Terry Teachout’s New Biography of Louis Armstrong

Armstrong modeled a lot of his phrasing on the opera singers of his youth(Photo: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Armstrong modeled a lot of his phrasing on the opera singers of his youth(Photo: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Me and my horn, we know each other. We know what we can do. When I’m blowing, it’s like me and my horn are the same thing. – Louis Armstrong

Terry Teachout has written a new scholarly, footnoted and highly enjoyable biography of the great Louis Armstrong (and btw: It’s LEW-is, not LOO-ey).

Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong is great for fans or for readers like me who think they love jazz but don’t know too much about it. This reader was pleased to know that Armstrong modeled a lot of his phrasing on the opera singers of his youth, especially Caruso and Luisa Tetrazzini – no doubt the latter inspiring the glorious staccato high Cs Armstrong could blow like no one else.

A rough childhood in New Orleans’s Storyville led to a stint in the “Colored Waif’ s Home for Boys”:

I feel as though although I am away from the Waif’s Home, I am just on tour from my own home, I feel just that close at all times.

The home had a brass band, handy for local funerals and whorehouses, and one thing led to another. First the cornet, then the trumpet.

King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band and the Hot Five gave Armstrong a life on the road and their recordings, beginning in 1923 put jazz near the mainstream. Over the years, swing, bop, rock and Hollywood were sampled and sometimes abandoned, but until the end of his life, Louis could sing and Louis could blow and the world was glad to listen.

Teachout doesn’t gloss over the grief Armstrong took for seeming to pander to white audiences with his toothy grin and on stage antics. This is not a reverent book, but it is an honest book and allows us to understand the importance and the skill of Armstrong’s artistry thirty years after his death.

Along the way, there’s a spicy private life, a fondness for cannabis and a devotion to an herbal remedy called Swiss Kriss, guaranteed to clear the pipes. As a very young man, Louis Armstrong adopted a young boy named Clarence, the son of a distant relative. Clarence became brain-damaged as a child, and Armstrong cared for Clarence for the rest of his life.

Especially helpful is the appendix: Thirty Great Recordings by Louis Armstrong, beginning with Chimes Blues in 1923, and including Heebie Jeebies (1926) I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues (1931) Blueberry Hill (1949) Mack the Knife (1955) and Hello Dolly (1963) – an anthem Armstrong was saddled with for the rest of his life, but it gave him a huge boost in late career.

Here’s Mack the Knife, in Stuttgart, 1959:

Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong by Terry Teachout. Read this book and fall in love again for the first time!

My life has been my music, it’s always come first, but the music ain’t worth nothing if you can’t lay it on the public. The main thing is to live for that audience, ’cause that’s what you’re there for is to please the people.

A Life of Louis Armstrong