Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Props for Pops

I just finished reading Terry Teachout's wonderful new biography of Louis Armstrong, Pops, which is as good as its many rave reviews have said. Since everyone from the Times on down has weighed in with praise already, I'll just heartily second them, and share two things:

1 Throughout the book, Teachout keeps the music front and center, never letting us forget that that was what was most important to Armstrong himself. He frequently offers detailed analysis of songs, some of which were unfamiliar--but every time he described an unfamiliar song, I was able to go to and listen to it. Lala is an online service that sells digital music--and, more important in this case, they also let you listen to any song in their library one time for free. This is the first music bio I've read since the site's debut, and having a legitimate, nearly unlimited source of reference tracks when reading a book like this makes the experience incalculably richer. If you're going to read Pops and you don't know Armstrong's music like the back of your hand already, do yourself a favor and have Lala at hand in your browser; you'll be glad you did.

2 One passage that really stuck with me was Teachout's account of the postwar demise of the big bands. I knew, as a casual fan of jazz, big bands, and popular song, that their disappearance was quick, but I had no idea it was this rapid:
The bottom fell out of big-band jazz in the winter of 1946. Time ran an obituary for the era: "The big brassy jazz bands had become a luxury that people were unwilling to pay for. . . . In the past eight weeks, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Harry James, Les Brown and Jack Teagarden decided to disband. Gene Krupa and Jimmy Dorsey cut salaries. This week Woody Herman gave up too." [Armstrong's manager] Joe Glaser needed no journalist to read him the writing on the wall. "Promoters all over are going broke--bookings are being canceled at the last minute--I can name at least half a dozen Colored bands that will disband in the next 30 days and at least 30 white bands that will disband," he had written to Joe Garland that summer.
Good god, that's dizzying. I suppose it's just another reminder--as people in the old live radio industry or the newspaper industry can attest--when tastes change and costs rise, things can fall apart really fast.

Because the holidays are nearing and cheer is the order of the day, I'm going to temporary refuse to apply that lesson to publishing. For now, after all, publishing still lives, books are still with us, and Pops is a beautiful example of the bookmaker's, no less than the biographer's art; may Armstrong's smile grace many a stocking this Christmas.

1 comment:

  1. Aside from the fact that I can think of quite a few people who should read this, I'm intrigued. Most of the music biographies I've read have focused less on the music (oddly enough), so it's somewhat reassuring to hear that music is pivotal in this book.