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Bookmarks Issue: 
45-Mar-Apr-2010
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A Life of Louis Armstrong

A-PopsTerry Teachout is the drama critic for the Wall Street Journal and the chief culture critic for Commentary magazine. He also worked as a jazz bassist for several years.

The Topic: Louis Armstrong wasn’t just a jazz innovator and a great entertainer; he was also one of the world’s first musical celebrities, helping to define a cultural archetype now (overly) familiar to us. If you only know him as the gravelly voice behind "What a Wonderful World," you’re missing the story of a man determined to be a popular entertainer—someone who defined a musical genre while being called an Uncle Tom. In addition to covering all of Armstrong’s life, Pops defines the great trumpeter’s significance and offers a response to the critics who emerged as Armstrong’s sound became more mainstream. In that sense, it is not just a biography but a major work of criticism.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 496 pages. $30. ISBN: 9780151010899.

San Francisco Chronicle 4.5 of 5 Stars
"[T]he lack of a solid, well-researched, agenda-free biography has left a huge gap in the literature about [Armstrong]. With the publication of Teachout’s Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, that has been rectified. … Die-hard jazz fanatics and novices … should be equally entertained by Teachout’s telling of the saga of Satchmo." Ricky Ricardi

Seattle Times 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Armstrong was … a lot more than an innovative jazz composer and trumpet player. According to his most recent biographer, Armstrong was a human beacon of light who brightened all of humanity. That summary might sound treacly, but the biographer makes his case well. … [A]s a biographer myself, I must label the book a masterpiece." Steve Weinberg

Kansas City Star 4 of 5 Stars
"Terry Teachout’s new biography of Armstrong is a mostly joyful account of the ways Armstrong’s musical genius, work ethic, luck and surprising passivity at the hands of his white managers combined to make him one of America’s most famous entertainers. … Teachout loves his subject too much to take Armstrong’s critics too seriously or to engage too deeply with them, but this book will no doubt help to make Satchmo (short for Satchel Mouth) hot once again." Craig Morgan Teicher

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"With Pops, his eloquent and important new biography of Armstrong, the critic and cultural historian Terry Teachout restores this jazzman to his deserved place in the pantheon of American artists, building upon Gary Giddins’s excellent 1988 study, Satchmo: The Genius of Louis Armstrong, and offering a stern rebuttal of James Lincoln Collier’s patronizing 1983 book, Louis Armstrong: An American Genius." Michiko Kakutani

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 4 of 5 Stars
"A former professional jazz musician himself, Teachout dissects Armstrong’s five decades of recordings, the musicianship, instrument and personnel choices, and the contemporary technologies available to these pioneers of jazz music. Louis Armstrong’s life was a fine journey, despite many hardships in childhood, and a few dips along his professional way. Teachout’s excellent work brings it all together in a warts-and-all biography, probably just the way Satchmo would have wanted it." Perry Munyon

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Despite his incalculable contributions to American culture, there has never been a fully adequate narrative biography of Louis Armstrong. Terry Teachout now fills that void with Pops. … At times, Pops reads like a defense brief, but a very loving and knowledgeable one. … Only when the critics start dumping on Armstrong does Teachout become energized." David Margolick

New Yorker 3.5 of 5 Stars
"There are, in effect, two Armstrongs—the genial man croaking ‘Hello, Dolly’ on TV, and the meteoric trumpeter of the twenties, a performer with a strong claim to be the founder of jazz as we know it. Terry Teachout confronts this dichotomy." John McWhorter

Critical Summary

Terry Teachout, like "Pops" himself, is capable of doing many things at once and doing them well. His biography relied on a large number of new sources, but it is an easily readable length. He critically assesses Armstrong’s recordings, but he also tells a story inviting to musical novices (tales of mob trouble and marijuana add some spice). A few reviewers felt that Teachout’s description of Armstrong’s actual recordings came up a bit short—but it was Teachout’s own musical background that most critics felt provided the expertise that made the book special. We note that Ricky Ricardi, archivist for the Louis Armstrong House Museum, gave the book an excellent review while dismissing other recent efforts—a strong endorsement that this is the biography for which jazz fans have been waiting.