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A Life of Louis Armstrong


Terry Teachout (View Bio)
Hardcover: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009.


A New York Times "Notable Book of 2010"

Chosen by Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times as one of the “Top 10 Books of 2009”

— by the Economist as a  “Best Book of 2009”

— by Publishers Weekly as one of the “Top 100 Best Books of 2009”

— by Amazon as one of the “Top 100 Editors’ Picks” and as an Amazon “Best Book of the Month December 2009"

"Louis Armstrong, aka Satchmo, aka Pops, was to music what Picasso was to painting, what Joyce was to fiction: an innovator who changed the face of his art form, a fecund and endlessly inventive pioneer whose discovery of his own voice helped remake 20th-century culture…. With ‘Pops,’ his eloquent and important new biography of Armstrong, the critic and cultural historian Terry Teachout restores this jazzman to his deserved place in the pantheon of American artists…. Mr. Teachout … writes with a deep appreciation of Armstrong’s artistic achievements, while situating his work and his life in a larger historical context. He draws on Armstrong’s wonderfully vivid writings and hours of tapes in which the musician recorded his thoughts and conversations with friends, and in doing so, creates an emotionally detailed portrait of Satchmo as a quick, funny, generous, observant and sometimes surprisingly acerbic man: a charismatic musician who, like a Method actor, channeled his vast life experience into his work, displaying a stunning, almost Shakespearean range that encompassed the jubilant and the melancholy, the playful and the sorrowful. At the same time, Mr. Teachout reminds us of Armstrong’s gifts: ‘the combination of hurtling momentum and expansive lyricism that propelled his playing and singing alike,’ his revolutionary sense of rhythm, his ‘dazzling virtuosity and sensational brilliance of tone,’ in another trumpeter’s words, which left listeners feeling as though they’d been staring into the sun. The author — who worked as a jazz bassist before becoming a full-time writer — also uses his firsthand knowledge of music to convey the magic of such Armstrong masterworks as ‘St. Louis Blues,’ ‘Potato Head Blues,’ ‘West End Blues’ and ‘Star Dust.’ … Although Armstrong’s life story has been told many times before, Mr. Teachout does a nimble job of reconjuring the trajectory of Armstrong’s experience, which coincided with — or was in the vanguard of — so many formative events in 20th-century Afro-American history, from the Great Migration that brought many Southern blacks North to cities like Chicago to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and ’30s. He recounts the travails of touring that Armstrong experienced in a still segregated South, to his acclamation in Europe in the ’30s and ’40s and the mainstream American success he finally achieved in the ’50s. The reader gets a dramatic snapshot in this volume of Armstrong’s life on the mean streets of New Orleans, where he grew up, the illegitimate son of a 15-year-old country girl, among gamblers, church people, prostitutes and hustlers; his adventures in gangland Chicago and Jazz Age New York; the rapid metamorphosis of this shy, ‘little frog-mouthed boy who played the cornet’ into the most influential soloist in jazz; and the long, hard years on the road, crisscrossing the United States dozens of time, playing so many one-nighters that he often came off the stage, in his own words, ‘too tired to raise an eyelash.’ In addition, Mr. Teachout does a fluent job of explicating Armstrong’s apprenticeship under Joe Oliver and Fletcher Henderson; his seminal work with the Hot Five; and the key business roles played by his wife Lil and his mobbed-up manager, the former boxing promoter Joe Glaser, in shaping his career. As Mr. Teachout astutely points out, Armstrong’s trumpet playing, like his singing and copious writings (including two published memoirs and countless letters, which he pecked out on a typewriter he brought with him on the road), was the means for Armstrong to reflect on all that he had witnessed. ‘I seen everythin’ from a child comin’ up,’ he said once. ‘Nothin’ happen I ain’t never seen before.’ …" — Michiko Kakutani, New York Times

"He has written a definitive narrative biography of the greatest jazz musician of the 20th century…. Unlike previous biographers, Teachout treats Armstrong as the true artist he was…. More importantly, Teachout’s book is the most balanced book ever written on Armstrong…. And though he does an excellent job in discussing some of Armstrong’s musical highpoints, Teachout’s in-depth tales of mob troubles, marijuana and racism will keep non-musicians turning the pages. ‘Pops’ is as warm and entertaining as a vintage Armstrong album. Die-hard jazz fanatics and novices who only know ‘What a Wonderful World’ should be equally entertained by Teachout’s telling of the saga of Satchmo. It took decades to finally get a comprehensive biography of Armstrong, but the wait was worth it." — Ricky Riccardi, San Francisco Chronicle

"Teachout’s fine book brings us as close to the essential Pops as anyone—including those who knew and loved him best—will ever get. With prodigious research and a good deal of stylistic grace, the cultural critic has produced a biography as definitive as it is inconclusive about the sources of Armstrong’s artistic genius and contradictory personality." — John Repp, Cleveland Plain Dealer

"A sweeping new narrative biography.… ‘Pops’ paints a gripping portrait of the man, his world and his music….. A classic biography of a major American musician." — "Favorite Books of 2009", Chicago Tribune

"There probably is no such thing as a definitive biography of anyone, but Terry Teachout’s 'Pops' is likely to remain indispensable to any and all seeking to understand trumpeter extraordinaire Louis Armstrong." — Frank Wilson, Philadelphia Inquirer

"A masterpiece." — Steve Weinberg, Seattle Times

"Magnificent." — Nancy Foster, Associated Press

"Superb, clear and definitive." — Jerry Shriver, USA Today

"Compelling." — Scott Martelle, Los Angeles Times

"There has never been a fully adequate narrative biography of Armstrong. Terry Teachout now fills that void with ‘Pops.’… Armstrong could not have a more impassioned advocate. At times, ‘Pops’ reads like a defense brief, but a very loving and knowledgeable one…. Teachout nails the case. Everyone now acknowledges what he amply documents: not just Armstrong’s prodigious talent, but his wit, kindness, courage, loyalty, and charm." — David Margolick, The New York Times Book Review

"Teachout’s new biography of Armstrong is a mostly joyful account of the ways Armstrong’s musical genius, work ethic, luck and surprising passivity at the hands of his white managers combined to make him one of America’s most famous entertainers. This book will give newcomers to Armstrong’s music, as well as curious fans, the most comprehensive and pleasurable account yet of the trumpeter’s complex life and personality…. Teachout’s vivid and accessible portrayal of Armstrong is one of the book’s great pleasures: He will make a fan of the most skeptical reader" — Craig Morgan Teicher, Kansas City Star

"Teachout excels at conveying the interplay between Armstrong the artist and Armstrong the entertainer." — John McWhorter, The New Yorker

"Crafted with a musician's ear and an historian's eye, 'Pops' is a vibrant biography of the iconic Louis Armstrong that resonates with the same warmth as ol' Satchmo’s distinctive voice…. Teachout draws from a wealth of previously unavailable material—including over 650 reels of Armstrong's own personal tape recordings—to create an engaging profile that slips behind the jazz legend's megawatt smile" — Dave Callanan, Amazon “Best Book of the Month December 2009”

"Teachout succeeds with a detail-rich account that reads like an extended negotiation between what Armstrong said and what was said about him…. Teachout adopts a sophisticated street-level style that mirrors what he loves best about the man known as Satchmo: Armstrong’s ability (and willingness) to synthesize high and low culture for an audience as broad as his grin." — Mikael Wood, Time Out New York

"Teachout, an estimable critic, biographer, and former jazzbo, draws on newly available recordings and writings to limn the fullest portrait to date of the most popular and beloved figure in 20th-century music. This volume candidly explores the intersection of messy life events…and great art. It also offers shrewd analyses of many Armstrong compositions, including the chart-topping yet critically dismissed later works. Best of all, it smartly—and simply—finds unity in contradiction." — The Atlantic Monthly

"Following his biographies of H.L. Mencken and George Balanchine, Teachout turns to another mighty pillar of 20th-century American culture, Louis Armstrong, '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.' It may seem odd to speak of someone of Louis Armstrong's stature as needing recuperation, but his popularity has long been held against him by jazz purists and other music critics. Teachout brings a fresh perspective that, while candid about the ways 'Pops' could hold himself back artistically, celebrates his ambition and capacity for renewal. The other knock against Armstrong is that if white Americans loved him so much, he must have been an 'Uncle Tom,' a notion Teachout neatly demolishes. While Armstrong was keenly aware of the social realities of his time, his relentless work ethic was fueled by an equally intense optimism. (His patience, however, was not infinite; he publicly criticized President Eisenhower as having 'no guts' for failing to enforce desegregation—one of the few celebrities who could be so outspoken without suffering substantial backlash.) Teachout's portrait reminds us why we fell in love with Armstrong's music in the first place. B&w photos throughout, many previously unpublished." — Publishers Weekly

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