Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong Terry Teachout. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $30 (512p)
Following his biographies of H.L. Mencken and George Balanchine, Teachout turns to
another mighty pillar of 20th-century American culture, Louis 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.” It may seem
odd to speak of someone of Louis Armstrong's stature as needing recuperation, but
his popularity has long been held against him by jazz purists and other music critics.
Teachout brings a fresh perspective that, while candid about the ways “Pops” could
hold himself back artistically, celebrates his ambition and capacity for renewal.
The other knock against Armstrong is that if white Americans loved him so much, he
must have been an “Uncle Tom,” a notion Teachout neatly demolishes. While Armstrong
was keenly aware of the social realities of his time, his relentless work ethic was
fueled by an equally intense optimism. (His patience, however, was not infinite;
he publicly criticized President Eisenhower as having “no guts” for failing to enforce
desegregation—one of the few celebrities who could be so outspoken without suffering
substantial backlash.) Teachout's portrait reminds us why we fell in love with Armstrong's
music in the first place. B&w photos throughout, many previously unpublished. (Dec.