Book Review: Ricky Riccardi's What a Wonderful World

The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years

I was born in 1955. Like most of my generation, I had little awareness of Louis Armstrong. Although alive and very aware of popular culture in Armstrong’s final years, I don’t recall his Sunday evening visits to Ed Sullivan, any of his television commercials, or his guest spots on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. My main point of interest with this musician had to do with a Beatles-related fact—how his “Hello Dolly” had knocked the Fabs out of the #1 spot on the Billboard pop chart early in 1964.

The first time I heard any true discussion of Louis Armstrong was when I was working backstage at a jazz concert in St. Paul in 1981. A few of the older musicians were relaxing between sets and at one point the conversation turned biblical. One horn player mentioned how much he was looking forward to someday hearing Gabriel play his trumpet. Another musician immediately countered, “Gabriel? You’ve already heard him. He’s been here! His name is Louie Armstrong!” And as if on cue, the men in the room all nodded their heads as one and mumbled in agreement that this pronouncement was accurate. I waited for the punch line, but nobody laughed. No one even smiled. These guys were serious—Armstrong was heaven-sent.

The strength and sincerity of this collective devotion stayed with me for many years. Later, other positive assessments occasionally came forth. I heard a radio interview with Tony Bennett where the singer archly defended Armstrong against various negative attitudes that had hounded the late trumpeter for decades, attitudes accusingly hurled by the interviewer himself concerning Armstrong’s demeaning racial image. Bennett was also the first person I ever heard who distinctly pronounced Armstrong’s first name as Louis, not Louie.

In fact, I think it was Bennett’s repeated use of the word Louis that made me purchase my first Armstrong LP. The album cover caught my eye, perhaps, because of the single word LOUIS boldly spelled out in white against a photograph of an older Armstrong, trumpet engaged. Upon closer inspection, the words “Chicago Concert” appeared at the bottom of the sleeve. I had next to no Armstrong at this time—just a random track on a compilation album here and there—and so I took the record home. It was a double album recorded on a single night in 1956. I had always heard that the early studio material was his best, but I figured this album would fill a gap in my collection even if I didn’t play it a lot.

Man, was I wrong! Oh, it filled a gap all right. But as to not playing it much . . . I played it all the time! I couldn’t not play it. Sometimes I thought I just needed to hear a single tune, as a pick-me-up. The side would invariably track through to the end. Here was the rare record on which a needle could be placed on any spot of its four long sides and the music would be great. Tune after tune after tune. I especially loved the numbers I had no idea Armstrong recorded, such as “The Gypsy,” a song I knew from an obscure Willie Nelson album.

Every part of the set list offered high points: “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans” into “Basin Street Blues” into “Black and Blue” into “West End Blues.” It just killed. And it was a tape from one night’s performance—the kind of live album I always appreciated because it shows what an artist could do in a single concert—not a cobbled together amalgam of good takes from a whole tour.

On the strength of my long-held love for that 1956 Louis Armstrong recording, I took great interest in Ricky Riccardi’s recent project, a biography of Armstrong that focuses on his later years. This is the era when Armstrong had been negatively labeled as various things: a caricature, an embarrassment to his race, formerly relevant, a living shadow of his lost talent. And these are just some of the printable complaints that were often leveled at him.

Most of all, this book is convincing! It is a work of love and devotion but never becomes a valentine to the artist. The author is clear-eyed as to why the decades-long criticisms existed and were held unflinchingly in place. But Riccardi is just as methodically dogmatic in disemboweling each of the attacks. The research is excellent and the writing is usually very good. There are a few times when clarity falters, especially near the end, and some redundancy creeps in. A discography of Riccardi’s recommended Armstrong releases would have made for a welcome appendix, as would a selective list of worthwhile unreleased recordings from this era. But these are inconsequential concerns when this extremely readable and engaging book is taken as a whole.

When someone tries to rescue a diminished hero or offer a career re-evaluation, the author’s voice can become shrill and defensive. This does not happen with What a Wonderful World. Riccardi is even-handed throughout in his assessments and insights. The author is able to make numerous important points by utilizing original source materials that have been closed to previous biographers, including private documents and a voluminous number of audio recordings made and catalogued by Armstrong himself.

Not long after the book’s narrative began, I was convinced that Louis Armstrong had been robbed of his deserved reputation—in his later life and in death. Near the book’s conclusion, as Riccardi described several of Armstrong’s albums released during the 1960s, I began to realize just how slighted this artist has been on so many different levels. The 2nd edition of the respected All Music Guide to Jazz does not even list (much less review) many of these later Armstrong albums, including Louis and the Good Book, Louis and the Angels, Ambassador Satch, Country & Western and I Will Wait for You.

The fact that so many original albums (not compilations) can be ignored by the very resource that calls Armstrong “the most important and influential musician in jazz history” is telling. It tells us that, true to Riccardi’s premise, even standard reference works are guilty of wanting to acknowledge only this artist’s early years. Thankfully, Ricky Riccardi has a far more comprehensive view of Louis Armstrong’s lifetime of talent, and in this book he shares it with us!

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