LOUIS ARMSTRONG by Laurence Bergreen


An Extravagant Life
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 This look at the life of one of this century's great personalities eschews meticulousness in its musical analysis in favor of a complete look at the man himself. Biographer Bergreen (As Thousands Cheer: The Life of Irving Berlin, 1990, etc.) follows New Orleans's greatest from cradle to grave, as he travels to St. Louis, Chicago, New York, and Hollywood promoting jazz--the music he helped create. Along the way, we get colorful depictions of Armstrong's introduction to horn playing (he was the bugler at a reform school), the hard-drinking mother who taught him to hold his liquor, and the ``cutting contests''- -horn-playing competitions--in which he competed his entire life. Armstrong's career spanned many decades, and for much of that time he was a tireless performer and a frequent collaborator with other jazz greats, among them Charles Mingus, Earl ``Fatha'' Hines, and late in life, Ella Fitzgerald. As New Orleans jazz gave way first to swing and then to bebop, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis, among other musicians, dismissed Armstrong as old hat. Armstrong outlasted their dismissal, and many later came to value his distinctive, resilient, subtle style. Armstrong knew some shady figures, including his manager Joe Glaser, who fleeced the trumpeter for millions, and gangster Dutch Schultz, whose feud with Al Capone over ``rights'' to Louis forced the musician into exile for fear of his life. The most vivid element here is Armstrong's own words. Despite only a fifth-grade education, Louis was a prolific and talented writer with a flair for metaphor (``In less than two hours I would be broker than the Ten Commandments'') and an almost alarmingly confessional style regarding his sex life and heavy but apparently never abusive use of marijuana. The presence of Armstrong's unique voice turns what might have otherwise been a routine biography into a grand success. (16 pages photos, not seen) (Author tour)

Pub Date: July 4th, 1997
ISBN: 0-553-06768-0
Page count: 576pp
Publisher: Broadway
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1st, 1997


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