[Dixielandjazz] Louis Armstrong book reviewed
rsr at ringwald.com
Wed Jun 22 09:53:45 PDT 2011
'What a Wonderful World,' by Ricky Riccardi
by Ted Gioia
San Francisco Chronicle, June 19, 2011
Call me a fan or even a fanatic, but I have a whole shelf full of books on Louis
Armstrong. I find this pioneering jazz musician endlessly fascinating, especially
in his ability to balance the demands of artistry and commercial entertainment. No,
I never saw Satchmo perform, but even posthumously his charisma and personality have
kept me a loyal admirer.
But I didn't expect I would encounter another book on Armstrong at this late stage
that would tell me so many new things about him, or give me so many fresh perspectives
on his career. Ricky Riccardi has done just that with his in-depth study "What a
Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong's Later Years."
Riccardi has done his homework. The project archivist for the Louis Armstrong House
Museum, he has immersed himself in Armstrong's papers, his correspondence, his tape-recorded
conversations, and has somehow secured countless bootleg recordings of concerts and
broadcasts made over a period of decades. From these and other sources, he has drawn
a wealth of new information that will change our perspectives on Armstrong's life
Yet this book is also likely to stir controversy. Almost every other work on Armstrong
focuses on his early career -- especially his classic recordings from the 1920s --
while giving little credit to his later efforts. Armstrong may have sold lots of
records in his final years, and he even knocked the Beatles off the charts with his
hit single "Hello, Dolly!" But jazz insiders have preferred to ignore, or even ridicule,
the music making of the last third of his life.
Riccardi has set himself the daunting task of raising the stature of Armstrong's
later work. He starts his story in 1947 -- some two decades after Armstrong had recorded
his most famous tracks, the revered performances by his Hot Five and Hot Seven combos.
The artist was now breaking up his big band and forming a small group to play traditional
jazz songs and pop-oriented material.
Riccardi ardently defends this body of work against its many critics. Detractors
have skewered Armstrong for his commercial compromises, the shallowness of his song
choices, the repetitiveness of his solos and his complacency as a bandleader. Others
attack the man even more than the music, calling him an Uncle Tom and denouncing
his deference toward his manipulative white manager, Joe Glaser. Riccardi is a fierce
advocate in Armstrong's defense, attempting to counter each of these allegations.
I applaud Riccardi's fervor, even if I am not entirely convinced. Glaser did exploit
Armstrong, in my opinion, and the artist allowed it to happen. Armstrong did make
more than a few bad records under Glaser's guidance. His performances could be formulaic.
But Riccardi also forced me to reconsider much of this body of work and reshaped
my opinions of the man himself.
Riccardi draws on a treasure trove of tapes and documents in portraying a tougher,
more outspoken side of Armstrong. He gives due attention to Armstrong's frank criticisms
of President Dwight Eisenhower, which may have influenced Ike's decision to send
federal troops into Little Rock to enforce school integration. He details Armstrong's
work as an ambassador of goodwill in Africa and behind the Iron Curtain. But even
more revealing are the transcripts of private conversations, many published for the
first time in this book.
Here we see Armstrong unfiltered and uncensored. I laughed heartily at Riccardi's
account of Armstrong prodding his manager to secure a license that would allow him
to smoke pot anywhere in the world. I was even more moved to learn of Armstrong handing
out between $500 and $1,000 every week to needy people -- equivalent to about $250,000
a year in present-day dollars.
It would be easy for a writer to get caught up in Armstrong's colorful personality,
but Riccardi does not forget the music. This book sets the standard in assessing
and analyzing Armstrong's performances in the second half of his career. Riccardi
champions works others have neglected, and makes a compelling case for a host of
recordings most jazz fans have never heard -- pointing readers, for example, to Armstrong's
moving rendition of "Just a Closer Walk With Thee" with the Dukes of Dixieland, his
collaboration with Dave Brubeck on "The Real Ambassadors" and his exceptional trumpet
solo hidden in a bit of fluff called "C'est Si Bon."
Those interested in learning about Armstrong shouldn't rely on this as their only
source. The artist's early career is hardly dealt with, and Riccardi's partisan advocacy
is best read in tandem with other perspectives. But this is an important book. Even
those who already think they know Armstrong well will be surprised and delighted
-- and probably walk away with new respect for this seminal figure in American music.
Ted Gioia is the author of "The History of Jazz" and "Delta Blues."
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