Tag Archives: WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD: THE MAGIC OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG’S LATER YEARS

HEART FULL OF RHYTHM: THE BIG BAND YEARS OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG, by RICKY RICCARDI (September 1, 2020)

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!

“A PACKAGE OF SUNSHINE AND FLOWERS”: MARC CAPARONE PLAYS LOUIS ARMSTRONG at the REDWOOD COAST MUSIC FESTIVAL: MARC CAPARONE, CLINT BAKER, JACOB ZIMMERMAN, DAN WALTON, SAM ROCHA, JEFF HAMILTON (May 12, 2019)

My own periodic table of the essential chemical elements has a space for OP, or optimism, the substance that has carried me and others through darkness — the organism needs it in regular doses.  (Under my breath, I say, “Especially these days.”)

Next to it, of course, is the element LA, for Louis Armstrong, who conveyed more optimism than any other human being.

I grew up deeply in love with the music of Louis’ last quarter-century, with the most played jazz record in my tiny childhood collection the Decca sides with Gordon Jenkins; the second in line, TOWN HALL CONCERT PLUS, which I played until its grooves were a soft gray.  (My original copy disappeared in a period of marital acrimony, but I found another one for solace.)

 

Here is William P. Gottlieb’s famous photograph of that band, that place, and even hints of that fortunate 1947 audience:

But we are in 2019, where I can magically share a passionate new performance of a song very important to Louis — coming from the 1936 film in which he was billed alongside Bing Crosby, PENNIES FROM HEAVEN — created by Marc Caparone, cornet; Clint Baker, trombone; Jacob Zimmerman, clarinet; Dan Walton, keyboard (which he makes sound like a piano); Sam Rocha, string bass; Jeff Hamilton, drums. Uncredited dancers and irrelevant conversation free of charge.

All this goodness took place at the 2019 Redwood Coast Music Festival (thanks to Mark and Val Jansen) in Eureka, California, a musical weekend that made me extremely happy and fulfilled.  More about those joys as I share videos of this and other bands.

On the original performance at Town Hall in 1947, Louis was accompanied by “little Bobby Hackett” on cornet, playing magnificently.  Marc hints at both Louis and Bobby while sounding like himself.  When the group makes their CD, we will bring back George Avakian to do his magical multi-tracking, so that Marc can play cornet filigree to his own vocal.

By the way, if you are one of those lopsided souls who believe that Louis had little to give the world after 1929, I encourage you to read this book, slowly and attentively:

And there are two pieces of good news.  One is that there is more from this Louis tribute; the second is that Ricky Riccardi has completed the second volume of what may become a Louis-trilogy, HEART FULL OF RHYTHM, covering the period 1929-1947.

Blessings on all the musicians, Mark and Val Jansen, Ricky, and all the optimists we have the good fortune to encounter.

May your happiness increase!

“THE CAUSE OF HAPPINESS” IN PAPERBACK

Are you looking to begin your holiday shopping early?  Of course, you can shower your friends and family with gift cards, but I propose a more satisfying gifts for the people on your list who might need a portable reminder of how deep happiness goes and how it can be attained.  They don’t need to love jazz; they need to be open to love.

My suggestion?  Ricky Riccardi’s enduring book WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD: THE MAGIC OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG’S LATER YEARS. Click here for the essential details.

It is a great human story of an artist, joyous and courageous, bringing light to hundreds of thousands of people.  You don’t need to be a jazz fan to admire the story and the book.

Here’s what I wrote in 2011, when the book first came out.  It still seems true to me today.

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 the same joy that Louis did.

P.S.  Ricky also maintains a wonderful Louis Armstrong blog, with music and video. Here is his most recent posting — full of delights from Louis in Scandinavia, 1933.

May your happiness increase!

COME AND JOIN THE JUBILEE!

I had the great pleasure of meeting the Louis Armstrong scholar Ricky Riccardi at the Armstrong Archives (they’re in the Queens College Library and they’re a marvel) so that we could have a brief chat about his new book, WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD: THE MAGIC OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG’S LATER YEARS (Pantheon).  The book will be out on June 21 although you can pre-order it on Amazon.

It’s a wonderful book, and I’ll have more to say about that in a few weeks.  But here’s its young author — informed, sincere, down-to-earth and full of love for his subject.  And I’m not the only one who thinks so:

“The story of Louis Armstrong’s later years is the great untold tale of postwar jazz.  Now Ricky Riccardi has told it to perfection,” says Terry Teachout, author of Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong

Now do you understand why Louis smiles while Ricky is speaking?

You’ll have another opportunity to meet Ricky, to buy an autographed copy of his book . . . and where better than at a summer garden party at the Louis Armstrong House Museum?     The book party will take place in the Armstrong Garden at the Louis Armstrong House Museum,  Sunday, June 26 from 2-4 PM.

Tickets are $35, which includes an autographed book, a guided tour of the Armstrong House and refreshments.  $25 for LAHM members.

Space is limited. Make your reservation today!   

Reservations can be made at:  reservations@louisarmstronghouse.org.

For further questions call the museum at  (718) 478-8274.

The LOUIS ARMSTRONG HOUSE MUSEUM is located at 34-56 107th Street, Corona, Queens, New York City 11368.  It’s easy to get there by car or by public transportation.

If you can’t come to the party, I hope you will buy a copy of Ricky’s book and consider becoming a member of the Louis Armstrong House Museum — a down-home shrine visited by people from every country on the globe.     Members support their mission — making sure the joy Louis spread is never forgotten — and receive exclusive benefits throughout the year, including: free admission for historic house tours, special member discount to all events, a subscription to Dippermouth News, a sneak peek of upcoming events, 10% discount in our museum store, pre-show parties with other members, and much more.