Gary Giddins undertakes an enormous task in Satchmo, The Genius of Louis Armstrong. There are piles of material, but much of it is contradictory. Armstrong’s age, for example. He was younger than he said, probably, but proof is thin. If he is younger, why didn’t he say so? The answer seems to be in the mechanics of the WWI draft. I suppose it’s necessary for a biographer to track these things down, but Giddins spends pages on the problem when in the course of this remarkable life, it matters not a whit.
The outlines of Satchmo’s bio are pretty well known. Starting dirt poor in New Orleans in the early nineteens. Playing and singing on the streets. Graduating from streets to honky tonks. Helping to invent jazz itself along the way, including scat singing. That unmistakable tone.
As a musician alone, his career would have been stellar. However, it’s his talent as an entertainer that separates him from the crowd. It separates him in more than popularity. It made him a pariah among many other musicians. “White Man’s Nigger,” they called him. They accused him of polluting the form with all his pop recordings. They said he couldn’t stay with the times, still playing the same old stuff all the way through the eras of bebop and cool jazz.
Giddin’s does a good job of laying some of that to rest. Armstrong did evolve, but stayed with his core. Among the many unusual things about this career is that this uneducated man was a writer. He left a lot of memoir, though it wasn’t published. he was conscious of his place in music and cultural history and makes a good case for who and why he is.
In the end, despite all the amusing anecdotes and the valuable info, and the forays into his romantic life, Giddin’s book is unsatisfying. Somehow, its scattered pieces never coalesce. He also demonstrates over and over the impossibility of describing music in words:
[Armstrong] begins the first of three architectonic choruses with a solemn scene-settng motif (E natural to B natural), played five times. His two subsequent choruses also turn on sturdy motifs … each opening at a higher interval.
If you can hear that after reading that passage, you’re a better musician than I, and the book is replete with examples. Satchmo’s well worth reading. It does capture much of this wonderful man’s life in his wonderful world, even though I wish the portrait was in clearer focus.