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Pick of the Day: The cause of happiness

Louis Armstrong's life was, Terry Teachout tells us, "an inspired improvisation." In his new book, "Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong," Teachout, a longtime critic for the Wall Street Journal and Commentary magazine, takes on all of the caricatures of an easily-spoofed American original, a man whose extraordinary, pioneering artistry has too often been overshadowed by his willingness to play the fool and even sometimes play into racial stereotypes of the most demeaning sort.

But as Teachout makes clear in this, the book's prologue, Armstrong was nobody's fool. He was as close as we have to a single progenitor -- Teachout calls him "the first great influence in jazz" -- of the only musical form this country has produced, he was a savvy operator who built a stunningly successful career as a pop icon against preposterous odds, and he was a deeply knowledgeable musician who also ventured, sometimes awkwardly, into the realms of politics and business.

Teachout's biography is the book that most jumps out at me from this nifty aggregation of Top Ten book lists because it is both a triumph of reporting -- the author was the first to have access to thousands of hours of tapes that Armstrong made talking about his life -- but because it comes from the keyboard of a critic who has spent decades studying and explaining the music and the times that created this huge figure in our history.

This is no mere life history of a popular musician. As Teachout shows in this piece in Commentary on "Satchmo and the Jews," Armstrong was a master of code-switching, probably the most well-known black American of his generation, someone who was often accused of yielding unnecessarily to The Man, yet someone who knew himself and his predicament well enough to get what he wanted even when others were trying to take advantage of him. "A colleague once dropped in on him after a performance and asked what was new," Teachout writes. “'Nothin’ new,' he replied. 'White folks still ahead.'”

“I think I had a beautiful life,” Armstrong said not long before he died in 1971. “I didn’t wish for anything I couldn’t get, and I got pretty near everything I wanted because I worked for it.”

By Marc Fisher  | December 23, 2009; 8:35 AM ET
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