[Dixielandjazz] Louis Armstrong book reviewed
rsr at ringwald.com
Fri Jun 24 12:38:54 PDT 2011
Biography Tunes into Louis Armstrong's Twilight Years
by Chris Foran
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, June 23, 2011
Louis Armstrong is: a) one of the greatest entertainers of the 20th century, or b)
a great performer whose talent was superseded by a persona that negated his heritage
and -- worse -- made him America's most public Uncle Tom.
People have been either Camp A or Camp B on Armstrong since the end of World War
II, with the latter dominating the discussion. Even those who acknowledge Armstrong's
genius as a musician typically add the disclaimer: "Well, you know, toward the end
of his life, he was kind of hard to take seriously."
Ricky Riccardi doesn't think so. The archivist for the Louis Armstrong House Museum
in Queens, N.Y., and the author of a long-running Armstrong blog called "The Wonderful
World of Louis Armstrong," Riccardi believes there is more to Satchmo than meets
the eye, or ear. His new book "What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong's
Later Years," hitting stores nearly exactly 40 years after his death, is an attempt
to redirect the conversation away from that uncomfortable caricature and toward a
musical master's twilight.
In many ways, Riccardi succeeds, revealing new dimensions in a portrait of a highly
familiar pop-culture icon.
In the postwar years, while the world of jazz was zigging more toward bebop, Armstrong
was zagging toward the past. He put together a band called the All Stars that dwelled
on the music he started on -- music that by then was being called Dixieland. Jazz
enthusiasts, more interested in the music's newer directions, sneered, but the fans
continued to come out in droves.
And Armstrong, handkerchief and horn in hand, was eager, almost pathologically so,
to oblige. He carried out a grueling schedule -- often more than 30 shows in 30 days
in almost as many different towns -- and regularly wore out musicians who got tired
of keeping the pace.
The night-after-night touring led some critics to accuse Armstrong of going through
the motions. But Riccardi takes great pains to show there was great music in all
that hard work -- and, just as often, hit songs in the most unlikely places.
Two of Armstrong's biggest hit records during his twilight years -- "Mack the Knife"
in 1955 and "Hello, Dolly!" in 1964 -- were near-afterthoughts. In both cases, Riccardi
notes, the songs topped the charts (the latter climbed to No. 1 during the height
of Beatlemania) while his band was on the road. Because none of the musicians knew
the songs, they had to go out and find the record and write down their parts so they
could relearn them and add them to their live sets.
But playing before live audiences was clearly Armstrong's passion. Thanks to extensive
research, including listening to hundreds of hours of recordings from the Armstrong
archives, Riccardi does a pretty good job of showing how obsessed he became with
For example, when Armstrong had a heart attack in 1959, he persuaded his doctors
to say it was something less serious, for fear that theater and club owners wouldn't
book him if they were worried about his health. Within 10 days, he was back onstage.
In another 20, he was back to his unrelenting, different-city-every-night concert
Riccardi also captures the power of Armstrong's popularity -- which, interestingly,
was more potent overseas than in the States.
In 1960, for example, he was touring Africa, including Congo, which at the time was
wracked by bloody civil war. In honor of Armstrong's appearance, both sides agreed
to a truce and even provided joint security for the concert at a stadium in Leopoldville
before a reported 175,000 people. The fighting resumed in the country as soon as
By then, Armstrong was routinely referred to in his travels as "Ambassador Satch,"
a sort of American goodwill agent. But his real political persona was more complicated.
Belying Armstrong's reputation as a smiling, go-along, get-along black man, Riccardi
focuses on Armstrong's very public attack on President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1957
for not getting involved in the clash over segregated schools in Little Rock, Ark.
The ensuing backlash made Armstrong more reticent about sharing his political views,
but he wasn't silent. He refused to perform in his native New Orleans because of
a law barring white and black performers from sharing the stage (his All Stars band
was integrated for most of the group's 20-years-plus tenure).
But Riccardi makes plain that Armstrong's general reluctance to get caught up in
the changing social politics of the 1950s and '60s isolated him from black audiences.
By the end of his playing days, his audiences were nearly completely white and older.
Riccardi quotes essayist Gerald Early, who notes that Armstrong's later years turned
off two generations of black audiences: first, because his old-timey, theatrical
persona made him appear to them a "silly Uncle Tom," and then, in the 1960s, he appeared
old, weak and frail in "a time when black people most vehemently did not wish to
The dilemma dogged Armstrong until his death in 1971 at age 69. And while it bothered
him, Riccardi relates, he didn't let it get in the way of playing as much as he could
for as long as he could. That, the author argues, is what made Armstrong a giant:
his passion for the music first, last and foremost.
After a two-week stint at the Waldorf-Astoria a few months before he died, Armstrong's
doctor told him he could drop dead while performing.
"Doc, you don't understand," he said, according to his physician. "My whole life,
my whole soul, my whole spirit is to blow that horn.... I've got to do it, Doc, I
got to do it."
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