Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong by Terry Teachout had been sitting near the top of my reading pile for much of the spring, and I finally had a stretch of time to catch up on my reading this summer -- a little sleepy time, perhaps, to luxuriate in the printed word. Teachout is a critic up to the task of constructing a narrative of the life of one of the most influential artists of the 20th century, a genius whose story, oddly and understandably, has been told none-too-well over the years. Like Mark Twain, the other great cultural figure to whom I would compare Louis Armstrong, the body of work is hugely important, frustratingly inconsistent, and the product of a person often misunderstood.
Teachout is fully mindful of the problems inherent in creating a biography of Armstrong: the worldview of a man from Satchmo's origins as a street kid from segregated New Orleans, of a purely confident virtuoso who creates the foundation for jazz in a country that took decades to recognize what he had done, of an African-American whose career longevity unfairly appeared to put him out of step with the Civil Rights Movement. Teachout, whose research left no bit of Armstrong material unexamined, fairly addresses these usual problems. Armstrong emerges as a man who was grateful for the opportunities and gifts he had, who demanded the musical freedom to do as he pleased, and who maintained a public persona through which a full awareness of the problems of race and place would certainly emerge. Through the remarkable arc of his life story, Teachout makes sure we know that Armstrong was always about the work - playing music for the people.
Pops is notable, as well, in what it is not. It is not a psycho-biography. It does not delve deeply into musical analytics. It does not meander sentimentally into evocative summary of New Orleans in the 1910s, or Chicago and New York in the 1920s, and so forth. If anything, at times, Pops moves too briefly over periods in Armstrong's life: his work on the Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings, his work on State Department cultural tours, and his friendships with other entertainers like Bing Crosby. But Teachout quite clearly wants to clear the decks of some misinformation and to build a more fair, balanced, and concise account of Armstrong's life, leaving much of the detailed (perhaps over-detailed) work to others. Pops succeeds in this sense -- as a confident, entertaining, mainstream book that most readers will enjoy. Armstrong would have approved.