‘POPS: A Life of Louis Armstrong’ by Terry Teachout

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On January 2, 1913, a New Orleans newspaper The New Orleans Times-Democrat told of a young twelve year old negro boy who was arrested on New Years Eve for firing a .38 pistol into the air. By all accounts, this would likely have been the only time such a person’s name would make print, but in this case, the person was Louis Armstrong, who would rise from poverty and certain obscurity to cultural immortality.

I love Louis Armstrong. I love his music, I love watching his performances, and he is likely the one performer who – if I had that time machine I’ve always wanted – I would most likely go back in time and see him live. Before The Beatles, before Elvis Presley (both of whom I idolize), it would be Louis ‘Satchmo’ Armstrong. ‘Pops’.

I grabbed Terry Teachout’s book off the bookstore shelf the moment I saw it, and although it sat on my nightstand for several months, once I got started I couldn’t put it down. ‘POPS’ is an outstandingly woven masterpiece, not just as books go, but perhaps the best biography of a Jazz musician I have ever read. Impeccably researched, Terry Teachout tackles not just the facts, but the heart and soul of Armstrong’s story, while staying focused on the music, which is what Louis Armstrong is all about. In the prologue, the author states that Satch was the first great influence in Jazz, and debunks other common misconceptions of his significance. This statement in itself is a great assessment of Armstrong’s contribution. Gripping page-turner does not even begin to describe how craftily this book was stiched, and to it’s credit – although it concluded with Armstrong’s death – it left me wanting for more.

As I sit here writing this review,  or more of an all-out praise of a brilliant biography, I am listening to Armstrong’s ‘West End Blues’.  Teachout’s Armstrong biography succeeds at telling the tale of a man who owned the American stage for almost half of the twentieth century with great dignity and respect. The fact that I truly couldn’t put the book down (I breezed through the last 250 pages only yesterday) is proof of not just how fascinating and colorful Louis Armstrong’s life and career were, but how an author should write a biography. Nothing is broken down clinically, or comes off as overly factual (and hence boring), but instead beckons the reader to put down the book and listen to each track Armstrong recorded with the excitement and anticipation of hearing it for the first time.

Teachout admits in his afterword that he had access to “archival material unavailable to previous biographers”, but even so, it takes a masterful writer to tell a story in such a way as ‘Pops’ was told, regardless of access to source material.  In this case, the author is a maestro in his own right (or write). Mr. Teachout, ya done Pops good.

“What we play is life’ ~Louis Armstrong





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