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What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years

Review of book by Ricky Riccardi

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Time has not been kind to Louis Armstrong’s postwar career. Though Satchmo’s recorded output, film and television appearances, and worldwide touring brought him a level of success virtually unprecedented in jazz, the critical establishment, then and now, largely dismisses this era as entertaining fluff at best, “blackface buffoonery” at worst. Ricky Riccardi’s What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years intends to rehabilitate “the most misunderstood period of the life of a genius”, to look behind Armstrong’s grin to reveal that, even if the music may have been less groundbreaking, it was still an impressive achievement worthy of consideration.

Kicking off with the 1947 concert that spawned Louis Armstrong and his All-Stars, What a Wonderful World follows Armstrong around that world for nearly twenty-five years. Riccardi provides a wealth of detail about the music that brought Armstrong his greatest notoriety, from his collaborations with Ella Fitzgerald and Dave Brubeck to his “Satchmozation” of pop gems like “Mack the Knife” and “Hello, Dolly”. He also deals with the controversies in which Armstrong found himself: his blackface appearance as “King of the Zulus” at a 1949 Mardi Gras festival; his public excoriation of Eisenhower during the Little Rock school desegregation fight; his use of the word “darkies” in an early recording of the song that would become his theme, “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South”. Riccardi presents a man perhaps sometimes unable to perceive how his actions might be read by his racial contemporaries, but who was nevertheless steadfastly principled and who prided himself on performing even the hoariest material with supreme enthusiasm and ability.

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