For impatient readers, the compressed review, in the language of vintage advertising, “No home should be without it.”
Because perception is its own kind of reality, if you squint your eyes just right, you can make Louis Armstrong seem an ordinary mortal, a genial fellow who lived in Corona, Queens, ate Chinese food, smoked marijuana, told jokes, typed letters and made phone calls. Oh, yes, he made music. And that wrong-end-of-the-telescope view has a certain validity.
Or, if you simply followed his itinerary, you could see him as a mechanical figure, a jazz-machine who got on the bus, slept, got off, made music, and got back on again. I’ve read biographies where the writer relied heavily on the subject’s gig notebooks, and the artist becomes a journeyman doing a job, night after night in different places. Or amplified discographies: “On February 29, _______ went into the studio to wax the classic _______________,” some of which is of course necessary when the artist’s work is primarily a series of recordings, but it’s a shallow lens through which to view an artist’s life and development.
The totality of Louis Armstrong is so much larger.
If you know him, his art, and his life a little better, he seems an astonishing continent, with mountains and orchards, valleys and forests. And people do like to claim continents for themselves and plant their flag. Since the early Thirties, Louis has been depicted often in print, and the writers have come to him with their own ideologies and judgments. So in the books written about him (and with him) since 1936, we have seen Louis the naive country boy who needed Joe Oliver, Lillian Hardin, and Joe Glaser to tell him how to live; the sellout; the Uncle Tom; the aesthetic failure; the tragic victim; the clown; a man unaware of himself.
Louis doesn’t need a defender, but if he did, the man to the rescue, gloriously, is Ricky Riccardi, the scholar who finds marvels and, better, who understands their impact. Full disclosure: Ricky and I are friends, and I read the galleys of this new book (occasionally saying “No . . . ” as one would to an exuberant puppy. Louis is my hero on earth and otherwise. I thought Ricky’s first part of his Louis-saga, WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD: THE MAGIC OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG’S LATER YEARS, a superb book and a model of biography, as I wrote here.
To please me, a book should have new information — facts and first-hand narratives that correct misperceptions, fill in the blanks, and add to the larger tapestry. Its writer should be as free from ideological bias as possible (many biographers palpably come to loathe their subjects) but, in the nineteenth-century mode, sustain a gentle admiration, unless the subject is monstrous.
The question might be, for some, with all the writing on Louis, why would we need another book? The book will speak for itself — its thrilling research and the beautiful synthesis of hundreds of sources all work together to portray this man, joyously goofing around with his friends, but all seriousness when it came to creating music. Since there has been a school of critical opinion (I cannot call it “analysis” or “thought”) that Louis’ records after 1928 are evidence of commercialism, of his losing his way, and the Decca recordings that form much of this period, 1935-44, have been particularly maligned, this book is a needed re-evaluation. And we cannot ignore Louis as a man steadfast in the pursuit of fair treatment for himself and his race, an artist giving wholly of himself night after night in the quest to bring joy to his hearers.
Ricky’s first biography dealt with Louis’ last twenty-five years, his international fame, his small group, the All-Stars, and his popular successes — being “the cause of happiness” for millions. HEART FULL OF RHYTHM steps back in time, documenting not only the day-t0-day life of “Louis Armstrong and his Orchestra,” but the subtle shifts in popular awareness. When this volume begins, in 1929, Louis was no longer making “race records,” but I doubt that record dealers in strictly Caucasian neighborhoods carried his latest hit. When this book ends, Louis is so known and so loved — starring not only in theatres and dances, not only selling records, but starring in films, having his own radio series, breaking down barriers — that he is no longer relegated to that cruelly narrow perception.
An interlude (1937, with Albert Nicholas, Charlie Holmes, and Paul Barbarin):
Because this biography delineates the middle period of an artist who had already reached artistic pinnacles (think of WEST END BLUES, NEW ORLEANS STOMP, and BEAU KOO JACK) it does not follow the predictable arc of early struggles, recognition, and blossoming fame. When we meet Louis in 1929, he has come to New York, has recorded KNOCKIN’ A JUG and MAHOGANY HALL STOMP with what were then called “mixed bands,” and records I CAN’T GIVE YOU ANYTHING BUT LOVE, expanding both his repertoire and his identity. Indeed, if we consider the songs in the canon of pop songs that Louis recorded first or early — BODY AND SOUL, WRAP YOUR TROUBLES IN DREAMS, I SURRENDER DEAR, WHEN YOUR LOVER HAS GONE, I’M CONFESSIN’, BLUE AGAIN, I GOTTA RIGHT TO SING THE BLUES, STARDUST and two dozen others, it’s clear that he was moving towards a larger audience and a larger conception of himself — what I sometimes call “Louis the romantic.”
As an aside, the book raises and answers the question, “How does a sincere artist take on popular material and retain his artistic integrity?” We watch Louis do it again and again by remaining both himself and completely heartfelt.
But the arc, as I suggested above, is different — Louis begins this period appearing in a revue on Broadway (in 1939, in the middle of this book, there is an actual Broadway show, SWINGIN’ THE DREAM, but it closes quickly), in 1936 he co-stars with Bing Crosby in the film PENNIES FROM HEAVEN; when the book concludes he has played at the Metropolitan Opera House, Town Hall, and Carnegie Hall.
Incidentally, those Decca recordings are so labored, the band so under-rehearsed and unswinging. Here’s a relevant example:
Readers will note that I have not followed this incredibly detailed book chapter by chapter, and when you pick up a copy you will understand why. I have been listening to and reading about Louis Armstrong for more than fifty years, and if I were to pick three pages in this book at random, I would be greeted by facts I’d never known, and better, threads connecting those facts — Riccardi isn’t a simple hoarder of detail; he finds and creates patterns — and new photographs. Too, he has diligently used Louis’ scrapbooks and private tape recordings to get the stories first-hand. Thus, I confess that I can’t create even the most cursory summary of the book in fewer than ten thousand words because what it contains is both fascinating and overwhelming. But it is written with a light touch and consistent love for the man and his music.
And should you worry that you might get bored in all the information, take heart: there’s blood, violence, opium, laxatives, sex, run-ins with the police, homemade cookies, racial harassment, people who present themselves as allies but turn out to be horrors (Johnny Collins and Leonard Feather) and quiet heroes (Zilner Randolph for one: if anyone wants to start the Zilner Randolph Appreciation Page on Facebook, that’s one group I will gladly join).
For myself, I’m waiting for the third volume of this trilogy in reverse, which will begin nine months before July 4, 1901, in what I hope was an interlude of bliss, include Black Benny, the recipe for a trout sandwich, the lovely and charming Daisy Parker, a long train ride to Chicago, a pair of old-fashioned shoes, and more.
I’ve said enough. This book is a dense yet entertaining portrait of a man and artist, often minimized and misunderstood, a beautiful work of art that honors him on every page. Amazon says that the book will be released on September 1, and you can pre-order it here. September 1 isn’t really that far away (given the way Monday becomes Friday these days) but you certainly could pass the time and entertain yourself with Ricky’s first Louis book, here.
If you look up “Louis Armstrong” and “July 6, 1971,” you will find newspaper stories and television reports that say he died. Thanks to this splendid book by Ricky Riccardi, you will find it even more impossible to believe those rumors.
May your happiness increase!