LOUIS ARMSTRONG, IN HIS OWN WORDS
Edited by Thomas Brothers
Oxford. 255 pp. $25
In the nearly three decades since Louis Armstrong's death, our understanding of this stupendously accomplished and influential artist has both broadened and deepened, a process that should be significantly accelerated by the publication of this selection of his written work. Too commonly during his lifetime Armstrong was regarded and/or dismissed as the embodiment of one stereotype or another, and too frequently he was pigeonholed as an idiot savant. He was loved by millions all over the world, but almost nobody knew who he was.
Thus, for example, the scat singing and exuberant clowning that endeared him to (predominantly white) audiences were derided, by some blacks, as the antics of an Uncle Tom. Some whites, watching these same performances, belittled them as minstrel-show blackface. Among the intelligentsia, both black and white, it was widely assumed that his best work had been done long ago, with the Hot Fives and the Hot Sevens in the 1920s, and that everything thereafter was a capitulation -- a sellout -- to the demands of the popular market. On top of all that, it was often assumed that his musical genius was a purely natural force, unrefined by intellectual processes, a gift bestowed by a whimsical god on a childish black man from New Orleans.
Most of these misunderstandings of Armstrong obviously were formed in the crucible of race. From his rise to popularity in the 1930s until his death in 1971, Armstrong was perhaps the most famous African American in a nation that was only beginning to confront its heritage of slavery, subjugation and discrimination. Whites (including many who regarded themselves as enlightened) still expected blacks to behave in deferential and subordinate ways, and blacks were only beginning to devise an aggressive, confrontational strategy for securing the rights denied them. Armstrong was caught in the middle, and spent much of his adult life walking the fine, ever-shifting line between black and white.
His position was all the more complicated and ambivalent because Armstrong was not merely an incomparably gifted and original musician; he was also a consummate entertainer. An Armstrong performance had as much to do with laughter as with music. His humor was broad, earthy and raunchy; he engaged in bawdy repartee with the singer Velma Middleton (viz., their hilarious version of "Baby, It's Cold Outside"), often ending in a thunderous split by the immense Middleton that left the stage shaking and the crowd roaring. He played the clown for all it was worth, and without a scintilla of embarrassment.
The trouble was that many came to believe the clown act was the whole act: He could play the trumpet and sing in that inimitably gravelly voice and grin that astonishing grin, but that, some assumed, was that. Not until 1988, with the appearance of Gary Giddins's biography, Satchmo, and the simultaneous release of a video examination of Armstrong's life, did this begin to change. "Armstrong was misunderstood throughout his career," Giddins wrote. "The more we know of him, the better we can reckon the man and his greatness."
Giddins also wrote: "Of Armstrong's many accomplishments, the least recognized is his prolificacy as a writer of autobiographical prose. He was by far the most expansive musician/writer jazz has ever known." At that time the best and most important of Armstrong's published work was Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans (1954), a wonderfully sunny coming-of-age memoir; the rest was largely fugitive pieces scattered hither and yon. Almost nobody knew that there was a vast amount of unpublished handwritten and typed material, not to mention an even larger storehouse of oral reminiscence and commentary that Armstrong had recorded during his endless days and nights on the road.
Louis Armstrong, In His Own Words publishes for the first time a generous sampling of the former; the tape recordings will become available in the future. It is a remarkable book, taking us inside the heart and head of the man in ways that, until now, only the music had done. It reveals him, among many things, as a person of strong and fiercely independent opinions; as a proud, serious musician who paid close attention to his artistic education and development; as a genuine eccentric, in everything from his quirky prose style to his devotion to marijuana to his use and advocacy of a laxative called Swiss Kriss; as a sharp-eyed observer of the human comedy in all its variety.
"I have always been a great observer," Armstrong writes in what appears to be a sequel to his childhood memoir, and this book proves the point. His eyes were always wide open, taking in everything they saw, and his mind processed that information with intelligence and insight. His curiosity was boundless, and he was open to any- and everything. His prose style, as Thomas Brothers writes in his informative introduction, "combines jive talk and straight English in a personal and very fluent way," one that parallels the improvisatory essence of jazz.
As in his music, Armstrong in his writing was much given to accent and emphasis and rhythm. He employed italics frequently, at times in wholly unexpected ways, and he used apostrophes in order "to convey emphasis," as Brothers says. Almost any passage chosen at random would be illustrative, but I have a particular fondness for this one, in which Armstrong describes the modest little house in Queens where he lived with his wife, Lucille:
"We don't think that we could be more relaxed and have better neighbors any place else. So we stay put. After all -- we have a very lovely home. The house may not be the nicest looking front. But when one visit the Interior of the Armstrong's home' they' see a whole lot of comfort, happiness + the nicest things. Such as that Wall to Wall Bed -- a Bath Room with Mirrors Everywhere' Since we are Disciples to Laxatives. A Garage with a magic up + down Gate to it. And of course our Birthmark Car' a Cadillac' (Yea). The Kids in our Block just thrill when they see our garage gate up, and our fine Cadillac ooze on out. They just rejoice and say, `Hi -- Louis + Lucille -- your car is so beautiful coming out of that raise up gate,' which knocks' me out."
That's beautiful stuff, at once artful and artless, sly and innocent. "Our fine Cadillac ooze on out" is an image so vivid and funny as to be the envy of the best comic poets, though what it most immediately evokes, for those lucky enough to know the recording, is Dizzy Gillespie's "Swing Low, Sweet Cadillac." The picture the whole passage presents of Armstrong blissfully at home in his little kingdom tells us a lot about the man but more than a little, too, about this country, in which it is possible to rise from poverty in New Orleans to happiness and prosperity in a suburb of New York.
That suburb, like most other aspects of Armstrong's life, was what we now call diverse. In New Orleans as a boy he was the occasional employee and permanent protege of a Jewish family named Karnofsky, and "I learned a lot from them as to how to live -- real life and determination." He loved Jews for the rest of his life, and though he had unhappy memories of discrimination -- what black American doesn't? -- he seems to have learned from them to rise above race; no doubt that, along with the music and the laughter, had much to with the love the world lavished on him. It is hard to imagine a person to whom the phrase "African American" could be more appropriately applied; he was both things separately, and both things combined.
He was also smart, self-confident, ambitious, hard-working and conscientious, and in the bargain he may have been the ultimate sensualist, taking his pleasure where he found it and reveling in every moment of it. He gave joy to millions because he was joyful -- full of joy -- himself, as almost every word of this book attests.
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is email@example.com.