Ricky Riccardi’s new book, WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD: THE MAGIC OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG’S LATER YEARS (Pantheon), will be published in a week, and it has already gotten a glowing review in the Washington Post, with NPR and The New York Times coverage to come. (You can read the reviews and Ricky’s interview in JAZZ TIMES by clicking here):
Full disclosure: my name crops up in the acknowledgments, and I admired Ricky’s work long before this book came out. But I would think this book was magical even if I’d never met its author.
On its surface, this biography depicts the last quarter-century of Louis Armstrong’s life — his years of global popularity as a beloved figure, the years of HELLO, DOLLY! and WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD.
But the real story in this book is the gap between public perception and essential reality. “To be great is to be misunderstood,” Emerson wrote, and it rings true here. Artists cannot defend themselves against those who choose to interpret their work. There is often a huge gap between what artists create, how the “experts” and “critics” perceive it, and how the art is represented to the world.
There have been many books about Louis — the best of them have been Terry Teachout’s POPS, and LOUIS by Max Jones and John Chilton. (I am passing over the other biographies, marred by their distance from the subject or by personal rancors.)
But Ricky’s book deeply and effectively faces the complex question of what it is to be a working artist in the modern world. An artist working in the public world — not a painter or a poet in a studio, but a “performer” on television, on records, onstage.
Louis lived to make music, and to “lay it on the public.” A musician needs a community, both on and off stage. Louis was no recluse; he didn’t scorn his audiences. He spent his days and nights, consciously and subconsciously, living for what would come out of his horn, how he would sing.
This was his quest, his joy, and his “hustle,” what he did for a living. He didn’t demand to be taken seriously as An Artist, but he did know that he was creating masterpieces; he was proud of his art and the pleasure it brought and continues to bring.
Thus, when he began to be sneered at (and that’s not too strong a word) as an Uncle Tom, an “entertainer,” someone who had sold out, had lost his creativity, had turned his back on “the truth,” even “a good-natured buffoon,” these cruel misinterpretations turned Emerson’s words into knives.
Another artist might have turned his back on his critics and spent his last quarter-century in wounded seclusion. Louis worked harder; he toured the world; he became “Ambassador Satch,” he created astonishing beauties. The audiences understood this in deep spiritual ways, even if they had never read Gunther Schuller.
But it took this book — the new material in it and Ricky’s affectionate, dogged diligence — to bring Louis, complete and complicated, to life once again. And here I want to move slightly to the book itself — and its author.
Ricky Riccardi is, first off, a fine writer. Not fussy, not academic, but someone whose vigorous, human speaking voice resonates through these pages. So the book is a pleasure to read: I rationed the pages I allowed myself each night so that it wouldn’t end too soon, as I knew it had to. He has so steeped himself in the life of the man he is celebrating (and it is a celebratory book!) that his easy assurance illuminates every page. But the reader never feels intimidated by an impending avalanche of facts and dates and itineraries.
This book places the living Louis Armstrong in front of us, seen anew — the man who had a very intricate relationship with his manager, Joe Glaser, but was in charge of that relationship, not its victim. There is an astonishing long letter from Louis to Glaser on the subject of marijuana — a revelation not only in the tale it tells, but in Louis’s angry eloquence.
Ricky has delved more deeply into Louis’s private tapes than any biographer before him, thus the book is full of new insights rather than being a synthetic assemblage of what other people have written. I was surprised and delighted (dee-lighted, really) on every page. And while this biography is no uncritical fan letter, its affection comes through from start to finish — a fitting celebration of Louis, who created and felt “the love and warmth of a million people.”
As a working jazz musician, Ricky also understands much more about the music than many writers who have been on the scene longer. Even though you don’t need to be a musicologist to read this book, and there is not one intimidating transcribed solo (just lovely photographs), the book never feels distant from Louis’s art.
Louis Armstrong lived “in the cause of happiness.” Although he knew his art was unique, he wore his achievements lightly, “I’m not lookin’ to be on no high pedestal. [The people who hear me] get their soul lifted because they got the same soul I have the moment I hit a note.”
More than any other biography of Louis Armstrong, Ricky’s book vibrates with those truths. Even if you are someone who appreciates Louis Armstrong only casually, you will find in this book a deep, rewarding, honest portrait of a man, an artist, his century.
It’s an extraordinary biography and a wonderful book. And it brings to same joy that Louis did.