In his lifetime, Louis Armstrongthe subject of Terry Teachout’s new biography, Popswas the most famous jazz musician in the world. He burst upon the music scene during the 1920’s as a charismatic and talented cornet and trumpet player. His unique vocal style as a scat singer and interpreter of popular melodies became an indelible trademark. Until his death in 1971, Armstrong remained an international star in concerts, in movies, and on records. As late as 1964, he had a number one pop single in “Hello Dolly,” outpacing even the Beatles on the record charts. Bing Crosby called Armstrong “the beginning and the end of music in America.”
Armstrong’s enduring appeal to his audiences in the United States and abroad contrasted with the deep divisions about his career and artistic development within the jazz community. About his indispensable contribution to the new music of the mid-1920’s, there was no real argument. The small groups he assembled as Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven recorded performances that changed the direction of jazz. In such records as Weather Bird (1928) and West End Blues (1928), Armstrong displayed how an innovative soloist could reshape conventional melodies into rich and complex improvisations. Young musicians, black and white, listened to and emulated Armstrong’s creativity. The fundamental direction of jazz as an American art form changed because of what Armstrong and his group offered.
Within a decade of his path-breaking performances, however, Armstrong was regarded among his fellow jazz musicians as no longer on the frontier of the music. While they acknowledged his singing gifts, his trumpet-playing came to seem old-fashioned as such virtuosos as Roy Eldridge and especially Dizzy Gillespie came upon the scene. By the 1950’s, the tenor sax player Coleman Hawkins said of Armstrong that “he isn’t going any place musically.” In the age of bebop and modern jazz, Armstrong sounded out of date. Moreover, his showmanship and entertaining of his audiences struck some of the more rebellious younger African American players as pandering to white tastes. Some African American musicians called him an “Uncle Tom,” a term of derision. By the 1960’s, Armstrong had overcome some of this criticism through the positive nature of his personality and through his sheer longevity, but issues of his ultimate impact on American music persisted up to and past his death in 1971.
Armstrong has attracted several interesting biographers. James Lincoln Collier in Louis Armstrong: An American Genius (1983) acknowledged Armstrong’s musical greatness but depicted a man influenced by his personal insecurities. Gary Giddins in Satchmo (1988) produced an authoritative, brief study, while Laurence Bergreen’s Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life (1997) featured extensive research and a positive assessment of Armstrong’s musical and cultural legacy.
In many respects, Terry Teachout’s new biography of Armstrong is a synthesis of the previous writing on his life and times. A drama critic for the Wall Street Journal and a cultural commentator in general, Teachout was a jazz musician himself before starting on a writing career. He has written books on the choreographer George Balanchine and the political and social commentator of the 1920’s and 1930’s H. L. Mencken. An affection for Armstrong pervades Pops, but Teachout engages with insight and passion many of the issues that arise from studying the trumpeter’s career. He calls the book “an exercise in synthesis, a narrative biography based in large part on the research of those academic scholars who in recent years have unearthed a wealth of hitherto unknown information about Armstrong.”
The result is a winning narrative that covers the by now familiar story of Armstrong’s rise from poverty and family dysfunction in early twentieth century New Orleans to world fame and popularity. He was born not on July 4, 1900, as legend had it for many years, but on August 4, 1901, into the racially segregated world of New Orleans and the South. Teachout traces the young Armstrong’s ability to overcome poverty, broken family life, and endemic racism in the years before World War I.
Throughout this difficult phase of his life, Armstrong displayed the raw talents as a musician that would enable him to achieve his distinctive sound in the...
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