Critics may have dismissed Louis Armstrong in his later years, but audiences loved him—with good reason
Book Review by Tom Nolan
Reprinted from The Wall Street Journal © June 18, 2011 Dow Jones & Company. All rights reserved.
What a Wonderful World
By Ricky Riccardi
Pantheon, 369 pages, $28.95
The family of jazz in the 20th century, like many another multi-generational household, seemed to spend nearly as much time splitting into factions and nursing grudges as it did celebrating its own achievements. Performers and enthusiasts alike fell out over real and imagined divisions of race, over the conflicting demands of art and show business, and over the imperatives of a musical form that seemed to change drastically every five years or so. Thus it came to pass that, in the last 20 years of his life, Louis Armstrong (1901-71)—one of the most important figures in the history of jazz and, in Ricky Riccardi’s phrase, “arguably the most recognizable entertainer on the planet”—had a hard time, in certain quarters of the jazz community, getting much respect.
Since his death, though—thanks to informed commentary and a few fine biographies, not to mention the enduring value of his music—Armstrong’s reputation has grown and grown. With What a Wonderful World, Mr. Riccardi, an archivist for the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Corona, N.Y., celebrates the trumpeter-singer’s twilight years, a period sometimes slighted in otherwise appreciative accounts of his life.
Armstrong’s career began in earnest in 1922, when he moved to Chicago to play with his New Orleans mentor, King Oliver. The vigorous and lyrical recordings that he made there, with his own Hot Five and Hot Seven combinations, laid the foundation for all jazz to come and influenced generations of musicians. Armstrong combined high-note virtuosity with blues ability and a strong sense of swing. He also introduced scat singing into his inimitable vocals. By the 1930s he was justly celebrated as a powerhouse performer. But over time he found himself eclipsed by new currents in jazz, which featured a more orchestral approach during the big-band era and, with bebop, more advanced harmonies. As jazz progressed, “smart opinion” relegated Armstrong to the status of mere entertainer.
And yet, as Mr. Riccardi reminds us, Armstrong’s latter-day career highlights are extraordinary. He was a fantastically popular live performer throughout the 1950s and 1960s, drawing crowds around the globe—in Asia, Africa, Latin America and behind the Iron Curtain—and earning him the unofficial title of America’s No. 1 ambassador of goodwill. In 1949, Armstrong’s plane had to delay its landing in Stockholm because 40,000 fans had jammed the airport. At an open-air event in Ghana in 1956, Armstrong’s combo drew a crowd estimated at 70,000. In Budapest, the crowd exceeded 100,000. When Armstrong visited the Belgian Congo during its civil war, Mr. Riccardi notes, “both sides stopped fighting and welcomed him grandly, bearing him on a red throne” before a huge concert in a soccer stadium. “Members of warring parties sat together, danced, and cheered the music.” For sheer exuberance, Mr. Riccardi cites the 1959 world tour, which had Louis “blowing with sometimes frightening power . . . notes much higher than as a younger man . . . with astonishing ferocity.”
The strength and melodic invention were present, as well, on the discs that Armstrong made in his final decades, including such superlative George Avakian-produced Columbia-label LPs as 1954′s Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy—probably “the greatest album Armstrong ever recorded,” according to Mr. Riccardi. Though the critics largely ignored these later albums, they were as important and beautiful in their way as the Columbia recordings of the same era by Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck. Equally notable were Armstrong’s collaborative sessions with Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson and Mr. Brubeck. With good cause Armstrong could state in 1956: “I’m playing better now than I’ve ever played in my life.”
Then there were the out-of-the-blue 1960s hit records: “What a Wonderful World” (which made the international charts a second time after Armstrong’s death) and “Hello, Dolly!,” which knocked the Beatles off the hit parade’s No. 1 perch at the height of the British group’s 1963 mania.
Other matters, though, marred Armstrong’s reputation, at least in America. His commercial success was thought antithetical to jazz, and critics decried his stage act’s vaudeville antics—e.g., the dance splits of his vocalist Velma Middleton. Not that audiences seemed to mind. As one of his clarinet players said: “It’s a show, not a jam session.”
What really hurt was when his fellow African-Americans called Armstrong an Uncle Tom, not only for his “mugging” stage mannerisms but for his failing to take a strong public stand against racial intolerance. But when he did speak out, during the Little Rock, Ark., school-integration events of 1957—he chided President Dwight Eisenhower for not acting soon enough and denigrated Gov. Orval Faubus for his bullying obstructionism—he drew rebukes from certain blacks, who criticized his remarks as intemperate or hypocritical. Even so, he later spoke out again, saying (while in Denmark) of those who attacked voter-rights demonstrators in Alabama: “They would even beat Jesus if he was black and marched.”
As Mr. Riccardi makes clear, it was awkward for Armstrong to comment on his country’s faults while making goodwill tours on its behalf; yet it was hard to ignore current events, especially when prodded by foreign reporters. Armstrong preferred to speak through music. One of the most affecting passages in “What a Wonderful World” comes in Mr. Riccardi’s account of a concert in East Berlin in 1965, after the events in Selma, Ala., had prompted Armstrong to perform, for almost the first time in a decade, the solemn Fats Waller-Andy Razaf anthem “Black and Blue”—called by some “the first protest song”: “Armstrong stoically played a full chorus of melody, pacing himself dramatically. . . . He now assumed the air of a preacher, pointing a finger skyward. . . . The tension exploded when he began his final [instrumental] eight bars with a three-note phrase leading to a screaming high concert B, not the highest note he had ever hit, but arguably the angriest . . . . Here was dangerous intensity personified.” Clearly this was no fading master, nor anybody’s fool.
Mr. Riccardi—writing with the fervor of an advocate, the skill of a critic and the knowingness of a musician (he is a pianist as well as a writer)—gives us something vivid on every page of “What a Wonderful World.” Along the way, he does justice to both Armstrong the artist and Armstrong the entertainer, a unique American creator who knew that “any kind of music could become jazz if played from the heart.”
Satchmo in Prose
Satchmo by Gary Giddins (1988)This absorbing biographical essay broke the 87-year-old news of Armstrong’s true birthday (August 4, 1901) with a reproduction of his baptismal registration (in Latin, no less) from a New Orleans Catholic church. Hundreds of other remarkable documents show Satchmo in all phases of his career, while Mr. Giddins’s empathetic text sketches the life story of a poor boy “raised in a house of cards in the middle of a gale.” As Mr. Giddins puts it: “Here is a man who saw life from the gutter up and learned to accept it all.”
Louis Armstrong, In His Own Words Edited by Thomas Brothers (1999) In addition to being a master trumpeter, Armstrong was a prolific writer: He produced two books of memoirs, most notably “Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans” (1954). Thomas Brothers’s volume gathers selections from various autobiographical documents, including letters. Armstrong describes the Jewish family in New Orleans who hired him when he was young: “The Karnofsky Family kept reminding me that I had Talent—perfect Tonation when I would Sing. . . . They could see that I had music in my Soul.”
Louis Armstrong: The Offstage Story of Satchmo by Michael Cogswell (2003) This pleasingly informal volume, assembled by the director of the Louis Armstrong House and Archives, offers a wondrous array of Armstrong photographs as well as examples of Armstrong souvenirs and products bearing his likeness, from a British teapot to Russian nesting-dolls. Of special note are collages that Armstrong made to decorate the boxes of his home-recorded audiotape reels. These offer, as Mr. Cogswell writes, “yet another angle of vision into the mind of a creative genius.”
Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong by Terry Teachout (2009)This thorough, appreciative work (by The Wall Street Journal’s theater critic) stands above all other Armstrong biographies. Drawing on Armstrong’s own words, acknowledging the efforts of earlier writers and incorporating original research, Mr. Teachout describes his subject’s quirks and foibles as well as his many achievements. The result is an all-the-more-endearing portrait of a man who “took his music seriously, but never himself.”
Mr. Nolan is the author of “Three Chords for Beauty’s Sake: The Life of Artie Shaw” (Norton).