Satchmo Comes Alive Again

review by Joseph B. Rosenberg

coverLouis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life
by Laurence Bergreen
Broadway Books, 1997

VHS: "Satchmo"
by Gary GiddonsCBS Video,
CMV Enterprises

Louis Armstrong is our greatest gift to the well-being of this planet. His fame and influence have not diminished since his death on July 6, 1971. Both this excellent biography and documentary (made for the PBS American Masters series) bring Armstrong alive. In 494 pages and 86 minutes, these instruments hit all the right notes about this seminal figure of 20th century culture.

Armstrong played many roles in his 70-year life. He popularized jazz and gave it its basic vocabulary with his early recordings. As a vocalist he directly influenced Bing Crosby and Billie Holiday, who in turn influenced every modern crooner and diva. Little pieces of Louis can be heard not only in singers but in arrangements cross-fertilized to Frank Sinatra's man Nelson Riddle and to Miles Davis. He stripped melodies to their essence in his raspy voice and scatted like crazy. His greatest vocal, with Ella Fitzgerald, of "April in Paris" took Count Basie's flag-waver and turned it into a plaintive ballad capturing the angst of missing the racially liberated Paris. All through the documentary you hear Louis from many eras of his life, especially with "West End Blues," made in 1927, which is considered the greatest trumpet solo ever.

As an entertainer, Armstrong's movie career was thwarted by the racism of the times, but he was such a charismatic force he dominated whatever screen or stage he was on. His career was managed for almost 40 years by purported mafia front Joe Glaser, who spread his fame beyond the marginalized universe of jazz buffs. As Bergreen's book shows, Glaser ended the inept management plaguing Armstrong, but kept him from further innovation and playing with musicians who were his peers. Louis' personality, his natural ebullience, and Glaser's promotional work led to post-War perceptions of Armstrong as an "Uncle Tom."

That ended in the 50's when Armstrong took public stands during the school desegregation controversy in Little Rock. By then Louis had become an international goodwill ambassador, and his singing of "Black and Blue" and "Shine" in Ghana and other places called attention to the anti-Jim Crow lyrics. Glaser was smart enough to let Satchmo be Satchmo.

Both the book and video point out that his recording of "Hello Dolly" finally brought Louis to a large audience and the use of his version of "What a Wonderful World" popularized in "Good Morning, Vietnam" extended his posthumous fame. By the time he made his last recordings, his trumpet was mostly still, but his voice and personality soldiered on.

Louis Armstrong was in many ways a simple man; all he wanted was simple food, marijuana (Dexter Gordon in the documentary was particularly pungent on this point), a fierce laxative and a good woman (his fourth wife, Lucille, fit that need).

Wynton Marsalis observed that, until he had to stop blowing, Armstrong's trumpet work became more and more refined after his innovative, virtuoso early career.

Louis Armstrong was far more than a perennially smiling musician. His warm and loving soul helped create an entertainment world that is more color blind, and symbolized for the rest of the world the USA's gift of jazz to the world. Aside from some of our political and moral leaders, Armstrong was for many years the best-known and and most-loved American outside his country. And still today, you can dance and groove to anything he played.

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This story was published on November 14, 2003.