Scatting With Satchmo
Biography adds to lore on great Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong: An Extravant Life
By Laurence Bergreen
564 pp., $30
When I picked up this biggest biography so far of Louis Armstrong - a.k.a. Satchmo, Pops, and Dippermouth - an indelible memory came to mind:
A recording of Armstrong's trumpet spliced in on an old radio show struck me like a soaring rendition of Laurence Olivier's cry for victory in "Henry V." And why not? Armstrong is the Shakespeare of American music - a genius/entertainer who moved easily from the sublime to the lowdown and back again.
"Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life" by Laurence Bergreen is billed as "the definitive chronicle" of this smiling, growling, founding father of jazz. And it does add to the public record, drawing on unpublished archives and exploring debated items.
But the definitive volume on Armstrong, meaning a fully reliable source, is yet to come.
Bergreen pays more attention to storytelling, reaching for a vivid style that sometimes needs a red pen. Fortunately, Bergreen skillfully tells much of the story in the words of others - including the pithy Armstrong, who signed letters "Red beans and ricely," and who seemed to love his typewriter almost as much as his trumpet.
Still, Bergreen's obvious mistakes - in names, facts, and song titles, for example - make a reader worry about the unobvious ones. His dubious or overblown musical observations are enough to drive one back to authorities in the field, such as Gunther Schuller, Dan Morgenstern, and Martin Williams.
But there are some bright spots. According to one new bit of testimony, Armstrong told band leader Cab Calloway he got his wordless "scat" singing from Jewish ritual. Calloway's hi-de-ho singing is but one example of Armstrong's influence on generations of musicians, many of whom don't know that what they do goes back to him.
Another book, Armstrong's "Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans" - not to be confused with ghostwritten memoirs under his name - remains a pungent account of his hard early years, of how far he had come from the Colored Waifs' Home for Boys in New Orleans. It ends with the momentous trip to Chicago to join the band of his idolized mentor, King Oliver. Years later, in a poignant scene elaborated by Bergreen, Armstrong asks a pushcart peddler in Savannah, Ga., for a sack of potatoes. It turns out to be Oliver.
Bergreen sees in Armstrong's autobiographical writings "a series of moral lessons, the fruit of a lifetime's experience as a black man and black musician in twentieth-century America." He depicts Little Louis (who never pronounced it "Louie") as always remembering help from white people like those he worked for as a child and like Joe Glaser, the tough operator who took over his management as an international star.
But Bergreen stresses the mean streets traveled by Armstrong - and by jazz - amid bordellos, violence, and marijuana. (For another perspective, see "Bourbon Street Black" written in 1973 by jazzman Danny Barker and sociologist Jack V. Buerkle, who found unsung table values in the New Orleans musical community.)
Bergreen makes much of a series of marriages and infidelities and their impact on Armstrong's career. And a reader of these sometimes lurid pages may need to cut Armstrong some slack. He says: "Saint Peter will have all those good things written down. He ain't got no business with the bad things up there.... I listen to my idols, I ain't going to worry about their personals, their living. Just the music, that's all I'm interested in."
Armstrong was criticized by some fellow blacks for his "plantation image," slow to speak out for civil rights (as he did, however, during the school desegregation crisis in Little Rock, Ark.).
But younger trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie was one who reconsidered. He recognized in his autobiography that "what I had considered Pops's grinning in the face of racism [was] his absolute refusal to let anything, even anger at racism, steal the joy from his life and erase his fantastic smile."
It was a joy he shared, giving us all one more reason to hum along when he hymned "What a Wonderful World."
* Roderick Nordell is a former Monitor feature editor and music critic.