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January 18, 2007


To read reviews of Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, watch TV interviews and listen to radio interviews and podcasts about the book, and find out the answers to frequently asked questions about Armstrong and Pops, click on the link.

To see me talk about Pops with Brian Lamb on C-SPAN's Q&A, go here.

The New York Times calls Pops "eloquent and important." To read the review, go here.

The Washington Post calls Pops "exceptional." To read the review, go here.

The Philadelphia Inquirer calls Pops "indispensable." To read the review, go here.

The San Francisco Chronicle calls Pops "a definitive narrative biography of the greatest jazz musician of the twentieth century." To read the review, go here.

The Sunday Times of London calls Pops "terrific." To read the review, go here.

USA Today calls Pops "superb, clear and definitive." To read the review, go here.

The Associated Press calls Pops "magnificent." To read the review, go here.

Publishers Weekly chose Pops as one of the best books of 2009, calling it "a model for writing serious biography about pop culture icons." To read PW's review of Pops, go here. To read Scott Martelle's PW profile of me, go here.

To read what the Boston Globe said about Pops, go here.

To read what Newsweek said, go here.

To watch me talk about Pops on PBS NewsHour, go here.

To watch me talk about Pops on BBC World News America, go here.

To hear me talk about Pops with Christopher Lydon, go here.

To hear John Schaefer talking to me about Pops on WNYC in New York, go here.

To hear Marty Moss-Coane talking to me about Pops on WHYY in Philadelphia, go here.

To hear me talk about Pops on NPR's Talk of the Nation and listen to five of my favorite Louis Armstrong records, go here.

To download a podcast of Milt Rosenberg talking to me about Pops on WGN in Chicago, go here.

To download a Vanity Fair podcast in which I read two excerpts from Pops, go here.

To see a Big Think video interview in which I talk about my work as a biographer, drama critic, and opera librettist, go here.

* * *

Q. Why Louis Armstrong?

A. He was a genius, one of the true cultural giants of the twentieth century. America has never produced a more significant artist. I rank him right alongside Aaron Copland and Robert Frost and Frank Lloyd Wright. But unlike those men, Armstrong was also a great entertainer whose music was and is loved by ordinary people all over the world. In 1964 he actually knocked the Beatles off the top of the pop charts with his recording of "Hello, Dolly!" Aaron Copland never did that!

Q. Why now?

A. Because I'm the first biographer to have had access to 650 reel-to-reel tapes that Armstrong made during the last quarter-century of his life, many of which contain astonishingly candid recordings of his private after-hours conversations. Not only do these tapes shine a strong light on Armstrong's personality, which was far more complex than most people realize, but they also make it possible for us to know the full stories of such key events in his life as his 1931 run-in with the gangsters of Chicago. That's a big part of what made me want to write Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong.

Q. And why you?

A. Most people know me as the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, but I'm also a trained musician--the first one, in fact, ever to write a fully sourced Armstrong biography. I started out as a professional jazz musician, a bass player, before becoming a full-time writer. That experience has helped me to understand Armstrong's music, and the world in which he lived and worked, from the inside out.

Q. How does your book differ from earlier Armstrong biographies?

A. To put it as simply as possible, I've sought to write a narrative biography of Armstrong that is comparable in seriousness and scope to a "definitive" high-culture biography of a great novelist or painter--or a great classical composer. Very few popular-music biographies have aspired to that kind of standard, but it seems self-evident to me that Louis Armstrong was a figure of similar artistic and cultural significance, and so deserves to be written about in the same way.

Q. What does that mean in practice?

A. For openers, Pops is the most accurate book ever written about Louis Armstrong. It contains no unsupported assertions or unsourced "quotes," and every statement by Armstrong that I cite has been traced back to its earliest known source.

Beyond this, I've done my best to deepen the reader's understanding of Armstrong's music, both by discussing selected recordings by Armstrong in close but (I hope) intelligible detail and by situating them in the context of his life--as well as in a wider cultural context. Too often jazz is written about as if it exists in a cultural vacuum. It is, I think, worth knowing that Philip Larkin praised Armstrong as "an artist of Flaubertian purity...more important than Picasso," just as it is more than merely interesting to know that he was listening to and collecting opera recordings as a young man in New Orleans.

In addition, surprisingly little has been written about the way in which Armstrong was covered by the journalists of his day. When did his name first appear in Time, The New Yorker, and the New York Times? When was he first written up in Walter Winchell's column? How did the English press react to his London debut in 1932? At what point did critics start to dismiss his once-revolutionary music as old-fashioned? You'll find the answers in Pops.

Q. What is it that makes Armstrong so significant?

A. He was one of the first great jazz soloists. When he started making records in 1923, jazz was still a collective art in which improvised solos always took a back seat to group ensemble work. Louis Armstrong changed that. The boldness and daring of his trumpet playing immediately caught the ears of his fellow jazz musicians--and so did his gravel-voiced singing. He was as influential a singer as he was an instrumentalist, the first and only musician of whom such a thing can be said.

No less important, though, was the extraordinary warmth of his personality. When you heard him for the first time, you felt as if you knew him--and liked him--not just as a musician, but also as a man. As much as anything else, this was what made him a star, and the fact that Armstrong became a full-fledged star played a crucial role in popularizing jazz.

Q. Was he the same man on stage and off?

A. Yes and no. He was kind and generous, and everybody who knew him loved him. But he knew how to hold a grudge, too, and in private he had a short fuse. He was the kind of guy who'd blow up and chew you out for no reason in the morning, then forget all about it by suppertime.

Q. Was he an Uncle Tom?

A. Not at all. He knew the score, and he could be both blunt and funny about it. One time a friend dropped in on him after a gig and asked what was new. "Nothin' new," he said. "White folks still ahead." You have to keep in mind, of course, that he was born in 1901 in New Orleans, which made him cautious about speaking his mind about racial matters--and understandably so. Back then a black man who spoke out about race in the Deep South could wind up at the end of a rope. But when Armstrong finally went public about segregation in 1956, he went so far as to tell a reporter that President Eisenhower was "two-faced" and had "no guts" for refusing to order the integration of Little Rock's public schools. Popular entertainers, especially black ones, didn't talk like that in 1956--but Louis Armstrong did.

Q. Is it true that he was born on July 4, 1900?

A. No, although he thought so throughout his life. Long after his death, a New Orleans researcher discovered his baptismal certificate, which showed that he was really born on August 4, 1901.

Q. How did you first become interested in Armstrong?

A. I heard him singing "Hello, Dolly," on The Ed Sullivan Show when I was a boy, and fell in love on the spot. After I started playing jazz, I developed a deeper understanding of what made his playing and singing so special, but at first it was the man himself to whom I responded, just like all the rest of his fans.

Q. One last question: how do you pronounce his first name?

A. Most people say "Louie," but listen to his record of "Hello, Dolly!" and you'll hear him sing it his way: "This is LEW-isss, Dolly!" His favorite nickname was "Satchmo," which is short for "Satchelmouth." His close friends and colleagues usually called him "Pops," which is where my book got its title.

* * *

The dust jacket of Pops contains two blurbs of which I am enormously proud. One is from Michael Cogswell, the director of the Louis Armstrong House Museum: "An uplifting story, masterfully told, Pops is essential reading for anyone curious about music, American culture, and one man's ability to inspire the world."

The other is from Armstrong's friend George Avakian, who produced Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy: "Pops will stand as the ultimate biography of Louis Armstrong, the most influential figure in the American arts. Biographer Teachout has researched and evaluated Armstrong's life and work as no one else before him."

Posted January 18, 2007 8:00 PM

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