Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong
In reading POPS, I figured that I was going to fill in some of
the few gaps of my personal knowledge of Louis Armstrong. After
all, I told myself, I played trumpet for a third of my life, have
been a fan of jazz for nearly four decades, and actually own
several albums of Armstrong’s solo and collaborative works.
So, how much more could I learn about one of my musical heroes?
A lot, it turns out. My personal gaps were both many and
My perception of how Louis (never “Louie”) Armstrong
and his music were affected by his environment --- his family,
contemporaries and mentors --- as well as the influence he had on
others and their music was woefully incomplete and in some
instances downright inaccurate.
In POPS, author Terry Teachout uses numerous sources
simultaneously to paint a picture of what was happening at several
points in Armstrong’s career --- including adding his
subject’s own voice via his legacy of letters and personal
writings to complete the canvas. He goes into great detail
describing Armstrong’s relationship with his early mentors
and how they shaped both his style and his outward personality.
Despite talent and fame that had surpassed those of his mentors,
Armstrong always remained deferential; even while occasionally
playing second fiddle as a guest in his former master’s
bands, he never showed them up by outplaying or upstaging them. His
respect for the craft and those who had introduced him to it was
In describing Armstrong’s early recording sessions,
Teachout details the technology available at the time and the
limitations it imposed on the instrumentation for the recordings.
He then portrays how each member of the recording ensemble related
to Armstrong both personally and musically. Finally (and probably
most impressive to the jazz geek inside me), Teachout painstakingly
describes note for note how Armstrong played some of his early and
seminal original compositions. Several times, I found myself
putting down the biography and looking for a recording to listen to
for confirmation, only to find the author had nailed it dead
Teachout continues this impressive level of detail and
completeness throughout --- which gave me a breadth and depth of
understanding of Armstrong that frankly was an extremely pleasant
surprise. I was even treated to several nuggets about Armstrong and
his influencers and those influenced by him. I did not know, for
example, that Armstrong was not only a fan of Bing Crosby but also
incorporated the crooner’s distinct style into his own. I was
also surprised to learn that Flea (the bass player for the LA-based
band “The Red Hot Chili Peppers”) considers Armstrong
to be among his favorite artists of all time.
Teachout has scored a hit with his biography of one of the most
iconic and original personalities in musical history. And he spares
no source to make certain that his description of Armstrong is
complete, accurate and entertaining.
Reviewed by Mark Shinn on January 19, 2011