Louis Armstrong was such a colossal figure in American music that it is a daunting task to take his measure. In the 21st century, he is likely best remembered for his warm, emphatic, unmistakable singing in the 1960s — for the popular hits he made of “Mack the Knife,” “What a Wonderful World” and “Hello, Dolly!” — the last of which managed to push the Beatles out of their long-standing top place on the hit parade almost exactly 50 years ago and made him the oldest man to ever occupy such an elevated status.
This is not the Louis Armstrong that Duke University music professor Thomas Brothers addresses in his painstakingly researched, profoundly evocative and altogether admirable new book, “Louis Armstrong: Master of Modernism.” Rather, Brothers concentrates on Armstrong’s life in the 1920s and ’30s, after he had left his native New Orleans (an earlier Brothers volume explores those years) and took the “great migration” to Chicago, where he effectively combined blues and jazz in a manner that transformed American music.
One occasionally hears talk of some seismic, qualitative divide between “art” and “entertainment,” but I’ve never quite bought into it. Any art that doesn’t entertain, on some level, won’t be around for very long. Still, without any derogation of the later Armstrong — the brilliant “entertainer” with the 1,000-watt smile on magazine covers and Sunday night television who turned out pop hit after hit while breaking down racial barriers throughout the world — it can be said that his most innovative music-making dates back to a time when, unless you were black yourself or unusually devoted to what was overwhelmingly an African American art, you had likely never heard of Armstrong at all.
Complete with a detailed map, Brothers takes us all around the South Side of Chicago, block by block, lingering over legends and landmarks: Lincoln Gardens, the Sunset Cafe and other places where the vibe was welcoming and the music was fresh. The neighborhood seems a kind of paradise, especially when compared with what many of the recent immigrants had escaped. (Young Louis — contrary to what is often heard, he always pronounced it “LEW-is” — had been forced to ride all the way from Louisiana in the crushing heat of August 1922 without the right to buy food in the dining car, which was closed to black people.) Jazz began as a music of liberation from both racism and hoary tradition.
The biographical material about Armstrong is welcome and often contradictory. How does one reconcile the brash young innovator with his deep admiration for Guy Lombardo, as traditionalist a bandleader as they came? The devout and chronic pothead was also the man who could “pick up an orchestral routine in quicker time than it takes to rehearse it,” as one colleague described him. Most of the other significant jazz and blues artists of the time are here, everybody from Bessie Smith, with whom Armstrong made his first recording of “St. Louis Blues” (a song he would record some 75 times) to the man Brothers calls Armstrong’s first great disciple, Bix Beiderbecke, who comes off badly. Even gangster Al Capone, with whom Brothers claims Armstrong had a “special relationship,” makes an appearance.
Still, proudly specialized as this book is, it will not be for everybody. Brothers is happy to spend a page or two on a single three-minute disc, and that may be simply too much for some readers. It is hard to think of another American musician whose life has been so well documented as Armstrong’s. He has been the subject of more than a dozen general biographies (the volumes by Lawrence Bergreen and Terry Teachout are standouts); there have been numerous academic studies, an exhaustive discography and even a life-story for children. Those who want just a single book on Armstrong may want to look elsewhere.
That said, the writing and detail are so brilliant that I found the volume revelatory. “Blues phrasing often included a sense of darting in and out of synchrony with a steady, ‘fixed’ foundation to make the music automatically danceable. Fleeting rhythmic patterns, forming and dissolving quickly, peppered the melodic flow, and the practice of dragging behind a steady beat was common. An ancient melody-type was very strong: a leap up to a high, strained pitch followed by gradual and indirect descent, a jagged contour of falls and rises outlining a ‘sawtooth’ design. A feeling of improvisational suppleness conditioned the entire flow of pitch, rhythm and tone quality, communicating qualities of resilience. None of this can be captured in musical notation.” No, but Brothers has captured it in words very beautifully indeed.
“Great melody carried him through,” Brothers sums up. “There were other experts in blues, lead, hot solos and paraphrase: what made Armstrong different was the flexibility of his mind and his ability to use his experience as the basis for melodic innovation and excellence. He transferred lessons gained from one style over to the others, and he adapted his musical creativity to the conditions at hand. During the 1920s and early 1930s, the period of his finest musical achievement, he was occupied at a deep level with the task of creating melodic responses to varied social formations. He shaped the times and the times shaped him, which is why his value is not only artistic but also historical.”
Page is professor of music and journalism at the University of Southern California.
Master of Modernism
By Thomas Brothers
Norton. 594 pp. $39.95