Satchmo: The Wonderful World and Art of Louis Armstrong by Steven Brower

Satchmo by Steven Brower
Satchmo: The Wonderful World and Art of Louis Armstrong
by Steven Brower
Abrams, 256 pp.
CLR [rating:3]

A Tour of Louis Armstrong’s Unconscious

A musician friend once told me a story about Louis Armstrong. It is one of those anecdotes that, while possibly apocryphal, ought to be true. Waiting to go through customs in an airport, Armstrong found that Richard Nixon, then vice president, was standing in the same line. He approached the politician, exchanged a little small talk, put on his famous smile, and asked, “Mr. Vice President, would you like to carry my trumpet through customs?” Nixon replied that it would be an honor, and took the case supposedly containing the instrument in his hands. Legend has it that Armstrong packed his marijuana – he smoked it every day of his adult life – in his trumpet case.

The story ought to be true because it is emblematic of Armstrong’s humor, shrewdness and the slyly complex nature of a man who appeared to be absolutely straightforward. He was often said to have invented jazz, and while this is hardly the case, he was the most emblematic and influential exemplar of that most American of musical forms.

Sidney Bechet, Bix Beiderbecke and Armstrong were jazz’s first great soloists, but the trumpet solos recorded by Armstrong with his Hot Five and Hot Seven groups in the mid 1920s were those that all jazz musicians of the time aspired to emulate. Few could dream of reaching his high notes. He became so famous for them that the saxophonist Lester Young referred to all high notes as “Armstrongs.”

Jazz began to detour from the Armstrong style in the 1940s in the bebop era. Yet the greatest of trumpeters of that day, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, acknowledged his influence on their playing. On this YouTube clip, you can see Armstrong and Gillespie play together. Gillespie’s debt to Armstrong, both as a performer and a musician, is evident:

Today, traditional trumpeters like Nicholas Payton and Wynton Marsalis take after Armstrong, and to a certain extent even the most avant -garde, off-the-wall free jazz practitioners are responding to what Armstrong pioneered.

Before he came along, no one sang like Armstrong, contorting his voice into different notes as if it were a musical instrument, improvising lyrics instead of following the words already written, or disregarding them entirely and scat-singing. Every jazz singer who came after him owes Armstrong a debt.

It was once said that the three most iconic figures of the 20th century were Charlie Chaplin, Mickey Mouse and Armstrong. Literally beloved by millions around the world, his presence on that list is as much for his performance style as for his musicianship. As a young man he was inspired by Bill “Bojangles” Robinson who, although primarily a dancer, also sang and acted on stage and screen. Throughout his career, apart from playing music, Armstrong would joke around, wipe his forehead with a handkerchief and make exaggerated faces – what he called “mugging lightly, slightly and politely.”

For someone who radiated pure joy, his beginnings were Deep South Dickensian. Born in New Orleans in August 4, 1901, his unwed mother was a sometime prostitute and his absent father worked in a turpentine factory. As an unsupervised child, he worked unloading boats and selling newspapers on the sidewalk. Evenings, he would stand outside nightclubs and listen to the great trumpet players of the day, including Buddy Bolden and King Oliver, who would later become his mentor.

When he was 12, as punishment for firing a pistol in the air, he was sent to the Colored Waifs’ Home. This was the best thing that ever happened to him, for it was there that he learned to play the cornet. His other lucky break was getting to know a Jewish family by the name of Karnofsky, whose paterfamilias hired the boy to gather scrap metal on the streets of the city (along with his own son), and also gave Armstrong his first cornet. The entertainer liked to tell people, “I’m a Baptist, a good friend of the Pope’s and I always wear a Jewish star a friend gave me for good luck.”

By the time he was 18, he was already married (to a woman reputed to have been an occasional prostitute), and the father of an adopted child. They were soon divorced, although Armstrong took care of the son, who was mentally handicapped, for the rest of his life. Until he died, Armstrong was known for enjoying the company of a great variety of women. These dalliances were separate from his three subsequent marriages, including his last, to Lucille Wilson, a former showgirl, which endured nearly 30 years until his death.

By the time he was in his early 30s he was world-famous. Yet Armstrong still suffered enraging humiliations. Returning to New Orleans after a triumphal tour of Europe in the mid -1930s, a white announcer refused to herald the concert of a “nigger.” These sort of incidents happened so often in the Crescent City that at a certain point Armstrong renounced it. After a concert with his integrated small band, the All-Stars, was canceled there in 1947, he said “I don’t care if I ever see that city again. They treat me better all over the world than they do in my home town. Ain’t that stupid? Jazz was born there and I remember when it wasn’t no crime for cats of any color to get together and blow.” Today New Orleans has named its airport and a park after Armstrong. However, the entertainer bought a house in the Corona section of Queens, New York, in 1943, and called that city his home until he died.

Armstrong donated money to Martin Luther King’s movement, and in 1957, said publicly that Eisenhower’s government could “go to hell” when it raised no objections to Arkansas governor Orval Faubus’s refusal to integrate Central High School in Little Rock. Yet many considered his “mugging” performing style a demeaning Uncle Tom act. Billie Holliday perhaps expressed it best when she said that Armstrong “toms, but he toms from the heart.”

He was tireless. During most years he performed 300 concerts. He also found time to publish two autobiographies without the aid of a ghost writer. He appeared in various movies, although usually as a sidelight apart from the story. This was deemed prudent on the part of the producers, after movie theatres in the South refused to exhibit the 1937 film Artists and Models, which featured a suggestive shimmy by white comedienne Martha Raye to Armstrongs’ accompaniment. In 1964, his recording of “Hello Dolly” knocked the Beatles off the top of the charts. When he died in 1971, twenty-five thousand people attended his funeral.

I consider myself a dyed-in-the-wool Armstrong fan, but until the publication of Satchmo, The Wonderful World and Art of Louis Armstrong, I was unaware that he also made collages. These works of art were contained in 20 scrapbooks and within 650 boxes that also housed reel-to-reel tapes of his music. They are part of the collection of the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens College in New York.

The collages, which make up the bulk of this coffee-table book, would be best described as folk art, and most of the time their subject was their creator. Images, adhered with Scotch tape, usually include photos of Armstrong – alone, with famous people, or with fans and friends. Many include his influences and people he met along the way, including Pope Paul VI. They also include homilies cut out of Hallmark cards, newspaper articles and headlines, and snippets from telegrams, letters and postcards he received. There are receipts from the dues he paid to the musicians’ union, and photos of people he admired, from Jackie Robinson to Nat King Cole to Martin & Lewis and Dinah Shore.

There are letterheads from hotels where he stayed (plus how much his bills amounted to), record album covers, and advertisements for an herbal laxative called Swiss Kriss, whose benefits he touted at every turn, and which he swallowed nearly as regularly as he smoked marijuana.

Some of the collages are delightful, and will be fascinating to any hard-core Armstrong fan. The most intriguing seem like a tour of the entertainer’s unconscious, such as one from the 1940s which includes a photo of George and Aida Walker, black cakewalk performers from the late 19th century; an image of Alexandre Dumas père (for being the grandson of an Afro Caribbean slave); a picture of his wife Lucille; another of Babe Ruth as he announced his retirement before a radio audience; and the sheet music for a jingle for Blatz beer.

In another there is a large photo of him, and a tiny portrait of King Oliver’s head appears superimposed inside the spot where Armstrong’s brain would be located. (This is not unlike Frida Kahlo’s portrait of herself with Diego Rivera’s face laid over her forehead.) However, in this case Armstrong and Oliver are surrounded by Armstrong’s colleagues and influences: Duke Ellington, trumpet players Bunny Berrigan and Bix Beiderbecke, trombonist Jack Teagarden, singers Ruth Brown and Bing Crosby and, curiously, Franklin Roosevelt.)

As I read Satchmo, The Wonderful World and Art of Louis Armstrong, I couldn’t help but think that it was a book that had been composed, designed, prepared or produced – anything but written. There is a text, by Steven Brower, and an introduction by Hilton Als. The piece by Als – who has proven to be one of America’s most astute cultural critics, principally in his articles for the New Yorker – reads like it was dashed off before breakfast one morning, the result of a debt paid through clenched teeth. Brower provides a sketch about Armstrong so lifeless that I wondered if he was in fact a writer at all. (A Google search makes it clear that he is primarily a graphic designer, which might explain the book’s lively, cheerful presentation and enervated prose.)

For no apparent rhyme or reason, some of the collages are captioned while others are not. When captions exist, they are often unnecessary, such as the one of Armstrong “sharing a happy evening with friends and fans.” Another depicts a well dressed black man and is merely captioned “A beautiful serious portrait.” Yes, but of whom? Often I found myself wondering who the people were in the photos. Almost invariably these had no captions.

There are also occasional significant problems with the text. For instance, Brower describes Armstrong’s trumpet playing at the end of his life as “modernist less-is-more simplification.” This is either pretension or just plain stupidity: Armstrong played fewer notes at the end because, having played so many for nearly 60 years, his lips were shot. (In Ken Burns’s PBS documentary Jazz, Wynton Marsalis elegantly points out that, at the finish of Armstrong’s career, there may have been a smaller number of notes, but that there was a great deal of information in each note.)

Armstrong has been better served in the past. Satchmo, The Wonderful World and Art of Louis Armstrong should be seen as an adjunct to Satchmo, The Genius of Louis Armstrong, another coffee table book, but with an excellent text by Gary Giddins; Louis Armstrong in His Own Words: Selected Writings; and Louis Armstrong by Lawrence Beergren. There is more, and more interesting, information about Armstrong in any of those sources, including Burns’s documentary. It is a volume suitable for serious Satchmophiles, or those who would prefer to look than to read.

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