Tuesday, August 28, 2012

We know Terry Teachout loves Satchmo - but would Satchmo have loved Terry Teachout?

White conservatives and jazz . . . white conservatives and jazz . . .  hmmmm.

It's strange, is it not, that the avatars of the white hierarchy should so often love the music of the people (or the race, or the class, or what have you) that they oppressed for so long, and with so little pity?

These thoughts come to mind (again - I've pondered this before), as I've noted Terry Teachout's tub-thumping for his dramatic sketch of the great Louis Armstrong (at left), Satchmo at the Waldorf (which has met with lukewarm, but respectable, praise from other quarters).

Now I don't have much interest in Teachout's play, I admit.  My guess from his theatre reviewing is that he's not much of a dramatic technician (although I could be wrong), and the reviews of Satchmo have generally been filled with such puffery as "This play cuts deep."  (Uh-huh.)  On the other hand, I've read some of Teachout's writing on music, and he is, indeed, a passionate and perceptive critic of that art (he's much better on music than he is on drama).

But when I read that Satchmo at the Waldorf concerns itself at length with Armstrong's battles against racism - and other black musician's denunciations of him as an "Uncle Tom" -  I confess I flinched a bit.

Terry Teachout
I guess because while I am quite confident that Teachout truly and sincerely loves Armstrong's music, I can think of few writers more . . .  ironically placed to write about Armstrong's battles against racism than he is.

For Teachout's career trajectory has been almost entirely within the confines of the white conservative establishment: he did once do a stint at Harper's, years ago, but he's best known for his long tenure at the Wall Street Journal, and his pieces for Commentary and National Review.  In short, he works now for the publications and people who opposed civil rights for people like Armstrong, and who generally oppose the great man's legacy today.

And I guess I find that interesting.  More interesting than anything I've read about Satchmo at the Waldorf, to be honest.

And so I wish Terry Teachout had written about that, about how politically he opposes the community whose musical legacy he adores.  About how he idolizes a black artist whom other black artists called an "Uncle Tom" . . .  the irony's almost too intense!  And imagine Teachout trying to explain to Satchmo his own employment history!  Now that would have been unlike any play I've seen in years . . . I'm not saying that no such explanation is possible; but I'd really like to hear it - wouldn't you?

Although I realize such a confessional is basically a pipe dream - I mean, could Teachout be honest enough about his own internal contradictions to give them coherent dramatic form?  (Could anyone?)

But even the attempt would have been fascinating; I'd have paid full price to see that.


  1. Keep in mind that the most prominent spokesman alive for jazz as an art form is the culturally conservative Wynton Marselis who publically disparages pretty much every innovation in the music since 1959-- so there's plenty of room for people with highly conservative ways of thinking to view themselves as jazz fans-- they just dislike most of the major figures in the field and whatever it was they stood for.

  2. You can make that argument musically, sure, but when it comes to dramatically treating Armstrong's battles with racism, and particularly his controversial means of courting "whitey," I think a white conservative is in a tight political and moral spot.

    1. Nonsense. That is like saying you can't render a reasonable opinion on your wife's hat because you're not a woman. We're all people at heart, eh?

    2. Sorry - not nonsense. But your analogy is so obviously flawed, it's clear you don't have too strong a grip on these arguments.

  3. And Paul Ryan isn't the only arch-conservative out there who likes Rage Against The Machine. My former landlord in DC (used to work for Robert Novak) was a huge fan; he couldn't adequately explain it either. Does the Machine get off on being Raged at?

  4. I have a hunch it may be some kind of internalized self-denial - they "can't" be the kind of person they are if they like the kinds of things they do.

  5. I don't know. I think it could be as simple as the fact that you don't have to agree with an artist's politics or personal life to embrace their art and creative output. I find Wagner's Antisemitism and misanthropy appalling, but it doesn't make his music any less brilliant or appealing to me. If we follow your line of reasoning about enjoying an artist’s work being an endorsement, (however subconscious and internal) then simply by enjoying Wagner a lot of us are endorsing his elitism and racism. Ditto that Clint Eastwood's politics are far to the right of mine - I enjoy his movies but don't subscribe to his politics. Miles Davis and James Brown were notoriously self-centered, violent, nasty and unpleasant. You probably wouldn't want to spend much time around them, but the loss of their artistic contributions would be nearly incalculable and their messy personal lives don’t make admirers of their music act or think like them. Teachout's love of Armstrong is a little more baffling given his far-right slant, Armstrong's activism, and way that the publications and people he associates with oppose civil rights, but I would venture it's the same deal.

  6. Sorry, not buying it, Dan - your argument isn't precisely the parallel of my argument. Teachout is actively involved with the movement that suppressed civil rights, and then he writes a play bemoaning the fact that some people called Armstrong an "Uncle Tom." That begs unpacking, I"m afraid. I mean obviously hypocrisy if POSSIBLE, folks. The question is - can you legitimately write a play while ignoring your hypocrisy about its subject? I say no. (And if I wrote a play about Wagner, trust me, I would address these problems!)

  7. The question is what sort of conservative Terry Teachout is. The New York conservatism of the WSJ isn't necessarily the same as Southern crypto-Confederate conservatism and Tea Party conservatism. If he's typical of the sort of conservative who resides in the northeast (which I suspect, given his cultural omnivorousness) then he likely operates under the notion that the civil rights era is something that happened in the past and has no bearing on today.

  8. I think the answer is "a hypocritical one."