This is Louis, Dolly

New biography mines private recordings and conversations for fresh insights into a jazz icon

By William H. Pritchard
Globe Correspondent / December 13, 2009

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One of the hardest-working and seriously gifted critics of American literary and musical culture, Terry Teachout writes about drama for the Wall Street Journal and music for Commentary. He has produced biographies of H.L. Mencken and George Balanchine and is also a trained musician with a special love and expertise in jazz; thus his decision to write a biography about Louis Armstrong, our greatest American jazz musician, though not inevitable, should be welcomed.

While Teachout acknowledges the research of previous biographers who have discovered much about his subject, he incorporates new material in his “Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong,’’ drawing on hundreds of private recordings and backstage conversations. As in the Mencken biography, his sharp, often witty sentences make reading him a delight.

He is more than delighted by Armstrong, “a black man born at the turn of the century in the poorest quarter of New Orleans who by the end of his life was known and loved in every corner of the earth.’’ Armstrong also distinguished himself from most of his peers by leaving behind a substantial body of prose - two memoirs, which Teachout takes every opportunity to quote for their flavor and honesty. He calls one of them, “Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans,’’ the best book written by any jazz musician.

Much of the Armstrong story, especially in the musician’s earlier years, is familiar to us through the work of previous scholars and the man’s own writing. This ground is covered expertly by Teachout as he presents the child of a single mother growing up in the black Storyville section of New Orleans.

As a boy, Louis discharged a revolver in the street one night and in consequence was sent to the Colored Waif’s Home for Boys. He was already playing the cornet, but his talents improved in the Waif’s Home brass band (In the book, Armstrong is shown with the group in a 1913 photograph). Other important events include his 1919 musical cruise up the Mississippi from St. Louis to Minneapolis under the leadership of Fate Marable; then came the vital time spent with Joe “King’’ Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, which Armstrong left New Orleans for Chicago to join. There followed an important stint, brief as it was, with Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra in New York City where Armstrong acted as a cornet soloist (the Oliver band didn’t feature soloists) in such still-admirable numbers as the Don Redman-arranged “Copenhagen’’ and “Sugarfoot Stomp.’’ Now married to Lil Hardin, who played jazz piano, he returned to Chicago and, accompanied by Lil, Johnny Dodds (clarinet), Kid Ory (trombone), and Johnny St. Cyr (banjo), made the “Hot Five’’ recordings that Teachout rightly calls “the first chapters in what was to become the Old Testament of classic jazz.’’

In his commentary on some of these sides, others by the “Hot Seven’’ (drums and tuba added), and still others with the great pianist Earl Hines, Teachout shows himself to be gifted with not only a trained ear but prose adequate to expressing what he hears. He describes a typical Armstrong solo as consisting of “comparatively straightforward theme statements, subtly varied melodic paraphrases, and climactic set-piece ‘routines,’ ’’ assembled with “cumulative continuity.’’ He anatomizes the “stop-time’’ chorus (in which the band marks the downbeat of every other measure) of perhaps Armstrong’s greatest recording, “Potato Head Blues,’’ as follows: “Armstrong flings a tune that links the chords together like a cable strung along a row of telephone poles. Starting with the first bar, which he prefaces with one of the crisp syncopated figures that launch so many of his solos, he gradually lengthens his phrases until he is leaping across the band’s chords, forging a link so seamless that it sounds as if it were composed, not improvised.’’ The master at this sort of on-the-spot jazz description was the New Yorker’s Whitney Balliett; Teachout is equally good at it, and this reader could only wish there were time for similar accounts of all the great Armstrong solos.

There can’t be, of course, since Teachout is writing a biography, and there are roughly four more decades to cover (Armstrong died in 1971) after the great records of the late 1920s. Much of the account is taken up with cataloging Armstrong’s punishing schedule of appearances year after year - “a nonstop parade of nightclub gigs and concerts, recording sessions, forgettable movies, guest shots on TV, and indistinguishable hotel rooms.’’

Teachout makes a good case for Armstrong’s later performances in which his singing was prominent, discriminating the good from the not-so-good. My familiarity with the later work doesn’t extend much beyond the few great sides he made in midcareer for Victor in the early 1930s with an undistinguished band accompanying him. Despite the band, his wonderful singing and playing on “That’s My Home,’’ “There’s a Cabin in the Pines,’’ and especially “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues’’ are matchless. Teachout calls the third of these truly “an immortal masterpiece’’ as Louis’s solo hovers “miles beyond the clockwork tyranny of the beat and sounding for all the world like a lordly turn-of-the-century tenor.’’

There are many other facets of Armstrong covered by Teachout in the book’s later chapters - his lifetime marijuana habit, the film and radio appearances that made his reputation (rather than the great jazz records), his being accused in the 1950s and ’60s of “uncle-Tomming” in some of his stereotype “Negro’’ performances. But it is best to end with his own summing-up: “When I pick up that horn, that’s all. The world’s behind me, and I don’t concentrate on nothin’ but it. . . . That my livin’ and my life. I love them notes. That why I try to make ’em right. See?’’ Teachout adds, “The whole world saw - and heard.’’

William H. Pritchard is a professor of English at Amherst College. His most recent book is the just-published “On Poets and Poetry.’’

POPS: A Life of Louis Armstrong
By Terry Teachout
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 475 pp., illustrated, $30

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