Whether or not all readers will agree that Armstrong was ""the pre-eminent musical genius of his era,"" all will welcome...

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LOUIS ARMSTRONG: An American Genius

Whether or not all readers will agree that Armstrong was ""the pre-eminent musical genius of his era,"" all will welcome this landmark biography--which keeps musicology, psychology, and sociology in fine, sensitive balance as it gives definitive treatment to the trumpeter/singer's early career and the jazz-history centered around it. Collier (The Making of Jazz) emphasizes Armstrong's loose New Orleans background as a source of his ""open expressiveness""--in contrast to the ""cramping Victorianism"" suffered by such other jazz pioneers as Waller and Biederbecke. He focuses intently on Armstrong's musical beginnings as a teenage cornet-player in an orphanage/reform-school band--the brass-band influence (showy, melodic, pure), the pros and cons of self-teaching (including his poor embouchure). In terms of personality, equal attention is given to racial pressures and to Louis' particular situation: growing up poor and fatherless, he became shy, insecure, jealous, hungry for approval, dependent on strong father-figures for guidance. And this thoughtful, eclectic approach is carefully maintained as Collier follows Armstrong through jazz-apprenticeship (in honky-tonk blues bands), into riverboat jobs, to Chicago in 1922 as Joe ""King"" Oliver's protÉgÉ--now with his individual voice: ""a razor sharp attack, a broad terminal vibrato, a rich tone"". . . and indefinable emotional qualities as well. All of the important recordings are analyzed; Collier thus documents Armstrong as the virtual inventor of jazz-improvisation, ""playing away from the beat"" (thanks, in part, to his non-ragtime background). The career is traced from the Fletcher Henderson orchestra to the collaborations with Bessie Smith to the Hot Fives recordings to the discovery of pure improvisation--""from paraphrase into the invention of wholly new melody based on the underlying harmonies of the song."" But Collier also stresses the tradition of jazz as entertainment rather than art--a tradition which Armstrong, with his need for applause and reliance on a crass manager, embraced too completely: his playing often became show-offy, sentimental, ragged (those mistreated lips). . . while he concentrated on being a star, on his crowd-pleasing joking and singing. Collier's stern view of Armstrong's decline is perhaps somewhat overdone here, the later career given excessively short shrift--with many major film appearances, for example, not even mentioned. But as a chronicle of the life-and-work through the Forties, this is masterful critical biography--sophisticated in its contexts, shrewd yet sympathetic, rich in its supporting cast (due credit, for instance, to Earl Hines' influence), and splendidly conscientious in the delicate balance between character and culture.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 1983

ISBN: 0195037278

Page Count: -

Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 1983