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New Armstrong bio looks underneath the grin of a great musician

1/27/2010, 7:52 a.m.

(AP Photos)

New Armstrong bio looks underneath the grin of a great musician

Louis Armstrong did more to popularize homegrown American music than any performer before or since. With the biography “Pops,” “Wall Street Journal” drama critic Terry Teachout is the first trained musician (he writes opera and played jazz bass) to write a fully sourced biography of Armstrong.

The author admittedly drew not only from a wealth of recently available scholarship about “Satchmo,” but private letters and previously unpublished photographs, notes and manuscripts, and 650 of the entertainer’s reel-to-reel tapes featuring jokes, radio interviews, recorded gigs, classical music, ruminations and casual conversations. Teachout skillfully integrates the private Pops with previous research to develop his portrait.

Armstrong saw himself as a figure that grew up simultaneously with America’s impressionist music, giving his date of birth as July 4, 1900 (he likely did not know it was August 4, 1901). He took to music early in his native New Orleans, playing in the band of a colored waif’s home, and sneaking looks inside the seedy dives of the notorious Storyville district.

Young Louis was close to his mother and sister, though he was aware his mother not only cavorted with an endless string of “uncles,” but may have turned the occasional trick. He spoke very little of his father who abandoned the household when he was very young, and throughout his life had no sympathy for irresponsible black males — a sore spot repeated in his personal journals. By 15 years old, he adopted his young cousin Clarence, who became developmentally disabled after a bad fall.

When he was a steamboat band member, the teenaged Armstrong’s singular tone caused fellow musicians to take notice. At 21, he was called to join Joe “King” Oliver’s band in Chicago. There he became the most talked about cornet (and eventually, trumpet) player in the genre that was taking Prohibition America by storm. His piano playing band mate and wife Lil Hardin encouraged him to think bigger than father figure Oliver and strike out on his own.

Pops’ combination of virtuosity and showmanship made him a rising star, if a controversial one. He learned lessons of simplicity and melody from Oliver — such that he became a fan of bandleader Guy Lombardo, whom most contemporary players and critics deemed pedestrian at best. Armstrong was the first cornet and trumpet player able to convey great emotion in the upper register of his instruments. His scat singing, delivered in an instantly recognizable gravel tone, boosted his appeal live and on wax. Fellow musicians, Bing Crosby included, felt Armstrong “never really had a very good band.” Producer-critic John Hammond, who helped launch the careers of Billie Holliday, Benny Goodman and Bob Dylan, saw Pops as a stellar player burdened by second-rate bands.

Teachout disagrees. The author argues that the large bands in which Luis Russell was Pops’ musical director were talented, but Armstrong entrusted arrangements to men incapable of developing a signature style suited to his unique gifts. By contrast, the bands of Goodman, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington had a “sound.”