Reading Pops, Terry Teachout’s new biography of Louis Armstrong, I was reminded, over and over again, of the line about the Broadway show where you walk in humming the tunes. No sooner has the audience settled into their seats than Teachout begins revisiting hallowed moments in Armstrong’s career. Here is Armstrong’s inauspicious birth, on August 4, 1901, into the gritty depths of the New Orleans caste system, and here his musical mentorship with Joe "King" Oliver, a lifelong hero, and their groundbreaking recording of "Dippermouth Blues." A little later, there’s Armstrong’s partnership with Earl Hines, which widened the spectrum of jazz with "West End Blues" and "Weatherbird," and his recordings of cheesy pop numbers like "Sweethearts on Parade," which showed singers from Billie Holiday onward how to transmute tin-pan tunes into gold. And here, too, are familiar moments from the later career: the endless tours with the All Stars, no gig complete without "Rockin’ Chair" sung (and ritually mocked) with Jack Teagarden; the State Department tours; "Blueberry Hill," "Mack the Knife," "Hello, Dolly!"; and the charges, from the jazz establishment, of selling out, and from younger jazz giants, like Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, of being an Uncle Tom. As Gary Giddins has explained, they reconsidered the charge after Armstrong told a reporter that President Eisenhower was "two-face" and had "no guts" for acting indecisively when Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus barred black children from entering a white school.
The story is a familiar one, and not only because Pops, as Teachout admits, is "less a work of scholarship than an exercise in synthesis." (In other words, there’s little evidence of original research, and no new revelations about the life or the music.) Gary Giddins’s Satchmo, from 1988, remains the best appreciation of a musician whose genius as a trumpeter, improviser, singer and entertainer still defies comparison. Other biographies, most notably Laurence Bergreen’s Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life (1997), sleuthed much of the life story. More important, Armstrong told his own story, and in words more pungent than any scholar’s or critic’s, in Swing That Music (1936) and Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans (1954), as well as in less guarded private writings edited by musicologist Thomas Brothers for the collection In His Own Words (2006).
Pops also has a didactic bent, and with it far older precedents. Teachout has tailored Armstrong’s life story along lines that recall Horatio Alger, a parallel he notes early on, and The Pilgrim’s Progress, an analogy not explicitly drawn but implicit in the scene setting: "Faced with the terrible realities of the time and place into which he had been born, he did not repine, but returned love for hatred and sought salvation in work." I must have been humming a hymn. Stories repeated, embellished and reinflected in an "exercise in synthesis" may be pleasing or flattering to read, especially if they confirm one’s tastes or prejudices, but they amount to mythology, not history. Even if we accept the premise that Pops is not scholarship but journalism, it violates the first principle of that form: don’t give the reader secondhand news.
Some of the book’s shortcomings are indicative of a larger problem: the history of the vast and seemingly familiar cultural realms of American life in which Armstrong flourished–jazz, popular entertainment, celebrity–is only now slowly beginning to be written. It might seem late in the day to claim that jazz history is in its infancy, but one of the finest jazz historians, Lawrence Gushee, made the case with exemplary precision four years ago in his revelatory Pioneers of Jazz: The Story of the Creole Band. Most of what passes for jazz history has been written by record collectors, Gushee explains, and their writing is "spectacularly successful in avoiding what might be called esthetic or musical issues, not to speak of broader questions of social and economic history." Gushee also laments the "absence of African-Americans from the rosters of writers on jazz." He’s thinking specifically of their conspicuous nonpresence as authors of jazz history textbooks and, until recently, jazz biography, for in fact there is a large and distinguished body of critical writing about jazz by African-Americans such as Ralph Ellison, Albert Murray, Stanley Crouch, Amiri Baraka, Ishmael Reed, Hazel Carby and Robert O’Meally. None of these writers appear in Teachout’s bibliography. Not one of them, by the way, could be considered a marginal hothead: Murray’s Stomping the Blues (1976) has become an unavoidable (I would have thought) foundation for jazz hermeneutics.