'Pops': Louis Armstrong, master of jazz, lover of life
"Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong," by author and cultural critic Terry Teachout, is a superb biography of Louis Armstrong, the jazz composer, singer and trumpeter whose positive attitude and mastery of music lifted him above grim beginnings and into the hearts of millions.
Special to The Seattle Times
'Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong'
by Terry Teachout
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 475 pp., $30
Louis Armstrong was a lot more than a gravelly voiced vocalist who sang the hits "Hello, Dolly" and "What a Wonderful World." Armstrong was also a lot more than an innovative jazz composer and trumpet player. According to his most recent biographer, Armstrong was a human beacon of light who brightened all of humanity.
That summary might sound treacly, but the biographer makes his case well.
Perhaps the only unfortunate choice in the excellent biography "Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong" is the title. To me and to countless other potential readers, "Satchmo" is the eternal nickname identifying Louis Armstrong, dead now 40 years but alive through his trumpet playing, vocalizing, wide smile and positive attitude toward life. Yet author Terry Teachout, obviously a brainy, hardworking biographer, decided to use the nickname "Pops" as the title.
"Pops" is what Armstrong called those whose names he could not recall or had never previously met. Yes, the nickname carries a secondary meaning — Armstrong as the spiritual father of modern jazz and so many of its practitioners. A tertiary meaning might be the popularity attained by Armstrong outside the realm of devoted jazz listeners. Still, "Pops" is a disconcerting choice for the title.
Otherwise, as a biographer myself, I must label the book a masterpiece. Part of the reason is the fit of biographer and subject. Before becoming a full-time writer (frequently for The Wall Street Journal and Commentary magazine), Teachout worked professionally as a jazz bassist. His firsthand knowledge lights up the pages. Like all biographies, the book is about the man, but it is equally about the music made by the man.
That Armstrong would amount to anything seemed unlikely in 1901, when he was born unspeakably poor with dark brown skin in New Orleans. His mother was a 15-year-old household servant who also earned money from prostitution. His mostly absent father was a turpentine-factory worker. By age 11, Armstrong was housed in the Colored Waif's Home for Boys.
He actually thrived on the relatively predictable life there, and learned music as a member of the Waif's Home Brass Band. Despite a lack of formal training, Armstrong turned out to be a natural musician. Even in a racially segregated society, everybody, black and white, could agree that Armstrong deserved a chance to play music professionally. As a teenager, he performed in New Orleans clubs. After that, the trajectory to stardom, while never painless, was relentless until he reached the top.
Armstrong harbored no bitterness about having to combat racism or needing white managers to gain entrance into the mainstream music world. Teachout shares anecdote after anecdote to demonstrate that Armstrong's onstage jolly demeanor was no act. Armstrong loved his life in music and found a path to celebrate most people he met. Sure, he divorced women he had married. Sure, he could exhibit an explosive temper occasionally. Sure, he sometimes talked sadly about the reality of racial discrimination. Mostly, though, he exuded happiness.
Here is how Teachout ends the main text: "Faced with the terrible realities of the time and place into which he had been born, he did not repine, but returned love for hatred and sought salvation in work ... his sunlit, hopeful art, brought into being by the labor of a lifetime, spoke to all men in all conditions and helped make them whole."
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