Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Louis Armstrong: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

No videos today. I see the ease of embedding YouTube videos in blogs, fun for a while. Let’s consider Louis Armstrong without visual aids. Picture him without pictures.

What is your picture of Louis Armstrong? Surely you have one. Can you hear or read his name without seeing his face? Which face do you see? Young Louis holding his trumpet? Ambassador Satch in his morning coat carrying his trumpet in its case, holding a folded white handkerchief? Louis backstage half-dressed with white handkerchief tied into a do-rag? Louis and Barbara singing “Hello Dolly”? Seeing his smiling face in your mind’s eye, how do you picture his teeth? Large, pearly, perfectly white, filling, almost spilling, rarely contained by his lips?

In 1930, accomplished, assured, attractive, he’s at the top of his game. His trumpet and voice made him famous, but his looks and his way with audiences were key assets. Picture this: Duncan Schiedt’s photo on the front cover of Louis Armstrong: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (four discs, boxed set). This headshot of Louis in 1930 is cropped below his shoulders. He’s wearing a light-colored sports jacket and white shirt. He’s facing right but he looks at the camera. He’s trim, fighting weight, as he sometimes called it. In the expertly lit photo, highlights fall on his forehead and down the left side of his face illuminating his lustrous skin. His hair is close-cropped. His trumpet-playing scar is clearly visible. He smiles broadly revealing uppers and lowers, a gap behind his left incisor. Prominent, strong, but not perfectly straight teeth, these teeth do not look like the Louis teeth I’ve seen in other photographs. The gap plus the slightly irregular size and spacing show a different Louis from the familiar one with teeth perfect teeth.

Is this photo an aberration? I leaf through picture books, particularly Louis Armstrong: A Cultural Legacy, looking for photos from the late twenties. I can’t find a match to the Schiedt photo. In all the photos I find, his teeth are tight, full, and gapless. His most photographic stance is faced forward, smiling, mouth open, but not as open as in the Schiedt photo. If there’s a gap, it doesn’t show. Maybe only the three-quarter view reveals the gap. Perhaps sometime after the Schiedt portrait, Louis had his teeth capped. Perhaps his reasons were not cosmetic but to protect his vulnerable chops. Will I find out? Why do I care? Does it matter?

Yes, to me it does matter, as the premise of Louis Armstrong dead at 69 is to think about the documented record, full as it is, to wonder what is missing. I want to see him in the many moments of his life, to follow his course through the world, study his changing mind and body.

[1] 1994 catalog accompanying the Queens College exhibition (Louis Armstrong Archive). The exhibition coincided with the release of the Portrait of the Artist boxed set, part of America’s Jazz Heritage: A Partnership of the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund and the Smithsonian Institution.

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