Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Terry Teachout's Comprehensive Biography of Louis Armstrong

(Originally published in the Newark Star-Ledger in December 2009)

In his superb new book, “Pops : A Life of Louis Armstrong”(Houghton Mifflin, $30), the journalist Terry Teachout tackles the legendary 60-year career of the most important American jazzman in the 20th century,

In this intensely researched biography, Teachout hits the ground running, chronicling Armstrong’s rough childhood in New Orleans. Born in 1901, Armstrong was abandoned by his father and raised by his mother, a part-time prostitute. Armstrong received music training at a reform school, then apprenticed in the rough bars, becoming America’s greatest trumpet player by 1926. Using 650 hours of Armstrong personal audio tapes and numerous other sources, Teachout takes the reader on a thrilling ride through Armstrong's run-ins with the Mob, his 1930 marijuana arrest, his four marriages, his revolutionary jazz combos of the twenties and the big band work from the thirties onward. Teachout’s “Pops” is triumphant look at Louis Armstrong, a true American genius.

Teachout, 53, is the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal and a former professional jazz bassist. He spoke with freelance journalist Dylan Foley by telephone from his home in New York City.

Q. What drew you to writing about Armstrong?

A. Armstrong was probably the first jazz musician I ever heard. I saw him in 1964 on “The Ed Sullivan Show” when he sang “Hello Dolly.” I became obsessed with jazz and began to play it. Armstrong was the central figure of jazz in the 20th century and really explodes on his records.

As soon as I started working on the book, I knew I made the right choice. The source material was extraordinary. All the previous books on Armstrong had been fraught with error. I tried to describe both Armstrong and his music in a way that would make sense to both lay readers and musicians. The advantage of writing about Armstrong was that he is an engaging character. The amount of material was daunting, but it was never dull.

Q. How was Armstrong’s life and career forged playing jazz in the bars of New Orleans?

A. There were parallel tracks in Armstrong’s life. He played in the barrel houses of New Orleans, but he also experienced discipline and musical training at the Colored Waif’s Home for Boys. His mother also wanted the most decent life possible for her children. Armstrong listened to classical music and the Italian tenor Enrico Caruso. From his beginnings as a musician, he was unusually open to anything. He also had a serious work ethic. That is what made the Armstrong we know possible. Genius is not enough.

(Louis Armstrong)

Q. Armstrong was legendary for giving everything he had, once playing 250 high Cs in a row. He almost destroyed his lip in the process. What was the story?

A. He started to have trouble with his lip in 1933. The problems were rooted in his playing technique. He had split lips from the beginning of his career. The crisis was in Paris in 1934. He had to lay off for a year after that.

Q. Younger jazzmen like Dizzy Glimpse and Miles Davis attacked Armstrong in the 1950s as an “Uncle Tom” for his clowning around for whites. How did you address this?

A. Armstrong was born is 1901 His tastes reflect the taste of his generation. He didn’t view minstrel-show humor as especially racist. He was never subservient, and even openly attacked President Eisenhower in 1957 for refusing to enforce school desegregation.

Q. Despite poor health, Armstrong toured 300 days a year, right up to his death in 1970. Do you think the touring helped kill him?

A. His death was a combination of the touring, the bad eating habits and an unwillingness to come to terms with the fact his physical capacity was diminished. He wouldn’t have wanted to live beyond his ability to play, and I think he wanted to die in the saddle. He came very close to that. He could have died during that last gig at the Waldorf Hotel (in Manhattan). He went the way he wanted to go.

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