Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong

Louis Armstrong was both a great artist and a popular success.

Pops By Terry Teachout Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 512 pp., $30.00

“I never tried to prove nothing, just wanted to give a good show,” Louis Armstrong, the great jazz trumpeter and singer, said late in his life. “The main thing is to live for that audience, ’cause what you’re there for is to please the people.”

Not necessarily the attitude one expects from the man who was arguably the greatest jazz musician of the 20th century. But as Terry Teachout demonstrates in Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, his excellent new biography, Armstrong was all about pleasing the people.

Born in poverty in New Orleans in 1901 to a teenage mother and abandoned by his father, music was not only a calling for the self-taught genius, but a livelihood. For a young black man with little education in the early part of the 20th century, the alternative was bleak.

In that context, it’s no surprise that Armstrong saw himself not so much as an artist but as a working musician. Whether he was making groundbreaking records in the 1920s, hitting showstopping high-Cs on stage with a big band, turning Kurt Weill’s “Mack the Knife” into a pop standard, or recording a flyweight ditty like “La Cucaracha,” he was, first and foremost, an entertainer.

Armstrong left New Orleans in 1922 to join Joe “King” Oliver, who fronted the most influential hot jazz band in Chicago. By 1935, he was a major star, his flashy cornet and trumpet playing matched by his raspy voice (like “a wheelbarrow crunching up a gravel driveway,” according to one journalist) and energetic stage presence.

Armstrong’s career reached a watershed in 1935. Desperately in need of a new manager, he teamed up with Joe Glaser, who presented him, not as a hot jazz artist playing for a black audience, but as a middle-of-the-road popular entertainer appealing to a white audience as well. Noting that an entertainer can make 10 times as much money as “an ordinary trumpet player,” Glaser advised Armstrong to “Play for the public. Sing and play and smile.”

And Armstrong, who was surprisingly passive in certain regards, was only too happy to let Glaser direct his career. A workhorse, Armstrong traveled and performed constantly, while also making many records and appearing in numerous movies. He was ubiquitous on television in the 1960s, and viewers the world over found his warm personality and 1,000-watt smile irresistible. By the time of his death in 1971, Armstrong was one of the most popular entertainers in the world.

Though a younger generation of modern jazz artists and fans accused him of selling out, Teachout contends that Armstrong was widely misunderstood, even in his own time, and that his singular career demonstrates that it’s possible to be both a great artist and a popular success.

Armstrong’s remarkable life story has been told before, but Teachout, whose previous biographies have covered H.L. Mencken and George Balanchine, is the first to do so with access to 650 reels of tape recordings made by Armstrong during the last 25 years of his life. Teachout (once a full-time jazz bass player who is today a cultural critic for The Wall Street Journal and Commentary) makes excellent use of these tapes as well as a multitude of other sources. With commendable economy, he weaves this vast amount of material into an informative and insightful account of his subject’s life.

David Conrads is a freelance writer in Kansas City, Mo.

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