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Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2010

‘Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong’

Terry Teachout looks at the musician and the man

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Terry Teachout’s previous biographical subjects are George Balanchine and H. L. Mencken, so it’s a boon to Louis Armstrong fans that Teachout chose the great man for this new life story. Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) brims with insightful quotes from an amazing array of primary and secondary sources, including eyewitnesses, collaborators, friends and family, celebrated and obscure. Also using Armstrong’s vast legacy of personal papers and homemade audiotapes, Teachout places Armstrong’s life in vivid historical, economic, social and musical context that makes the first 100 pages of Pops absolutely enthralling.

Teachout presents us with Armstrong the boy, whose sweet innocence—and unusual ability to repel the slings and arrows of violence, poverty and racism—shines, especially through his own memoirs. Teachout frequently quotes from Armstrong’s autobiography, Satchmo, cross-referencing questionable allegations with citations from other interested parties. He fills in gaps with tantalizing information about obscure recordings and band ventures, and describes Armstrong’s life and music in layman’s language that makes New Orleans in the 1910s and Chicago and New York in the ’20s sound like the most exciting, enchanted places on Earth.

As Armstrong matures, Teachout dispels the image of Armstrong the “natural,” noting that his early cornet playing took place over long, grueling years in New Orleans’ extremely dangerous red-light district, and demonstrating that Armstrong was an experienced sight reader and serious classical music listener. The great inexplicable wonder of Armstrong’s life seems to be that he was able to read and write so well, having never attended school, apart from a year and a half in an orphanage.

Taking issue with the popular notion of Armstrong as Uncle Tom, Teachout convincingly portrays Armstrong as an artist in the service of entertainment (his much-heralded solos tended to be set pieces), and even presents evidence that Armstrong was as brave and outspoken an opponent of racism as any artist of his day. Armstrong helped found the Negro Actors Guild, was the first black American to host his own network radio variety show, and arguably changed the course of history in a 1957 interview, when he took bitter issue with President Eisenhower’s initial decision not to enforce school integration in Little Rock, Ark. (A week after the interview was published, Eisenhower sent troops into the town to escort besieged black students to class.) He even finished a show in Knoxville, Tenn., after a stick of dynamite exploded in the auditorium.

But Teachout toes the party line when it comes to Armstrong’s music (i.e., it was all downhill after Armstrong’s 1928 recording of “West End Blues”). You can see it coming in Teachout’s dismissal of Lil Hardin Armstrong’s piano playing, a favorite subject of ridicule among jazz snobs, and his dead-wrong denigration of the great singer Lillie Delk Christian (backed up by Armstrong on numerous recordings) as “insipid-sounding.” Any praise for the great performances in Armstrong’s Decca, Bluebird and OKeh recordings of the 1930s and/or his spectacular Verve recordings of the 1950s is limited to passing mention of a few songs per period. Absent any real love for Armstrong’s later recordings, Teachout concentrates from 1929 onward on Armstrong the man—good-cop bandleader (to manager Joe Glaser’s bad cop), friend, husband, writer, collage artist, hero—and it makes for difficult reading.

The Louis Armstrong of Pops displays disturbing contradictions: wide-eyed innocence and off-putting cynicism, sometimes in the same breath. He is sentimental in his love for his wife, Lucille, but still carries on affairs, perhaps even fathering at least one child outside the marriage. (Teachout is remiss in not investigating this possibility.) Armstrong curses out fellow musicians for offenses great and small, and carries long, senseless grudges. Recognizing his subject’s enormous contribution to the cause of human happiness, Teachout isn’t out to knock Armstrong off anybody’s pedestal, but in drawing us closer to Armstrong the man, he risks disappointing us with the truth: The greatest musician of the 20th century was human, with all of man’s sublime, essential beauty, and with all his fallibility and inconsistency.