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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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.