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Russell Moore Christian Blog and Commentary

Top Ten Books of 2009, Number Six

Terry Teachout, Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong

Even if you don't like jazz (how could you not like jazz?), you'll enjoy this new biography of one of the greatest of all time, Louis Armstrong. Too many Americans know Armstrong's inimitable voice from "It's a Wonderful World" but they don't know his even more inimitable jazz sound as a pioneer in a distinctively American art form.

Terry Teachout, drama critic of the Wall Street Journal, remedies this with a biography that's been widely hailed by reviewers as one of the most honest and captivating life-stories of the year. I agree.

The book is about music, yes. There's a story here about the rise of jazz from the vantage point of one of the captains of the art. You'll see much here about the way the music industry worked (and works).

But, more than that, it's about a gifted man's rise from excruciating poverty. His mother was at least possibly a prostitute, certainly destitute. Armstrong was orphaned when he was removed from his family for firing a gun into the air on New Year's Day. But then he learned to play.

This book also is an important look at race relations in the early- to mid-twentieth century, especially from the point of view of the African-American artistic and economic elite of the time. Many even of Armstrong's fellow musicians (Dizzy Gillespie, for example) saw him as sellout on civil rights, with his smiling optimistic stage personality being little more than a Stepin Fetchit clowning routine for white people. Teachout quotes one of Armstrong's defenders, the great Billie Holiday, who could only say, "God bless Louis Armstrong! He Toms from the heart."

Teachout demonstrates, though, that Armstrong's civil rights passion was robust and deep. He cites Armstrong's denunciation of President Eisenhower's slowness to the civil rights cause as an example of the artist's stance. More than that, though, Teachout demonstrates that Armstrong's smile wasn't a "clowning" routine. He was genuinely optimistic about the future of race relations, about his own future, about the future period. It was, indeed, in his view, a "wonderful world." He could oppose injustice then, but always with a knowing grin that in the end it'd be all right.

There's something there I think from which conservative Christians, with all our direct-mail scare tactics and doomsday conversations, could learn.

You'll enjoy reading this book, especially if you read it with Armstrong playing in the background. For his instrumental wonder-working, almost any song in his repertoire will do. To hear his voice, I'd suggest his versions of "Mack the Knife" and "Ezekiel Saw the Wheel."