Louis Armstrong was the founding father of jazz and one of this century's towering cultural figures, yet the full story of his extravagant life has never been told.
Born in 1901 to the sixteen-year-old daughter of a slave, he came of age among the prostitutes, pimps, and rag-and-bone merchants of New Orleans. He married four times and enjoyed countless romantic involvements in and around his marriages. A believer in marijuana for the head and laxatives for the bowels, he was also a prolific diarist and correspondent, a devoted friend to celebrities from Bing Crosby to Ella Fitzgerald, a perceptive social observer, and, in his later years, an international goodwill ambassador.
And, of course, he was a dazzling musician. From the bordellos and honky-tonks of Storyville--New Orleans's red light district--to the upscale nightclubs in Chicago, New York, and Hollywood, Armstrong's stunning playing, gravelly voice, and irrepressible personality captivated audiences and critics alike. Recognized and beloved wherever he went, he nonetheless managed to remain vigorously himself.
Now Laurence Bergreen's remarkable book brings to life the passionate, courageous, and charismatic figure who forever changed the face of American music.
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June 01, 1998
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Excerpt from Louis Armstrong by Laurence Bergreen
In the beginning, he was a sound, and only a sound: a strange blend of happy cacophony and tormented caterwauling. Nothing like it had ever been heard before, not in New Orleans, where he was born in 1901, or Chicago or St. Louis, where he played as an emerging virtuoso cornetist, and certainly not in New York, where Duke Ellington said of his first exposure to that sound, "Nobody had ever heard anything like it, and his impact cannot be put into words." Nor had it ever been heard in Europe, or South America, or Africa, but everywhere it would be known as the sound of America.
With this sound, he established more popular songs than any other musician. The sound had two components. There was, initially, a cornet--and later a trumpet--that was more expressive than a mere instrument: sweet, stinging, lilting, cajoling, teasing, ebullient. And then there was his voice, the unforgettable voice that behaved like a huge instrument: growling, laughing, demented, soothing, fierce. The combination of the voice that sounded like an instrument and the instrument that sounded like a voice created the universally recognized persona of Satchmo. He looked and felt like a glowing lump of coal, hot and alive and capable of igniting everything around him. For him, music was a heightened form of existence, and he sang and he played as if it could never be loud enough, or last long enough, or go deep enough, or reach high enough. He believed there could never be enough music in the world, and he did his damnedest to fill the silence with all the stomping, roaring, screeching, sighing polyphony he could muster.
He was not just America's greatest musical performer, he was also a character of epic proportions: married four times, with countless romantic involvements in and around his marriages ("Take your shoes off, Lucy, and let's get juicy," he growls in "Baby, It's Cold Outside"); a lifelong believer in marijuana for the head and laxatives for the bowels; an accomplished storyteller who tossed off letters and memoirs with the same abandon he tossed off riffs; and an enthusiastic correspondent who as a young man turned to his typewriter to record his experiences and his glorious hard times, the record of a black man trying to make his way in twentieth-century America.
It would be pleasant to memorialize Louis this way, as a happy innocent, his life an unbroken arc from the streets, dance halls, and brothels of New Orleans to the nightclubs, vaudeville theaters, and concert halls of Chicago, and New York, and then on to the sound stages of Hollywood and all the other venues and cradles of popular culture from Scandinavia to Africa, where he is revered. It would be heartwarming to envision him effortlessly breaking "color barriers" everywhere he went, with audiences screaming, "Satchmo, Satchmo," as he smiled and blew his horn and wiped his perspiring brow with his spotless white handkerchief and sang "Ain't Misbehavin'" and growled a few words of filthy comic asides to the band, and then smiled again and eagerly pumped the valves on his gleaming trumpet, and raised it to his scarred yet indestructible chops, and blew his horn some more.
It would be convenient if his life were that simple, but of course it wasn't, not at all.
It was, in all externals, a wretched childhood, yet Louis was obsessed with it and returned to it throughout his maturity as the wellspring of his identity, of his music, of jazz itself. From the time he purchased his first typewriter in 1922, Louis tapped out his reminiscences, observations, dirty stories, bawdy puns and limericks, and most anything else that popped into his superheated mind. Sometimes he wrote in his hotel rooms, and sometimes he wrote between sets, in the dressing room of whatever nightclub or theater he happened to be performing in. He spent almost as much time pounding the keys of his typewriter as he did pumping the valves of his trumpet. And he told the same tales with each instrument, which only made sense, because in his mind, he was jazz; to prove his point, he titled the first chapter of his autobiography, "Jazz and I Get Born Together." He was driven to review and renew the sources of his inspiration whenever he could. The further his ambitions, accomplishments, and fame took him from his childhood, the more avidly he sought to return to it--to re-create it onstage night after night, to reminisce compulsively about it with friends, and to recapture it in an outpouring of letters and memoirs both published and unpublished, that spare nothing and relish every amusing, odd, or gruesome detail of his boyhood. His cherished memories preserve a vanished, and, to many, unknown way of life--that of poor black people in New Orleans in the early decades of this century.[fcmps]
Louis wrote as he spoke, in torrents of phrases linked by ellipses, as if he were writing an endless gossip column, the gossip of his life. He preferred to write on his stationery, in green ink on yellow paper, and when that was not available, on hotel stationery, even on the back of an envelope containing a letter inside. He distributed his confessional letters across the world to his correspondents, and some of them later appeared in popular magazines such as True, Esquire, and Ebony, which were willing to run his raw tales of his youth and sexual adventures pretty much as he wrote them. Many others have found their way into libraries and archives, and countless others languish in private hands. Eventually, in his early fifties, he summoned the confidence to write his autobiography, published under the title Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans. He wrote it by himself, without the aid of a ghostwriter, secretary, or amanuensis, and the book became a summation of all the letters he had ever written and stories he had ever told about the good old, bad old days in New Orleans.