Book Review: Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong

Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, by Terry Teachout (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009): 475pp. Hardcover, $30; paperback, $16.95.

If you plan to read just one book about Louis Armstrong, whose virtuosic cornet solos pushed jazz past rudimentary ensemble playing and launched his phenomenal career as an instrumentalist and singer, make it Pops. Teachout built it on brickwork laid by authors who preceded him, so you'll benefit from their research, as well as from narrative on 650 previously private reels of tape that Armstrong recorded and archived. Moreover, Teachout is a musician and music critic who offers opinions on his subject's discography.

Few people seem to realize that Armstrong (1901–1971) called himself LOU-iss. "All White Folks call me Louie," he once noted, and in some instances that may have been patronizing. In others, it was surely an instinctive response to the man's infectious warmth and informality.

Along with immeasurable talent, Armstrong was blessed with an agreeable nature. He may have been too accommodating, leading many blacks to see him as a kowtowing Uncle Tom. The actor Ossie Davis, who changed his tune after meeting his fellow artist, put it this way: "Everywhere we'd look, there'd be Louis—sweat popping, eyes bugging, mouth wide open, grinning . . . doing his thing for the white man."

But Armstrong was, after all, an entertainer who believed in satisfying his audience. He wasn't obsequious, and he understood the sometimes deadly game that whites of his era so often forced blacks into. Once, when an acquaintance greeted him by asking what was new, he shot back, "Nothin' . . . White folks still ahead."

Then there was the time in 1957 that all 5' 6" of him exploded in front of a young reporter because the Governor of Arkansas, Orval Faubus, had called out the National Guard to prevent nine black students from enrolling in a white high school. Armstrong, by then internationally acclaimed and widely viewed as a cultural envoy for his country, called Faubus "a no-good motherfucker" and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles "another motherfucker." He said that President Eisenhower, who hadn't remedied the situation, was "two-faced."

When Armstrong was a boy in New Orleans, one "Black Benny" Williams, a tough bass drummer who watched out for him, gave him advice that he repeated decades later in a letter to Joe Glaser, his manager from 1935 onward: "As long as you live, no matter where you may be—always have a White Man who will put his Hand on your shoulder and say . . . Can't Nobody Harm Ya." Armstrong, a habitual writer, traveled with a typewriter and produced reams of distinctive prose with words capitalized, put in quotation marks, and underlined (italicized here instead) for emphasis; a plus sign (+) served him for and.

Glaser seems to have been a surrogate parent, filling in for the father who had walked out on Louis early on. That betrayal left a lasting mark; late in his life, he wrote, "Mama Lucy [his sister] + I were bastards from the Start." His father's neglect, and the contrasting kindness of the Karnofskys, a white family Louis worked for when he was six or seven, also affected his view of his own people.

The Karnofskys bought junk, and Louis signaled their cart's arrival with a tin party horn. When he began to wonder how he would do with a cornet and spotted one in a pawnshop window, the Karnofskys helped him buy it. He grew close to them, and noticed that they were targets of prejudice because they were Jews, but also that they demonstrated a cohesiveness and work ethic that he thought some of his own people lacked. "Jewish people . . . stuck together. And by doing that, they had to have success . . . Many [black] kids suffered with hunger because their Fathers could have done some honest work [rather than] lazy around + gamble, etc," he wrote.

Armstrong practiced the loyalty he admired. While still in his teens, he assumed financial responsibility for a young, orphaned cousin named Clarence, who, possibly due to injuries from a fall, turned out to be retarded. Armstrong had no children of his own, and ultimately adopted Clarence. When, one year at the Newport Jazz Festival, the promoter George Wein and Joe Glaser agreed that Ella Fitzgerald should replace Armstrong's longtime vocalist, Velma Middleton, an unremarkable singer who despite her obesity excelled at doing splits on stage, Louis wouldn't allow it.

He certainly didn't lazy around. From his job with the Karnofskys he went on to sell newspapers and sing for pennies as part of a busking boy quartet that apparently caught the attention of the prominent New Orleans trumpeter Bunk Johnson. Not long after his release from the Colored Waifs' Home—where he had been sent for firing a borrowed pistol loaded with blanks on New Year's Eve, and where he learned enough about music to play first cornet in the band—Armstrong, then in his early teens, got into the music business in earnest. He performed in local honky-tonks, for a time after long days of guiding a mule-drawn cart and shoveling the coal it carried to earn additional income, and at 18 he joined a Mississippi riverboat band. At 21 he left for Chicago to work for another father figure, the trumpeter Joe "King" Oliver.

A couple of years before his death, Armstrong tellingly summed up his career: "It's been hard goddam work, man. Feel like I spent 20,000 years on planes and railroads, like I blowed my chops off." Anyone who thinks he lacked black pride should note that the point of it all was "to give a good show. My life has been my music," Armstrong asserted, "but the music ain't worth nothing if you can't lay it on the public. The main thing is to live for that audience, 'cause what you're there for is to please the people."—David Lander

boomer57's picture

When reading a book review, I expect more than a mere recitation of the highlights of a non-fiction book, I expect the reviewer to use his/her own knowledge to point out any inaccuracies or missing information in the given book, and also to identify any particular strengths of the book as well. Please keep this in mind going forward.