Louis Armstrong was both a great artist and a popular success.
“I never tried to prove nothing, just wanted to give a good show,” Louis Armstrong, the great jazz trumpeter and singer, said late in his life. “The main thing is to live for that audience, ’cause what you’re there for is to please the people.”
Not necessarily the attitude one expects from the man who was arguably the greatest jazz musician of the 20th century. But as Terry Teachout demonstrates in Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, his excellent new biography, Armstrong was all about pleasing the people.
Born in poverty in New Orleans in 1901 to a teenage mother and abandoned by his father, music was not only a calling for the self-taught genius, but a livelihood. For a young black man with little education in the early part of the 20th century, the alternative was bleak.
In that context, it’s no surprise that Armstrong saw himself not so much as an artist but as a working musician. Whether he was making groundbreaking records in the 1920s, hitting showstopping high-Cs on stage with a big band, turning Kurt Weill’s “Mack the Knife” into a pop standard, or recording a flyweight ditty like “La Cucaracha,” he was, first and foremost, an entertainer.
Armstrong left New Orleans in 1922 to join Joe “King” Oliver, who fronted the most influential hot jazz band in Chicago. By 1935, he was a major star, his flashy cornet and trumpet playing matched by his raspy voice (like “a wheelbarrow crunching up a gravel driveway,” according to one journalist) and energetic stage presence.