The author of Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans (2006) continues his stellar account of the great trumpeter’s life (1901–1971), focusing on the 1920s and ’30s.
Brothers (Music/Duke Univ.), who has also edited a collection of Armstrong’s prose (Louis Armstrong, in His Own Words, 1999), composes a multilayered work comprising biography, cultural and racial history, and musicology. The author begins in 1931 (Armstrong was on tour), showing us two principal themes that will reappear throughout the work: Armstrong’s artistry and American racism. Brothers then takes us back to 1922 (Armstrong was on his way to Chicago and a new musical life) and marches steadily forward, more or less, to the 1930s, when Armstrong, a major musical star, participated in some degrading roles in motion pictures—performances that sullied his reputation. The author also examines Armstrong’s complicated love life (he’d been married three times by book’s end) and his fondness for marijuana (he smoked it throughout his adult life—spent some time in jail in 1931), his relationships with fellow musicians and managers and even the Chicago mob (Capone liked him). Brothers introduces us to Armstrong’s musical mentors (King Oliver was a major one), takes us along on Armstrong’s tours, into the OKeh recording studios (he eventually moved to RCA Victor), and describes the neighborhoods he lived in and the clubs he played. We learn about the advent of the microphone, the primitive recording conditions, the celebrity Armstrong earned from records—but even more from his radio appearances. We see Armstrong, the singer, the cornetist (and, later, trumpeter), the dancer, the comedian and the artist nonpareil (Brothers rhapsodizes about his technique, his upper range). The text becomes dense for general readers only when Brothers waxes analytical about particular songs, recordings and techniques.
A masterful performance that displays the author’s vast archival research, musical knowledge, familiarity with cultural history and profound sensitivity to America’s vile racial history.