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Pops – The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong by Terry Teachout

C. Michael Bailey By

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Pops—The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong
Terry Teachout
508 Pages
ISBN: # 1906779562
Aurum Press
2014

Critic Terry Teachout published his biography of Louis Armstrong, Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) in 2009, republishing it under the present title of Pops—The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong in Kindle and hardcover format. Qualitatively, the biographies are the same. Teachout as biographer has benefitted from all previous Armstrong reportage plus recently released personal writings of Armstrong. This new material included 650 reels of tape recordings privately made by Armstrong during the latter part of his life as well as a substantial amount of unexpurgated prose writing not previously accessed. Armed with this material, Teachout assembled the first fully-realized narrative biography of who may be the most important American musical figure.

Dutifully, Teachout recounts Armstrong's early years, often using Armstrong's own words from his public and private writings. Detailed are Armstrong's stay in the New Orleans Home for Colored Waifs and his early performing with the Kid Ory band. This led to his stay with Joe "King" Oliver's Creole Jazz Band and his migration via riverboat to Chicago in the early 1920s with Oliver. In 1925, with encouragement from his then wife Lil Hardin Armstrong the trumpeter assembled his famous "Hot Fives" and "Hot Sevens" band, recording what Teachout hailed as "The Old Testament of Classic Jazz." At this same time, Armstrong was setting the bar for jazz vocals and scat singing.

Armstrong spent the 1930s and '40s working in larger formats and expanding his reach into the popular music realm. By the mid- 1940s, dance halls were falling into disfavor and small- ensemble jazz was on the upswing with "modern" jazz or be bop. During this same period in the late 1940s and early '50s, Armstrong formed his All Stars, featuring at one time or other Jack Teagarden, Earl Hines, Barney Bigard, Edmond Hall, Trummy Young, Arvell Shaw, Billy Kyle, Marty Napoleon, Big Sid Catlett and Cozy Cole.

Teachout frames Armstrong's later years well, placing him in perspective with his time. He highlights the 1960s when Armstrong scored his crossover hit, "Hello Dolly" which knocked the Beatles from the number 1 position where they had sat for the previous 14 weeks with a variety of songs ("I Want to Hold Your Hand," "She Loves You," "Can't Buy Me Love} and "Twist and Shout"). The Author describes Armstrong's last years where he toured extensively under the sponsorship of the US State Department. Armstrong's death and funeral met with a similar outpouring of love, admiration and grief as did Beethoven's 150 years previously.

Teachout also takes the opportunity in this biography to act as Armstrong apologist addressing and refuting directly the "Uncle Tom" criticism of Armstrong which rose to a fever pitch in the late-1960s and '70s. In his most eloquent voice, Teachout answers Armstrong's detractors with:

"But that broad smile was no mere game face, donned to please the paying customers: it told the truth about the man who wore it. In return for his unswerving dedication to his art, he knew true happiness and shared it unstintingly with his fellow men, who responded in Kind...Faced with the terrible realities of the time and place into which he was born, he did not repine, but returned love for hatred and sought salvation in work. Therein lay the ultimate meaning of his epic journey from squalor to immortality: his sunlit, hopeful art, brought into being by the labor of a lifetime, spoke to all men in all conditions and helped make them whole."

Teachout captures this spirit in this biography, carefully allowing Armstrong's life to reflect back to us, unencumbered and shining.

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