Sunday, December 13, 2009

A Misleading Superlative

The front page of the Books section of today's San Francisco Chronicle features a review of Terry Teachout's new book, Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, complete with a large prototypical photograph of the man with a trumpet to his lips. The headline for the review is "King Louis." The reviewer, Ricky Riccardi, is listed as "special to the Chronicle," which presumably means he is not on the Chronicle staff. I shall get to the question of his credentials after considering his lead paragraph:

Thirty-eight years after Louis Armstrong' death, Terry Teachout had made the possible, possible: He has written a definitive narrative biography of the greatest jazz musician of the 20th century.

Regardless of what the subject matter happens to be, superlatives almost always want me to run the other way; and a superlative that covers the rather arbitrary span of a century is one of the worst of its kind (to invoke a hedged superlative)! Imagine what would happen if you gathered a bunch of highly skilled and sensitive classical music performers and asked who was the best composer of the nineteenth century. The century went through so many changes in worldview that any effort to answer that question would be a waste of valuable cognitive cycles.

The same can be said of jazz in the twentieth century. The statement "I like jazz" is so vague that it is virtually meaningless. To choose an example far removed from the subject of this review, would anyone with a serious appreciation of the history, theory, and practice of jazz try to argue that Thelonious Monk was a "better" composer than Duke Ellington or the opposite? Personally, I cannot even say that I like one over the other. Some days I derive great satisfaction from listening to Ellington sides, but there are just as many days when I would rather spend the time listening to Monk recordings. Armstrong is certainly important enough to occupy a fair amount of space in my current collection; but would I compare him with (to stay in the trumpet domain) Clifford Brown, just because I have fewer Brown CDs. For one thing Brown had a tragically shorter life.

All this led me to wonder just who this reviewer was who could play so free with this particular superlative. The Chronicle runs this information after the review. This is not the best layout for my personal caveat lector habits, but at least I know reliably where to find the information. It turns out that Riccardi is the project archivist for the Louis Armstrong House Museum, not the sort of person whose opinions of Pops would be unbiased. On the other hand he probably knows a good deal about what has been written about Armstrong. Were he to say, "This is the best biography of Armstrong I have ever read" or even "This is the best book about Armstrong I have ever read," I would certainly take his opinion seriously. On the other hand I would not be so confident were he even to start making comparative statements about Armstrong and King Oliver. Why should I not assume that the dice were loaded at his table?

Am I being too hard on Riccardi? In another world I might have ranted that this is the sort of thing a good editor would catch. However, like it or not, we are now in an era in which we are expected to self-edit, even with the full knowledge that the author is always his/her own worst editor. Considering how insignificant the book reviews in the Chronicle have become, does anyone really care? That seems to be a problem far greater than whether or not a biased reviewer is recruited and then left unchecked.


Ricky Riccardi said...

Dear Stephen,

Thanks for the interest in my Armstrong review, though I just wanted to take some time to clear a few things up. Yes, I'm a Louis Armstrong nut, with a blog, an upcoming book and a job at the Louis Armstrong House Museum. But please don't assume that I am so biased, I would have praised anything Armstrong-related to appear on my desk. I have no tolerance for shoddy writing or poor research when it comes to Armstrong. For example, Steven Brower's book on Armstrong's collages is beautiful to look at but the biographical portions, contained so many factual errors, it's actually embarrassing, something I have written about on my blog.

Thus, if Terry Teachout dropped the ball, I would have been in the front of the line to announce why and how he did so. But he didn't. And have your read Armstrong's previous biographies? If I had the space in the Chronicle review, I would have loved to give a history of them, because they're all pretty poor. James Lincoln Collier turned pyschiatrist, analyzing what he perceived as Armstrong's insecurities, writing such a mean-spirited work, it has become almost universally discredited in the jazz world. Laurence Bergreen did a slightly better job but he fell apart in his music discussions and raced through the final 28 years of Armstrong's life in just 70 pages.

Thus, while there have been wonderful books on Armstrong such as Gary Giddins's "Satchmo," there has never been a narrative biography on Armstrong that I could ever recommend. And now there is. And I'm not alone in feeling this way, having discussed the matter with the likes of Dan Morgenstern, George Avakian and Michael Cogswell, all of whom agree that Terry's book is now the definitive Armstrong biography.

On a personal note, I did not expect a single Chronicle reader to know who I am, but among jazz historians, I've carved out a pretty respectable niche as an Armstrong expert. I've only been Project Archivist for the Armstrong House Museum for two months. Before that, I wrote a Master's thesis on Armstrong, which is now being published through Random House in May. I've given lectures on Armstrong at the Institute of Jazz Studies, the National Jazz Museum, the Satchmo Summerfest in New Orleans and a Louis Armstrong Symposium just last month at the College of Staten Island. I don't want to pull out my entire resume, but I don't want people to assume that the Chronicle just got an employee of the Armstrong House Museum to write a biased, P.R. puff piece. When he found out I was writing the review, Terry Teachout, who used my blog as a research tool, wrote me personally to say, "No one could possibly be more qualified to write about 'Pops.'"

That's all for now, good sir. Please don't think I'm angry or anything; it looks like you do great work here. But just know that yes, I did throw around some superlatives but coming from where I'm coming from, I meant every single one of them. If you don't believe Armstrong was greatest jazzman of the previous century, we can agree to disagree (but I'll take on that battle too!). But Terry has written the best biography on Armstrong and I think it's hard to disagree with that when you're as familiar with Armstrong literature as I am. Now let's go spin some Armstrong records and feel good!

Yours in Pops,

Ricky Riccardi

Stephen Smoliar said...

I almost never get such an extended comment that addresses a disagreement through such civil discourse. Ultimately, however, is seems that Riccardi concluded with the superlative I felt he had the authority to confer, that the book he was reviewing was the best of its kind. Whether or not Armstrong was the best of his kind will be as debatable as whether Franz Liszt was the best pianist of the nineteenth century.

My ultimate point, however, was that I was less disturbed by Riccardi's superlative for Armstrong than I was with the Chronicle letting that superlative go unchecked. Here I must confess to my own track record in having to edit book reviewers in a specialist area. I did not want to curb enthusiasm; but I did try to make sure that enthusiasm was well-grounded. I have no doubt that Riccardi was as vigilant with Teachout's book as I tried to be with the reviews I had to examine, because I appreciate the authority behind his vigilance; and I wish we had more of that vigilance in our current community of writers.