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My favorite Louis Armstrong anecdote concerns his audience with Pope Paul VI. The Pope, so the story goes, asked Armstrong if he and his wife had children. ''No, Daddy,'' the trumpeter cheerfully replied, ''but we're still wailing.'' Though the chances Armstrong actually said this, or anything like it, are close to nil, it is the sort of thing one would have wanted him to say, and the two men did in fact meet at the Vatican in 1968 -- which is, of course, the real point of the story. They were photographed together, and an unmistakable glint of pleasure can be seen on the Pope's tired, worn face; as for Armstrong, he looks blissful. Perhaps he was thinking about how far he had come from New Orleans, where he was born in direst poverty in 1901, the bastard child of a 15-year-old girl who had no idea that her son would change the face of Western music and in so doing become the most celebrated American musician of the 20th century.

Armstrong's celebrity cannot be separated from his artistry; it is central to his place in the history of jazz, which is harder to explain than is commonly understood. He did not invent jazz, nor was he its first important figure, and it is not even quite right to call him the first great jazz soloist (Sidney Bechet preceded him, and Bix Beiderbecke emerged as a major soloist at the same time as Armstrong, almost to the month). Instead, he became the first great influence in jazz -- the player other players copied -- and one reason he cast so long a shadow is that he was as great a personality as he was a musician. He really did perform with everyone from Bessie Smith to Leonard Bernstein; he really did smoke marijuana virtually every day of his adult life; he really did write the finest of all jazz memoirs, unassisted by a ghostwriter; he really did end his concerts (some of them, anyway) by playing 250 or more high C's, capped with a high F; he really was adored (no lesser word is strong enough) by all who knew him. Is it any wonder so many of his contemporaries longed to play the way he played and sing the way he sang?

Such a man among men is a natural subject for biographers...
    -REVIEW: of LOUIS ARMSTRONG: An Extravagant Life by Laurence Bergreen (Terry Teachout, NY Times Book Review)

And an even more natural subject for one of, if not, the great jazz writers of all time. Mr. Giddins has retired from his gig at the Village Voice, but for years wrote regularly and compellingly about jazz for his vantage point in New York City. This biography of Louis Armstrong is short but complete and is at its very best when Mr. Giddins is explaining what it was that made Satchmo a genius and why he must be considered one of the central figures in the history of American culture. Here he is on one of the aspects of Armstrong's performance art that, sadly, has led many blacks to be embarrassed by his success:
During the performance of "Dinah," he extends a phrase in the song's release with a descending scat arpeggio, delivered with a funny bug-eyed expression that is exactly right for the musical content of the phrase. This is known as mugging, a comic art that Armstrong perfected with a skill equal to Jack Benny's deadpan or Oliver Hardy's slow burn or Cary Grant's second take. Armstrong's mugging is so much a part of his vocal performance that it is impossible for anyone who has seen him to listen to his records without imagining his facial contortions. Even when he delivered himself of a ballad, he had an array of expressions--half smiles, a trembling of the lips, a widening of the eyes, a scrunching of the nose--that fit the notes and underscored the lyric. Mugging was a kind of body English done with the face; it was a way of acting out the music. No one ever did it as well, and soon no one else did it at all.
It's typical of the book that Mr. Giddins takes even something like mugging, which enraged and still enrages many critics of Armstrong, and makes us see that it was a craft and he its master. Far from being mere tomfoolery, it served both to make Armstrong distinctive in the adoring public's mind and to put such an imprint on the songs that he seems to own them still. He's been gone for thirty plus years now and you'd not even bother to listen to anyone else's versions of Hello, Dolly or What a Wonderful World and can more than likely shut your eyes and see and hear him doing them. That's pretty amazing. By the time Mr. Giddins is done it's hard to argue with Bing Crosby's assessment that Louis Armstrong marked "the beginning and end of music in America."

As for Armstrong the man, folks expecting the kind of expose that's become all too common in biography will be sore disappointed. Mr. Giddins very much likes his subject and the reader will too. He's upfront about matters like mob ties and drug use--apparently just pot--and such, but what stands out is Armstrong's decency to everyone, his generosity to many, and his fierce pride in his talents and willingness to defend his sense of self. Contrary to the perceptions of some, he was active in breaking down color barriers and quite conscious of doing so, but without being particularly controversial about it, and seems not to have had a racist or hateful bone in his body. Meanwhile, there are so many stories here about his kindness to others that it's hardly fair to pick out just one, but here goes. He and his wife lived in a residential neighborhood in Queens, near Shea Stadium:
When he and Lucille had a brick facade built on the house, he asked the neighbors if they'd like the same--since it wouldn't be right for his house to look too high and mighty--and had the brickwork extended down the length of the block.
If Mr. Giddins sometimes veers close to hagiography, we could hardly do better by way of a secular saint.


Grade: (A+)


See also:

Gary Giddins (2 books reviewed)
Music Literature
Gary Giddins Links:

    Satchuated: Running Down the Rabbit Hole at the Louis Armstrong Archive (Gary Giddins, April 16 - 22, 2003, Village Voice)
    -ESSAY: Louis Armstrong 1901–1971 (Gary Giddins, June 6 - 12, 2001, Voice Jazz Supplement)
    CHAPTER ONE: of Visions of Jazz: The First Century: Louis Armstrong/Mills Brothers (Signifying) (Gary Giddins)
    -EXCERPT: Great Encounters: When Bing Crosby met Louis Armstrong: Excerpted from Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams: by Gary Giddins
    -EXCERPT: From Bing Crosby: THE HARRIGANS
    Flee as a Bird: Envoi; Aloha, Au Revoir, Auf Wiedersehen; Adiós Amigos; I'm Checkin' Out, Goombye (Gary Giddins, 12/15/03, Village Voice)
    Benny Carter, 1907-2003: A Gentleman You Didn't MeKing of Jazz Benny Is Dead, Long Live King of Jazz Sonny (Gary Giddins, Village Voice)ss With: The King and His Honors and His Many Revolutions (Gary Giddins, Village Voice)
    -ESSAY: Swashbuckler: Erroll Garner Played for Fun (Gary Giddins, June 4 - 10, 2003, Voice Literary Supplement)
    Best Jazz CDs of 2002: Everything That Rises Must Converge (Gary Giddins, January 6th, 2003, Village Voice)
    The Present Moment: Sonny Rollins at the Summit (Gary Giddins, October 7th, 2002, Village Voice)
    Weather Bird: Lionel Hampton, 1908-2002 After 75 Years Onstage, a Well-Earned Rest (Gary Giddins, September 23rd, 2002, Village Voice)
    Say It Isn't So : How Not to Broaden the Jazz Canvas (Gary Giddins, July 3 - 9, 2002, Village Voice)
    -ESSAY: Post-War Jazz: An Arbitrary Road Map (Gary Giddins, June 5 - 11, 2002, Voice Literary Supplement)
    -ESSAY: A Quartet of Five: Dave Brubeck Cultivates a Crowd, Calibrates Time, and Finds His Wings (Gary Giddins, May 4th, 2001, Village Voice)
    -ESSAY: Minnie the Moocher's Revenge: Sing Along With the JVC All-Stars (Gary Giddins, July 11 - 17, 2001, Village Voice)
    -ESSAY: Signposts of Posthistory: The Best New Jazz CDs of the Year of Louis and Miles (Gary Giddins, January 3 - 9, 2001, Village Voice)
    -ESSAY: Saved by the Classics: Bell Meets (Is?) Big Brother (Gary Giddins, June 21 - 27, 2000, Village Voice)
    -ESSAY: Requiem for a Flag-Waver (Gary Giddins, July 8 - 14, 1998, Village Voice)
    -ESSAY ARCHIVES: "Gary Giddins" (Village Voice)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Still Curious: a review of I Am Curious Yellow Gary Giddins, Criterion Collection)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Eternal Times Square: a review of shadows by John Cassavetes (Gary Giddins, Criterion Collection)
    -REVIEW: of FLYING HOME and other stories By Ralph Ellison (Gary Giddins, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of I Can't Wait on God By Albert French (Gary Giddins, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of GROUCHO The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx. By Stefan Kanfer (Gary Giddins, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of MARLON BRANDO By Patricia Bosworth (Gary Giddins, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of IN BLACK AND WHITE The Life of Sammy Davis, Jr. By Wil Haygood (Gary Giddins, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Ravelstein by Saul Bellow (Gary Giddins, Village Voice)
    -ARCHIVES: "gary giddins" (FindArticles)
    -INTERVIEW ARCHIVES: Conversations with Gary Giddins: Exclusive interviews with the country's preeminent jazz critic (Jerry Jazz Musician)
    -INTERVIEW: Gary Giddins conversation on Bing Crosby (Jerry Jazz Musician, March 2001)
    -INTERVIEW: Gary Giddins (Andrew Ford, 10/05/2003, The Music Show)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Jazz Critic and Writer Gary Giddins (Fresh Air, May 27, 2003)
    -INTERVIEW: A Conversation with Gary Giddins: about jazz legend Sonny Rollins. (Jerry Jazz, October 21, 2002)
    -REVIEW: of A Pocketful of Dreams by Gary Giddins (David Hajdu, The Village Voice)
    -REVIEW: of Pocketful of Dreams (ROBERT GOTTLIEB, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Pocketful of Dreams (Janet Maslin, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of A Pocketful of Dreams by Gary Giddins (Chris Morris, LA Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of A Pocketful of Dreams by Gary Giddins (Benjamin Ivry, The Christian Science Monitor)
    -REVIEW: of A Pocketful of Dreams by Gary Giddins (Allen Barra, Salon)
    -REVIEW: of A Pocketful of Dreams(RICHARD CORLISS, TIME)
    -REVIEW: of Pocketful of Dreams (Geoffrey O'Brien, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of A Pocketful of Dreams (Ron Kaplan, Bookreporter)
    -REVIEW: of Weather Bird: Jazz at the Dawn of its Second Century by Gary Giddins (Michael Faber, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of Visions of Jazz by Gary Giddins (Alfred Appel Jr., NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Visions of Jazz (Bill Carey, Book Page)

    -FILMOGRAPHY: Gary Giddins (
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Gary Giddins (NY Times)

Book-related and General Links:

    -OBIT: Louis Armstrong, Jazz Trumpeter and Singer, Dies (ALBIN KREBS, 7/07/71, NY Times)
    -TRIBUTE: Louis Armstrong 1900-1971 (JOHN BIRKS (DIZZY) GILLESPIE, 7/18/71, NY Times)
    -Louis Armstrong (The Kennedy Center ArtsEdge)
    -AMERICAN MASTERS: Louis Armstrong (PBS)
    -Savage Genius: Louis Armstrong's film roles in the Great Depression (Austin Graham) (The Official Site for the Louis Armstrong House and Archives)
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Louis Armstrong (
    -The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum: Louis Armstrong
    -Louis Armstrong: A Cultural Legacy (National Portrait Gallery)
    -The Louis Armstrong Discography Louis Armstrong
    -Red Hot Jazz Archive: Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong
    -PBS Jazz--A Film by Ken Burns, Louis Armstrong Biography
-REVIEW: of Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans, by Louis Armstrong (Cleveland Amory, NY Times)
    -TIME 100: Louis Armstrong: With dazzling virtuosity on the trumpet and an innovative singing style, Satchmo was the fountainhead of a thoroughly original American sound (STANLEY CROUCH, June 8, 1998, TIME)
    -ESSAY: Louis Armstrong: A Cultural Legacy (Krin Gabbard, Summer 1996, African American Review)
    -A Tribute to Louis Armstrong (Classic Movies)
    -ARCHIVES: Louis Armstrong (From the Archives of The New York Times)
    -Basic Jazz Record Library: Louis Armstrong: 'The Best of the Decca Years, Vol. 1' (A. B. Spellman and Murray Horwitz , June 1, 2000,
    -Jazz Profiles from NPR: Louis Armstrong: The Singer (NPR)
    -NPR Jazz Profiles: Louis Armstrong: The Trumpeter (NPR)
    -ESSAY: Remembering a great American (Nat Hentoff, 12/24/01, Jewish World Review)
    -ESSAY: The Source: Louis Armstrong is still swinging that music (Jon Garelick, AUGUST 28, 2000, Boston Phoenix)
    -ESSAY: Playful prodigy moved nation, music ahead (Jim Higgins, June 30, 2000, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)
    -ESSAY: Ambassador Satch: Celebrating the undying legacy of Louis Armstrong, jazz genius. (Larry Gabriel, 8/29/2001, Detroit Metro Times)
    -ESSAY: Satchmo, The Philosopher (Matt Glaser, June 6 - 12, 2001, Voice Jazz Supplement)
    -REVIEW: of LOUIS ARMSTRONG: An Extravagant Life by Laurence Bergreen (Terry Teachout, NY Times Book Review)