Louis the Great
Louis Armstrong is a biographer’s dream. Not only is the life of the most influential figure in jazz history a classic rags-to-riches story (as Duke Ellington put it, “He was born poor, died rich and never hurt anyone on the way”), but he also left us a mother lode of autobiographical material. This fifth-grade dropout was 21 when he acquired his first typewriter, and he soon became an enthusiastic correspondent who, for the remainder of his life, favored friends and acquaintances with epistles ranging from a dozen lines to as many or more pages. In addition, he published two autobiographies (the first, “Swing That Music,” was heavily ghosted; the second, “Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans,” was written strictly in his own inimitable words) and several lengthy articles.
Armstrong also made considerable contributions to two biographical works, Robert Goffin’s somewhat fictionalized “Horn of Plenty” and “Louis: The Louis Armstrong Story,” by Max Jones and John Chilton. Additional autobiographical writings have posthumously come to light and were first made good public use of by Gary Giddins in his 1988 biography, “Satchmo.”
Laurence Bergreen, whose previous biographies were of James Agee, Irving Berlin and Al Capone, has drawn deeply from these autobiographical writings for his affectionate but flawed portrait of the man he sees as a “character of epic proportions.” That alone would set him miles apart from James Lincoln Collier, author of the deceptively named “Louis Armstrong: An American Genius,” who considered Armstrong an “unreliable” witness to his own life, but there is much more.
Unlike the puritanical and judgmental Collier, whose sensitive nostrils recoiled from the pungent odors of Armstrong’s youthful environment and who saw the man and the artist as fatally flawed by feelings of inferiority, Bergreen makes himself at home in Storyville, the New Orleans red light district where Armstrong was reared. With great relish, he conjures up images of brothels and whores and accuses historians and scholars of efforts “to place a fig leaf over the origins of Jazz,” when it is obvious to him that the music “was born in whorehouses and on the sidewalks in front of whorehouses” and thrived in “down-and-dirty honky-tonks, dives, brothels [and] gambling and dope dens.” Furthermore, this “was precisely why [early jazz] was so lively.”
That such a view, curiously old-fashioned, is overthrown by what Bergreen cites from Armstrong himself and other New Orleanians--street parades, funerals, picnics, white social events, riverboat excursions, etc.--bothers him not one whit. And he is consistent, viewing both swing and bebop as weakenings of the potent genetic essence of jazz and defining Armstrong as a “profoundly intuitive musician.” Even his ability to read music is considered slightly suspect.
But Bergreen would have been much better off, and his subject much better served, if he had refrained from introducing his own opinions and musical descriptions of jazz, and had spent a bit more time acquainting himself with its history. He cites and quotes from Donald Marquis’ book on Buddy Bolden, yet tells us that the cornetist was also a barber and publisher of a scandal sheet--two myths that Marquis indisputably overthrew. He has no inkling that Sidney Bechet, whom he consistently describes only as a clarinetist, played soprano saxophone on the recordings with Armstrong that he attempts to analyze. He has Armstrong playing “Basin Street Blues” a full decade before it was composed. He tells us about Don Redman’s arrangements for the Fletcher Henderson Band and says that “when he [Redman] played the sax section off the rest of the brass, the effect was electric” (a choice bit of gibberish, that!). He identifies Dave Brubeck as “the apostle of cool jazz” and claims that the New York Times did not print an obituary of Charlie Parker (“the only memorials were graffiti”)--sentimental nonsense that a copy editor should have squelched, along with dozens of other anachronisms, errors and simple misperceptions. When one reads that "[(Norman] Granz presented his musicians in austere settings,” and that Benny Goodman gave “concerts” at the Palomar in Los Angeles in 1935, one must wonder how Bergreen’s five research assistants spent their time.
The more’s the pity, since Bergreen has the ability to spin a good yarn. He has uncovered much ancient dirt about Armstrong’s long-time manager and eminence grise, Joe Glaser (though the essence of that strange man eludes him), and is most enlightening about his hero’s relationships with women. His first wife, Daisy, whom he married when he was 17, is brought into full view, and there is a balanced portrait of her successor, Lilian Hardin, using both her own and Armstrong’s accounts. Wives No. 3 (the acquisitive Alpha Smith) and 4 (the steadfast Lucille Wilson) also get their dues, though the latter was more controlling than Bergreen seems to realize.
But then, the book is heavily weighted in favor of the earlier and more “extravagant” years of Armstrong’s life. Almost 400 pages have passed before we reach 1940, and only some of the highlights of the next 30 years are covered. This is, at least in part, because Bergreen believes that his subject did his best work before the 1930s, that swing passed him by, and that the famous Armstrong All Stars, assembled in 1947, represented a return to the trumpeter’s roots. It is also because once Armstrong settled in New York in 1929, the backdrop was no longer as colorful as brothel-laden New Orleans and gangster-dominated Chicago. The trouble Armstrong had with gangsters until he hooked up with Glaser in 1935 is grist for Bergreen’s storytelling forte.
Unlike Collier, Bergreen is able to deal sensibly with Armstrong’s involvement with marijuana, though he overestimates the extent to which his subject made use of it in a working context. But he refrains from moralizing or finger-pointing. He’s also quite sensible about Armstrong’s addiction to laxatives, though, again, he exaggerates the amounts of the stuff actually consumed. And Armstrong did not use that famous (or infamous) photo of himself on the potty, holding up a package of “Swiss Kriss,” the herbal purgative he swore by, on his stationery, nor was his den, where he loved to spend what little time he had at home, decorated with images of himself. The collages he created included pretty women and famous men, mostly African Americans, but Winston Churchill as well.
Bergreen gives Armstrong due credit for his strong public stand on school desegregation in Little Rock, Ark., in 1957 when, among other things, he said that President Eisenhower had “no guts” and called Arkansas Gov. Orville Faubus an “uneducated plowboy.” Yet he underestimates Armstrong’s less public role in breaking the color barrier, especially during the 1930s, when he was the first of his race to perform in dozens of venues all over the land.
But then, Armstrong’s life and art was, in and of itself, a triumph over racism, or, more accurately, its obversion. Bergreen senses this but seems to believe that Armstrong’s main weapon was accommodation, a tactic that came to him naturally through his love for people of all kinds and complexions. That’s only part of the story, just as the music Armstrong created, was much more than what Bergreen says it is: “It was all so much fun, more fun than any other music.” Serious fun--very serious!
If Bergreen realized just how serious, he would probably not have undertaken the task to hand. Clearly, he is not alone, for the publication of this book is proof that jazz, with all the recognition, tributes and honors by now bestowed upon it, is still not taken as seriously as it merits. Would a major publishing house accept a manuscript about Mozart as shorn of elementary knowledge of music as “Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life”? This is a well-intentioned book, but good intentions are no longer enough when it comes to one of the greatest figures the 20th century has brought forth, the fountainhead of, arguably, its most original form of musical expression. As the old blues lyric put it: “How long, baby, how long?”