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Louis Armstrong: the life of a master, inside and out

November 28, 2009 |  8:51 am

In Sunday's paper, we look inside the new Louis Armstrong bio "Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong." Author Terry Teachout was the first to chronicle Armstrong's life with full access to the 600-plus tapes the musician recorded. The tape recorder was meant to be for music, but eventually Armstrong left it on all the time, recording "dinner parties, getting high in the dressing room after a gig, trying to get his wife into bed," Teachout says.

A musician getting high might come as little surprise -- but Louis Armstrong? Teachout's bio shows that the sweet avuncular character who sang "It's a Wonderful World" had a little more edge.

"Most people, I suspect, don't know that he smoked marijuana every day," Teachout says, although he acknowledges that a jazz musician using drugs wouldn't really astonish anyone. "But people who know about Armstrong in the general way that most of us know about Armstrong, I think they're going to be surprised."

"He was even more effective on television than he was in the films. In the films, he played these stereotypical Uncle Tom-like roles, because that was what you got to play if you were black in the 1930s and 1940s," Teachout says. "On television, he played himself performing as a musician, and he was one of the most frequently seen people on TV throughout the 1950s and 1960s. . . . He had the personality, and he was able to make use of media that brought that personality into the homes of ordinary people."

In the clip below from the 1960s, that personality is in evidence as he joins Johnny Cash on his variety show; the two of them sing a 1930 Jimmy Rodgers song.

See Armstrong play jazz after the jump.

To musicians coming up in the 1960s, some of Armstrong's performances could be seen as accommodation. But his contributions were incontrovertible. "No band musician today on any instrument, jazz, sweet or bebop, can get through 32 bars without musically admitting his debt to Armstrong," Gene Krupa is quoted as saying. "Louis did it all, and he did it first." Below, Armstrong sings "Mack the Knife," recorded in Germany in 1959.

"He was born in New Orleans in 1901, on the toughest block in town, his mother was a whore," Teachout says, "and at the end of his life, everybody in the world knew who he was."

-- Carolyn Kellogg

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