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One of the most symbolic, beguiling moments in Laurence Bergreen's elegant new biography of Louis Armstrong catches the trumpeter on his first day with Harlem's Fletcher Henderson Orchestra. Fresh from wild Chicago, raised in wilder New Orleans, Armstrong's brand of jazz was a fierce, chartless impulse; Henderson's high-tone players, on the other hand, worked from sheet music that was detailed down to dynamic markings. And when Armstrong took off blaring, instead of playing pianissimo as demanded by the chart in front of him, Henderson stopped the band to ask, "Louis, how about that pp?" The great Satchmo joked, "Oh, I thought that meant 'pound plenty.'"
Bergreen's book reads like that set-up must have sounded -- a loud, hilarious Armstrong solo thrusting out of a suave Henderson narrative structure. Bergreen is a frequent contributor to the New York Times, and it shows. The entire biography feels like a particularly long, particularly good Times article, so much so that you almost wish the subject were referred to as "Mr. Armstrong," in that paper's quaint manner, instead of just plain "Louis." Bergreen is genteel, but he's no prude. He rather relishes the story of Armstrong's romantic childhood among the prostitutes of New Orleans' red-light district, Storyville. Bergreen rails against the way "historians and scholars have made a determined effort to place a fig leaf over the origins of jazz" and traces the form's -- and Armstrong's -- development in local whorehouses staffed by tough women with names like "Mary Jack the Bear."
While ponying up Armstrong's debts to his mentors like Joe "King" Oliver, Bergreen is particularly sharp in getting at what was new about Louis Armstrong: his place as the first great jazz soloist, his early recognition of the importance of recordings, his veritable invention of swing, his introduction of scat into jazz, and his jive-talking linguistic contributions to pop culture with slang like "cats" (which has informed bad Beat parodies ever since). He reinvented himself several times, moving from big bands to the small combo the Hot Five to his final stop as "traditional" grand old man. "Every note he blew was amplified by history," Bergreen writes of a legendary Armstrong performance at Town Hall in 1947.
Establishing Armstrong's musical legacy -- "the voice that sounded like an instrument and the instrument that sounded like a voice" -- isn't a hard job. What might be Bergreen's noblest task is setting the record straight about Armstrong as a black man in America. His clownish side, his affability, his downright gaiety, not to mention his insistence on singing the dopey "When It's Sleepy Time Down outh," might have made Armstrong appear deferential and apolitical to some. But Bergreen points out crucial Armstrong stands, most notably his public statement, while the National Guard was preventing Little Rock school desegregation in 1957, that "the way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell." With outbursts like that (he also accused President Eisenhower of having "no guts"), Armstrong rated an FBI file. Oddly, it's J. Edgar Hoover himself who gave the musician one of his most acute reviews: "Armstrong's life is a good argument against the theory that Negroes are inferior." -- Salon
Biographer Bergreen (As Thousands Cheer: The Life of Irving Berlin, 1990, etc.) follows New Orleans's greatest from cradle to grave, as he travels to St. Louis, Chicago, New York, and Hollywood promoting jazz—the music he helped create. Along the way, we get colorful depictions of Armstrong's introduction to horn playing (he was the bugler at a reform school), the hard-drinking mother who taught him to hold his liquor, and the "cutting contests"—horn-playing competitions—in which he competed his entire life. Armstrong's career spanned many decades, and for much of that time he was a tireless performer and a frequent collaborator with other jazz greats, among them Charles Mingus, Earl "Fatha" Hines, and late in life, Ella Fitzgerald. As New Orleans jazz gave way first to swing and then to bebop, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis, among other musicians, dismissed Armstrong as old hat. Armstrong outlasted their dismissal, and many later came to value his distinctive, resilient, subtle style. Armstrong knew some shady figures, including his manager Joe Glaser, who fleeced the trumpeter for millions, and gangster Dutch Schultz, whose feud with Al Capone over "rights" to Louis forced the musician into exile for fear of his life. The most vivid element here is Armstrong's own words. Despite only a fifth-grade education, Louis was a prolific and talented writer with a flair for metaphor ("In less than two hours I would be broker than the Ten Commandments") and an almost alarmingly confessional style regarding his sex life and heavy but apparently never abusive use of marijuana.
The presence of Armstrong's unique voice turns what might have otherwise been a routine biography into a grand success.
"A full-bodied portrait of the artist and the man that is far more interesting than his already colorful legend."
"No one has done a better job than Bergreen of making emotional sense of Armstrong's four marriages and uncounted affairs. . . . The fullest and frankest account of Armstrong to date."
--Boston Sunday Globe
"A meticulously researched, vibrant biography, which has the potential to become the definitive word on Armstrong's life and remarkable career."
Posted December 4, 2000
There is much more to Louis Armstrong than the man we think we know. Most of us are familiar with the older Armstrong, the grinning, gravelly voiced horn player we've seen in the movies. Author Laurence Bergreen takes us back to the New Orleans of the early 1900s where prostitution was legal and jazz was its background music. Louis Armstrong cut his teeth on ragtime and early jazz, and followed the jazz migration to Chicago where he helped introduce jazz to mainstream America. Despite stormy relationships and brushes with the Chicago gangland scene, Armstrong's unrivaled horn playing and his inimitable voice became synonymous with jazz in the U.S. and around the world. You can almost hear Satchmo's horn peal through the pages of this book. A must read for every jazz buff.
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Posted December 19, 2012