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An American Master

Terry Teachout's definitive life of Louis Armstrong.

By From the April 2010 issue

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Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong
By Terry Teachout
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 475 pages, $30)

Several years ago, I gave a talk on the importance of male friendship to a group of high school seniors at a prestigious all-male school. In my presentation, I used John Wayne and Bob Hope to exemplify different types of prototypical American males. I asked for a show of hands to see what they knew about these icons. Not one had heard of them. I cringe to think what would have been the response if I had asked about Louis Armstrong.

In Armstrong's case, the solution is now available: Terry Teachout's surprise best-seller Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, which not only tells the story of this outstanding jazz musician but also serves as a partial cultural history of the greater part of the 20th century. With this definitive study, Teachout -- drama critic for the Wall Street Journal and a jazz bassist himself -- stakes a claim for nomination for the Pulitzer Prize in biography.

Before beginning at chapter one, readers should browse the index, featuring names as diverse as Al Capone, Jimmie Rodgers, Bing Crosby, Philip Larkin, Darius Milhaud, Jean Renoir, and Pope Pius XII, and check out the 60-page bibliography. In a bow to the tech generation, Teachout lists 30 key Armstrong recordings covering 40 years, all downloadable from iTunes. I made a point of playing them on my iPod as I read the book, which enhanced the experience.

Teachout traces Armstrong's life from his birth in 1901 (not on July 4 as he claimed) in the infamous Storyville section of New Orleans to his death in Queens, New York in 1971. Armstrong's prototypical rags-to-riches story has the added subtext of racial prejudice and segregation.

Teachout sets the stage in his prologue: "It goes without saying -- or should -- that Louis Armstrong's music was the most important thing about him. Yet his personal story, in addition to shedding light on the wellsprings of his art, is important in its own right, and no less in need of a historically aware interpretation. He was a child of his time, not ours, and some of the things he said or did are barely intelligible to those who know little of his youth. Even in his own time, he was widely misunderstood, often by people who, like Dizzy Gillespie, should have known better."

Teachout first traces the Armstrong itinerary from New Orleans to Chicago, where his genius was first recognized by Joe "King" Oliver, a legendary father of early jazz. There young Louis Armstrong joined the Creole Jazz Band of the early 1920s and began to outshine his mentor. Armstrong next moved to New York, where he encountered a new level of sophistication with the educated bandleader Fletcher Henderson. In 1925, back in Chicago, Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five recorded "what was to become the Old Testament of classic jazz." That made them the most significant band in the history of jazz. Armstrong had arrived.

In the early thirties, fleeing marital, legal, and contract problems, he made his first trips overseas, performing throughout northern Europe with great success. By the late thirties and forties, Armstrong was central in a revival of early jazz and toured the country with his own big band, although he lost some ground to the largely white swing bands that were all the rage until after World War II. While he was traveling in the boondocks, the big bands of Goodman, Dorsey, et al. were playing in big urban centers and being broadcast throughout the country on radio. Trumpet players like Harry James and Bunny Berigan were more popular, even as they acknowledged Armstrong as the master.

In the following decades, Armstrong became as well known for his singing as for his trumpet work and made appearances on television and in movies such as High Society.

Armstrong was always reticent on the question of segregation, but in September 1957, in the midst of the attempted integration of schools in Little Rock, Arkansas, Armstrong made international headlines by accusing "President Eisenhower" of having no guts and describing Gov. Orval E. Faubus as "an educated plowboy." (The actual words he used were considerably stronger and earthier.) Armstrong expressed his own understanding of his role in racial equality by saying, "I think I have always done great things about uplifting my race. I've pioneered in breaking the color line in many Southern states."

His last great success was his recording of the Broadway show tune "Hello, Dolly!" On May 9, 1964, it topped the Beatles as the most popular song in America, selling 3 million copies. At 63 Armstrong was the oldest person ever to record a number-one song. On the other side of the 45 was "A Lot of Livin' to Do," from Bye Bye Birdie. I remember buying that 45 and playing it until it wore out.

Teachout does not gloss over Armstrong's faults and eccentricities -- the multiple marriages and short-term affairs, the volcanic but brief temper tantrums, the almost childlike dependence on his venal and mob-connected manager Joe Glaser, and his brushes with the law due to his frequent marijuana use. Many of these can be attributed to human fragility, to his upbringing, lack of formal education, the endless life on the road, and tremendous pressures relieved by his one true love -- his celestial gift of music. As a fellow musician wrote of him, "to friend and foe alike there was, deep below the surface of companionship and bonhomie, an impenetrable wall in which every stone was an enigma." Armstrong said it best: "When I pick up that horn, that's all. The world's behind me and I don't concentrate on nothin' but it....That my livin' and my life. I love them notes. That way I try to make 'em right. See?"

On the other hand, this same man was a lover of opera and classical music, a fine writer who was author of the best jazz autobiography ever written, generally beloved by his fellow jazz peers and sidemen, unfailingly generous to the down and out and a prodigious user of tape recording equipment to immortalize his likes and dislikes, expressing his opinions of music, people, race relations, and his own personal history.

Armstrong died in 1971 and was lauded with a front-page obituary in the New York Times. Teachout lets his subject sum up his life eloquently in these words: "'I had a beautiful life,' he said not long before his death in 1971. 'I didn't wish for anything I couldn't get, and I got pretty near everything I wanted because I worked for it.'"

I look forward to Teachout's upcoming venture in jazz biography, the life of Duke Ellington. Meanwhile, how pleased "Pops" would have been to see the New Orleans Saints football team (named after the Dixieland anthem of New Orleans) landing in Louis Armstrong International Airport in his beloved hometown after the Super Bowl championship.

Can we hope that his statue will soon be placed in the capitol as one of Louisiana's greatest sons? He sure provided a lot more joy and happiness than Governor Huey Long.

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About the Author
Matthew Kenefick is a Church historian who writes from Washington, D.C. and a Research Fellow of the Faith and Reason Institute.