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Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong Hardcover – 4 Apr 2010
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"POPS is the book we have been waiting for: essential reading for anyone curious about music, American culture, and one man's ability to inspire the world." Michael Cogswell, director Louis Armstrong House Museum" --Michael Cogswell
About the Author
Terry Teachout is the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal and the chief culture critic ofCommentary. He played jazz professionally before becoming a a full-time writer. His books includeAll in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine, The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken andA Terry Teachout Reader. He blogs about the arts at www.terryteachout.com.
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o Jazz historian Gunther Schuller: "...a dazzling lesson in how to mix primary thematic material with purely ornamental passages without ever losing the sense of the overall melody."
o Pianist Teddy Wilson: "It was a privilege to hear that man play every night. He was such a master at melodic improvisation, and he never hit a note that didn't have a great deal of meaning. Every note was pure music."
o Teachout: "...dispense almost completely with Arlen's melody, substituting instead a series of rhythmically free phrases that lead upward to a high B-Flat. Four times he falls off from that shining note--and then comes the fifth fall, at the bottom of which he changes course and swoops gracefully upward to a full-throated high D whose vibrancy..."
Armstrong had a very long career, which is the primary subject of POPS. In following this subject, Teachout shows the phenomenally talented young Armstrong emerging from a New Orleans style of jazz, where teamwork dominated, and developing a form of jazz (now called classic) where the solo is king. Thereafter, Armstrong's career had its ups and downs, with Armstrong gradually becoming a top-tier celebrity in mainstream American culture while he continued to perform his music, often with mediocre sidemen.
Anyone out there ever find themselves in that unhappy situation? That is, you have to maintain standards while your colleagues can't or don't care? Well, Armstrong had the answer. "I work with two bands, the one on the stage and the one in my head. If they sound good on stage, O.K., I'll play with them. If not, I just turn up the volume of the band in my head."
In following Armstrong's career, Teachout also provides many interesting insights about turning points in jazz history. Here, for example, is Armstrong's opinion of bebop. Bop "...doesn't' come from the heart the way real music should... You won't find many of them cats who can blow a straight lead. They never learned right. It's all just flash." And "...you get all them weird chords, which don't mean nothing, and first people get curious about it just because it's new, but soon they tired of it because it's really no good and you got no melody to remember..."
Meanwhile, here's Gil Evans on Miles Davis, who represents another turning point: "Miles changed the tone of the trumpet for the first time after Louis. Everybody up to him had come through Louis Armstrong." Adds Teachout: "Davis's style was a pared-down, more overtly lyrical version of bop whose simplicity and directness appealed to listeners ill at ease with Charlie Parker's electric frenzy, ...and his fragile, shiveringly poignant abstractions... spoke to the young people of the fifties the way that Armstrong's "Star Dust"... had spoken to their parents."
Jazz cognoscente might find POPS basic. But for the rest of us... recommended.
The 12 chapters run to just under 400 pages, augmented by an appendix of 30 key recordings, around 50 pages of source notes, a select biography, and a 25-page index. My only criticism of the book itself is that whilst the paper is adequate for the print, it fails to do justice to the photos, which should have been reproduced separately on gloss quality sheets.
The author seems to have accepted Louis' account of how he came to scat on "Heebie Jeebies", a story which has always struck me as inherently suspect. When the number was published the following July it carried a photo of the Hot Five on the cover (the only piece of sheet music ever to do so) together with a complete transcription of Louis' "skat chorus", but that is not mentioned. In view of the number of times reference is made to Louis' lip splitting, I was surprised that this was attributed solely to his grinding work rate and his propensity for the upper register, omitting any reference to the shape of the mouthpiece he used, although that was another important factor.
Given the evident level of scholarship involved, I was disappointed to come across several factual errors. On page 96 there's a reference to Armstrong being caught out by Okeh as having moonlighted for another company. I believe the recording in question was made for Vocalion, and featured Louis with Perry Bradford's Jazz Phools, but he didn't take the vocal. So it was his playing, not his singing, that gave him away.
His introduction to chapter 7 refers to the Savoy Orpheans accompanying George Gershwin in the London premiere of "Rhapsody in Blue". That premiere took place on October 28, 1925, and the soloist was Billy Mayerl. The Savoy hotel chain employed several bands, and their entertainments manager would ask guitarist Joe Brannelly to scout for musicians when he returned to America on holiday. Carroll Gibbons, Rudy Vallee and others came to England as a result. There was a constant fusion of ideas from America; Ambrose had spent several years there before returning to England, and Americans Roy Fox, Jay Whidden, Jack Harris, and brothers Al & Ray Starita all led dance bands which were more than capable of producing hot dance numbers.
He states that "a number of noted American players, including Buster Bailey, Jimmy Dorsey, and Adrian Rollini, paid brief visits to England around (1927)". This is disingenuous; quite apart from the influences mentioned above Adrian Rollini came to England after the collapse of his ill-fated Club New Yorker band, bringing with him two other ex-members of the California Ramblers, namely trumpeter Chelsea Quealey and alto-saxophonist Bobby Davis, and stayed until the end of 1929. Another visiting fireman was Sylvester Ahola, who likewise came to England in early 1928, and joined Ambrose' Orchestra at the May Fair Hotel, where he played alongside Danny Polo, and was in great demand for recording sessions.
Despite those errors and omissions, and a very biased account of Billy Cotton's recording of "Bessie Couldn't Help It", this book should be essential reading for anyone who has an interest in Louis Armstrong and wants to broaden their understanding of the man and his music.
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