Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life
by Laurence Bergreen
Broadway Books. 564 pp. $30.00
In one way or another, most of the major biographies of Louis Armstrong have approached the story of this protean genius from a musical perspective. Laurence Bergreen’s new book represents a different take: that of an observer of popular culture and of the making of individual character. The word “extravagant” in the subtitle has been chosen with care: for Bergreen, the revolutionary quality of Armstrong’s musical art is best understood in the context of his boundlessly appetitive approach to all of life.
Louis Armstrong was born in New Orleans in 1901. As Bergreen shows, that city, which itself embodied extravagance in every sense, bubbled with diverse peoples and diverse cultural influences, including music of both European and African origin. Ensembles of all types played in parks, at funerals, in parades, and in the scores of nightclubs known as honky-tonks that thrived in the Battlefield, young Armstrong’s poverty-stricken neighborhood. As a seven-year-old, the child scuffled for pennies to help support his mother and younger sister by singing on street corners and selling newspapers and brick dust.
Then fate brought him to a Jewish family by the name of Karnofsky, who employed and loved him and taught him that blacks were not alone among the world’s outcasts. Bergreen quotes from an autobiographical manuscript: “I was only seven years old, but I could see the ungodly treatment that the white folks were handing the poor Jewish family whom I worked for.”
The Karnofskys encouraged young Louis musically, loaning him the money to buy his first cornet. Before long, he was leading the band at the Colored Waif’s Home, where he had been sent as punishment for firing a gun in the air on New Year’s Eve, 1912. Inspired by the music he heard around him, as well as by the records of Caruso and the Irish tenor John McCormack, the teenaged Armstrong soon found work in a variety of musical settings before audiences rich and poor, black and white.
Armstrong left New Orleans in 1922 to join his mentor and idol, Joe “King” Oliver in Chicago, where he rapidly transformed himself from a provincial trumpet prodigy into a riveting entertainer. His model was the black dancer and comedian Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, who had achieved broad appeal without resorting to the abasing self-mockeries of minstrelsy. As Bergreen writes:
Within weeks of his arrival in Chicago, Louis set his sights on becoming more than a jazz musician; he wanted to be an all-around performer who could play, sing, dance, joke, and beguile audiences into a trancelike state. Bojangles showed him how to be a star.
In 1925, after a brief stint in New York, Armstrong returned to Chicago. There, in addition to wowing live audiences with his musical wizardry and his dazzling persona, he created the jazz canon in recorded form. His “Hot Five” and “Hot Seven” recordings introduced to the world at large Armstrong’s boundary-bursting concepts of rhythm, harmony, and melody. In short order, shady managers were fighting over rights: one dispute led Armstrong and his band to flee for their lives to the South, hardly a comfortable refuge for black jazz musicians in 1931.
Life on the run also took Armstrong to Western Europe and Scandinavia, where he thrilled new audiences. Upon his return to America in 1935, he found the lifelong managerial security he needed in the person of Joe Glaser—according to Bergreen, an underling of Al Capone—who arranged recordings, radio and film appearances, hundreds of performances across the country for Armstrong’s big band, and the first of two published autobiographies.
With the demise of the big-band format in the late 1940’s, Armstrong returned to his small-band roots and entered a new phase of international acclaim. By 1954, he had appeared on the cover of Time, published his second autobiography, and toured Europe (again), Australia, and Japan. Although his celebrity had begun to overtake appreciation of his music, that music was assuming a new maturity; in the 1950’s he made some of his greatest recordings, teaming up with extraordinary artists like the pianist Oscar Peterson and the singer Ella Fitzgerald, and exploring the works of composers from W.C. Handy to George Gershwin to Cole Porter.
The 1960’s brought no break in Armstrong’s schedule. As America’s international “ambassador of good will,” he toured twenty countries, appeared frequently on television variety shows, and knocked the Beatles off the charts with “Hello, Dolly!” When he died in 1971, 25,000 admirers filed by his casket.
Bergreen sees an essential continuity between Armstrong’s disregard for musical bounds and his ability to bridge or transcend social, economic, and racial ones. He credits the Karnofskys with engendering this capacity in a child formed by the bitter legacy of slavery. It was they who, by opening the young boy’s mind, helped him understand how he could absorb and express varied influences, perform unselfconsciously before a diverse public, survive in a bigoted world, and even conquer it.
In the 1920’s, hundreds of thousands of whites were mesmerized into a dawning racial awareness by Armstrong’s Broadway performance and recording of “Broadway Black and Blue,” with the lyrics: “I’m white inside, but that don’t help my case/ ’cause I can’t hide what is in my face.” His loose, joking, manly style accomplished what no amount of straightforward instruction could hope to implant. In 1931, when a white radio announcer refused to introduce “that nigger man” on the air, Armstrong amiably grabbed the microphone and introduced himself. When white supremacists detonated an explosive device during a 1957 performance before a racially mixed (though separately seated) audience, Armstrong cracked, “that’s all right, folks, it’s just the phone,” and went on with the show.
No Uncle Tom, Armstrong successfully fought bigotry in his own way by surreptitiously injecting himself into the cultural mainstream. But he was also capable of speaking out when necessary. Faced, in Bergreen’s words, with the “cruel irony of an American ambassador who could not use a rest-room in his own land,” he publicly denounced President Eisenhower for standing idle as Orval Faubus, the governor of Arkansas, refused to integrate Little Rock’s public schools. Throughout the 50’s he declined to perform in his home state of Louisiana so long as it continued to prohibit integrated bands. “They treat me better all over the world than they do in my own hometown,” he said. “Ain’t that stupid? Jazz was born there and I remember when it wasn’t no crime for cats of any color to get together and blow.”
Armstrong’s disdain for boundaries defined his personal and sexual style as well. Illustrating his theme of extravagance, Bergreen goes into much greater detail than any previous biographer to describe the trumpeter’s insatiable skirt-chasing throughout all four of his marriages, as well as his lifelong marijuana habit. He even surmises that the recordings made by Armstrong when stoned surpass those made when he was sober—as it happens, an untenable assertion.
In its own terms, Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life is an engaging book, though unfortunately Bergreen races through the last quarter-century, half of Armstrong’s professional life, in his final 67 pages, thereby shortchanging not only the majesty of Armstrong’s art during this period but also the full, worshipful extent of his worldwide popularity. The absence of any sort of epilogue, especially given the eloquence of Bergreen’s opening chapter—one of the best six-page summaries of Armstrong ever written—is startling.
But the book is also beset with problems. For one thing, both the main text and the endnotes are riddled with factual errors, appalling in view of the army of research assistants whom Bergreen thanks and his generally impressive ability to synthesize material from disparate sources. Numerous dates are simply wrong: Bergreen has Armstrong playing in a band a year before he joined it; leaving Chicago for New York a year after he actually did; singing the verse to “Basin Street Blues” thirteen years before it was written; and meeting the woman who would become his first wife months after they had married. He has Lil Hardin, Armstrong’s second wife, writing a song Fats Waller composed, and he misspells the lyricist Andy Razaf’s name. According to Bergreen, “there was, astonishingly, no music” at Armstrong’s funeral; this would come as news to Al Hibbler and Peggy Lee, both of whom sang at the ceremonies. There is much, much more of this sort of thing.
More serious problems arise from Bergreen’s tendency to confuse stories and thus reach inaccurate conclusions. In one instance, he has Armstrong calling his longtime manager Joe Glaser—whom he loved deeply and never deprecated, publicly or privately—“a crude sonofabitch.” But the source to whom Bergreen refers actually quoted Armstrong as directing that epithet not at Glaser but at the bouncer of a New Orleans honky-tonk. (To compound the sin, Bergreen gets the quotation right earlier in the book.)
Elsewhere, Bergreen asserts that the record producer George Avakian “tried to banish” the singer Velma Middleton from the 1954 album Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy, even though, in the liner notes to a CD reissue of that album, Avakian himself cites his sharp rejoinder to the jazz writer who in fact questioned her inclusion. Fourteen pages later, it becomes evident that Bergreen has confused Avakian with another George—Wein—who tried to banish Middleton from the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival.
Finally, and most damagingly, Bergreen is simply out of his element when it comes to assessing Armstrong’s music. His characterization of scat (the use of sounds, not words) as “funny babbling” shows a misunderstanding of the joy and pathos Armstrong consistently conveyed in his singing. His description of the smaller and mellower cornet which Armstrong played early on as “larger” and “bolder” than the trumpet reveals a truly inexcusable ignorance of his subject’s instrument.
“He lacked the technique to play on the [chord] changes,” Bergreen writes; but Armstrong invented playing on the changes. Again: “Miles Davis and John Coltrane were taking jazz to a level of sophistication that Louis couldn’t hope to match”; but Miles Davis himself said, accurately, that “You know you can’t play anything on the horn Louis hasn’t already played—I mean modern.” By 1947, Bergreen asserts, Armstrong “had nowhere else to go but musically back in time”; by 1970, some of the “leading lights of jazz . . . [had] evolved far beyond him.” In fact, Armstrong was not only unmatched in musical sophistication, early and late, he was the bedrock of jazz music altogether. “No him, no me,” quipped Dizzy Gillespie. “He is the beginning and end of music in America,” added Bing Crosby.
In the aggregate, these mistakes of fact and interpretation add up to a serious loss of credibility. That is a pity, since in so many other ways Bergreen captures the essence of this noble avatar with passion, humor, and deep personal understanding. As popular biography, Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life makes the grade. But add salt.