[Dixielandjazz] "Pops" by Terry Teachout

Stephen G Barbone barbonestreet at earthlink.net
Tue Nov 24 07:29:24 PST 2009

Sounds like a must read.

Steve Barbone

The Voice That Helped Remake Culture   (book review)

Pops - A Life of Louis Armstrong

November 24, 2009 - NY Times - Reviewed By Michiko Kakutani
Louis Armstrong, a k a Satchmo, a k a Pops, was to music what Picasso  
was to painting, what Joyce was to fiction: an innovator who changed  
the face of his art form, a fecund and endlessly inventive pioneer  
whose discovery of his own voice helped remake 20th-century culture.

His determination to entertain and the mass popularity he eventually  
achieved, coupled with his gregarious, open-hearted personality, would  
obscure the magnitude of his achievement and win him the disdain of  
many intellectuals and younger colleagues, who dismissed much of what  
he did after 1929 as middlebrow slumming, and who even mocked him as a  
kind of Uncle Tom.

With “Pops,” his eloquent and important new biography of Armstrong,  
the critic and cultural historian Terry Teachout restores this jazzman  
to his deserved place in the pantheon of American artists, building  
upon Gary Giddins’s excellent 1988 study, “Satchmo: The Genius of  
Louis Armstrong,” and offering a stern rebuttal of James Lincoln  
Collier’s patronizing 1983 book, “Louis Armstrong: An American Genius.”

Mr. Teachout, the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal and the  
chief culture critic of Commentary magazine, writes with a deep  
appreciation of Armstrong’s artistic achievements, while situating his  
work and his life in a larger historical context. He draws on  
Armstrong’s wonderfully vivid writings and hours of tapes in which the  
musician recorded his thoughts and conversations with friends, and in  
doing so, creates an emotionally detailed portrait of Satchmo as a  
quick, funny, generous, observant and sometimes surprisingly acerbic  
man: a charismatic musician who, like a Method actor, channeled his  
vast life experience into his work, displaying a stunning, almost  
Shakespearean range that encompassed the jubilant and the melancholy,  
the playful and the sorrowful.

At the same time, Mr. Teachout reminds us of Armstrong’s gifts: “the  
combination of hurtling momentum and expansive lyricism that propelled  
his playing and singing alike,” his revolutionary sense of rhythm, his  
“dazzling virtuosity and sensational brilliance of tone,” in another  
trumpeter’s words, which left listeners feeling as though they’d been  
staring into the sun. The author — who worked as a jazz bassist before  
becoming a full-time writer — also uses his firsthand knowledge of  
music to convey the magic of such Armstrong masterworks as “St. Louis  
Blues,” “Potato Head Blues,” “West End Blues” and “Star Dust.”

During his lifetime Armstrong performed with virtually everyone, from  
early jazz pioneers like Sidney Bechet, Joe Oliver, Bix Beiderbecke,  
Johnny Dodds and Kid Ory, on through more recent masters like Leonard  
Bernstein and Johnny Cash. His freewheeling incandescence as both an  
instrumentalist and vocalist would influence not just every trumpet  
player to come but also countless composers, bandleaders and singers  
as varied as Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie  

“Even before his face became known to the readers of newspapers and  
illustrated magazines — and, later, to filmgoers and TV viewers,” Mr.  
Teachout writes, “Armstrong was the first jazz musician whose voice  
was heard by large numbers of people. In this way he emerged from  
behind the anonymity of the recording process and impressed his  
personality on all who heard him, even those who found most  
instrumental jazz to be unapproachably abstract. It was the secret of  
his appeal, and he knew it. So did the many singing instrumentalists  
who followed in his footsteps, hoping to lure some of the same  
listeners who smiled at the sound of his gritty tenor voice, which  
deepened as he grew older but was always as recognizable as a  

Although Armstrong’s life story has been told many times before, Mr.  
Teachout does a nimble job of reconjuring the trajectory of  
Armstrong’s experience, which coincided with — or was in the vanguard  
of — so many formative events in 20th-century Afro-American history,  
from the Great Migration that brought many Southern blacks North to  
cities like Chicago to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and ’30s.  
He recounts the travails of touring that Armstrong experienced in a  
still segregated South, to his acclamation in Europe in the ’30s and  
’40s and the mainstream American success he finally achieved in the  

The reader gets a dramatic snapshot in this volume of Armstrong’s life  
on the mean streets of New Orleans, where he grew up, the illegitimate  
son of a 15-year-old country girl, among gamblers, church people,  
prostitutes and hustlers; his adventures in gangland Chicago and Jazz  
Age New York; the rapid metamorphosis of this shy, “little frog- 
mouthed boy who played the cornet” into the most influential soloist  
in jazz; and the long, hard years on the road, crisscrossing the  
United States dozens of time, playing so many one-nighters that he  
often came off the stage, in his own words, “too tired to raise an  

In addition, Mr. Teachout does a fluent job of explicating Armstrong’s  
apprenticeship under Joe Oliver and Fletcher Henderson; his seminal  
work with the Hot Five; and the key business roles played by his wife  
Lil and his mobbed-up manager, the former boxing promoter Joe Glaser,  
in shaping his career.

As Mr. Teachout astutely points out, Armstrong’s trumpet playing, like  
his singing and copious writings (including two published memoirs and  
countless letters, which he pecked out on a typewriter he brought with  
him on the road), was the means for Armstrong to reflect on all that  
he had witnessed. “I seen everythin’ from a child comin’ up,” he said  
once. “Nothin’ happen I ain’t never seen before.”

“When I blow I think of times and things from outa the past that gives  
me an image of the tune. Like moving pictures passing in front of my  
eyes. A town, a chick somewhere back down the line, an old man with no  
name you seen once in a place you don’t remember.” This belief in  
music as a deeply felt and personal expression is one reason Armstrong  
avoided using musical terminology when speaking about his work and  
it’s one reason he said that he disliked bop (like other cooler, more  
modern forms of jazz), complaining that it “doesn’t come from the  
heart,” that it’s “all just flash.”

Boppers and avatars of the cool, in turn, rejected Armstrong’s desire  
to entertain the audience — to mug and clown on stage. And yet even  
Miles Davis, who in rejecting Satchmo’s crowd-pleasing ways went so  
far as to turn his back on the audience, acknowledged that the history  
of jazz radiated out from Louis Armstrong: “You can’t play nothing on  
trumpet,” Davis said, “that doesn’t come from him.”

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