Terry Teachout says it himself in the afterword of “Pops” that “this is, surprisingly, the first fully sourced biography of Armstrong to be written by an author who is also a trained musician.” So for me, a reader who doesn’t know a bar from a break, the job was to try to decipher the technical and critical appreciation of Armstrong’s work.
I was familiar with Teachout’s thoroughness and straightforward style from reading “The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken” but in that biography I shared a keen interest in a major force of that book- writing. Here I had to look for the other priorities I have for reading biography and they were all amply fulfilled.
I like to see how the subject handles life. How they keep their demons away and how they deal with fame and fortune. In the case of Armstrong, or any artist, I want to know about the tension between them and their art. In “Pops” Teachout uses Armstrong the primal force of jazz and Armstrong the “populist” or commercial success as subjects of equal weight. Although it is clear that the author considers his subject’s role in jazz without parallel, he does not discount what Armstrong accomplishes through his popular appeal.
As for how Armstrong handled life, according to accounts that Teachout relates Armstrong had a lifelong devotion to marijuana. The use of the drug, which had begun before it was made illegal, and his prolific letter writing were tools that Armstrong used during scarce periods in his life when he wasn’t performing. Teachout makes it clear that the drug was also used prior to or after performances. But as the author tells it Armstrong really didn’t need any help to get through life, only his trumpet.
The work considers all of Armstrong’s life form his birth in 1901 in New Orleans to his death in New York in 1971. There was a stay in the Colored Waif’s Home for Boy’s, an association with gangsters which would have great consequences for his career, and four marriages, the final one to Lucille Wilson to whom he was married from 1942 until his death.
Armstrong made a conscious decision to stay out of the business end of his career. He entrusted that to Joe Glaser, who started out as a club manager in Chicago with close ties to Al Capone. In 1935 Armstrong found himself with contract problems and a wife looking for unpaid “maintenance” payments. Those problems seemed minor to being on the wrong side of the mob. In Teachout’s words, ” What Armstrong needed was a tough guy of his own, one he could trust.”
It was Armstrong’s relationship to the white Glaser and the words that he used to describe that relationship that seems to be the genesis of the notion that Armstrong was submissive to whites. Teachout treats the subject in great detail and the treatment gives the reader a sense of the time and place in which Armstrong lived and performed. Attitudes about this aspect of the trumpeter’s temperament have careened about since his playing days, but thanks to the author’s exacting research we have a quote from Ossie Davis that may say it best. After Davis met Armstrong, he stated that his horn was “where Louis kept his manhood hid all those years …enough for him…enough for all of us.”
Armstrong’s story is well entrusted to Terry Teachout. Historically interesting, humanly complete and musically introspective Pops hits all the right notes even for someone challenged by the professional consideration of Armstrong’s art. This makes me wonder how much of a joy this work would be for musically literate reader.