Review by John Augustine

Who was America's most important musician?  Good candidates include Copeland and Bernstein, Gershwin and Ellington, Seeger and Dylan. But my money is on Louis (not Louie) Satchmo Armstrong. The Satchmo, if you're curious, was short for Satchelmouth, his favorite nickname, and he did have a big mouth. But everybody in the business called him Pops, the father of us all. That's also the title of the most recent biography by Terry Teachout. Teachout is not only an accomplished biographer (I especially enjoyed his previous book on H. L. Mencken), but a professional musician, well qualified to appreciate and explain Pops' accomplishment. 

Jazz is only about 100 years old—there are people alive today who could have heard Buddy Bolden shout, and that's about as far back as we can go. For half that century, Pops was the big dog, especially among this fellow musicians.

Armstrong started from nothing—the back streets of new Orleans, a single mother who couldn't manage him. After a couple of childhood incidents, he was placed in Colored Waif's Home for Boys, a reform school where he was given strict discipline and a cornet, for the school band. Six years later, he was probably the outstanding jazz horn player in the country. He certainly astounded the passengers when he performed in a steamboat band on the Mississippi. 

His mentor was Joe Oliver, a trumpeter who led the best jazz band in new Orleans. Joe admired and envied his precocious protégé, and when he moved the band to Chicago, he sent for Louis to join him there, and Chicago jazz was born. Years later, when Pops was established, he bumped into Oliver in Savannah, selling vegetables out of a cart. The early jazz scene was precarious. Characteristically, Louis emptied his pockets, about $150, and gave it to the old maestro.

In the 1920s, Teachout says, "Armstrong drastically expanded the musical language of jazz." The Oliver band had played set pieces as a unified ensemble, but Louis scaled down to a small combo that allowed more solo work, improvisation, spontaneity—out of Dixieland and into jazz as we know it. Other players joined him in that progress, but Pops led the pack and was clearly the most talented. 

Pops was known not only for his unmatched trumpet playing, but for his singing. Louis had that famous gravelly voice from his youth, and it grew gravellier as he aged. But when he combined it with his innovation of scat singing, his voice became closer to another instrument in the band, a great jazzy idea. Ella Fitzgerald benefited from this inheritance. By the way, a gravelly voice never hurt Jimmy Durante's career, as the ending of Sleepless in Seattle reminds us. In his old age, Pops made a hit out of "Mack the Knife" well before Bobby Darren covered it. He also recorded a song from an obscure musical still titled in previews Dolly: A Damned Exasperating Woman. After Pops' single hit #1 on the charts, they changed the name of the show to Hello Dolly. Bing Crosby, the preeminent popular singer of the era, testified, "I'm proud to acknowledge my debt to Reverend Satchelmouth. He is the beginning and the end of music in America."

Pops had a hard time in the big band era, and worse after the war when Parker and Gillespie invented be-bop. He hated bop and wouldn't play it, so they accused him of being stuck in the past. They also criticized his minstrel mannerisms in performance. Hadn't they seen Fats Waller roll his eyes over "Ain't Misbehavin" or Cab Calloway strut through "Minnie the Moocher"? It was the style of the times, when jazz musicians also defined themselves as entertainers, and Pops stuck with it.

But his towering musicianship was never in question, especially among his fellow trumpeters. Downbeat magazine polled jazz fans every year during the swing era, and Harry James usually won in the trumpet category. Harry's reaction was, "How can they possibly vote for me when Louis is in the same contest?" Years after the bop controversy, Dizzy said, "If it weren't for Louis, there wouldn't be any of us." Even Miles Davis, about as far from Pops' style as you can get, said of him, "You can't play nothing on trumpet that doesn't come from him."

After Armstrong's death, NASA launched a satellite which included musical selections, potentially a universal language that would give anybody out there an idea of essential human nature. The recordings included a Bach prelude, the first movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, and Louis Armstrong playing "Melancholy Blues." Lucky aliens should prepare to be astonished.

Terry Teachout, Pops, by Houghton Mifflin, 2010. Lifelines is hosted by John Augustine, long-time English and Literature teacher at Delta College, now Professor Emeritus. Lifelines is a production of Delta College quality Public Radio.

© John Augustine, 2011