guitar player. That’s something I missed out on, and I’m still sorry that I did.
Is Ellington the more significant musical figure? Well, yes, naturally. What I’m talking about is a personal expression of what I dig in here [taps chest].
EI: Give me half a dozen Basie tracks that you particularly love.
TT: Sure, but they’ll sound just like everybody else’s favorites.
“Jive at Five.” Almost anything that Pres plays a solo on, really, but “Jive at Five” is the locus classicus of the Lester Young sound and how it relates to Basie’s music as a whole.
The All-American Rhythm Section recording of “How Long Blues.” And that’s the voice of a bass player speaking. It means something special and personal to me to hear that rhythm section, those four guys, making that kind of dirt-plain, bone-simple music.
Pretty much all of “The Atomic Mr. Basie.” Especially “Lil Darlin’,” even though they should have called for another take to tune it up. [Laughter] How could that take have made it onto the album?
From the Verve material, there’s a sextet date that Basie made with Freddie Green, of course, and Paul Quinichette and Buddy Rich. There is an amazing version of “Royal Garden Blues.” It sounds like they’re all charging towards the finish line. Absolutely thrilling.
And one just for fun, Sammy Nestico’s “Basie, Straight Ahead.” That’s from a 1968 album. It was the first Basie chart I ever played. I was a freshman in college. Every note was written out, including all of Basie’s comping -that’s where I learned how to do Count on piano – and the entire bass part. Thank God for that!
I’m just grabbing at random because there’s so much wonderful material out there. Basie was alive for so long and made good records for so long. You’re just throwing darts at the dartboard if you’re trying to pick out great stuff from the Old Testament Band. I wouldn’t say that I like it all. Count Basie cut his fair share of duds, but he has an awfully high batting average when it comes to the major things. I wish I’d given you a neater set of picks, though!
EI: Do you think you will ever write a book about Basie?
TT: No. It’s not necessary. And not just because of the existence of the “autobiography.” There does need to be a scholarly biography of Basie, but he’s not the kind of dramatic, larger-than-life individual whose personality lends itself to the kind of biographical treatment that I’ve given to Armstrong and Duke, just as you wouldn’t want to watch the kind of play about Count Basie’s life that I’ve written about Armstrong. Nor is there any other jazz biography that I have any interest in writing. I got the bookends with Armstrong and Ellington.
EI: What is your history as a writer? Did you have a teacher?
TT: I just jumped into the pool. I started playing with my mother’s manual typewriter when I was a kid, and within a few years I was editing the high-school newspaper. Writing came naturally to me. Journalism came naturally to me. I was one of these kids who watched movies from the 50’s like -30-, Jack Webb’s newspaper movie, and found them tremendously romantic. So it’s not surprising that my first biography was about H.L. Mencken. In his own time, he went through that kind of experience.
It wasn’t my idea to write biographies. It was suggested to me by my editor at my then-publisher, Poseidon Press. I had already done a book for her, a memoir about small-town life, and when Mencken’s diaries were unsealed and published, she said to me, “Would you be interested in writing a Mencken biography?” I had no idea then how much I’d come to love the form. It’s as close as I’m going to get to writing novels. I don’t have that gift. I did discover in the middle of life that I have the gift of writing plays, but the novel is beyond me. A biography, in a certain limited sense, is a novel written about an important person–one in which everything is true. If it’s any good and halfway readable, you’ll be using novelistic techniques. Truman Capote called In Cold Blood a “non-fiction novel.” That was something more than self-promotion. He was saying something profound about the nature of journalism. You take people’s lives and you try to find the form in them. You try to do this without superimposing false form on life. This is very important because a biography can be overdetermined. Psycho-biographies are usually overdetermined. Someone is going in with a thesis that they’re trying to prove. I didn’t have any thesis to prove about Duke Ellington. I didn’t have any thesis about Louis Armstrong. I was searching for understanding.
As soon as I was working on my first biography, I said to myself, “I like this.” I didn’t realize that there would be three more that came right after that. It never occurred to me. The same thing happened when I was invited to try my hand at becoming a drama critic. Within a matter of weeks, I realized, “I was made to do this.” I’m so glad someone suggested it to me. But when it comes to being a writer more generally, I’ve been writing for publication since I was in high school, so the process is completely second nature to me. Experience passes through the conduit and becomes prose. That’s just the way my life works.
EI: Have I told you that there is something about your prose that I think you took from Rex Stout?
TT: No, you’ve never said that! I’m utterly flattered, though, if you mean what I think you’re saying.
EI: There is something about the feeling.
TT: I think it’s that I try to write like a person talking. Ideally, if you meet me after reading a book of mine, you go away thinking, “He writes just like he talks.” It’s not that simple, of course. It’s an effect that you’re creating, and I’ve worked on that effect for forty years. The Stout books are written in the voice of Archie Goodwin, who is not a real person but who by all accounts was very much like Rex Stout, and they create the illusion of someone who is talking to you. This is not the kind of illusion that you normally expect to find in a biography.
My biographies are somewhat more formal in tone than my drama columns in the Wall Street Journal, but even there, I want every sentence to sound as though it could be easily spoken out loud. I’m not offering this as a universal rule for writing. It’s just what I myself like to do. Writers talk about “the voice,” just as musicians increasingly talk about it, and this is important to me. I’d like for you to read my books and feel that I am speaking to you. If you feel that, then I’ve succeeded in one of my primary goals – and if I sound like Archie Goodwin, then I think that’s pretty cool. [laughter]
EI: It’s nice to talk to a fellow Nero Wolfe fan. Those books are not the common currency that they once were.
TT: No, he’s not trendy. When I started reading the Nero Wolfe books, I was in high school and Stout was still alive, so a new book of his would be written up in Time Magazine. That’s how I found out about him. I read about him in Time and thought, “Gee, this man sounds interesting.” I went to our small-town library and checked out one of his books, and that was that. I proceeded as rapidly as I could through the canon. Strange to think it had not yet been completed: Stout’s last two novels came out after I discovered him as a writer. Those were the only ones I bought in hardcover, because when I was in high school, all I could afford were used paperbacks.
He’s not as well-known as he once was, but he is still popular. The A&E series, which was really very good, drew more attention to his work, and it got a lot of his books back in print. He’s not nearly as well known as Raymond Chandler, though. Nobody claims that he’s a quasi-important American writer, as they claim for Chandler – and maybe they shouldn’t. What he is, is an entertainer. He would never have claimed anything more of himself than that, but he’s a fabulously accomplished entertainer. He is in that way a quintessential American writer. Stout started his career writing dead-serious psychological novels, which nobody reads anymore. (They are pretty unreadable.) Then the Depression hit and he ran out of money. He started writing about Nero Wolfe, and discovered that it was the thing he was made to do. But he had the mental equipment of someone who had thought about literature in a serious way, as well as about prose style.
EI: Nero Wolfe can say very erudite things.
TT: It’s quite a trick to write like Nero Wolfe. It means you have to be able to think like him, too. Just as playwrights will tell you that one of the hardest things you can do in theatre is for a not-very-smart actor to play a smart character… and it does happen! [laughter] I find Stout’s books to be infinitely re-readable as light entertainment.
EI: If you are into Wolfe, one thing you do is you keep re-reading them.
TT: They profit from that because they’re so well-written. You don’t read them to find out “who done it.” You’re not reading them for any other reason than that the book satisfies you as an art object. The prose tickles you in the right places. That’s why we go back to Elmore Leonard over and over again, and more particularly why we go back to Donald Westlake over and over again. His books are art objects, and they satisfy in a way that art satisfies. Of course it’s not as elevated an experience as reading Proust. I think it’s very foolish to compare Westlake to Proust, as I’ve actually seen done in print. In the first place, it’s stupid–and in the second place, you don’t need to. Donald Westlake’s place in the history of literature is quite adequately secured by virtue of his having been Donald Westlake. He doesn’t have to be anything else.
This is true of jazz as well. An important secondary theme in my Ellington book is when classical musicians first discovered jazz and started writing about it. It matters. I don’t deprecate the significance of the fact that Constant Lambert, Percy Grainger and Aaron Copland understood what Ellington was early in his career. But some people think that in order to take Duke Ellington seriously as a composer, we have to believe that he was successful as a composer of large-scale works. The idea, I guess, is to push him up into the classical-music arena: he played in Carnegie Hall, therefore he’s serious. And that’s completely wrong. Duke Ellington is serious because he is Duke Ellington. He’s serious because of the work itself. It’s interesting that he wanted to write the suites. It’s interesting that he wanted to play in Carnegie Hall. That tells you important things as him as a person. But jazz does not usually profit from being compared directly to classical music, at least not on that level of generality. Most of the time, such comparisons do not illuminate jazz in any way. I wouldn’t have made them in Duke if Ellington himself hadn’t forced the issue by writing pieces like Harlem, Reminiscing in Tempo and Black, Brown and Beige. Jazz is a completely successful form of expression in and of itself, the same way the mystery novel is. It’s not better because you can come up with a highbrow comparison for it. It doesn’t ennoble it. George Balanchine thought that Fred Astaire was the great American dancer, but that didn’t make Astaire a better dancer. He didn’t need Balanchine’s approval to be great. He was already great.
EI: Proust is one thing, but suppose you want to get a bunch of first edition of Pulitzer Prize winners novels of the thirties and forties: they’ll only set you back a little bit of money. They’ll be a lot of people you never heard of and it will be an esoteric activity. But, if you want to get your first editions of Nero Wolfe books, it’s gonna cost you a fortune.
TT: It’s serious money. And you’re talking to a guy who, long ago, spent a fair amount of money to acquire a used copy of Richard Stark’s Butcher Moon. Now it’s not worth anything, because it’s in print again. I have no idea of the size of the first printing of Butcher’s Moon, but it was probably in the low four figures.
EI: The Parkers in Gold Medal: to get pristine copies of any of those paperbacks will set you back hundreds of dollars.
TT: That’s right. When I was getting them, that was the only way you could read them. You and I have lived into an era where the University of Chicago Press is doing a uniform paperback edition of the works of Richard Stark. Fine, but when I was buying those battered paperbacks, it was because I had to in order to read the books for the first time.
EI: I think one of the reasons we keep reading about Parker and Nero Wolfe is because it’s almost the same book every time. You want to spend time with the characters.
TT: Correct. It’s about the character. Is this a person you want to know better? Is this a person whom you would like to encounter in different kinds of settings? Parker fascinates us in the same way that Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe fascinate us, the same way Philip Marlowe fascinates us. They are characters that are speaking to something in us. This is especially interesting in the case of Parker because he is a sociopath. That’s a reductive way to describe him, but nevertheless, he’s a guy who if necessary will kill you, and who will be entirely unsentimental about it. That he would speak to us in that way is a very jolting fact. It tells us something about ourselves.
EI: Both Lawrence Block and Abby Westlake told me that they like the movie Parker. I saw it. It’s okay. But there’s a ludicrous besmirching of Parker’s ethics in the movie tagline, which is, “He doesn’t steal from people who can’t afford it and doesn’t hurt people who don’t deserve it.”
TT: As if he gave a damn! [laughter] The films don’t capture anything of who Parker is and why he fascinates us. Point Blank sort of does, I guess, because of Lee Marvin. You can easily imagine him as Parker. The Outfit, though, is for me by far the best of the Parker films, even though it changes the idea of Parker quite a bit and “humanizes” him. It works because of Robert Duvall. He embodies the character, and does it in a very striking way.
The truth is, commercial film makers are not going to be at any kind of ease with the real Parker because he is not explicable. You can’t sentimentalize him because he becomes ridiculous if you do. He’s not a serial murderer, either, so you can’t romanticize him as we’re now romanticizing serial murderers. He is a totally self-willed creature. I say in the preface that I wrote for two of the University of Chicago Press Parker reprints that he’s like Milton’s Devil, who says, “Evil, be thou my good.” He’s going to live his life the way he wants to–and he doesn’t think anybody is looking. I think that is where the fascination lies. He does what we might do if we didn’t think someone was looking, or if we didn’t have internalized moral standards. We might well decide, ”Why not? Why shouldn’t I live like that?”
I really think that is the attraction of the Parker books. That, and another form of pleasure that a certain kind of mind–my own kind–takes in watching people make plans. I’m fortunate, incidentally, to be married to a woman who likes caper movies. I think a lot of people get a kick out of movies and novels where we see how somebody does something. The genius of Westlake is that he sees that things must go wrong in order for such stories to be interesting.
EI: Westlake was the guy who told me to read Anthony Powell.
TT: I love that I love the moment when we discover that one of the characters in a Parker novel is a Powell fan. And that it’s Widmerpool whom he identifies with – that’s the really funny part.
EI: There’s a surprising number of people who love Parker and Dance to the Music of Time, which seems like the least likely combination imaginable.
TT: They’re both acts of serial storytelling. The effects of the series come from our increasing intimacy with their key characters. Another part of what’s fascinating about A Dance to the Music of Time is that it resembles life in that people who you like, die. Or are transformed in such a way that you don’t like them anymore. This is something that Patrick O’Brian, a novelist whom I like very much, does not do. This makes him a lesser artist. Until the very end of the series, O’Brian will not kill off characters whom we like. He wants to keep their world intact, and it becomes harder and harder for his two principal characters, Aubrey and Maturin, to have interesting new experiences. The problem is that we’re so invested in them that we want things to turn out well for them in every book. With Powell, on the other hand, the characters get under our skins because they sometimes go off to war and never come back.
Powell’s prose style, by the way, has left no mark on me at all as a writer.
EI: Westlake went so far to say that it could be a bad influence! The prose can be off-putting. It amazes me that I am as interested in him as I am. He writes about a bunch of upper-class English people.
TT: I think the key to it is that Powell is setting himself up. He understands that he is a somewhat absurd figure. He’s a snob. I don’t think he ever uses that word, but it is what he is–and he sees his own absurdity. He sees the absurdity of Jenkins, his point-of-view narrator, just as much as he sees it in everyone else. And he’s writing about the people he knew. He’s not like Evelyn Waugh, who was a greater genius, but surely a lesser man. The reason I say that is because Waugh tried in his personal life to inject himself into a society of which he was not a part by birth. It was important to him for psychological reasons to do so. Powell was different. He simply told us about the world that he moved through. He understands its absurdity as he understands his own absurdity. I think that’s what draws the sting from his snobbery–that and the fact that he knew some very interesting people.
EI: Constant Lambert remains a name we might know partly because Powell’s character Hugh Moreland is based on him.
TT: He’s pretty much remembered only because of Moreland, and that’s not at all fair. I’m fascinated by Lambert in his own right. I’ve written about him a fair amount. I wrote a piece about him for the Sunday New York Times a number of years ago. I think he was as interesting a composer as Leonard Bernstein. In fact, he was a kind of English Bernstein, or vice versa. He was also a major orchestral conductor. His work as a conductor is not well known today because so few of his recordings have been reissued, but he was probably the greatest ballet conductor who ever lived–and also a first-class music critic. He nearly slipped through the cracks of history, but because he figures so prominently as a character in a major work of English-language literature, he’ll never slip all the way through. It was because of A Dance to the Music of Time that I came to know that Lambert was not only a very interesting personality but the composer of such wonderful pieces as Tiresias and The Rio Grande. We owe Powell a debt of gratitude for preserving the character of his friend in such a way that he won’t be forgotten.
It pleases me greatly, incidentally, that Lambert figures quite prominently in both of my jazz biographies. It’s not a thing you would expect, but he does. There surfaced on Ebay a few years ago a double autograph of Duke Ellington and Constant Lambert, a page from an autograph album. It said, “Don’t Mean Thing, Ain’t Got Swing.” Both of them had very distinctive hands. It’s now in the hands of a fortunate private collector. I should have cast caution to the winds and bid on it, but I didn’t…so yes, that ties up all the different sides of my life. [Laughter]
EI: I would like to hear about your experience as an opera librettist and dramatist.
TT: I would enjoy talking about that. It was a completely unforeseen development in my life. They say that all drama critics are frustrated playwrights, but in my case it just wasn’t true. I established pretty early on in my twenties that I would not be a novelist. I didn’t lose a moment of sleep over it. I liked being a critic. I’m good at it. When I acquired a second branch of activity by becoming a biographer, I figured I was set for life. Then something happened which I still don’t understand at all.
My friend Paul Moravec, the classical composer, was approached by the Santa Fe Opera to write an opera. Paul and I had talked previously about the idea of his writing an opera. I told him that he should and I told him why. There are aspects of his music that were operatic. He said that he’d do it if I’d write the libretto. Of course we were just a couple of guys who was chatting over lunch, but a few years later here came the Santa Fe Opera saying put up or shut up…so we wrote an opera.
Even then, though, I wasn’t thinking of being a playwright. That first opera was an adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s play, The Letter. To contemporary audiences, it’s best known in the Bette Davis film version of 1940. I guess I was kidding myself, but I thought of what I did to the play as nothing more than a sophisticated piece of editing. It wasn’t: it was a full-scale adaptation. I retained Maugham’s plot and structure but changed his language almost entirely. Still, I didn’t yet think of myself as a creative writer. I never had.
The Letter opened in Santa Fe in the summer of 2009, and a couple of months later, Pops was published. Not long after that, I got an email from a man who had once been a theatrical producer, one of the producers for Jelly’s Last Jam. He said that he’d read my book, and that it struck him from a producer’s point of view that there was a play in the book. He asked if I’d thought about writing it or finding someone to write it. I hadn’t, but the seed landed on fertile ground. Right around that time, I went to Florida to do a residency at Rollins College, which has a think tank, the Winter Park Institute. I had something that I don’t usually have, which is a whole week off, so I started thinking about an Armstrong play. As I’ve since learned from further experience, what comes first for me is the stage picture. In this case it was one of the photographs in Pops, a picture of him backstage in Las Vegas a few months before he died. He’s sitting in a chair, looking very old and very tired. That picture insinuated itself into my consciousness, and the first line in the play came to me. Three or four days later, I had the first rough draft of the script.
I was stunned. I felt as though I had been invaded. I didn’t understand what had happened, and I assumed that it couldn’t be any good. My wife, God bless her, said, “No, this is really good. You have to do something with it.” That gave me the nerve to show it to other people, to theatre people whom I trusted to tell me the truth. Because I’m a drama critic, I don’t necessarily trust theater people to tell me the truth, but these were men and women whom I knew very well and whose work I’d already praised over a long period of time, so there wasn’t anything at stake for them–I was already on record as admiring them greatly. And they all said the same thing to me: “This is really promising. There are things you need to do, things you haven’t figured out about how the form works, but it’s something that you can make happen.”
Well, they were right. From then on, at every step along the way, doors opened. Within a year, Satchmo at the Waldorf was given a developmental production in Orlando, Florida, after which it was produced by Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts, then immediately produced twice after that, at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven and the Wilma Theatre in Philadelphia. Now it’s coming to Manhattan, to an off-Broadway house.
EI: I’m looking forward to seeing it.
TT: It’s not true that anyone can write one play, but it’s definitely true that writing one play doesn’t make you a playwright. You have to write another one, and it has to go somewhere. I’ve since written three more plays, and I hope that one or more of them may possibly follow the same path as Satchmo at the Waldorf. But I’m starting to think that I might really be a playwright. Perhaps in the middle of my life–I’m 57 years old–I’ve mutated into a creative artist. It’s a very strange sensation. I feel like Kafka’s insect, like I woke up one morning and discovered that I’d grown a third arm.
I love working in the theater. When you write for a living, you spend most of your time alone in a room. I had already discovered through working with Paul Moravec that I love collaboration, specifically theatrical collaboration. To start to do this as a playwright has been sheer ecstasy. It helps that I’m working with some of the very best people in the business. I’m working with John Douglas Thompson, who is playing the triple role of Armstrong, Joe Glaser, and Miles Davis in Satchmo, which is a one-man play. John is the greatest American classical actor of his generation, the best that we have. And I’m flummoxed by the fact that I’m working with a guy like that. I should be used to it by now, but I’m now. How did such a thing happen?
Mainly, though, I say to myself, “I’m having the time of my life.” It’s bliss. And I won’t lie to you: it pleases me to be a critic who has also done successful creative work. The last time that a New York drama critic wrote a straight play that had any real success was in 1950. I suspect that most critics, whatever their field, deserve most of the abuse that they get. But I was a professional musician for a long time, and I do know what it feels like to try to make a living in the world of working art. So it means a lot to me to have written a play that theater people take seriously enough to put on the stage. Sure, you could suck up to Teachout the Critic by saying, “That’s a very interesting script!” But you won’t produce it unless you think that ordinary people will pay cash money to see it. It costs too much to produce a play to do it for any other reason than that. So when a director says, “I’m going to do your play,” you know that his praise is serious. That is deeply satisfying and deeply inspiring to me, and I hope that I’m able to do it again.
My collaboration with Paul, by the way, is ongoing. Our third opera opened in Louisville in the fall, and we have a number of other operas that we want to write together. But I hope that playwriting also becomes a permanent feature of the next part of my life, though it’s not going to stop me from being a critic, because I have the best job in the world. It certainly will not stop me from writing biographies, because I love that form as well.
So what’s next for me? I think I’ll just keep on doing what I do, and waiting to see what happens next. I’ve always been open to surprise. I always have the antennae up. When something surprising happens, I’m willing to try it. I hope I always am.