Sometimes less is more and by focussing on Satchmo’s early life, Brothers sheds more light on Armstrong than many biographies covering the artist’s whole life have done
Topping even the disputed myths surrounding be bop, the birth of jazz in New Orleans has been fertile ground for any number of myths and endless speculation. Brothers methodically traces the key influences on Armstrong ranging from the highly stratified church life of his home town, the hawkers, funeral processions, the creole/black divide, the pimping and steam boats as well as the famous home for waifs. His methodical analysis — which is nevertheless hugely enjoyable to read — cuts through the fuzz and gives us the best glimpse so far of how this amazing art form emerged as well as its undisputed first great virtuoso.
The picture of Armstrong that emerges is far more complex than the loveable Satchmo of popular imagination. Like many of his contemporaries, he tried his hand at pimping, smoked huge quantities of weed and even managed to cock a snoop at the King of England without anyone quite realising it. The Armstrong that emerges from these pages is richer, bigger and darker.
In his later life, Armstrong would be characterised as too ‘white’ for many of the radical jazzers of the post war generation but this detailed portrait of the man sets his actions out in relation to his upbringing in the carnivalesque New Orleans revealing a man who was in fact very comfortable with the black skin he was in.
Along with the biography comes heavy doses of sociology of the times and detailed musicological analysis. The young Armstrong was talented and keen, he was certainly in the right place at the right time and was ‘adopted’ by Joe ‘King’ Oliver, which no doubt helped him get noticed. There is one thing that escapes the author of this book though. What turned a promising but less than outstanding trumpeter into the giant that he became in just a few short years after leaving New Orleans?
Perhaps the author is saving this for a future book or perhaps we will never know. What we do get from Louis Armstrong’s new Orleans is a sparkling and compelling account of one of the most important epochs in the history of music told through the perspective of its most dazzling star.
Thomas Brothers – Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans is published by Norton
ISBN: 0 393 06109 4