What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong's Later Years

Were Louis Armstrong's later years his worst – or his best?

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    What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong's Later Years, by Ricky Riccardi, Pantheon, 400 pp.
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Louis Armstrong was a music virtuoso, an innovator of the highest level, and one of the greatest entertainers in American history. His admirers spanned the globe, packing concert halls from Toronto to Tokyo. His groundbreaking jazz records, some recorded in the mid-1920s, still outsell (and out-download) most contemporary jazz recordings, and today, 40 years after his passing, Armstrong’s gravelly voiced take on songs like “Hello Dolly” and “What a Wonderful World” pour daily out of radios around the world. Armstrong is widely credited with “inventing” jazz and no one ever picks up a trumpet without acknowledging his legacy.

But not everyone was enthralled by the great “Satchmo.” In fact, a healthy percentage of African-Americans and many jazz critics – even now – view the last 20 years of Armstrong’s performing life as a betrayal. In their eyes, Armstrong was tone-deaf.

When he was still in short pants, the young Armstrong was already a consummate performer and comedian, entertaining crowds on street corners and honky-tonks in New Orleans. (Look up “mugging” in the dictionary and you’re apt to see an eye-rolling, hanky-mopping photo of Armstrong, circa 1920, grinning back at you.) Unfortunately, his later years are most remembered for his frequent appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and other variety shows where musicianship often took a back seat to cutting up and clowning. While white audiences of the 1950s and ’60s may have been amused, many black viewers were enraged. For them, the flickering TV images of Armstrong’s “minstrel show” were anathema, an unwelcome remnant of a sublimated past.

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What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years aims to rehabilitate Armstrong’s tarnished reputation. Ricky Riccardi, the book’s author and an unabashed fan, examines both the music and the man from 1947 until his death in 1971.

As an archivist at the Louis Armstrong House Museum and a jazz pianist, Riccardi brings a unique bag of qualifications to the task, including unprecedented access to private Armstrong archives and thousands of hours of tape recordings of the man himself – horsing around backstage, auditioning potential recruits, and interacting with fellow musicians. As the tape rolls, Armstrong speaks candidly about racism, segregation, and touring in the South. And while Riccardi’s efforts to rehabilitate Armstrong’s postwar reputation as a man don’t fully succeed, the rich details of the musicmaking, colorful personalities, and Armstrong’s life on the road with his beloved All Stars band is priceless.

Riccardi makes a convincing case that it was not the critically lauded “Golden Era” of the 1920s and ’30s – when Armstrong nearly single-handedly invented jazz with his Hot Fives and Sevens in swinging support – that should define the pinnacle of Armstrong’s artistry. It was, he argues, the years from World War II through the mid-’60s when Armstrong shone most brightly. Those were the decades when he constantly toured the world with various aggregations of the All Stars: a revolving door of traditional jazz greats such as pianist Earl “Fatha” Hines, clarinetist Barney Bigard, trombonist Jack Teagarden, and peerless drummers Big Sid Catlett and Barrett Deems.

Though often bone-tired from relentless touring and the rigors of keeping a band together, Armstrong never met an audience he didn’t wow and never performed a song he didn’t invest with boundless élan. He did the same fully committed show whether the audience was a handful or a stadium-full, segregated or integrated. And whatever his audience wanted – and responded to – he would play ... forever.

From 1947 to 1967, his shows barely changed. Band members who had left the All Stars years earlier returned to find the same tunes and arrangements on the bandstand, often in the same order. Music critics and jazz greats such as Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie lambasted him for trotting out the same “old timey” repertoire, night after night, year after year. Armstrong’s retort: “Well, Beethoven didn’t change his too much, did he?”

One sour note: Riccardi is too often an uncritical apologist for his proud and stubborn subject, sounding more like a gushing enthusiast than biographer. But as an intimate portrait of a singular talent who left us a rich legacy of glorious music and lit up audiences the world over for nearly half a century, his book is hard to top.

John Kehe is the Monitor’s design director.

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