Satchmo: The Genius of Louis Armstrong
by Gary Giddens
Louis Armstrong was arguably the single greatest influence on modern music. Gary Giddins is very likely the best jazz writer in America today. All of which is to say, if this book is not in your jazz library, maybe you should correct that situation.
Satchmo is a deeply engaging document of this central figure in jazz, tracing Armstrong’s rise from his early hardscrabble New Orleans days to his final days of touring the world and entertaining millions with his live performances and recordings. And, icing on the cake: The book is replete with a wonderful collection of photographs depicting the man’s day-to-day life.
Much of the book concentrates on his music, Giddins enlightening the reader in language that even a casual listener can understand. The author also quotes extensively from Armstrong himself, providing a close-up look at who the man was and how he thought about music, race relations, friends, wives, and his philosophy of life.
A short book, Satchmo is nonetheless a complete one. From it emerges the story of an American trumpeter whose influence touched musicians of every instrument and even vocalists. Frank Sinatra himself acknowledged Armstrong as one of his primary influences. It’s a portrait of a genius, of course, but also of a decent, joyful man, one with a strong sense of self and fiercely proud of his talents, told by a writer who clearly likes his subject and comes to it with great respect for the man’s integrity and the entirety of his career.
The bastard son of a 15-year-old girl, Armstrong was raised in the New Orleans Colored Waifs Home for Boys, never really knowing the true date of his birth. Realizing he needed a birthday, he chose, with some sense of showmanship, July 4, 1900. (I have a fond memory of being at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1960 with the pianist Roger Kellaway, both of us teenagers, where Armstrong performed amidst a celebration of his “60th birthday.”)
Louis Armstrong was at the height of his popularity and fame in the 1960s, coinciding with the peak of the Civil Rights movement. As he continued to entertain and play for mostly white audiences, there came criticism from some in the black community that he was not living up to the responsibilities of the times. But, in fact, he was active in breaking down color barriers and quite conscious of doing so, but without being particularly controversial about it, and seems not to have had a racist or hateful bone in his body.
GARY GIDDINS is a longtime columnist for the Village Voice, now retired, and a pre-eminent jazz critic who received the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Ralph J. Gleason Music Book Award, and the Bell Atlantic Award for Visions of Jazz: The First Century. His other books include Celebrating Bird: The Triumph Of Charlie Parker and Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams--The Early Years, 1903-1940.