Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life

By Laurence Bergreen

(Broadway Books)

By J.R. Jones

“Writing about music is like talking about fucking,” John Lennon told Playboy in 1980, and few writers have proven him wrong: to capture something as visceral as music, words seem not just inadequate but downright crude. Some writers skirt the challenge with dry theory, some indulge in flights of hyperbole, and some just throw in the towel and churn out industry PR. But in my book, biography is the sort of music writing with the greatest potential to enrich those indescribable sounds. By learning what a musician’s days were like, feeling the forces that molded and motivated him, the reader stands the greatest chance of comprehending where the music came from or what it might have meant to its maker.

Yet plenty of biographies miss their mark too, and few subjects could be more challenging than Louis Armstrong. An instrumentalist who remade jazz in his own image, a pop singer who influenced nearly everyone in his wake, and an entertainer whose comic ebullience made him internationally beloved, Armstrong remains a towering figure in 20th-century music nearly 30 years after his death. At the same time, his public persona was almost defiantly unliterary. How could this laughing, mugging, jive-talking fool of God possibly articulate in words the profound joy and sadness he evoked in the tone of his horn and the contours of his rasping voice? Dazzled by his artistic achievements, wary of the colorful tales he liked to present as autobiography, many Armstrong chroniclers have chosen to tell his life story as if it were the history of jazz–which in many respects it is. But viewing Louis Armstrong through the wide end of the telescope reduces him to something rather small, a vessel for a powerful force he neither controlled nor quite understood. The music he left behind is a triumph of individual expression, yet his biographers have always seemed unsure how to portray him as an individual.

As the latest in a long line of Armstrong bios, Laurence Bergreen’s Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life, reminds us, the first person to take on Armstrong’s life story was Armstrong himself–in fact, he fancied himself something of a writer. In 1922, after leaving his native New Orleans to join his mentor King Oliver in Chicago, Armstrong bought himself a typewriter, and for the rest of his life, when he wasn’t playing music, he would often be smoking a joint and banging out letters to fans, friends, and family. Working with an amanuensis, he published his first memoir, Swing That Music, in 1936. A decade later he sent a great many written reminiscences to Robert Goffin, a Belgian emigre and adoring fan who incorporated them into Horn of Plenty: The Story of Louis Armstrong. But both collaborators took great liberties with Armstrong’s prose and the facts, and both books were discredited. Armstrong decided to work alone next time, and his 1954 memoir, Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans, is an unvarnished account of his impoverished childhood among the whores and hustlers of Storyville.

Since 1983, however, the benchmark account has been James Lincoln Collier’s 383-page Louis Armstrong: An American Genius. Collier, a jazz critic and historian, set out to reposition Armstrong as one of the great musical innovators of the century, to vanquish the popular image of him as a grinning Uncle Tom who entertained his oppressors with benign hits like “Blueberry Hill,” “Mack the Knife,” and “Hello, Dolly.” This was a noble agenda–and Collier seldom lets his story get in the way of it. The narrative stops dead in its tracks for a ten-page chapter outlining the genesis of New Orleans jazz; later the author takes a 30-page detour to explicate the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, the revolutionary small-group recordings that Armstrong cut in Chicago in the late 20s. Collier writes with great insight and sensitivity about Armstrong the musician, noting for instance how the trumpeter’s poor embouchure scarred his upper lip and dogged his playing for years to come (something Bergreen overlooks completely). After Armstrong’s death Collier goes on for two more chapters, appraising his late career and evaluating his influence on American music in general. As a sustained critique of Armstrong’s art, An American Genius is an indispensable document.

But as a biography, Collier’s book lacks both the historical authority that silences critics and the deep empathy that makes a reader feel he’s lived through another person’s life. Collier sketches Armstrong as a fatherless child and jim crow victim who was so desperate for love and esteem that he sold short his own talent to become a star. But the details of this story are treated as noteworthy only when they bear directly on his development as a jazz artist. Collier’s scholarship left the book open to attack as well, especially after the discovery in the mid-80s of a baptismal certificate that firmly established Armstrong’s birth date as August 4, 1901. Armstrong had always given the mythical date of July 4, 1900, but Collier, drawing on the testimony of other musicians, including Armstrong’s wife Lil Hardin, set his birth date at 1898 or earlier and based judgments of Armstrong’s behavior on it. (He speculated, for instance, that Armstrong invented the 1900 date to avoid serving in World War I.) A revelation of this sort is any biographer’s worst nightmare, and it seems especially sad given the pains Collier took to qualify information of questionable origin.

Despite its obvious shortcomings and vehement critics, An American Genius has held its ground; even Down Beat grudgingly acknowledged as much when it reviewed Bergreen’s book. Collier provides the cultural and historical context lacking in Max Jones and John Chilton’s Louis: The Louis Armstrong Story, 1900-1971, published the year Armstrong died. In his beautifully written Satchmo, from 1988, Village Voice critic Gary Giddins attacks Collier for his narrow appraisal of Armstrong’s career, but his text amounts to no more than 90 pages in a book obviously meant for the coffee table. Now Bergreen has weighed in with his 564-page An Extravagant Life; unlike Collier, he had access to the mountain of tapes, photos, scrapbooks, and autobiographical writings that Armstrong’s widow Lucille, who died in October 1983, left to Queens College, and armed with these resources, he clearly aspires to knock Collier from his throne.

Unfortunately, An Extravagant Life has credibility problems of its own. “Bergreen’s book is too slipshod to trust,” wrote David Gates in Newsweek. “Singer May Alix is ‘Alix May’; the same review is quoted twice to describe two different concerts; the well-known banter on ‘Gut Bucket Blues’ is misquoted. Bergreen is wrong about the date Armstrong’s house in Queens was built, wrong about there being no music at his funeral, wrong about the difference between trumpet and cornet–and God knows what else.” One needn’t dig deep to uncover more mistakes: Playing cornet in a New Orleans house of ill repute, young Louis gets a raise from 15 cents a night to $1.25 a night, but a few pages later the figure is $1.25 a week. Add to this a fair number of typos, another quotation that does double duty, and an incomprehensible sentence fragment near the end of the book, and one begins to question Bergreen’s right to take another man’s life in his hands.

If Bergreen is lucky, the worst of these specific errors will be corrected in the paperback edition, but it’s clear that, in general, his definition of historical evidence is not as strict as Collier’s. He presents as fact a great many reminiscences by Armstrong and others that can’t be verified with any certainty, and his willingness to take them at face value becomes at once the book’s greatest strength and its greatest flaw. By liberally quoting Armstrong’s own writings and interviews like this, Bergreen risks his own credibility as a historian, but he allows his subject to be what so many during his lifetime told him he was not: a man. The Louis Armstrong who emerges from An Extravagant Life is much wiser, deeper, and more vivid than the one handed down to us by the aesthete who narrates An American Genius.

As the confusion over Armstrong’s birth date indicates, his years in New Orleans were barely documented at the time, and despite the amount of time the man himself spent recollecting them orally and on paper, he had grown up in a culture where embellishment was as integral to storytelling as improvisation is to jazz. For instance, in Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans Armstrong recalls that when he was five, caring for his sick mother and his younger sister, he went out to run an errand, encountered a gang of bullies, and punched one of them in the nose, causing the whole gang to flee. Bergreen presents this as the gospel truth, despite its evident self-aggrandizement. Collier disputes it, pointing out that even if it were true Armstrong was probably older than five.

Of greater historical importance is the often-told story of how Armstrong met Bix Beiderbecke in the summer of 1919, when Beiderbecke was a young novice in Iowa and Armstrong was playing on a riverboat docked in Davenport. Collier credits the story to Armstrong and cites a biography of Beiderbecke that repeats it, but scoffs at the notion that a middle-class white boy would fraternize with a black riverboat musician. But quoting Baby Dodds, the riverboat orchestra’s drummer, Bergreen reports that Beiderbecke struck up a friendship with Armstrong, took him into Davenport, and helped him pick out a horn. This early meeting between the two great cornetists of the jazz age sounds apocryphal, but both Armstrong and Dodds said it happened.

Both Bergreen and Collier fail their subject when covering his autumn years, from the late 1940s to his death in 1971. Unlike his childhood and teenage years in New Orleans, Armstrong’s late career was amply recorded by a variety of media, and there are still plenty of surviving witnesses to provide firsthand accounts. But Collier considers Armstrong’s music during that period to be so negligible that he breezes through the last 24 years in as many pages. Bergreen presents the same period in much greater detail, but like Collier he seems to have taken to heart F. Scott Fitzgerald’s edict that there are no second acts in American lives. During the 20s Armstrong almost single-handedly elevated New Orleans polyphony to an expressionistic art form, then spent the Depression and war years redefining himself as a swing-era bandleader, popular singer, and all-around entertainer. In 1947, with the decline of big bands, he formed Louis Armstrong’s All Stars, returning to the small-group format in which he’d made his name. His career took off again, but he never returned to the vanguard; he grew nostalgic in his middle age, revisiting the same old tunes year after year. His playing and singing gained in richness and subtlety, and he made some fine recordings for Verve and Columbia in the mid and late 50s. But in 1959 he suffered a massive heart attack and his health steadily declined afterward. By the late 60s doctors forbade him even to play his horn, fearing he’d drop dead onstage.

Yet there was a second act, and an extraordinary one for a popular musician. In his final years Armstrong thoughtfully trod the narrow middle ground between the stardom that had lifted him out of poverty and the growing black consciousness that branded him an Uncle Tom, even though that consciousness had grown in part from his legacy. Revered as a genius in Europe, feted as a hero when he visited West Africa, he could still step off his tour bus at age 59 and be denied the use of a restaurant bathroom–not in Mississippi or Alabama, but in Connecticut, as photographer Herb Snitzer told the Village Voice. Armstrong dropped his clown’s mask on occasion–most famously when he lambasted Eisenhower in the press for his handling of the Little Rock conflict–and offstage he never sought the approval of the white establishment (according to the Giddins book, when Armstrong learned that President Nixon had invited him to perform at the White House, he responded, “Fuck that shit!”). Yet he remained very much at peace with himself, and his final statement on life turned out to be a gentle pop tune called “What a Wonderful World.”

Armstrong’s final years could fill a book of their own, and no biography that slights them will ever be the definitive one. Though he began a sequel to My Life in New Orleans and produced many more autobiographical fragments, even Armstrong himself never did justice to the last part of his life, and more’s the pity: his maturity might have been more evident on the page than in his faltering horn and voice. But he continued to play music even after his own common sense told him to quit. “Doc, you don’t understand,” he said to his physician three months before he died. “My whole life, my whole soul, my whole spirit is to blow that horn. I’ve got to do it.” An Extravagant Life brings us much closer to that giant soul, and the next biographer may get us nearer yet. Then again, with a talent like Louis Armstrong, words can take us only so far.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/ Louis Armstrong House & Archives at Queens College-CUNY.