Louis Armstrong: In His Own Words by Thomas Brothers, editors

The selected writings of Louis Armstrong used in this collection were drawn from the historical documents stored in the Louis Armstrong House and Archives at Queens College/CUNY, the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University, the Library of Congress, and the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University, and, as such, offer a rare opportunity for the serious student of jazz to read material that has never before been made available to the public. Thomas Brothers, a musicologist and teacher of jazz and African-American music, has conscientiously avoided tampering with Armstrong’s largely phonetic spellings, idiosyncratic use of punctuation symbols, frequent narrative digressions, and repetitiveness in order to preserve the unique tone of his discourse. Indeed, reading Louis in this context, devoid of well-meaning editorial “improvements” in diction, is not unlike hearing him speak. Brothers’ only intrusions are made in the interest of clarification of intended thought or historical fact, and are always presented in brackets, one of the few graphic symbols not used by the author.

The chronologically arranged selections begin with Armstrong’s memories of his New Orleans days, with frequent praise for the Jewish family for whom he worked in his coal-cart days, Joe Oliver and other early jazz musicians, and his family and friends. Here, as well as elsewhere, we also read some surprisingly candid observations on racial and cultural differences between New Orleans blacks and whites. The second section deals with his years in Chicago, New York, and California, and includes his letters to jazz critic Robert Goffin, who was preparing a book on him. Section Three covers Armstrong’s decades on the road with the All Stars from the ’40s through the ’60s, while the final part throws light on his latter years at home in Queens with his last and best wife, Lucille Wilson. In earlier pages, he had discussed in varying degrees of detail his relationships with his three previous wives, Daisy Parker, pianist Lil Hardin, and Alpha Smith.

No one familiar with Louis Armstrong would be surprised to read of his daily preoccupation with herbal laxatives, particularly Swiss Kriss; his unending delight in marijuana as a source of spiritual comfort; and his lifelong devotion to both “Papa” Joe Oliver, his first musical mentor, and Joe Glaser, his business manager and longtime friend. But the heretofore unrevealed aspects of his healthy libidinous needs emerge front and center in a letter to Glaser, who was responsible for handling Louis’ personal finances as well as his bookings. Although some of the autobiographical material encountered here will undoubtedly be familiar to those who have read Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans, what they could not have read are those selections that Glaser withheld from publication out of fear that they would have reflected negatively on Armstrong’s public image. Brothers, however, has brought forward these long secreted manuscript pages, as well as personal correspondence and other writings that were never intended for public view.

In his introduction, Brothers catalogs the many peculiarities of Armstrong’s writing style, particularly the unorthodox uses to which he put commas, dashes, ellipses, parentheses, and underscoring. But to his reader’s mind, it is best just to accept the fact that Armstrong was not a man who consciously crafted his prose in a deliberately idiosyncratic manner. Quite simply, he wrote the way he spoke, using graphic symbols in the same ways that he used rhythmic space in his playing and singing.