- Paperback: 496 pages
- Publisher: Mariner Books; First edition (October 7, 2010)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0547386370
- ISBN-13: 978-0547386379
- Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 1.2 x 8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 82 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #209,461 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong Paperback – October 7, 2010
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About the Author
TERRY TEACHOUT is the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal and the chief culture critic of Commentary. He played jazz professionally before becoming a full-time writer. His books include All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine, The Skeptic: A Life of H. L. Mencken, and A Terry Teachout Reader. He blogs about the arts at www.terryteachout.com.
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The troubles and emotional wear-and tear on Satchmo's psyche as a result of being treated as a second-class citizen in a segregated society where he was forced to become little more than a caricature of a "blackface clown," a most "unnatural showman" -- before mostly white audiences for over fifty years -- is rationalized here and discounted, if not entirely taken for granted. And at the very least not considered a significant factor in the shaping of the man or his music. However, anyone who has listened to the "bending blue notes" in Satchmo's carefully constructed, richly endowed and always harrowingly soulful solos, can attest to the pathos of a man having grown up in America's pathological racist social order. Among other indignities, he had to endure the demeaning characterizations by his black musical peers, as being a "throwback from an earlier time," an "Uncle Tom" who was out of step with the musical demands of progressive Jazz and with the demands of a more modern and self-respecting persona. Yet, to a man they all respected him in the end and Satchmo took it all in stride and somehow managed to live a life surprisingly long, happy life free of bitterness.
Armstrong's background - having grown up on the wrong side of the tracks of New Orleans -- is by now well known: He was the illegitimate son of a 15-year old part time maid/prostitute. His father was a turpentine-factory worker. Until the age of 11, he was left on his own during the day, to roam the streets where he had no problem getting himself into trouble, which eventually landed him in a home for wayward boys. There he found order and structure that did not exist at home. He earned enough to buy an old Coronet, and learned to play it on his own without any formal musical training and without being able to read music. Once he was accomplished enough to join the Waif home's band, his amateur career as a sideman for funereal and marching bands began. And from there he moved on to playing professionally. The book chronicles his move up the professional ladder: from New Orleans to Chicago and on to New York. And as the saying goes, the rest is history.
The author, who was a jazz bassist himself, makes good use of his superior musical knowledge to clue the reader in on Armstrong's musical development - especially on how Armstrong used his horn as an extension of his own personality, and as therapy to deal with his own personal problems, and thus as a form of emotional release as well as self-expression.
Pops blazed a trail so rich emotionally and musically that everything else in Jazz since he hit the scene can be accounted for in the wake of the creative power he left. Satchmo is a true American hero, no matter the sacrifices he had to make to become one. Three stars
Pulling from Armstrong's tape recorded "diaries" and conversations; hundreds of his letters - Armstrong was a prolific letter writer - newspaper/magazine interviews, reviews and articles; and firsthand accounts from many of Armstrong's "peers", the author has pieced together a thorough and adequate narrative of Armstrong's life and to a lesser degree, his times.
The reader follows "Little Louis" from his more than humble beginnings in the Crescent City - his mother a prostitute and his father "absent"; Armstrong's "time" at the New Orleans Colored Waif's Home for Boys, where at some point he picked up his first horn and joined the Home's band. Then after "hanging out" at New Orleans dance halls, with the likes of Joe "King" Oliver, launching on his professional career - riverboats, Chicago, New York - we witness his climb to world-wide fame. And of course - Armstrong revolutionized music.
Once the narrative settles into Armstrong's career, I found the story told somewhat repetitive - band rosters, recording sessions, endless touring and even the claim that Louis "sold out" - which is not to say that this isn't an accurate portrayal/description - it is - but the level of detail may not hold the reader's attention.
The author also attempts to explain and even defend Armstrong's behavior/decisions/musical choices once he was "established". For instance the claim that Armstrong was easily "managed" - by white men - which drew fire from critics with Louis' "settling" to be an "entertainer", rather than continuing on as the combustible creative force he was early in his career. Also Armstrong's surrounding himself - at times - with mediocre band-members; demanding little from his musical arrangers and playing the same tunes, the same way, night after night - and Armstrong played a lot of nights on the road. (I'll leave it to each individual reader's judgment whether the author's repeated "explanations/defense" of Armstrong are necessary. Personally I think Satchmo's popularity/influence/longevity speaks for itself.)
All in all, Pops is still a very readable biography and provides a good overview of Armstrong's life - although it may leave you hankering for a little more. I found the focus at times too limited with only sporadic instances of placing Armstrong within the context of his times, the "music scene" and the evolution of American music. Because of this, I found Laurence Bergreen's Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life a much more engaging and informative book. Obviously a personal preference, but a preference nonetheless.