December 27, 2010

The Story Behind the Smile: Terry Teachout's "Pops"

I just finished reading Terry Teachout's biography of Louis Armstrong, Pops, which is now out in paperback, and can recommend it wholeheartedly. Teachout, the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal, had access to a lot of previously unavailable material on Armstrong, including over 650 reels of tape recordings made by "Satchmo" during the last two decades of his life. This provides a very intimate and fascinating look at the man behind the very public persona: his dope smoking, his marriages, his run-ins with the mob, his generosity, and his unadulterated joy in music.
     Armstrong was universally recognized as an artist who changed everything about jazz when he burst on the scene in the late 1920s. And he was also roundly criticized over the years for his on-stage and on-screen antics - a kind of fawning or clowning to please the audience - which many people, including other jazz musicians, considered demeaning or even "Uncle Tomming."
Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong     What we see in the book is that Armstrong was very much a product of his time. He grew up in poverty in the New Orleans of the early twentieth century and he lived in a time when race was an everyday issue. Armstrong also grew up without the presence of a father, so he often had a father-like figure in his life that he relied on - other musicians such as Joe Oliver or his long-time manager Joe Glaser. So, there was an aspect to his personality that wanted to please others, but it was not some kind of showmanship he put on.
     We also see Armstrong the savvy career man. He made the conscious decision in the early Thirties to try to become more mainstream and, frankly, appeal to white audiences. This led to more emphasis on his singing and less on his trumpet playing and to a string of mostly forgettable movie appearances. His bands and musical arrangements for much of the decade were also primarily mediocre. It worked, and "Pops" became a crossover star.
     But the jazz world was moving along while he stood still. The Big Band era came and went and bebop came along in the Forties. Armstrong had a revival in the late Forties and Fifties when he switched to a small-group format. He toured relentlessly, but often played the same tunes every night. And then he had his biggest hit of all with "Hello, Dolly!" in the Sixties, which beat the Beatles' "Can't Buy Me Love" to be the most popular tune in America.
     Through it all, he played and audiences around the world fell in love with the sheer joy that came through in his performances. Armstrong never made a differentiation between art and showmanship - he was an unapologetic entertainer. But this is why his critics were so off the mark: there was nothing phony or fawning about "Pops"; it just wasn't in his DNA.

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