Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life
By Laurence Bergreen
The history of jazz began with a gunshot. On New Year's Eve 1912, young Louis Armstrong, then singing for spare change with a street-corner quartet, "borrowed" a .38 revolver from one of the many "stepfathers" who regularly visited his mother. In keeping with a time-honored New Orleans tradition, he fired the gun in the air to welcome in the new year. A police detective standing nearby arrested Louis for illegally discharging a firearm, and he was quickly shipped off to the Colored Waif's Home, a reform school outside New Orleans. It was there that Louis received his first formal instruction in music and was given his first cornet by the school's director. Although he had played the instrument before and had already picked up some tips from legendary cornetist Bunk Johnson, it was at the Waif's Home that young Louis began to emerge as the prodigiously talented and visionary musician who would soon change the face of jazz and American popular music.
In his highly entertaining new biography of Louis Armstrong, Laurence Bergreen sketches an intimate portrait of Armstrong the man and his remarkable life. Making use of Armstrong's voluminous writings and correspondence "" he bought his first typewriter in Chicago in 1922 to keep in touch with his many friends back in New Orleans and "spent almost as much time pounding the keys of his typewriter as he did pumping the valves of his trumpet" "" Bergreen mostly lets Louis speak for himself, and he emerges as an enormously complex, sometimes contradictory figure, but one wholly consumed and intoxicated by the beauty and power of music. In addition to his inveterate letter writing, Armstrong also wrote observations, dirty stories and limericks, and, most importantly of all, reminiscences about his early days in New Orleans, which despite the violence, dire poverty, racism, and hard times he had to confront constantly, he considered the most joyous and exciting days of his life. His writings were largely an attempt to recapture and celebrate the moment in time when jazz was born on the streets of New Orleans, or, in a phrase he used as the title of the first chapter of his autobiography, when "Jazz and I Get Born Together."
As the seminal figure in the early history of jazz and one of the century's most popular entertainers, the broad details of Louis Armstrong's life are well known. Born in New Orleans to the daughter of a former slave sometime in 1901 (not on his symbolic adopted birthday of July 4, 1900); tutored on the cornet and trumpet by Bunk Johnson and Joe "King" Oliver in the streets, whorehouses, and honky-tonks of Storyville, the Crescent City's bustling, wide-open red-light district; summoned by Oliver to join his Creole Jazz Band in Chicago in 1922, where, a few years later, he made the most influential recordings in jazz history with the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens; moved on to New York where he established himself as a major star, and, through forty years of nonstop international touring, recording, and film and television appearances, became one of the most recognizable and beloved personalities in the world.
Armstrong grew up in Storyville in an extraordinarily colorful (and dangerous) world populated largely by gangsters, pimps, and prostitutes, and he felt comfortable around these sorts of people and maintained relationships with them for the rest of his life. His first wife Daisy was a former prostitute who, like many of the women he knew in his youth, always carried a knife in her stockings, and was not afraid to use it to keep the men in her life in line. Joe Glaser, his manipulative and self-promoting manager for thirty-five years, was a convicted rapist and a former pimp and bootlegger, notorious for his connections to the Chicago mob. Armstrong, though, made no distinction between shady characters like these and the dignitaries and denizens of high society he came into contact with in later years. Between shows he would hold court in his dressing room, wearing nothing but his underwear, with a white scarf tied around his head, while fans and admirers representing the broadest cross section of American life "" movie stars and working stiffs, wealthy patrons of the arts and street hustlers "" clamored for his attention. To Louis, these were all his people, black and white, rich and poor, and he treated them all the same.
Armstrong's personal life and dealings with women were also shaped by his early experiences in New Orleans. He lived by the credo of his friend Black Benny Williams, an infamous Storyville drummer, pimp, and streetfighter, who advised him always to have more than one girlfriend, as a safeguard against the treachery of women. Throughout his four marriages, including his apparently happy fourth marriage to Lucille Wilson Armstrong, which lasted almost thirty years until his death in 1971, Louis consistently cheated on his wives, and especially in his first two marriages, occasionally struck them.
Beyond his music, Armstrong was a genuinely eccentric, larger than life character. His voice, his demeanor, even his language all set him apart from the mainstream. It is amusing to see him use words, many of which he claims credit for coining, like "cats," "groovy," and "home boy," as early as the 1920s. He was also, as is well-known, a lifelong marijuana smoker, who was so convinced of the positive effects of the drug that he wanted to title the second volume of his autobiography "Gage," one of his nicknames for pot. He rarely performed without first getting high and was stoned while making all the historic recordings with the Hot Fives and Sevens, even insisting, with apparently little opposition, that his bandmates inhale too. His other eccentricities included an almost religious devotion to ultra-strength laxatives. He handed out packets of his favorite laxative, "Swiss Kriss," to his fans and had postcards made up showing him seated on a toilet, smiling, with the caption underneath, "Satchmo Slogan: Leave It All Behind Ya."
Sometimes looked down at by avant-gardists for his clowning and old fashioned stage routines, Armstrong was actually a great and brave champion of civil rights. The first major African-American international star, Armstrong played in integrated groups in New Orleans and Chicago long before Benny Goodman supposedly broke the color barrier with his bands of the 1930s. He was the first jazz musician to tour Africa extensively, where he played to tremendous crowds and acclaim in 1956. He also raised his voice politically, for one of the few times in his life, during the Arkansas school desegregation crisis in 1957, when he told a reporter that "The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell." He also lambasted his beloved city of New Orleans for continuing to practice Jim Crow laws even after they had been ruled unconstitutional. He refused to play in the state of Louisiana and declared "I don't care if I ever see that city again...They treat me better all over the world than they do in my hometown. Ain't that stupid? Jazz was born there and I remember when it wasn't no crime for cats of any color to get together and blow."
Most of Bergreen's focus, appropriately enough, is on Armstrong's early years in New Orleans and Chicago, the period when he was himself the avant-garde, setting the pace for all jazz performers who would follow. The early chapters, the most effective part of the book, serve as a sort of social history of New Orleans, that amazing cultural gumbo that produced jazz. Attention wanes a bit during the chapters on Armstrong's long tenure with the All Stars, when, night after night, year after year, he reprised the hits of his youth. Bergreen pays only cursory attention to Armstrong's swing years and his battles and eventual reconciliation with the bebop generation, especially Dizzy Gillespie with whom he became good friends and neighbors. Some mention is made of his sojourns in Hollywood, which to Louis were nothing more than well-paying gigs, and his recollections of the personalities he encountered there, though he suggests that he was not exactly welcomed warmly. "I've never been invited to the home of a movie star, not even Bing's." Although the book suffers from an occasionally annoying repetitiveness, with the same anecdotes being rehashed as if mentioned for the first time, the essence of Louis Armstrong, his warmth, humor (much of it extremely risque), and zest for life shine through. For a portrait of the artist who started it all, especially as a young man, this is a good place to start.