The second half of the trumpeter-singer’s career receives a thorough but uneven chronicle.
The story told by Armstrong blogger and jazz pianist Riccardi will be familiar to readers of Terry Teachout’s graceful 2009 bio Pops. Riccardi takes up the musician’s career in 1947, when he formed his long-running combo the All Stars. The author styles his work as a defense of latter-day Satchmo. Armstrong was criticized for vaudevillian tendencies and sticking to a stale repertoire while leaning on pop material in later years, and reviled for his ever-ingratiating onstage demeanor, which was viewed as “handkerchief-head” Uncle Tom antics during the rise of the civil-rights movement. While Riccardi makes a compelling case for Pops as an all-around entertainer who scored major hits with unlikely material like “Mack the Knife” and “Hello, Dolly,” some musician sources testify that they could leave the band for years and return to find its set unchanged. Armstrong’s status as a black celebrity is more problematic, and complicated by his position as an informal goodwill ambassador on his many tours abroad. Though he was never servile, his symbiotic relationship with his bare-knuckled white manager Joe Glaser, who acted as protector, slave master and bank teller, is a troublesome part of the story. Even when Armstrong spoke out about race relations—as he did in 1957, when he chastised President Eisenhower for his handling of school desegregation in Arkansas—he came under fire from both bigots and blacks. In the end, Armstrong was a compulsive performer who allowed himself to be literally worked to death at the age of 69 in 1971. Riccardi recounts his tale in sometimes excessive detail; unsifted mountains of source material leave newly unearthed gems like a priceless letter from Armstrong to Glaser about marijuana somewhat lost in the shuffle. The smitten writer is also unable to resist the use of superlatives, and his constant abuse of the word “arguably” may make readers want to rap his knuckles with a ruler.
Late Satch gets a deep look, but Riccardi’s main theses remain unproven.