I didn’t grow up in a house with a lot of music, and there was virtually no jazz. But still, I knew who Louis Armstrong was: he was the guy who sang “Hello Dolly.” (And like almost everyone else, I pronounced his first name as if it were “Louie,” even though he clearly sings “This is Louis, Dolly” in that song.)
It's a measure of his popularity that people who had no connection to jazz whatsoever knew who he was -- his work on TV and film made sure of that.
So when I hit my teen years and began to discover some of the jazz greats of the past (and present – Miles was still alive then, Thelonius Monk too), I remember hearing about how pivotal a figure Armstrong was in the history of jazz. I thought, "Really? The 'Hello Dolly'guy?" All of that popularity and visibility might have been a double-edged sword, since I'm sure there were many other fans throughout the world who thought of him as an actor/singer/all-around entertainer and were largely unaware that he was a singular force in the development of jazz.
As Terry Teachout writes in Pops, his new biography of Louis Armstrong, Armstrong saw himself as an entertainer too - whether that was on TV with his voice and his often comic faces, or on the trumpet. In the jazz world, this was something that caused some friction. People like Miles Davis saw his on-screen mugging as a kind of throwback to the days of minstrelsy and blackface. In the much wider world of pop culture, many knew nothing of this critique. We knew the amiable face and the gravelly voice. And because it was the world of pop culture, that was all we needed to know. It may seem strange, in an age when a golfer hitting a hydrant in front of his own house with his car can set off a media frenzy, but maybe that's all we wanted to know.
Who was Louis Armstrong for you? Did his pop star status do him a disservice?