LOUIS ARMSTRONG: An American Success Story by James Lincoln Collier

LOUIS ARMSTRONG: An American Success Story

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Collier's definitive, scholarly Louis Armstrong: A Study in Genius (1983) was an uncommonly sophisticated critical biography--keeping musicology, psychology, and sociology in delicate balance. Here, though scaling things down to juvenile proportions, he tries to preserve much of that sophistication--with creditable, if incomplete, success. As before, Collier is especially strong on Armstrong's New Orleans childhood: poverty, discrimination, dismal surroundings; parental neglect; rich musical influences on the streets--which became crucial when Louis joined the band at The Colored Waifs' Home. Following Louis into the burgeoning New Orleans jazz-world of 1918, Collier crisply evokes the pioneering Armstrong sound: ""By holding back a little on this note, jumping in early on that one, so that many of the notes didn't land smack on the beat but came unexpectedly a little early or late, he made the music seem to leap along. Then, too, he didn't play his notes evenly, but accented some and passed lightly over others, so that the music seemed to be alive, to breathe."" And, throughout, he stresses the downbeat matter of Armstrong's incorrect embouchure technique, with its physical/artistic consequences through the years. Sometimes, however, Collier's attempts to offer musicological substance seem quixotic, without the supporting explanation that even a musically oriented young reader would need. (""In 'Go 'long Mule' he divided the first six measures into three parallel figures."") Elsewhere, complicated issues are raised--Armstrong's relationship with exploitative managers, his choice of a profitable career over an artistic one--while the complicated motivations behind them are simplified. (In general, Collier downplays the personal/psychological aspects of Armstrong's behavior and emphasizes, a bit crudely, the racial aspects--a common trap which the 1983 biography so impressively avoided.) Still, this is several levels above the previous attempts (Sanders, 1973; Iverson, 1976)--and, though often more serious than most performer-biographers, offering little in the way of dialogue and anecdote, Collier writes most of this in a straightforward, confiding style that makes things clear without talking down.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1985
Publisher: Macmillan