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.
Riccardi’s writing occasionally veers into near-stridency in its defense of his idol, but his love for the music is vivid on every page, and he proves adept at expressing the worth of Armstrong’s late-career music. This is particularly effective in a moving passage which details, nearly note for note, a 1965 East Berlin concert performance of “Black and Blue”, a summing-up of all the racial battles Armstrong had fought armed with only a smile and a high C. However, the book’s richest value is in its extensive utilization of quotes from Pops himself. The man who emerges is warm, funny and generous, but also unafraid to speak from the heart. We learn that his famous dismissal of segregationist governor Orval Faubus as an “uneducated plowboy” was a journalist-instigated substitution for a harsher twelve-letter epithet, and that he used the same word to describe Benny Goodman, with whom he shared a disaster of a 1953 tour. Most remarkably, Riccardi includes excerpts from a never-before-published 1954 letter to manager Joe Glaser, written following the marijuana arrest of Armstrong’s wife Lucille, in which Armstrong declares his need for weed (to him, it was “medicine” necessary to relax from the road) and his willingness to withdraw from performing altogether if Glaser was not able to obtain him the freedom to do what was needed, herbal or otherwise, to ensure that his status as a “million-dollar attraction” was not threatened. These words, and many throughout, present a man a far cry from the beaming Uncle Tom we’ve come to know from history, and it is a strong reminder that, musically and in life, “Louis Armstrong was not a person to be messed with.”
Regardless of whether you think that Louis Armstrong’s work post-Hot Sevens was a waste of wax, his career remains a central edifice in jazz history, and What a Wonderful World shines a clear light on a much-neglected period of a great musician’s life. So, as Riccardi observes of his subject, “…why not take all of him?”