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July/August 2006

Thomas Brothers
Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans

Thomas Brothers’ musical/historical “map” of Satchmo’s New Orleans follows the study he made five years ago after researching unpublished Armstrong quotes covering his life and career in Louis Armstrong, In His Own Words (Oxford University Press).

Brothers’ latest contribution, Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans, is more of same, and then some. Plenty of observations and eyewitness reports by contemporaries such as King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, Bunk Johnson, Barney Bigard, Sidney Bechet, Baby Dodds and Mahalia Jackson. The frustration begins when Brothers, a Duke University music professor, turns academic. Jazz aficionados know the genre defies classification and definition. If it’s ineffable, don’t go there. But too often Brothers does, choosing the rarefied air of ethnomusicology, sociology, etymology, heterophony and linguistics—all dragging the tempo.

If Satchmo lovers don’t disconnect, they will be rewarded with a painstaking re-creation of the New Orleans that shaped the first 25 years of Louis’ life, including his poverty-ridden childhood in the so-called “Battlefield” and his first brush with the law. The latter landed him in the Colored Waif’s Home for Boys, where music teacher Peter Davis gave 11-year-old Armstrong his first cornet. The rest is familiar musical history: Louis marching in parades, playing in honky-tonks at every opportunity; following his mentor, King Oliver, to Chicago to play second cornet in his band; returning to N.O. to play with Fate Marable’s band on the riverboat; gradually learning to sight-read and playing with Kid Ory’s band; joining Fletcher Henderson’s band in New York; switching exclusively to trumpet around 1925 before making his famous recordings with his Hot Five and Hot Seven. Brothers’ timeline and index are as complex as The Da Vinci Code. Yet his anecdotal history, particularly about the enigmatic Buddy Bolden, is fascinating.

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