Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong — Terry Teachout

I meant to write a long review of Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, but enough very competent sources have that I have little I contribute beyond generic praise. I know virtually nothing about Armstrong and read few biographies; therefore I’m little able to comment on how Pops deals with the genre. But those who presumably know more than I do are impressed: The Atlantic speaks here, for example, and you can read more here, here, or here, at The Second Pass.

Teachout argues that Armstrong was more complex than his jovial public persona demonstrated. To me, the more interesting part of Pops is its subtler meditation on the relationship of the artist to society—in Armstrong’s case, race was an abiding the issue—and the virtuosity of the writing of both subject and object. Two samples will have to suffice: one of my favorite lines Teachout wrote comes early, on page 23, when he says of Louisiana, “Rarely does [the Northerner] linger long enough to pierce the veneer of local color with which the natives shield themselves from the tourist trade.” I suspect that applies to many places, and it echoes Samuel Johnson’s apt, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” That could apply any vibrant, culturally ambitious, and expanding city, just I might Teachout’s comment reveals more about place than many stories of travel.

As for Armstrong, he saw through much that not all do, judging from shows like Entourage or the laments of other celebrities:

I can’t go no place they don’t roll up the drum, you have to stand up and take a bow, get up on the stage. And sitting in an audience, I’m signing programs for hours all through the show. And you got to sign them to be in good faith. And afterwards all those hangers-on get you crowded in at the table—and you know you’re going to pay the check.

It’s that last bit—”and you know you’re going to pay the check”—that resonates most, the little indignant detail that is nonetheless part of what Armstrong implies one has to do to succeed in the music and show business. Other businesses have their little indignities, and it’s one of Teachout’s considerable strengths that he never leaves the grounding of his subject yet offers many roads from his subject to the wider world. I point to just one, but there are many other available if you’re willing to walk through 400 short pages in Louis Armstrong’s shoes.

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