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Book review: Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong

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Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong by Terry Teachout. One of last year's best books is now available in paperback. Most music historians agree that Louis Armstrong was the single most influential American musician of the 20th century — which is saying a lot, considering American music's influence on world culture. He brought innovations that marked the end of an old, more formal American musical era, and the beginnings of a new one that continues to this day — faster, fun, freely improvisational, and marked by individual members of bands stepping up as soloists or stars — something we take completely for granted today.

Armstrong's newest biographer, Terry Teachout, is a perceptive, compelling writer. In Pops (Armstrong's preferred nickname, rather than the press-created "Satchmo"), he challenges the so-called jazz purists who have often held Armstrong's vast popularity against him, as well as those who criticized his onstage clowning as Uncle Tom-ish. Teachout surveys Armstrong's life, music, writings, and a previously inaccessible collection of 650 revealing, personal tape recordings, producing a rounded portrait of not just a groundbreaking musician, but an inspiring man.

The author also makes it crystal clear that Pops was nobody's racial patsy. Armstrong was acutely aware of the racial and social realities of his era — how could he not be, growing up dirt-poor in New Orleans and making his name in Chicago in the 1920s? — and caused a stir when, in 1957, he called Pres. Eisenhower "gutless" for at first refusing to enforce school integration in Little Rock, Ark. Teachout argues very convincingly that Pops' ebullient, smiling personality, far from being "subservient," was a mark of the man's inner strength, and of his lifelong refusal to let life's blows and injustices diminish his joy in life. This is a stellar biography of an American original.

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