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Louis Armstrong 20th Century Icon

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“Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong” (Terry Teachout)

We’ve written about Louis Armstrong before1, and concur with the assessment that he was one of the key artists of the 20th century.

Louis Armstrong, a k a Satchmo, a k a Pops, was to music what Picasso was to painting, what Joyce was to fiction: an innovator who changed the face of his art form, a fecund and endlessly inventive pioneer whose discovery of his own voice helped remake 20th-century culture.

His determination to entertain and the mass popularity he eventually achieved, coupled with his gregarious, open-hearted personality, would obscure the magnitude of his achievement and win him the disdain of many intellectuals and younger colleagues, who dismissed much of what he did after 1929 as middlebrow slumming, and who even mocked him as a kind of Uncle Tom.

With “Pops,” his eloquent and important new biography of Armstrong, the critic and cultural historian Terry Teachout restores this jazzman to his deserved place in the pantheon of American artists, building upon Gary Giddins’s excellent 1988 study,

Satchmo: The Genius of Louis Armstrong

and offering a stern rebuttal of James Lincoln Collier’s patronizing 1983 book,

Louis Armstrong: An American Genius

Mr. Teachout, the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal and the chief culture critic of Commentary magazine, writes with a deep appreciation of Armstrong’s artistic achievements, while situating his work and his life in a larger historical context. He draws on Armstrong’s wonderfully vivid writings and hours of tapes in which the musician recorded his thoughts and conversations with friends, and in doing so, creates an emotionally detailed portrait of Satchmo as a quick, funny, generous, observant and sometimes surprisingly acerbic man: a charismatic musician who, like a Method actor, channeled his vast life experience into his work, displaying a stunning, almost Shakespearean range that encompassed the jubilant and the melancholy, the playful and the sorrowful.

At the same time, Mr. Teachout reminds us of Armstrong’s gifts: “the combination of hurtling momentum and expansive lyricism that propelled his playing and singing alike,” his revolutionary sense of rhythm, his “dazzling virtuosity and sensational brilliance of tone,” in another trumpeter’s words, which left listeners feeling as though they’d been staring into the sun. The author — who worked as a jazz bassist before becoming a full-time writer — also uses his firsthand knowledge of music to convey the magic of such Armstrong masterworks as “St. Louis Blues,” “Potato Head Blues,” “West End Blues” and “Star Dust.”

[Click to continue reading Books of The Times – The Voice That Helped Remake Culture, From Terry Teachout – Review – NYTimes.com]

A consummate entertainer, inextricably linked in with the history of the century…

The reader gets a dramatic snapshot in this volume of Armstrong’s life on the mean streets of New Orleans, where he grew up, the illegitimate son of a 15-year-old country girl, among gamblers, church people, prostitutes and hustlers; his adventures in gangland Chicago and Jazz Age New York; the rapid metamorphosis of this shy, “little frog-mouthed boy who played the cornet” into the most influential soloist in jazz; and the long, hard years on the road, crisscrossing the United States dozens of time, playing so many one-nighters that he often came off the stage, in his own words, “too tired to raise an eyelash.”

I’ll let you know how the book is, I’m ordering it right now.

At Amazon, the author writes:

Dear Amazon Readers:

Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, my new book, is the story of a great artist who was also a good man.

A genius who was born in the gutter–and became a celebrity known in every corner of the world.

A beloved entertainer who was more complex–and much tougher–than his fans ever imagined.

It’s not the first Armstrong biography, but it’s the first one to tell Satchmo’s story accurately. I based it in part on hundreds of private, after-hours recordings made by Armstrong himself, candid tapes in which he tells the amazing tale of his ascent to stardom in blunt, plainspoken language. I’m the first biographer to have had access to those tapes.

Read Pops and you’ll learn the facts about his 1930 marijuana arrest, his life-threatening run-in with the gangsters of Chicago, his triumphant Broadway and Hollywood debuts, his complicated love life, and much, much more.

You’ll also come away understanding exactly what it was that made him the most influential jazz musician of the twentieth century, an entertainer so irresistibly magnetic that he knocked the Beatles off the top of the charts four decades after he cut his first record.

If you’ve ever thrilled to the sounds of “West End Blues,” “Mack the Knife,” “Hello, Dolly!” or “What a Wonderful World,” this is the book for you and yours. Give Pops a read and find out all about the man from New Orleans who changed the face of American music.

Sincerely yours,

Terry Teachout

For an artist as prolific for so long as Louis Armstrong, you might not know where to start listening. I can’t say there are any Louis Armstrong albums that I own that are bad2, but my favorite era has always been the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens

“The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings” (Louis Armstrong)

Everybody knows Louis Armstrong–even if it’s just for his heart-pleasing renditions of “Hello Dolly” and “What a Wonderful World.” Well, this four-CD box set marking the 100th anniversary of his birth–give or take a year–contains some of his most groundbreaking, historic works. Recorded between 1925 and 1929, the Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings find Armstrong with more than able cohorts, including pianists Earl “Fatha” Hines and Lillian Hardin (Armstrong’s second wife), clarinetist-saxophonist Johnny Dodds, and trombonist Kid Ory. Recorded when Armstrong was emerging from the influence of his idol, Joe “King” Oliver, these sides feature the main staples of the Armstrong canon, including “Potato Head Blues,” “Big Butter and Egg Man,” “Cornet Chop Suey” and the Armstrong-Hines duet “Weather Bird.” The jewel of the collection is “West End Blues,” with Armstrong’s stratospheric, pyramid-structured solo, which ranks as one of the greatest in the history of music. The sessions also mark an important technological breakthrough, with the transition from acoustic to electrical recording.

Armstrong’s virtuosity on the cornet and trumpet alone would have been enough to ensure his fame. On the 1927 song “Heebie Jeebies,” he forgot the lyrics and scatted them and became the first jazz singer, paving the way for Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, and Betty Carter. All in all, this set shows that Louis Armstrong’s heroic talents enabled him to become the alpha and omega of 20th century music. As author Robert O’Meally, who wrote the superb liner notes to this well-packaged collection, puts it, “like Chaucer’s poetry, which virtually begins the process of codifying the English language as a medium for sophisticated versification, Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Hot Sevens provide a wide launching pad from which the history of the art of jazz takes flight.”

  1. and a few other times or more []
  2. there could be some crap albums, in other words, but I’ve never heard one, and don’t know if they exist []

Written by Seth Anderson

November 24th, 2009 at 8:37 am

Posted in Music,Suggestions

Tagged with , ,

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  1. […] Armstrong is an American hero, Kenny G, not so […]

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