He is the beginning and the end of music in America. Bing Crosby on Louis Armstrong
Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong by Terry Teachout makes for very good reading, at least for most of its nearly 400 pages (475 with source notes and index). As a young person learning the cornet and trumpet, I was well aware that Armstrong was considered the greatest horn player of all time, but not quite sure why. Teachout makes a very good case for Armstrong’s being the person who did so much to give birth to, and advance, modern jazz in America. “You can’t imagine such energy, such musical fireworks as (the young) Louis Armstrong… (he was) the greatest jazz musician of the twentieth century.”
The entertaining tale of Armstrong’s early years is of a poor boy from a one-room shack who is sent to reform school and then joins the Colored Waif’s Brass Band of New Orleans. Armstrong never knew his father so he tends to make father figures of his band instructors and band leaders. We go on in Pops – the word Armstrong used to describe himself – to see how Armstrong was a seminal figure in jazz and it’s a bit like watching a Ken Burns documentary. So far, so good…
As with Sugar Ray Robinson in the recent biography, Sweet Thunder, we have two young men who grew up in extreme poverty (one in The Bronx, the other in N.O.) yet overcame their circumstances to become favorite citizens of the world. The stories of both Robinson and Armstrong are cinematic in nature. Yet the Robinson in Thunder comes off as a multi-dimensional character in a way that Armstrong never does in Pops. True, Teachout is quite fair in showing the reader that Armstrong had his flaws as a man and human being – he was married and divorced too often; he liked his musicians to smoke pot before recording – but we never quite understand why Armstrong loved music the way he did. We get very nice quotations, such as “Music became his reason for living…” but no real depth.
In Pops we also learn that Armstrong was self-taught and thus had very poor form as a horn player. Despite this, he was amazingly talented, naturally gifted; but we never learn or even see a guess ventured as to where his talents originated. Were they hereditary, or was he just an anomaly?
At the back portion of this biography, it is interesting to learn about how many years passed between Armstrong’s recording of the song It’s A Wonderful World – an initial flop that languished in sales – and its popularity once it was included in the soundtrack of Good Morning, Vietnam. Fascinating, as is a great deal of Pops… Still, the subject seemed a bit out of Teachout’s reach. Apparently the great Satchmo remains larger-than-life and the printed word.
Now, who has the courage to attempt to write the definitive biography of Miles Davis? Anyone?
A review copy was provided by the publisher.