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

Louis Armstrong goes for a stroll with a pet schnauzer and neighborhood kids in Queens in 1970. Among other things, the performer left a wealth of recordings photographs of his life.
(Associated Press/Wide World, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

In 1947, jazz great Louis Armstrong got himself a new gadget -- a tape recorder, fresh out on the consumer market. It was a big, boxy machine that he set up in concert halls and jazz joints to record his six-piece All Stars so he could listen to each show in his hotel room and thin out the weak spots for the next gig.

Before long, however, this work tool became a plaything -- and, a couple of generations later, a treasure trove for Terry Teachout, author of the new and compelling biography “Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 476 pp., $30).

“He started leaving it on and making audio vérité tapes of chunks of his life -- dinner parties, getting high in the dressing room after a gig, trying to get his wife into bed,” says Teachout, national drama critic for the Wall Street Journal. “He saved all these tapes. There are 650-odd of them.”

While the tapes have been available to scholars since 2002, Teachout is the first biographer to make full use of them, says Michael Cogswell, director of the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens, N.Y. And although Teachout says the tapes don’t contain any major revelations, they infuse “Pops” with the insights of an eavesdropper.

“Armstrong, although he was very self-aware, was also a very unself-conscious man,” Teachout says in his art-filled apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “He knew what he was. He knew he was a very important figure in the history of American art. And so he saved everything that he could. But in making these tapes, he’s entirely unself-conscious. He just records parts of his life. . . . He is the only major jazz musician who has left behind a very large volume of documents of this kind.”

He also left behind a wealth of photographs. One uncredited shot in the book captures the portly Armstrong in a messy hotel room, wearing nothing but white briefs, his trumpet lying in an open case in the foreground and the tape recorder perched on a table in the back.

Teachout himself is a heavyset man with a wide, expressive smile and glasses that make him look owlish. He speaks in long, discursive paragraphs, his diction precise, his tone a bit arch and bearing no hint of Missouri, where he grew up in a small town.

Sitting on a couch, a leg tucked underneath him while traffic whooshes by a couple of floors below, Teachout explains that it took five years to research and write “Pops,” about half the time he invested in his first biography, “The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken,” which came out in 2002. He is also the author of 2004’s “All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine.”

The Mencken book, he says, taught him how to write a biography. The Balanchine was more of a life in brief, spun out quickly to take advantage of the strong critical reaction to the Mencken book. “Pops” is a return to full-form biography, and Teachout hopes it will reawaken our sense of Armstrong’s creative genius. (Jazz’s cultural standing is a recurring theme for Teachout, who ignited an online jazz-world brawl in August over a column in which he asked whether the music form could be “saved,” implying that it was imperiled.)

The book has revelations for those unfamiliar with Armstrong’s life and career. Teachout believes that few outside the jazz-studies world recognize Armstrong’s talent as a writer -- he was the author of two memoirs. Nor do people know that he was “threatened with murder” by the Chicago mob, that lip damage led him to add more of what became his signature gravelly vocals to his performances or that “it really wasn’t so much his musicmaking but his film career that made him a real star.”

Then there was Armstrong’s womanizing -- four marriages and “numerous dalliances in between and during” -- and his daily joint, a habit that in 1931 led to a nine-day jail stint in Los Angeles after he got caught lighting up between sets outside Frank Sebastian’s Culver City Cotton Club.

“Most people, I suspect, don’t know that he smoked marijuana every day,” Teachout says, although he acknowledges that a jazz musician using drugs wouldn’t really astonish anyone. “But people who know about Armstrong in the general way that most of us know about Armstrong, I think they’re going to be surprised.”

At its heart, “Pops” is about one of the 20th century’s most interest- ing and enduring popular per- formers, with a compelling life story to match.

“He was born in New Orleans in 1901, on the toughest block in town, his mother was a whore, and at the end of his life, everybody in the world knew who he was,” Teachout says. “He was the first great influence in jazz. . . . Remember that ‘Hello, Dolly!’ knocked the Beatles off the top of the Billboard charts [in 1964]. It was the last jazz single ever to be a No. 1 record in the United States.”

Armstrong’s rise was not easy. He performed about 300 nights a year and lived out of a suitcase. In the early days, he bounced back and forth between Chicago and New York, endured Jim Crow humiliations during tours of the South and struggled to pursue music without getting overwhelmed by the details of running a jazz orchestra. (Eventually, he turned the business side over to white managers.)

Still, after revolutionizing jazz in the 1920s, Armstrong was in the vanguard of black entertainers who crossed over to white mass culture, leading an integrated band, appearing in movies and becoming a regular first on radio and then on television.

“He was even more effective on television than he was in the films. In the films, he played these stereotypical Uncle Tom-like roles, because that was what you got to play if you were black in the 1930s and 1940s,” Teachout says. “On television, he played himself performing as a musician, and he was one of the most frequently seen people on TV throughout the 1950s and 1960s. . . . He had the personality, and he was able to make use of media that brought that personality into the homes of ordinary people.”

Yet Armstrong’s mugging -- he saw himself as an entertainer as much as a musician -- irked critics and some fellow black jazz performers, such as beboppers Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, who thought his shtick was too close to minstrelsy.

“The implication was clear,” Teachout writes, summing up dismissive comments by Gillespie. “Armstrong may have been an artist, but he was also an old-time accommodationist who went along to get along.”

Still, even the new beboppers had to join the old guard in recognizing Armstrong’s role as a musical trailblazer. Teachout cites a Time magazine profile of Armstrong from 1949, as bebop was beginning to replace big band jazz. In it, there’s a quote from legendary drummer Gene Krupa: “No band musician today on any instrument, jazz, sweet or bebop, can get through 32 bars without musically admitting his debt to Armstrong. Louis did it all, and he did it first.”

Martelle is an Irvine-based journalist and critic.