Terry Teachout
Drama Critic, Wall Street Journal
02:31

Secrets of the Biographer

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“Pops” author Terry Teachout runs through his personal checklist of what makes a biography worth writing (hint: it’s the inner life that counts).

Terry Teachout

Terry Teachout is the drama critic for The Wall Street Journal and the chief culture critic for Commentary magazine. His writings on theater, music, and the arts have appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and National Review. His most recent book, "Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), was published in December 2009. Teachout is also the librettist for The Letter (composer Paul Moravec), an operatic version of Somerset Maugham's 1927 play, which was commissioned by the Santa Fe Opera in 2006 and premiered there in 2009.

Transcript

Question: Why did you choose to write about Louis Armstrong?

Terry Teachout: I was interested in Armstrong to begin with because he is the most important figure in Jazz in the 20th Century.  There's simply no question about it.  I mean, if you're going to compare him to somebody, it's Shakespeare in terms of centrality of the tradition, in being at the beginning of it.  I don't draw this comparison in the book because it's not really relevant, but I mean, that gives you a sense of how big he is in the history of Jazz. 

I could have written a book about Charlie Parker, it just happened that when I was out on tour for my last full-length biography, a book about H. L. Mencken, I'd gone through a long, horrible day of book touring and personal appearances and I staggered back to the hotel and sort of fell in the bed.  And it was like somebody hit me in the forehead and said, "Armstrong."  It was really like that. 

And the seed had been planted a couple of years before when I had met Michael Cogswell, who runs the Armstrong Archives in the House Museum.  I was writing a piece about the House Museum for the New York Times.  Michael said to me, "Have you ever thought about writing a biography about Louis Armstrong?"  And at this moment, I was in the middle of writing another book, and the last thing you want to hear about is the next book you should write.  So, I sort of fluffed him off, but obviously the seed dropped at some point and that day, at the first day of the Mencken tour, I thought Armstrong and the next morning I called my agent and we began the process of negotiation.

Having written a biography, a full-length primary source biography, I had a checklist in my mind of the things that make a biography practical.  Is the source material centralized?  Is it easy to find?  Are there new primary sources that no one has ever had access to?  Are all the sources in English?  If they're not, are they in a language that you speak?  You know, little nuts and bolts things like that.  I ran down the checklist and I realized that not only is Armstrong the most important figure of Jazz in the 20th Century, but he's a perfect subject for a biography for all of these reasons.  It was practical, and it excited me because I had always loved his music and I had been fascinated in him as a personality.  And that's really the key to writing a biography.  If you're not interested in the personality, in the inner life of your subject, you have the wrong subject.

Recorded on November 17, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen


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