The Magazine

Man with a Horn

Louis Armstrong, pioneer.

Nov 30, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 11 • By TED GIOIA
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A Life of Louis Armstrong

by Terry Teachout

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,

496 pp., $30

Louis Armstrong (1901-1971) enjoyed a charmed and charming life. His recordings from the 1920s changed the course of jazz, setting in place a heroic conception of the soloist that continues to reverberate in the music today. And his artistry was matched by immense popularity--not always a given in the jazz world, which views hit records with suspicion. In 1964 Armstrong even knocked the Beatles off the top perch in the Billboard chart with "Hello Dolly," and at age 63 became the oldest musician ever to record a number-one hit.

Yet Armstrong has not been served well by his chroniclers. Robert Goffin wrote the first Armstrong biography, Horn of Plenty, back in 1947, but this Belgian lawyer was caught up in his strange personal vision of jazz musicians as "noble savages." He depicted the trumpeter in the light of his "Deep Congo" ancestry--which, Goffin assures us, accounts for the artist's docility and mental acumen. James Lincoln Collier's 1983 study Louis Armstrong: An American Genius was more thorough and detailed, but hardly more staid. He categorized much of Armstrong's repertoire as " 'good darky' tunes out of the coon-song tradition" and adopted a polemical, revisionist stance that spurred sharp disagreement from other scholars.

In recent years, admirers have often relied on Laurence Bergreen's flawed Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life from 1997, which suffers from the author's limited knowledge of jazz. Bergreen even repeats colorful rumors about Buddy Bolden, the supposed father of jazz, with apparently no realization that New Orleans scholars had disproved these tales back in the 1970s. Sad to say, readers might be better served by Armstrong's own memoir, Satchmo (1954), even though it only covers his life up to 1922.

Given this history, readers have been justifiably excited in anticipation of Terry Teachout's in-depth biography. Teachout is an astute critic who knows jazz deeply--and has even played it as a bassist--but is largely immune to the increasingly inward-focused attitudes that hinder the effectiveness of so many contemporary critics. He has previous biographies of H. L. Mencken and George Balanchine to his credit, and has written strong, supple criticism of dance, theater, and cinema. In short, Teachout seems perfectly suited to tackle this seminal figure whose career rarely stayed within the usual boundaries of jazz.

Teachout captures this broader context with great skill. His rich cast of characters includes not only musicians and record industry figures, but criminals and monarchs, TV personalities and movie stars. We follow Armstrong at a 1932 performance with King George V in attendance, tossing off the intro "This one's for you, Rex"--then playing (unthinkingly?) "I'll Be Glad When You're Dead, You Rascal, You!" Elsewhere, we get a detailed look--the best I have read anywhere--of Armstrong's dealings with the Mob. This artist first made his reputation in Al Capone's Chicago, and even at the end of his life, his financial situation was affected by underworld influences. At other points we encounter Sammy Davis Jr., Johnny Cash, Leonard Bernstein, Bing Crosby, and Pope Pius XII, among other names worth dropping. My favorite anecdote tells of Herbert von Karajan berating the Vienna Philharmonic because its players can't maintain a tempo as well as Armstrong's band.

Teachout delivers a taut and well-paced work that is astute in its critical judgments and gripping in its chronicle of the trumpeter's life and times. Yet Armstrong helped his biographers considerably by presenting them with such a storybook rags-to-riches tale. Indeed, one could hardly imagine a less auspicious beginning for an illustrious career. The surviving baptismal certificate categorized the future jazz legend as a "niger, illegitimus," the son of a 15-year-old Mary Ann Albert and Willie Armstrong, who (in the words of his son) "left us the day we were born." The baby, delivered in a wooden shack on the edge of New Orleans's red light district, was soon handed off to his grandmother while Mary Ann earned a living on her own, most likely as a prostitute.