Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong

By Terry Teachout

496 pages | Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Reviewed by Ken Liebeskind

New biography doesn’t spare criticism of America’s foremost trumpeter

Louis Armstrong was “a black man born at the turn of the century in the poorest quarter of New Orleans, who, by the end of his life, was known and loved in every corner of the earth,” Terry Teachout writes near the beginning of Pops, the new biography of Armstrong that doesn’t completely tarnish the notion of the well loved Armstrong, but challenges it with lucid depictions of the criticism that was directed at his music and personality, coming from all sides.

Blacks and whites were highly critical of his music, which regressed from the vigorous Dixieland jazz of his early days, to the schmaltzy pop of his later years. Straight ahead jazz musicians like Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis condemned Armstrong, as did white jazz critics and mainstream publications, from Time magazine to The New York Times.

There are a number of reasons Armstrong’s music faltered – from his inability to adapt his popular style to the new streams in jazz, which left traditionalists like Armstrong aside - to the fact that he was managed by a man who did whatever he could to milk Armstrong for the money he could bring in by playing popular music.

Teachout writes that Armstrong had nothing but contempt for bebop, while the beboppers thought him ancient. Of course when bebop took fire in the early 1950’s, Armstrong’s career was already 30 years old. But instead of jamming with the avant-garde musicians, he continued recording pop songs, first with big bands and later with his small band of All Stars. To Armstrong, bebop was “threatening to the public’s acceptance of jazz,” Teachout writes. He preferred to “offer his listeners music they could enjoy without exertion.”

Another reason Armstrong’s music is criticized is because he spent so much time singing, which transformed him from a jazz trumpeter to a popular entertainer. While he was initially a compelling scat singer, replacing the words to “’Heebie Jeebies’ with improvised nonsense syllables,” in a 1926 recording that was highly renowned, he went on to become a sappy pop singer. His biggest hit was “Hello Dolly,” the number one best seller he claims to have performed “six jillion” times that was condemned by the music critic Gunther Schuller as an example of Armstrong singing “against a cheap Dixieland sextet (over a soggy string section yet).”

Armstrong’s move to record and perform popular music reflects his desire to “sing prettier for the white people whose favor he sought to curry,” Teachout writes. The same can be said for his performances in popular films, including Pennies from Heaven and Cabin in the Sky, which embarrassed blacks and white critics who called him a “picturesque, Sambo style entertainer.”

Dizzy Gillespie called him a “plantation character” in a Downbeat interview, and Armstrong himself admitted that “some of my own people have accused me of being an Uncle Tom, of not being aggressive.”

Armstrong couldn’t take strong racial stands because it would have threatened his career. He was forced to perform before racially exclusive audiences in the South through much of his career; and he relied on whites to manage his career, white record companies to record him and white club owners to allow him to perform. Teachout says Armstrong took the advice of Benny Williams, a fellow black from New Orleans, who told him to “always have a white man (who like you) and can and will put his hand on your shoulder and say – “This is ‘My’ Nigger and, Can’t Nobody Harm Ya.”

The white man who played that role for Armstrong was his long time manager, Joe Glaser, the underworld figure who Armstrong deferred to without complaint. Teachout says he was subservient.

Armstrong frequently performed with white musicians and there are compelling portraits of his relations with Barney Bigard, the clarinetist, and Jack Teagarden, the trombonist, who was perhaps Armstrong’s favorite all-time accompanist. “More than a friend, Teagarden was also Armstrong’s peer,” Teachout writes. “Teagarden’s easygoing way with a song complemented Armstrong instead of threatening him. If his chops were down, he could step aside and let Brother T drawl his way through “Stars Fell on Alabama.”

The one time Armstrong did take a strong stand on racism was in 1957, when he condemned President Eisenhower and Alabama Governor Faubus for the way blacks were being treated in the South. His statements may have prompted Eisenhower to take action in a desegregation case, because soon after Armstrong made them, he ordered blacks to be admitted to Little Rock’s Central High School, which prompted a congratulatory telegram to the President from Armstrong.

Pops chronicles Armstrong’s life from childhood, when he was sentenced to a term in the Colored Waif’s Home in New Orleans for firing a pistol on New Year’s Eve, to the end of his life, when he lived comfortably in a large house in Queens with his fourth wife, Lucille. Among the highlights of the book are recognitions of a number of firsts Armstrong achieved: Swing That Music was the first autobiography to be written by a jazz musician. Armstrong was the first jazz musician to appear on the cover of Time magazine. He was the first black to host his own network radio variety show.

He moved from New Orleans to Chicago, Chicago to New York, spent time in California, and traveled with his band throughout Europe. The book contains a number of performance and personal pictures, from King Oliver’s Creole jazz band in 1923, with Armstrong playing next to his second wife, Lil Hardin, the band’s pianist, to Armstrong seated at a desk in his home in Queens in 1958, typing. Armstrong was quite prolific, having written two autobiographies, as well as numerous articles for national publications.

There are many other biographies and autobiographies of Armstrong. Teachout’s stands out for its use of so many sources, its frequent quotes of Armstrong, the musicians he played with, and the critics who analyzed his work. Pops is an attempt to present a comprehensive view of Armstrong’s life, not all of it terribly positive.

Yes, Armstrong’s music was watered down, and yes, he was overly accommodating to whites, but in the end, he was a highly affable and talented man, who never stopped working, creating his own brand of music based on the original jazz that flourished in his native New Orleans, and popularizing it from coast to coast during his entire lifetime.

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