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Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life by Laurence Bergreen

This is the biggest Armstrong biography yet, and it incorporates a lot of fresh, diligently researched material. For those primarily interested in the music, however, there may be too much about the great man’s private life, his ladies and marijuana, but too little about his musician associates. (Marijuana, after all, was widely used by musicians in the ’30s and ’40s, before the entry of bebop and heroin.)

No celebrity, alive or dead, is apparently entitled to privacy in 1997. Reviewing Mia Farrow’s recent memoir in The New York Times Book Review, Kathryn Harrison wrote that it would satisfy “a Peeping Fan readership.” Perhaps jazz books are now being written with a similar readership in mind. Jazz fans, of course, have long been fascinated by naughty tales of Storyville and its brothels, despite the fact that the proprietresses would never have permitted trumpet players and tailgate trombonists to lurch about in their establishments. A few gigs for piano “professors” was about the extent of their contribution to jazz, a music that was shaped far more in dancehalls and saloons than in street marches or whorehouses, even in New Orleans.

In any event, by the time Armstrong gets the wire from King Oliver in Chicago, Bergreen is on page 172, a third of the way through his story. He is on page 432 for the Town Hall Concert with Bobby Hackett and Jack Teagarden in 1947 and the remaining 24 years of eminence, enormous popularity and “ambassadorial” duty are scamped in a mere 60 pages. Bergreen believes that bebop was “the biggest thing to hit jazz since the old days in New Orleans,” ignoring what Ellington, Hawkins, Hines, Tatum, Goodman and Basie had been doing in the interim. Despite the hostility of the bopsters (see pp. 438-9), Armstrong had made outstanding new music during the period in albums of Ellington, Handy and Waller songs and in the rich Decca Autobiography, not to mention two monster hits in “Mack the Knife” and “Hello, Dolly.”

There is a problem, too, with the way in which sources are credited here. They are not found where they would be most convenient for readers, at the bottom of the page, but at the back in academic fashion as “endnotes.” (Have genuine footnotes been banished because of printing costs?) Because there is no numbered identification in the text, it is an irksome task finding the right source when there are often four, five or six quoted passages on one page.

The analogies and metaphors are also disturbing. For example, “He [Armstrong] looked and felt like a glowing lump of coal, hot and alive and capable of igniting everything around him.” The Ellington band “sounded like a locomotive whizzing along at a hundred miles an hour.” Fletcher Henderson, that modest, unassuming man, is described as “supercilious,” and Ella Fitzgerald’s voice as “plush.” Names are misspelled: Andy Razaf’s once and Hugues Panassié’s first name everywhere. It is disgraceful how the famous “Hugues” becomes “Hughes” almost invariably in the U.S. The French should retaliate with Bill Hugues, Langston Hugues and Spike Hugues. And were there two Calvin Jacksons? The one relatively well-known was born in 1919, but it said here that Fate Marable played with him. The Cotton Club did not expire in 1936, but moved downtown in New York that year. Such errors are unfortunate, but not very serious.

On the other hand, the description of Joe Glaser’s background and the significance of his association with Armstrong-a paradox, regrettable yet valuable-are convincingly detailed. Quotes, too, from Armstrong’s letters are often illumined by his indomitable humor and folk wisdom, as for his observation that “any learned musician can read music, but they all can’t swing.” Tell that in the studios!

In short, a flawed but important addition to the swelling Armstrong bibliography.

Originally Published